Review of Metal Punk 2018, ISMMS and 5th Annual PSN Conference

Metal and punk are commonly received as separate domains of musical activity, but there are many crossovers and consistencies between them. This was the primary charge of ‘Doing metal, being punk, doing punk, being metal: hybridity, crossover and difference in punk and metal subcultures’, a two-day conference held at De Montfort University (DMU) Leicester in collaboration between the Punk Scholars’ Network and the International Society for Metal Music Studies. Here’s a chronological write-up of the conference: in part a digest and in part my own recollections. Let me know if this kind of thing is interesting or useful!

As my first experience of the Punk Scholars’ Network, aspects of the conference organisation were aptly DIY, or more precisely DIT (that’s ‘do it together’): lots of getting lost in DMU’s labyrinthine Hawthorne building and bringing trays of cake to sessions to reduce food waste. Some four-paper sessions were scheduled for 1 hour and 15 minutes, which gave each speaker 18.75 minutes for the paper and questions. A couple of presenters commented that they had written 20 minute papers and had to either revise them on the fly or simply overrun. In that context, some might be wondering what’s wrong with the 20+10 format! This minor criticism aside, the conference was enthusiastically managed, and the programme included an admirably diverse range of topics. All heavy music was up for discussion, from a great variety of perspectives. By ‘heavy music’, I’m referring broadly to diverse forms of both punk and metal: the term indicates that the speaker examined various musics and music cultures within the punk and metal repertoire rather than focusing on a specific style.

Day 1: A morning of cultural politics

Lucy Rosemary Hill, who is soon taking up a post at the University of Huddersfield, opened the conference with an important keynote on how sexual violence maintains hegemonic masculinity in punk and metal, both in the mainstream and in local scenes. She pointed out that research on gender often means research on women, with too little understanding of men as gendered (drawing from Delphy on gender as a marker of division). It is necessary to consider the work men do to reinforce patriarchy and respond to feminism, particularly through musical works which present norms and shape cultural lives. In a sample of the mainstream rock and metal charts, only 2 of 60 songs involve women songwriters. While metal studies commonly focuses upon extreme music, the mainstream is an important domain of scholarly investigation because it is incredibly popular and often acts as a ‘gateway drug’ to other heavy music styles (which may be more explicitly problematic). Taking a definition of sexual violence as a continuum involving “threat, invasion, or assault” from Kelly (1988), Hill pointed out that women’s everyday experiences of music texts and heavy music scenes constantly feature “men’s intrusions” (Vera-Gray 2016). Female heavy music participants are asked to identify with male views (as the predominance of male songwriters exemplifies), but can adopt – and make available – new subject positions by, borrowing a phrase from Jasmine Shadrack, ‘performing back to patriarchy’.

Rosemary Lucy Hill discusses sexual violence in metal and punk

Two speakers scheduled for panel 1.1, ‘Women’s Experiences’ were sadly unable to attend, so I opted for the panel including papers on dance in metal and cultural politics in mathcore. University of Siegen PhD student Daniel Suer provided a chronological historiography of heavy music dancing, examining the connections and disagreements between four key sources. These four texts provide a narrative of ‘a short rise and very long fall’ of moshpit culture. The mainstream appropriation of moshing (e.g. at Woodstock 1999) resulted in a loss of moshpit etiquette and, echoing the emphasis of the keynote, an increase in sexual violence. Suer gave two key conclusions: the popularisation of moshing has detached the dance practice from its original codes of conduct, and the relationship between music and dance is weakening, as individuals are increasingly moshing regardless of what music is playing.

The next paper was given by Lasse Ullven, who is undertaking PhD research on Finish punk at the University of Malta. He drew upon lyrics, zines, and his original interviews to examine Finnish punk’s ‘infamous’ obsession with alcohol abuse. Without any explicit disdain for these practices, he pointed out that musicians’ deaths from alcohol-related causes are seen as a sign of authenticity and dedication. Moreover, alcohol abuse can be seen as a form of protest: it is a political act to be so drunk, so out of control, that an individual cannot be a functional part of society. By the same token, both engagement with punk and alcohol use are forms of seeking escape from social regulations. However, straight edge ethics offer an interesting counterpoint, and it is unusual that such a clear position against substance abuse emerged from punk among all music cultures.

Joe O’Connell, a lecturer at Cardiff University, closed this session with a study of canonisation in American mathcore. He examined how metal media, fans, and artists’ own branding all contribute to the formation of canons, which “serve the accumulation of capital for artists and audiences alike”. Following previous work on canonisation by Kärjä (2006) and von Appen and Doehring (2006), O’Connell argued that, through the glowing reception of Cult Leader’s debut album Lightless Walk, several critics and fans place the record in an alternative canon of mathcore. In this canon, well-respected mathcore bands such as The Dillinger Escape Plan attempt to obtain capital through a value system which prioritises musical complexity. Moreover, Converge package and re-package their cultural products (e.g. Jane Doe artwork) in ways representing mainstream canon formations – even mirroring the commercial produce of the Beatles – to “accrue economic, cultural, and/or symbolic capital”.

Joe O’Connell on mathcore canonisation
Day 1: Afternoon production

Following this session, the organisers provided an excellent lunch, with an admirably large spread of vegan sandwiches and finger food.

YES.

The area where lunch and coffee breaks were held featured an exhibition curated from the personal collection of DMU lecturer and PSN co-founder Alastair Gordon and designed by London College of Communication’s Russ Bestley. It was highly pertinent to be surrounded by metal and punk iconography, appropriating a university space with imagery and materials associated with heavy music cultures. (And the delegation occupying this area, mostly adorned in black and alternative fashions, must have been quite a sight for University members going about their everyday activities).

Discussing metal record production, University of Winchester lecturer Niall Thomas opened panel 2.1, on ‘The Construction and Production of Reality’. His paper examined developments in the studio production of metal music, focusing upon the varied sonic spaces that recordists create to shape listeners’ perceptions of reality. Doom metal does not conform to contemporary metal production norms, which typically prioritise hyperreality (a unique, even impossible, set of superimposed sonic spaces). Instead, doom is more nostalgic for traditional methods of record production, retaining a sense of capturing live performance in the studio. Veil of Maya’s (2017) ‘Overthrow’, by contrast, demonstrates an extreme spatial separation of sound sources in the drum kit and guitars, constructing an idealist representation of recorded music more common for modern metal production.

