Artistic Grunge

2. What is grunge? Select one video from the search-terms on the syllabus and reflect on what is being performed. Are there any similarities to Kurt Cobain (if you selected someone other than Nirvana)? Additionally, tell us why you think this type of musical performance was popular? After reading about Cindy Sherman and Sue William’s work do you see any similarities to the work of Kurt Cobain? Refer to both the video and the work of Sherman and Williams. Additionally, how would you categorize this art? Reflect on our semester investigating different cultures…are there any correlations to other artistic expressions?

Simply put, grunge is grotesque. Many grunge artists utilize disturbing imagery and/or lyrics to provoke the audience into questioning social order. For example, the music video to one of Nirvana’s most popular songs, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” shows the band playing in front of a high school pep rally. The whole scene is dimly lit and pretty glum – the cheerleaders are slowly and calmly shaking their pom poms, and the audience just sits and stares. Kurt Cobain evokes a similarly morbid scene during the live MTV Unplugged performance, utilizing star-gazer lilies and purple lighting to create a funeral-like effect. These dark stylistic choices are meant to simultaneously reflect and satirize society as Cobain experienced it.

This is not an isolated phenomenon, however. After reading about artists Cindy Sherman and Sue Williams, there are many similarities to Cobain’s work. Sue Williams creates “tragicomic” pieces based on her experiences with men. She manages to take negative encounters and transform them into beautiful works of art that help give a voice to the many women who have been through similar traumatic experiences. Her work provides commentary on abusive relationships from a seldom-heard perspective. Her somewhat satirical style is analogous to Cobain’s satirical performances. Likewise, Cindy Sherman’s caricature-like “portraits” convey images of putting on a mask in order to fit in with the culture, which is a main theme in Nirvana’s songs. I would categorize this type of art as dark/grotesque satire. Not every piece might have these dark characteristics, but when viewed as a whole entity, the reoccurring themes have dark and disillusioned undertones.

As for other grunge bands, such as Sound Garden or Pearl Jam, there are also many similarities to Nirvana. The images associated with the majority of grunge music are often of a distorted or dystopian reality. For example, Sound Garden’s music video of “Black Hole Sun” shows upper class white people performing mundane yet depraved acts while their facial features are digitally exaggerated. This is a more extreme version of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video, as I discussed earlier. I think this type of performance was so popular in the 90’s, especially, because it reflected the disillusionment of the community. People were tired of happy-go-lucky disco and pop, so they were subsequently drawn to the cynical sounds and images of grunge music.

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Challenging the Social Order Through Industrial Music

2. “The members of Throbbing Gristle were dedicated performance artists who vigorously challenged social order through deviant acts not only on stage, but in their imagery as well” (Woods 39). What kind of social order was prevailing at the time of Throbbing Gristle’s beginnings, and what were they hoping to change or bring to the public’s attention with their performances?

At the time of Throbbing Gristle’s beginnings during the 1970’s, Americans were still critical of the government and searching for new means of expression. As Bret Woods describes in his thesis Industrial Music for Industrial People: The History and Development of an Underground Genre, “The Futurist movement began to challenge the conventional notions of music, sound, and noise” (38). Here, the “Futurist movement” is defined as the pre-cursor to industrial and electronic movement. The main goal of futurism and industrial music was to experiment with unusual, often mechanical sounds to create a new understanding of music. Artists such as Throbbing Gristle wanted to change the traditional idea of music from soft, beautiful instruments to incorporate harder, every-day sounds, while still being enjoyable to listen to. One of the early influencers of modern electronic musicians, Luigi Rossolo, wrote a letter that mentions “humans’ collaboration with machines is most likely among the first acknowledgements of technology with expressive art” (38). The innovative music, coupled with the bizarre performance art of many artists, attracted the public’s attention. “The logo for [Throbbing Gristle’s] record label itself is said to depict a chimney stack at an Auschwitz death camp–a clear provocation of social order” (39). The experimentalist nature of industrial artists were meant to call attention to a dystopian reality that many people experienced, but few were openly discussing.  Additionally, “[industrial] acts were rooted in synthesizer and electronic music traditions, not rock,” which made it even more difficult to fully integrate industrial music into a mainstream culture that was so accustomed to rock-based music and idealized realities. (40) Essentially, industrial musicians were attempting to de-stigmatize “ugly” sounds and images, as well as assert their individuality as a genre.

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Gender Identity in Queer and Heteronormal Spaces

2. Examine the gendered and sexualized constructions of the 1960s and 1970s dance floors utilizing Tim Lawrence’s Queering of the Dance Floor. How is mandatory heterosexuality subverted? Consider music, venue, DJs, etc. Within this framework, how do you see the evolution of “The Ball” as portrayed in Paris is Burning (1990)? Does the Ball reinforce heteronormative structures of gender identity (look to Butler in History of Drag Balls)? Or does it perform/accomplish something else?