Niall Thomas lends a producer’s ear to contemporary metal production

The following paper, by Andrew Pruitt, was titled ‘Playing in the Dirt: Crust Punk and the Irruption of the Folk’. He drew upon Baudrillard to question definitions of folk as an idealised, bucolic, pre-industrial group. This served as the basis for viewing punk as a positive assertion and performative authentication of folk identity. William Edmondes, a lecturer at Newcastle University – also known as artist Gustav Thomas or MYKL JAXN of Yeah You – concluded the panel by making a case for amateurism in creative practice. He argued that the early work of Black Sabbath demonstrates the redundancy of formally approved hierarchies in commercial popular music. The only criticism I might put to this session is that it was tricky to reorient from Thomas’ very focused paper on modern metal production to the exploratory, continental philosophy-informed perspectives of Pruitt and Edmondes.

In the next panel, Mark Perry from Oklahoma State University suggested that grunge (a ‘counter-genre’) differs from the musical conventions of metal and punk, yet pointed out more similarities with them than perhaps he realised. Daniel Makagon, formerly an A&R rep and promoter, now an associate professor in the College of Communication at DePaul University, detailed how 1990s punk bands ‘booked their own fuckin’ lives’, developing and maintaining a DIY touring network in the USA. Closing the panel, Kutztown University’s Jonathan Shaw characterised 1980s LA bands’ doom-tinged version of crossover as a response to the crack epidemic.

Day 1: Evening sickness and quizness

Next, Sally Anne Gross and George Musgrave (who raps as Context) gave a fantastic keynote drawing from their 2017 study, Can Music Make You Sick?. They are some of the first researchers to query wellbeing in the music industry, a topic that people are generally reluctant to discuss. In a culture of artistic creation where mental illness is pathologised, sensationalised, and/or romanticised, there is very little discourse on how careers in the industry can be damaging. Public opinion appears to hold that musicians should feel lucky to work with an art that they love for a living. Moreover, critically examining artist wellbeing stands in tension with research which conceptualises music as therapeutic, an unconditional force for good. Do check the study out for their detailed findings, which centre around musicians’ experiences of precarity in the gig economy. I am still dwelling on their impactful conclusions, well captured by two of Musgrave’s summaries: “making music is therapeutic; making a career out of music is traumatic”, and “being a musician is not an occupation, but being perpetually occupied”.

Sally Anne Gross and George Musgrave ask, ‘Can Music Make You Sick?’

This talk was followed by a discussion between Alastair Gordon and Amy Lawson, the lead promoter at Nottingham’s Rock City. Among various personal insights, they talked about the mental health difficulties that industry personnel can experience, which acted as a firm answer to the previous talk: yes, music can make you sick!

No conference write-up would be complete without at least briefly mentioning the evening entertainment. In perhaps the least metal venue ever, Rosemary Hill masterfully presented a quiz (co-written with Kirsty Lohman) full of 80s punk/metal trivia, copious Spinal Tap references, and even a Christmas-themed singalong round. I’m still pleased to have won, with Lewis Kennedy and Niall Thomas, the prestigious prize for best team name with Triviam. (Other names we spitballed include Thin Quizzy, Quizturbed, and Quizzing In The Name Of).

METAL.
Day 2: Morning experiences

Roger Sabin, the writer of Punk Rock: So What? (1999), opened the second day of the conference with his keynote, ‘Punk and Metal in the UK, 1976–80: A story in seven objects’. He discussed – and predominantly contested – received narratives of late ‘70s punk and metal, arguing against a mediated separation between punk and metal. The personal objects he brought along demonstrated that “the crossovers are there if you look”. First, the problematic and explicitly political image of Iron Maiden’s ‘Sanctuary’ artwork [tw: misogyny, violence] challenges the established binary which upholds punk as political and metal as apathetic. Girlschool’s ‘Take It All Away’ looked like a punk record to Sabin shopping at Rough Trade in 1979, but turned out to be a metal album he enjoyed. The music paper Sounds and Deep Purple fan letter Stargazer point to the role of journalists and fans in embracing both punk and metal. A World War 2 bomb (an uneasy family heirloom), his West Ham United football club rosette, and his denim ‘battle vest’  spoke to the importance of localism as a bridge between punk and metal. Members of heavy music subcultures clung to expressions of locality, hooliganism, and the appropriation of biker culture in a society obsessed with World War Two.

Roger Sabin tells a story of late ’70s punk and metal through seven objects

In Panel 4.2, Lexi Turner admitted to ‘muddying the waters’ between punk and metal again by focusing upon goth. Drawing upon gender studies, psychoanalysis, and broader theory, Turner suggested that there is an abject/object dynamic of gothic femininity which dissolves expressions of subjectivity. Edward Avery-Natale, a sociologist from North Dakota State University, brought together Deleuze’s assemblage theory with Lauclauian language of representation. He argued that punk and metal moshpits exemplify how hegemony and discourse can be brought within assemblage theory.

My paper, ‘Transcendence in modern metal listening’, offered a theoretical framework for experiences of transcendence in metal (developed from my doctoral research) and applied it to two examples of heavy music. I suggested that a nuanced model of engagement with metal, focusing on listening experience, can provide psychological and embodied understandings of transcendence. It is important to take listeners who report such experiences seriously, and investigate beliefs and theories which may account for their responses to the music. The relationship of transcendence to transgression has significant bearings on dichotomies of the personal and the political or the nature/culture divide, and offers promising paths for further investigation.

The final paper in this panel was given by Tom Cardwell, an artist and painter who teaches at the University of the Arts London. He noted that the mainstream adoption of subcultural fashion is widely seen as a failure of authenticity, particularly among fans who are defensive about representation. Parts of high street fashion stores, such as H&M, now look like metal concert merchandise stands, displaying various adorned black t-shirts. The target audience for such clothing is surely not the original audience – H&M don’t expect metal fans to pop in to replace their Metallica t-shirt – but buyers who might not want to connect themselves with metal, indicating an extension of the symbolic place of band t-shirts into the mainstream.

Day 2: An afternoon of cultural commentaries and consistencies

Ellen Bernhard, who teaches at Chestnut Hill College, spoke first in Panel 5.2, ‘Subcultural Theory’. Her fascinating and detailed paper focused upon the fallout from an NOFX performance where band members joked about the 2017 Las Vegas shooting (“at least they were country fans and not punk-rock fans”). As well as making US headlines, the band were dropped from sponsorships and festival slots following that incident. NOFX began to apologise on social media, opening a collective space for fans to respond. Bernhard read 2597 comments (generating a useable sample of 100 posts) to analyse how their responses provide insight into the current ethos of American punk rock. Fans suggested very strict categories of what is and what is not punk. Some saw the band’s comments as ‘punching down’, telling jokes about those who are weaker than you because they’re incapable of fighting back. Sascha Cohen (2018), by contrast, contends that the “American history of stand-up has been one of resistance and retaliation, shaped by outsider performers punching up at dominant culture”. The definition of punk is clearly complex, but the ethos surely equates to more than ‘fuck the offended’. Moreover, as a potential instance of Trump-era rhetoric, NOFX’s joke suggests how it is increasingly acceptable (for certain people, I might add) to say offensive things in public forums without repercussions.

Ellen Bernhard examines the punk rock ethos

Also in this panel, Jessica Schwartz from UCLA offered a punk poetics of the scene based around 924 Gilman Street in Berkeley. Released around the same time, Green Day’s music – highly produced pop punk – may have the veneer of DIY, but is a part of myth-making, very alienated and disenfranchised from the actual scene. In this sense, this punk scene is an example of how radical culture becomes neutralised (Hebdige 1979). Adam Loesch, who is earning a Master’s degree at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, argued that mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion are the key parts of subcultural theory. He described moving away from Birmingham (CCCS) models, neo-tribalism, and scene theory to directly address collections of inclusion and exclusion criteria for punk. From 22 90-minute interviews with 20 to 50 year olds who have been to at least three punk shows, he concluded that succeeding in a scene requires careful negotiation between physical and online spaces.

The final part of the programme was a keynote from Pippa Lang, a metal journalist-cum-punk performer who is now undertaking an autoethnographic PhD at Kingston University London. Lang’s talk neatly underscored the ongoing processes of catharsis running throughout the conference, with numerous ‘recovering punks’ trying to make sense of their adolescences in Thatcherite Britain. Among the delegates, Lang was one of the closest individuals to the frontlines of punk and metal scenes in 1980s London. She shared various personal stories and recollections, including (in her experience) the complete lack of hostilities between punk and metal scenes that newspapers so frequently reported. For Lang, working for many years at Metal Hammer, metal, rock, and punk were fairly easy to divide up until the 1990s, when grunge confused these stylistic worlds. Throughout the 1980s, metalheads and punks cohabited in the Ship pub, as “we were all at this extraordinary juncture together”. Heavy music fans experienced solidarity in both disenfranchisement and alienation from their parents’ generation, who had lived through World War Two. Hedonism was the panacea to unanswerable sociopolitical questions. In the mid-1990s, Lang found her own catharsis by playing in the punk band Disturbed UK.

Her talk, spanning academic theory and (in this case, journalistic) practice, served as an ideal closing example of the crossovers at the heart of the conference. At the conference welcome, Alastair Gordon spoke of the “hinterlands” between and around metal and punk. Yet this keynote, and many other talks over the two days, spoke to the many middle-grounds and dissolutions of boundaries between the 1970s and today. Perhaps such distinctions – although consistently maintained by certain media institutions and sites of discourse – are increasingly untenable. In this sense, participants have long been ‘doing metal, being punk, doing punk, being metal’.

References

Cohen, S. (2018) ‘A Brief History of Punch-Down Comedy’, Mask. Available at: http://www.maskmagazine.com/the-joy-issue/life/stand-up-punch-down (Accessed: 16 December 2018).

Gross, S. A. and Musgrave, G. (2017) Can Music Make You Sick? A Study into the Incidence of Musicians’ Mental Health. Winchester: University of Winchester and MusicTank.

Hebdige, D. (1979) Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Routledge.

Kärja, A. V. (2006) ‘A prescribed alternative mainstream: popular music and canon formation’, Popular Music, 25(1), pp. 3–19.

Kelly, L. (1988) Surviving Sexual Violence. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Sabin, R. (1999) Punk Rock: So What?: The Cultural Legacy of Punk. London: Routledge.

Veil of Maya (2017) ‘Overthrow’, False Idol. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GLu-E42-RmA (Accessed: 14 December 2018)

Vera-Gray, F. (ed.) (2016) Men’s Intrusion, Women’s Embodiment. London and New York: Routledge.

Von Appen, R. and Doehring, A. (2006) ‘Nevermind The Beatles, here’s Exile 61 and Nico: ‘The top 100 records of all time’ – a canon of pop and rock albums from a sociological and an aesthetic perspective’, Popular Music, 25(1), pp. 21–39.

Review of RMA/BFE Study Day ‘Music and the Internet’

How can music and the Internet be studied? The one-day conference ‘Music and the Internet’, held at the University of Oxford, attempted to grapple with this question. The event was situated as a response to the article by Georgina Born and Christopher Haworth (2017), recently published in Music and Letters, which won the Westrup Prize. In this paper, they argue that research on music and the Internet “necessitates interdisciplinary approaches that integrate digital methods with both ethnography and history” (Born & Haworth 2018: 647).

Consequently, topics responding to the study day theme included streaming, the relationship of digital consumption to offline/residual media, virality, the social web, power, gender, and technology. Throughout the day, the focus shifted from streaming and technologies, through online Internet cultures, to non-Western cultures (especially the Global South). Questions of methodology were central: the delegation featured many younger scholars ‘raised on the Internet’, eager to investigate phenomena relating to their everyday web use, but without a clearly-defined set of tools in place to do so. Ethnomusicology offers several methods du jour, and my own emphasis finds many adequate approaches in popular musicology, but theoretical engagement with the web demands another inclusion to the expanding interdisciplinary toolbox of music studies.