In the first sections of Tim Lawrance’s Queering of the Dance Floor, he examines the dynamic sexuality of several “gay” dance clubs in New York. It is a common misconception to think that gay-owned discos were meant to be exclusively gay. Two of the most prominent clubs, the Loft and the Sanctuary, were very much open spaces for people from all walks of life. “Because the Loft was run as a private party, Mancuso could have run it as an exclusively male gay event, but he chose not to” (232). By creating a relatively safe environment without the usual societal pressures to conform, the people in these spaces felt free to dance with whomever they chose, or more commonly, by themselves. “Whereas dancers in the 1960s took to the floor within the regulated structure of the heterosexual couple, dancers in the 1970s began to take to the floor without a partner” (233). This was a subtle way that gay dance halls subverted oppressive heteronormativity. Another important aspect to consider was a New York State law that made male-male dancing illegal. On top of this, “discotheques were accordingly required to contain at least one woman for every three men” (232). However, clubs got around this by filling the female quota with both lesbians and straight women who just wanted a fun night of dancing away from straight men. (232) Lawrence argues that “gay” disco spaces “attempted to create a democratic, cross-cultural community that was open-ended in its formation,” which is generally undermined by focusing on the “gayness” of any given club. (233)

In this context, the documentary Paris is Burning feels comparatively exclusive. “Balls,” the apparent evolution of gay disco clubs, are almost entirely composed of gay or transexual men for the purpose of displaying their sexuality. However, Balls and discos are also very similar in nature because they positioned the people associated with them “as agents who could participate in a destabilizing or queer ritual that recast the experience of the body through a series of affective vectors” (233). In this way, both Balls and gay discos contradicted heteronormative structures of gender identity because they allowed participants to engage however they wanted. Of course, by the 1990’s, Balls had become far more extreme spaces of sexual expression than the discos of the 1960’s an 70’s.

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How Political is N.W.A. Really?

2. McCann discusses how a lot of popular rap music does not focus on political movements but sells “music that valorized black-on-black violence, provoked deadly industrial rivalries, and demeaned female and queer members of the African-American community”. What do you think NWA addresses most? 

I think N.W.A. focuses mostly on police aggression and brutality against African Americans, as well as gang and drug culture in Compton. It can certainly be argued that N.W.A. and other gangster rap groups do glorify these undesirable aspects of society, however it is more accurate to describe the phenomenon as ethnographic portraits of their realities. That being said, I think that N.W.A.’s music was definitely a political movement in its own right. They called attention to the harsh realities of being a minority in a ghetto in the midst of the War on Drugs. Although they claimed this was not an outright political move, their intentions were to advocate for a change in the social climate of the time. In the dissertation “Contesting the Mark of Criminality: Resistance and Ideology in Gangsta Rap, 1988-1997,” author John McCann argues that “the track [F— Tha Police] intervenes at a precise political and cultural moment when most Americans have been exposed to a fantasy of the inner city; one in which law enforcement cleans the streets of drug dealers and violent gangsters” (129). Essentially, N.W.A. were the first widely popular group of musicians to directly attack the oppressive structure of authority they were exposed to as people of color. They worked to change how people viewed police officers, and by extension, the American government and social policies. I believe that the controversial nature of N.W.A.’s messages to their listeners was mostly constructive, despite the destruction of social norms that followed in their wake. They encouraged criticism of the dominant power structures of the time, which is part of a healthy democracy, and in this way they became a political group as well as a musical one.

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HACK #5: Hip Hop, Black Power, and Rap

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As we discussed earlier in class today, rap music is generally perceived negatively in American society because it confronts many of the undesirable realities of many individuals, mainly experienced by African American communities. One of my favorite artists, due to his prolific lyrics and constructive approach to social issues, is Tupac Shakur. I chose to examine his song “Words of Wisdom” because in it, he discusses very directly the inherently oppressive structure of American society. Tupac is an incredibly unique individual, especially in rap culture – both of his parents were involved in the Black Panther Party, so he grew up surrounded by political activism. Additionally, he attended the Baltimore School for the Performing Arts, which contributed to his distinctly eloquent lyrics and poetry.

“Lady Liberty still the bitch lied to me
Steady strong nobody’s gonna like what I bumpin’
But its wrong to keeping someone from learning something
So get up, its time to start nation building
I’m fed up, we gotta start teaching children
That they can be all that they want to to be
There’s much more to life than just poverty
This is definitely ah words of wisdom
America, America, America
I charge you with the crime of rape, murder, and assault
For suppressing and punishing my people
I charge you with robbery for robbing me of my history
I charge you with false imprisonment for keeping me
Trapped in the projects
And the jury finds you guilty on all accounts
And you are to serve the consequences of your evil schemes
Prosecutor do you have any more evidence”

It is clear that Tupac does not identify with American patriotism. According to Karin Stanford, author of the article “Keepin’ It Real in Hip Hop Politics: A Political Perspective of Tupac Shakur,” Tupac rejects the deep-rooted capitalist nature of American society. He was a member of the Youth Communist League at the Baltimore School of Arts, as well as a handful of other political activism groups throughout his educational career (10). Tupac wanted to create a more fairly structured society; one that did not exclude people of color and the impoverished.