The committee and the many local presenters indicate a strong community of DPhil researchers (especially Born’s supervisees) in and around the University of Oxford Music Faculty. Live tweeting during the event – including my first, barely competent attempt at it – allowed for multimediated consumption of conference materials themselves, opening another level of discourse and sharing on web-based music. I had a great time, learnt a lot, and left with innumerable questions as well as a renewed drive to study the topic: all hallmarks of a successful academic gathering, to my mind.

Panel One: The Politics of Platforms

Yngvar Kjus, an Associate Professor at the University of Oslo, opened the first panel of the day. His paper noted how Spotify’s marketing materials present a waterproof argument to both producer and consumer: fans can find and freely access music, and artists can directly connect with those fans while being paid for streams of their work. Following a history of frameworks of negotiation for recording technology, he pointed out an important public/private division between streaming services and digital download providers. The former services – most prominently exemplified by Spotify – afford publicness, through their connection to social networks, updates displaying current event-based (e.g., festive) playlists, and predominance of institutionally-curated playlist consumption. Digital download apps such as iTunes afford greater privacy, requiring only one-off connections to purchase from the centralised digital service before the user can return to their own private sphere of consumption.

Yngvar Knus provides streaming revenue statistics

University of Manchester doctoral researcher James Vail discussed the widespread resurgence in uses of cassette tape, focusing upon Japanese record labels which employ this residual media and new media in combination. Japanese audiences’ consumption practices are based firmly upon ownership and possession, separable concepts respectively capturing legal rights and individual, cultural practices. Web-based labels are important cultural intermediaries for Japanese listeners, who materialise online, international connections by using Bandcamp to sell cassette tapes. Importantly, this format cannot be unbundled as a commodity, in contrast to the playlisting practices of streaming services.

Thomas Hodgson, a teaching fellow at King’s College London, returned to the topic of Spotify. His paper investigated the design of Spotify’s recommendation algorithm, which translates human desire and behaviour into code to produce Discover Weekly playlists for every user. The way that Spotify returns data to artists affects their creative decision-making, which his colleague (and dope artist) Laura Misch calls the ‘tyranny of data’. I was particularly impressed by Bernhard Rieder’s tool to visualise Spotify artist networks. Hodgson observed that the unexpected ways new music affects us is often what excites us as listeners, yet Spotify’s tailored playlists, driven by neoliberal market logic to retain users, places value in predictability.

All panels throughout the day ran the papers consecutively, then used the remaining time for a discussion between the speakers and audience. While the 20+10-minute format is tried and tested, this emphasis upon communal dialogue suited the nascent research area of the study day, where there is still so much methodological work to be done.

Panel Two: Popular Music, Participatory Culture, and the Social Web

University of Cambridge Research Fellow Ross Cole probed the online vision of supermodernity exhibited by vaporwave. Drawing upon Jameson and de Certeau, he noted that vaporwave is a kind of modernist ‘enstrangement’ (Shklovsky). The genre’s ubiquitous use of gated reverb – the sound of an impossible space – mirrors both nostalgia for a lost 80s/90s childhood and disillusionment with the failure of an idealised, utopian, cyberspatial future. I was also interested (and am increasingly convinced) by Cole’s claim that vaporwave, with its fairly blatant Marxist critique of neoliberalism, is one of the most antiestablishment genres since punk. Forget not that vaporwave disseminates this critique on the very media it renounces.

Paula Harper, a PhD candidate at Columbia University, introduced the concept of ‘viral musicking’ (after Small), arguing that engagement with viral digital music objects is an important site of 21st-century musical practice. Ideas of music as infectious or contagious precede the Internet, as music has long been viewed as an invasive Other which can enter and upset normative bodies. However, researchers should pay closer attention to particular modes of contemporary participatory consumption such as viral dances and challenges, where black dance trends are monetised or rendered parodic by white authority figures.

Paula Harper gives us nyan cat (finally)

My own paper theorised an online hip-hop genre mainstream which has formed at the intersection of music streaming services, new media, and digital fandom practices. I noted how contemporary listeners, long since the ‘Golden Age’ of rap, increasingly listen across the whole gamut of rap music: on streaming services, every regional taste and international style is available, amassed in centralised search engines. In single hierarchies of prestige formed online (such as artist streaming statistics), political and cultural power is inherited through normative identity practices – here’s where we find ‘King Kendrick’. I suggested that shareable media may be trivialising radical politics to the point of hashtagging (is it woke to be #feminist?). Nonetheless, the creative possibilities of the web allows some adaptation to new emphases, beyond the U.S. and established anglophone styles (e.g. Bad Bunny), beyond cisgender artists (e.g. Kevin Abstract), and beyond major label control (e.g. Chance).

Roundtable: Methodological Issues and Innovation

Following a revitalising lunch break – thanks to the committee for providing vegan options – Oxford DPhil student Ed Spencer led a roundtable (roundchair?) with David Lewis, a researcher based at the University of Oxford e-Research Centre. (Ellis Jones, from the University of Oslo, was unfortunately unable to attend the conference and join the roundtable as planned.) Nonetheless, contributions from the floor (roundroom?) made for a lively debate on methodological issues. Spencer raised several key questions responding to the conference brief, each of which generated thoughtful discussion: should we study social web data? How? What is to be made of big and small data? What is the future of this research? Lewis provided several keen insights: on the ethical responsibilities of the researcher, he reminded attendees that “the web looks like a lot of different things to a lot of different people”. He also made the point that ethnomusicologists, popular music scholars, and others studying online materials are lucky – we’re spoilt (my wording) – compared to early music researchers, who would love value statements as clear and accessible as YouTube comments.

David Lewis and Ed Spencer, Ed gesturing with great fervour

Panel Three: Global Case Studies

The final panel of the day featured explicitly ethnomusicological perspectives. DPhil student Jaana Serres noted how the significant rise in Nigerian popular music exports has led to positive identification by Nigerians and those within the diaspora. In other words, it is ‘finally cool to be proud of Africa’. She detailed how Nigerian artists brand themselves and their work online, attracting corporate sponsors to sell products to consumers. This practice of biopolitical marketing has led to Nigerians increasingly listening to Nigerian pop music, attempts to circulate cultural materials through virality, and the emergence of ‘repats’: Nigerians who, in light of this development which ‘takes Africa to the world’, are immigrating from the US and the UK to Lagos.

Mike Levine, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, introduced (as something new to me, at least) the offline Internet used in Havana. Since 2008, Cubans have adopted a digital media delivery system named ‘paquete semanal’ (‘weekly package’), receiving USB drives loaded with gigabytes of media content which are distributed by a hierarchical network of paqueteros (creators and carriers). Notably, this practice is tolerated by the State despite its illegality. For many ‘urban tribes’ in Havana, the paquete is the primary medium of contact with non-Cuban media and content outside of state control. There appears to be a bidirectional relation between paqueteros and consumers, shaping musical preferences and sociocultural priorities, which results in a sonic shaping of what it means to be Cuban today.

Jasmin Irscheid, another member of the Oxford postgrad community, discussed secret, illegal raves in and around Tehran. As Sharia law is active in Iran and approval for music/dance events is difficult to obtain, these private yet political events take place in the so-called underground scene, where EDM is experienced as an escape from the strict regulations of public life. Irscheid quoted electronic musician Ash Koosha, who notes that live music in Iran is “not a casual event”. EDM is associated with substance consumption and the ‘diabolic powers’ of repetition, which affords trance, indulgence, and active experiences of embodiment. As such, EDM is socially stigmatised and labelled (after Becker) ‘deviant’ by Iranian authorities. The Internet is thus used both by state officials to criminalise or condemn musicians and by musicians and audiences to maintain musical collectivities within Iran.

Jasmin Irscheid introduces raves in Iran

Laudan Nooshin, Reader at City, University of London, continued the focus upon Iran in the present day. Her paper noted that the Internet provides an alternate public sphere of music sociality, allowing musicians to bypass state control. Nonetheless, power differentials (especially between women and men) in the offline world are replicated, even exacerbated, online. Iran’s social division between a male Muslim public sphere and a female private sphere has resulted in anxiety about Internet use for women performers. Although women instrumentalists are not banned, a notable internet presence may compromise the likelihood that they will get performance permits and be allowed to tour abroad. To maintain successful careers, therefore, female musicians report a pressure to stay on the right side of authorities, such that offline definitions of acceptable behaviour for women are mapped on to the Internet.

Keynote and Closing Remarks

Following a well-placed coffee break, with many thoughts and biscuits to digest, the keynote was given (in Georgina Born’s absence) by the University of Birmingham lecturer Christopher Haworth. Asking, ‘Can You Break The Internet?’, he examined the cluster of computer music genres in the lineage of Xenakis as well as network music/‘telematic’ performance. The Internet enables or transforms these two net-native musical worlds: it allows the distribution of Xenakian music, but performs different functions for network music, sending data rapidly enough to create the semblance that musicians in different locations are performing in real time. Telematic music, by relying upon private research networks rather than the public Internet, closes down the democratisation of music much vaunted by composers: listeners on the public Internet cannot actually access these performances.

Christopher Haworth borrows the sage words of Jen from The IT Crowd

Haworth drew from his co-authored article with Born, criticising the media theory literature for viewing the Internet purely as a communicative infrastructure. Instead, closer attention can be paid to the acts of its users, such as by addressing the emergence of vaporwave. It is effectively a genre about the Internet, drawing upon sonic and visual imagination of the early web, although it circulates more like a meme than a genre through its highly unified multimedia ecology: consider the visual similarities in a google image search for ‘vaporwave’.

The study day was well organised, stimulating, and highly collaborative. My thanks again to the organising committee. A few overarching trends and takeaways to conclude: Spotify is evidently the Titan of streaming services, casting a shadow over any discussion of digital music consumption; algorithms shaping digital behaviour reflect human biases (e.g. regarding gender) as they are written (for now) by humans; global case studies of Internet-mediated music urge us to consider issues of inequality, authoritarianism, and social mobility; the Internet affords many freedoms, but established power relations undoubtedly get mapped on to web-based structures. There is much to be done in the study of online music cultures, and some debates are only just starting, but I am grateful that they are.

 

Born, G. and Haworth, C. (2017) ‘From Microsound to Vaporwave: Internet-Mediated Musics, Online Methods, and Genre’, Music and Letters, 98(4), pp. 601–647.

On Musical Meaning as Messages; or, why Ace of Base probably aren’t Nazis

[TW: racism, anti-Semitism, suicide]

How powerfully can music affect us? This week I was linked to an article, now a couple of years old, that argues the Swedish dance pop group Ace of Base were responsible for tricking millions of Americans into supporting Nazist beliefs. Okay, Cracked isn’t known for especially reliable and coherent writing, but it’s a devilishly sensationalist and gripping claim, so I read the article. I’m pretty sure it’s written in good faith, although it may just be failing Poe’s law – it’d make an effective Onion or Daily Mash post. Satire or not, I’m sure a few readers of the article have read it as genuine and consequently been convinced about the ability of Ace of Base to inject their listeners with Nazist ideology. What’s most interesting for me is the model of meaning that the writer adopts – one I’ve critiqued in my doctoral thesis on how music can empower us. I reject pretty quickly the idea that music can affect us subliminally, or with coded messages, or that any authorial intent manifests in the effects of music on listeners (but perhaps that’s an article for another day). However, when a thinkpiece accuses a pop group of helping, in no small part, to form the votebase that allowed Donald Trump to become President of the US, it’s clearly worth a closer look.

The gist of the article is this: Donald Trump (in October 2015) is basing his presidential campaign on the Nazis’ rise to power. The American public has fallen for Nazi ideology before, in the ‘90s, by listening to Ace of Base’s hit singles. Then comes the nuggets of evidence, which I’ve crunched down to ten and enumerated:

  1. Ace of Base keys player and singer Ulf Ekberg was in a skinhead punk group as a teenager, as demonstrated by a quotation of some violently racist lyrics; this gives the band “ties to the neo-Nazi movement”, as well as beliefs that they develop upon in Ace of Base’s material
  2. The band name itself is a spoonerism of the Nazis’ most powerful U-boat, nicknamed the ‘base of aces’ (the article spends 700 words on this)
  3. The album name Happy Nation – cor, that’s a bit nationalist
  4. In the eponymous track on that album, there’s a “chant kind of thing” mixing Latin and Hebrew, which can be translated to some God-fuelled genocidal text
  5. The lyrics ‘travelling in time’ are pertinent because Hitler often comes up in debates about time travel…?
  6. Origin of Species is projected onto a performer’s face
  7. ‘All That She Wants’ has some misogynistic lyrics about a woman purportedly leeching off society by wanting a baby, which coincides with a person holding a Star of David necklace in the music video
  8. ‘Living In Danger’ has some lyrics that appears distrustful of strangers
  9. The album Happy Nation was renamed The Sign in the States, surely an admission of neo-Nazi guilt; and if we go far enough up the chain of record label executives who could have been in charge of this decision, we find Rupert Murdoch, who is a villainous media mogul
  10. Grunge, supposedly the radio music of the ‘90s, made people too depressed about their societal realities, whereas Ace of Base offered a danceable alternative based upon racial hatred.