“Words of Wisdom
They shine upon the strength of an nation
Conquer the enemy on with education
Protect thy self, reach with what you want to do
Know thy self, teach what we been through
On with the knowledge of the place, then
No one will ever oppress this race again”
These lyrics express Tupac’s anger at White American culture for its oppression of black Americans. He uses his background in the Black Power movement to advocate for the civil rights of his people and to challenge the oppressive structures of the white, patriarchal, capitalist American society. He calls out America’s history of the violent oppression of blacks, which is an attempt to hold policy makers accountable for their actions. “Words of Wisdom” is the expression of frustration with the many social injustices Tupac had experienced, as well as a call for education so that the cycle of black oppression can finally be broken.

Black representation in MTV’s “The Real World”

6125Group 2: Do you agree or disagree with Mark P. Orbe’s argument about how black men are portrayed in The Real World? Consider this quote from Orbe’s article: “None of the major players associated with the show (creators, producers, casting directors, assistants, and so on) are African American” (p. 12). How can this affect the representation of black (male) character son the show?

In the article “Constructions of reality on MTV’s “the real world”: An analysis of the restrictive coding of black masculinity,” author Mark P. Orbe argues that “the mediated images of Black masculinity on “The Real World” represent a powerful source of influence because they, in fact, are presented not as mediated images, but as real-life images captured on camera” (42). I very much agree with his argument. The images and situations that arise in television and movies generally depict African Americans, men specifically, in a certain way – inherently angry, physically threatening, and sexually aggressive. (36) This happens because “one of the major players associated with the show (creators, producers, casting directors, assistants, and so on) are African American” (42), which means that black characters, real or otherwise, are viewed through a mainly white lens. Therefore, the representations of black characters are stereotypical versions that have traditionally been portrayed to an intended white audience. This is extremely harmful in “reality” TV shows, such as MTV’s “The Real World.” Because the cast members are supposedly average, everyday people and not fictional characters, their behavior towards African American men only affirms these harmful stereotypes.

“So, in addition to the negative characterizations of African American men in countless films and various genres of television programming, viewers now can draw from additional “real world” examples in legitimizing their discomfort around Black men. Instead of using the real life experiences of young African American men to advance viewers understanding of the complex diversity within this large, heterogeneous group, this popular series merely cultivates the perpetuation of existing stereotypes” (44).

Black men in reality TV, as well as other television shows or movies, are often shown intimidating white women, who then require the protection of white men. Although a certain individual may not be violent or sexually aggressive, their portrayal through media outlets suggest otherwise. As Orbe puts it, “Regardless of these personal characteristics… a similar sign is invoked: Black men represent a threat (especially to European American women)” (39). Because the people (mostly men) in charge of creating and casting these shows are not African American, they can’t seem to imagine an African American person who deviates from these stereotypes. “Instead of using the real life experiences of young African American men to advance viewers understanding of the complex diversity within this large, heterogeneous group, this popular series merely cultivates the perpetuation of existing stereotypes” (44). There needs to be more comprehensive, as well as positive, portrayals of African Americans in media, otherwise racism will continue to be inherently perpetuated in our society.

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Gender Roles in Punk

2. The article states that “Punk could, and did, free women from the more restrictively gendered roles available to them in past subcultures” (98). Can this be true even if there was still a lot of misogyny in the Punk subculture?

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To answer this question simply: yes and no. Although women were more prevalent performers in punk as compared to traditional rock, this does not mean they were “free” from restrictive gender roles. The overt misogyny showed my the majority of punk bands were almost as harmful as the exclusion of women from rock bands. Albeit an extreme example, the Dead Boys were “outrageous, overtly masculine, and aggressively sexual” (Kvaran 95), which was not uncommon among many other punk bands. Despite claims that their misogynistic tactics might have been satirical, the effect of their actions were the same as if they were serious. The only difference with the punk scene was that the audience and fans were “in” on the performance of such structured gendered roles, and therefore there was less criticism from within the punk community.

Also, women in punk still embodied stereotypical gender roles. Even lead singer Debbie Harry of Blondie had to perform a certain way on stage and maintain a certain image to appeal to the audience and keep her band successful. As author Kara Kvaran stated in her paper, Gendered Underground: Men, Women, and American Punk Rock, 1965 – 1995, “Harry and the band had no qualms about capitalizing on the sex appeal of their
female lead singer” (96). This demonstrates that the band was willing to exploit their only female member in order to cater to the traditional ideas of gender their audience expected. The only minor exception I found in this article was Martina Weymouth of the Talking Heads. “Weymouth and the other members of the band did not sexualize her appearance or performance” (85). However, even the fact that there had to be a discussion among the male members about allowing a female instrumentalist into the band shows how ingrained traditional gender roles are into rock and punk rock.