So, let’s sum up: Ace of Base are accused of having a neo-Nazi past, a referential band name, some unsettling lyrical readings, and of featuring Origin of Species and a Star of David in their music videos. The piece stops before making any argument of how exactly 9 million Americans become Nazis as a consequence of this evidence, but the implication is maintained that through symbolism, or references, or given messages, listeners’ attitudes can be altered. It is an argument that can be usefully compared to the legal attacks on heavy metal – particularly the Judas Priest backmasking case – and the Simpsons’ exceptional satire, ‘Yvan Eht Nioj’, but I’ll dig into those two later.

Let’s look at Ulf Ekberg’s neo-Nazi past first. This seems a fairly legitimate claim, only because he acknowledges it in 1997 Ace of Base documentary Our Story. I’m rather skeptical of the things artists say at the best of times, but I don’t see how playing in a neo-Nazi band as a teenager would be a useful fiction for a compelling or marketable artist persona narrative. So it seems reasonable to take as truth this element of the keyboardist’s messy past, and I can see why the article jumps off from this rather blatant example of neo-Nazi writing to push the argument that such Nazi ideology persists in all his work. That said, I also feel rather sorry for Ulf: I’m not for a moment excusing Nazist racism, but it does appear the main charge he stands accused of is playing in a band with someone who wrote some repulsive lyrics when he was 15 years old. In the documentary linked above, Ulf’s band members speak of him ‘falling into bad gangs’, and I do think it’s worth a degree of open-mindedness or forgiveness for not immediately divorcing himself from the band and the discriminatory lyrics he played some part in performing. It feels rather unfair to reinterpret his error as the basis for further malicious and knowing dissemination of Nazi ideas in Ace of Base.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the AoB interpretations. How about the Latin/Hebrew chant in the track ‘Happy Nation’? The article provides the translation, “On the wings of the eagle, with God’s help, I was there before everyone, in the meantime I will kill you, I was there before everyone”. Even if this is a faithful translation, isn’t this performed and heard in Latin/Hebrew? It seems preposterous to me that the lyric ‘wings of an eagle’, heard in a different language, qualifies as ‘blatant Nazi symbolism’. It is difficult to demonstrate that this would truly register as Nazi ideology for AoB’s listeners, and it can’t be blatant if it isn’t even in a language the listeners understand. Of course, if we’re just lyric digging, there’s “no man’s fit to rule the world alone” – yet this passage is taken as proof of “a love song to Adolf Hitler” – and a whole verse based around “come through and I will dance with you”. But the most striking weakness of this argument is that the translation is entirely fabricated. My Latin isn’t particularly strong any more, but even Google Translate gives something like: “Sing all nations sing, magnify the ages, and sing the soul, magnify the ages”. There’s not a hint of Hebrew here, just a borrowing of quasi-religious or spiritual vernacular set to an Enya-like, ‘90s dance jam.

The track name does lend itself to more nationalist sentiment, of course, although the video doesn’t afford this perhaps as much as the author stresses. Maybe the ‘happy nation’ is an Aryan utopia, but isn’t the video more likely to be received as a testament to inclusion and religious diversity? Yes, there’s Origin of Species – the article spells out the full book title to be sure the hints of Nazist social Darwinism gain more impact, even though it’s not displayed in the video – but there are also visuals of a lit candle, a peace sign, Buddha, zodiac signs, yin yang, Jesus, and various hieroglyphics. So much for mixed messages. One YouTube comment on the ‘Happy Nation’ video, apparently responding to this article or similar claims, calls this kind of thinking Reductio ad Hitlerum – I love that. I think if a band truly desired to spread Nazist sentiment, there would be far better ways to do so! This is to say nothing of the track’s bubbly world-pop musical environment, which appropriates diverse sounds and timbres: 808 hi-hats, organ synth timbres, and dead electro kicks with a prominent reggae skank. Even hearing this inclusivity as a kind of colonial exoticism seems to contradict a hermetic nationalism. However, the article provides no discussion of the music of this musical act. The complete erasure of music and sound in discussions of popular music is widespread, to be sure: many writers and readers are more confident dealing with the interpretation of words rather than sounds. Even so, this article is content to invent lyrics to make its case. We’re in especially messy territory when discussing electronic dance music, though, and I’m left wondering how much attention fans are truly paying to the lyrics.

I’m afraid we’re past the strongest arguments. The ‘All That She Wants’ lyric the author spotlights – “all that she wants is another baby” – seems far more likely to be heard as ‘she seeks another sexual partner’ rather than ‘…another child’. It was the ‘90s, y’all! This is compounded by these lyrics, which the article omits: “she’s the hunter, you’re the fox”; “it is a night for passion”; “beware of what is flashing in her eyes”. Vocalist Linn Berggren slides and somersaults over the beat (again with the overwhelming bounce of a reggae/dub riddim), wandering modally as the verse proceeds. This might afford the listener a sense of fun freedom, curiosity, uncertainty, or danger: there’s little of stern or judgemental tone, for me at least. I feel that, if any, the danger that the track warns about is female sexuality and promiscuity (god forbid!), not women leeching off the state using childcare payments. Plus, we’re some way from anti-Semitism here. I’m not convinced that the necklace the woman holds in the video will be universally recognised as a Star of David: it’s a six pointed star, ideal for the argument, but the metal is filled in, not outlined as two overlapping triangles. Bear in mind that this is a music video for a club-oriented dance track. The primary audience for the song, one would think, comprises younger people getting down on the dancefloor. If this track was intended as a smear campaign against Jewish women, wouldn’t we expect to find even a hint of anti-Semitism in the musical experience itself? 

Let’s grant for a moment that the Star of David-like necklace was chosen (by someone involved in the production of the video; it is unlikely the band members had this degree of creative control) to attack Jewish women in particular. How radically do individuals form or reform their political perspectives based on a few seconds of this music video? Forget that you’ve read an article on how AoB are Nazi demagogues before viewing: there’s an extremely convoluted link to make from seeing a woman hold a Star of David necklace, interpreting the lyrics to target women applying for childcare, then personally disdaining individuals’ debauchery in terms of insufficient labour contributions to society, and combining these into shifting or confirming extant beliefs about Jewish mothers. We could just as well claim the track oversexualises Jewish women if a listener identifies the necklace as a Star of David but makes a more straightforward lyrical interpretation regarding predatory female sexuality. This too may be a dehumanising move, but a viewing freed of the preconditioned Nazi association makes this interpretation obscure indeed.

All of this is a testament to the author’s rhetoric. For some readers, the weight of the article’s evidence could be stacking up by this point, and anything which vaguely contributes to claims of Nazi propaganda appears like further undeniable proof. The artist is thus characterised as an evil crypto-fascist mastermind, smirking behind-the-scenes as they embark upon their knowing mission to incite racial hatred. This is a compelling image, but it could be applied to so many artists, and there are certainly better targets for accusations of neo-Nazi projection than Ace of Base. Why might it be so successful? Allan Moore (2003: 7) has written that “listeners everywhere are encouraged to conceptualize the invention of music as a branch of magic, to believe that musical actions and gestures cannot be subject to any level of explanation, and hence understanding, beyond the trivially biographical”. Indeed, the same uncertainty appears to lie behind the legal case against Judas Priest (now there’s a band name which lends itself easily to listeners’ moral corruption!). This has been addressed by many scholars, and I’ll quote Rob Walser’s (1993: 145–6) account at length:

“The most celebrated public controversy over heavy metal to date revolved around a lawsuit against Judas Priest, tried in 1990. Five years earlier, two young men from Reno, Nevada—Ray Belknap, eighteen, and Jay Vance, twenty—had consummated a suicide pact by taking turns with a shotgun […] Both men had been avid Judas Priest fans, and the suit alleged that subliminal messages embedded in the band’s 1978 release, Stained Class, had created a compulsion that led to their deaths. According to the plaintiffs, one song contained commands of “do it” that were audible only subconsciously, and other songs, when played backward, exhorted “try suicide,” “suicide is in,” and “sing my evil spirit.” As with previous accusations of “backward masking” in rock music, the suit depended on the premise that such hidden messages can be decoded without conscious awareness and on the idea that they affect listeners more powerfully than overt communication.

The strategy of the defense was simple: they argued that the lives of Vance and Belknap had been such that no mysterious compulsion was required to account for their suicides […] Vance’s violent behavior long predated his involvement with heavy metal […] Ray Belknap’s background was just as bad. […] Defense lawyers argued that in such circumstances, there was little need to postulate secret musical compulsions in order to account for suicidal thoughts. The prosecution replied that many people have bad home lives yet do not kill themselves—a risky line of reasoning, one would think, since their case depended on overlooking the millions of people who listen to heavy metal yet do not kill themselves.

The Judas Priest case hinged, though, on the question of the impact of subliminal commands, allegedly masked but made no less effective by being placed on the album backward. As part of the substantial media attention given the case, “Newsline New York” interviewed an “expert,” Wilson Bryan Key, who claimed that such messages in heavy metal music lead to violence. (The host of the show neglected to mention that Key has in the past claimed to have found satanic or sexual messages on Ritz crackers, $5 bills, and Howard Johnson’s placemats.) Yet studies by psychologists have repeatedly shown that while intelligible messages can be found in virtually anything played backward, there is no evidence that listeners perceive or are affected by backward messages. “Even when messages are there, all they do is add a little noise to the music,” says one researcher. “There is absolutely no effect from content.”.

Lead singer Rob Halford may have tipped the scales of justice when he appeared for the last day of testimony with a tape containing backward messages he had found on the Stained Class album. Reversing the fragment “strategic force / they will not” from “Invader” yielded an intelligible, if cryptic, “It’s so fishy, personally I’ll owe it.” Halford reversed “They won’t take our love away,” from the same song, and had the courtroom howling when they heard “Hey look, Ma, my chair’s broken.” Finally, he played his last discovery: “Stand by for exciter / Salvation is his task” came out backward as “I–I–I as–asked her for a peppermint–t–t / I–I–I asked for her to get one.””

What I find fascinating is the conviction of the young men’s parents in pursuing the case against CBS Records and Judas Priest (they lost on all charges). I can barely fathom the tragedy of losing a child as they did, but directing their pain into this charge against music’s ability to affect us reveals how powerfully this belief can be held. The evil artist who masterminds their music as malicious propaganda is so compelling an image, especially for an easy target like Ace of Base, where a band member’s foolish teenage years can be dug up as incontrovertible evidence. In the AoB case, the motive emerges through Ulf’s earlier encounters with neo-Nazi ideology. Judas Priest’s lawyer had to point out that the band members would not benefit from telling their loyal fans – the audience who enables their careers – to kill themselves, even if they had the power to do so.

Here’s the thing: they don’t. Music can share and inculcate ideology, of course. But it cannot both hide it from the passing ear while simultaneously twisting people’s minds. This point is parodied wonderfully in The Simpsons episode ‘New Kids on the Blecch’. In it, Bart’s boyband find great success through a music video, which features the apparently gibberish hook, ‘Yvan Eht Nioj’. Lisa, suspicious of her brother’s new-found success, reverses the video to discover a message subliminally encouraging navy recruitment: of course, the boys are singing “Join the Navy” backwards. After making this discovery, Lisa sees stoner-cum-bus-driver Otto boarding a truck towards the naval base:

Lisa: “Otto, what are you doing?”

Otto: “I don’t know! I just got an urge to join the navy!”

Lisa: “You’re being brainwashed!”

Otto: “Yeah, probably. <waving goodbye> Yvan eht nioj!”

(The Simpsons’ Otto is well known as a heavy metal fan, too, and so doubles as the perfect target for manipulation).

Of course, this comedy touches upon some great fears. It is a scary thought to be unknowingly manipulated, and difficult acknowledging that we have little control over the stimuli which affect us day-to-day. Because we do not have good explanations for how music affects us, but it is obvious that it does, it may as well be able to recruit us to the Navy without our conscious awareness, just as it may be able to compel us into a suicide pact. And in the Ace of Base article, it may be able to make us become Nazis and vote for Donald Trump. 

The article provides no indication of who made up AoB’s audience, however. I can only assume that the titular 9 million Nazis refers to the RIAA sales count for the band’s debut album. Moreover, AoB are somewhat condemned to the Eurodance label now, a genre categorisation which binds the group temporally and geographically to ‘90s Europe. This kind of archiving flies in the face of the recentness of Trump’s political ascension, even if, as Justin Burton (2017: ix) puts it, it’s not that “Trump broke the system. [It’s that] a broken system created someone like Trump”. And so we get to the bizarre point that grunge was too downbeat for downtrodden US listeners, enabling a more upbeat alternative in the form of AoB’s dance pop (an argument the article executes in under 200 words). There’s little evidence that grunge actually dominated the radio-waves in the ‘90s, and if the article’s other evidence from music video stills are meant to count for anything, it isn’t clear why radio play would be important. After all, you can’t see the sort-of Star of David when AoB kick out the jams between Nirvana and Hole, even if you do already harbour anti-Semitic prejudices. Nor do you hear the unrecorded lyrics of the keyboardist’s teenage neo-Nazist band. You also (unless you are quite the committed listener) do not know that, if you try to translate Latin lyrics in Hebrew, there’s something about eagles and killing.

Even if we accept the article’s view of musical meaning as message, the claim of AoB’s influence upon Donald Trump’s votebase 25 years later is rather muddled: Trump’s campaign emphasised racist immigration based on colour rather than religion. Contemporary US conservatism has strong links to neo-Zionism. If the article found anti-Mexican or anti-Muslim sentiment in AoB’s media, perhaps we’d have more to talk about. But I still feel that this way of talking about musical meaning is misguided, and it only becomes more flawed when we take as given that whatever the artist sets out to do is exactly what the listener ends up experiencing. Perhaps more on that on another day.

Instead I’ll end by considering why the author might hold to music as message (or at least employ it rhetorically in the article): where might this specific belief, combining musical subliminal messaging with crypto-fascism, emerge? Yes, AoB are an unusual target, and yes, the headline’s particularly sensationalist, but the telling sign appears to be fear in the age of Trumpism. The Trump campaign only comes up briefly at the start and near the end of the article, but it seems that getting to grips with why Americans are voting for Trump is harder than scapegoating popular music. Perhaps the greatest failure of the American political Left was understanding Trump’s votebase during his rise to the presidency. It’s as if no historians of Nazi Germany ever studied how so many Germans’ minds were swayed toward fascism. This article rearticulates progressives’ angst and ignorance about Middle America and the belief systems which enabled the wave of populism Trump rode all the way to the White House. Mirroring the pain of a parent who loses a child to suicide and thereafter places all blame on the malevolent mission of some media personnel, the article shows a Democrat, who is stunned and appalled by Trumpism, making the same move. Neither the parent nor this author reflect on their own misunderstandings or mistakes, but demonise the easiest target to hand. Others’ political beliefs simply seem so outlandish that these people (suicidal teenagers, American neo-Nazis) must be victims of brainwashing and forms of psychological manipulation. The article dismisses the possibility that these people have formed ideas about their social environments based on their own experiences and the institutional power structures which condition and constrain everyday life. Popular music is an important part of this, but it is not Swedish dance pop from the ’90s which makes American people neo-Nazis: it is American neo-Nazism.


I have an alternative ending to this piece – one I’d like to believe less, but which is worth bringing to light. 

The Cracked article itself can be reasonably accused of promoting Nazism. It certainly doesn’t come down hard on neo-Nazi ideology, and there’s hints of an uncomfortable, elbow-nudging ‘yeah, so, um, we all think Nazism is bad, right?’ running throughout. The advert which follows the AoB essay reads, “Nazism in America isn’t the most palatable thought. However, there are some compelling cases to be made for why it could happen…”. Compelling? That’s an odd choice of word. It’s almost as if he wants it to happen, despite the language seemingly signalling the opposite. “And if [it] doesn’t happen in America, then don’t count out Hitler-crazed Asia”. Why are we trying to find Nazism in places so badly? Finally, we have “How Not To Go Back In Time To Kill Hitler”. In the context of the article, you’d probably interpret this as a cautionary tale about doing so the wrong way, but you can also read it as ‘hey, don’t do this’. 

The author is oddly explicit about distancing himself from apparently passionate writing on the Nazis’ defence of the Keroman Submarine Base: “If it reads like I was glowing with pride while writing all that, it’s because I want you to understand that this is exactly the kind of thing a closet Nazi would name his band after if he was trying to be clever”. I propose: if it reads like you were glowing with pride while writing all that, it’s because that is exactly the kind of thing a closet Nazi would claim he was not feeling when he was. Let’s not forget that the author is the first, as far as I am aware, to interpret a woman holding a Star of David to Nazi propaganda-like accusations of Jewish women as state-scroungers: that in itself is rather telling, no matter how obvious the reading is claimed to be.

The AoB article acts as guidance, too: here’s how a neo-Nazi band can get caught by laying on the ideology too thick – other bands, avoid these mistakes. It draws from the language of American progressive ideals (hateful messages, militaristic, Nazi symbolism, right-wing fringe types) to pretend to critique and thereby promote Nazi ideology. It explores Nazist subliminal messaging to subliminally message Nazi ideology.


This is my first blog/thinkpiece/article straddling light academic critique and wider readership, so I’d love to know what you think. Do send me any feedback, and thanks for reading!

References:

Burton, J. A. (2017) Posthuman Rap. New York: Oxford University Press.

Moore, A. F. (ed.) (2003) Analyzing Popular Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Walser, R. (1993) Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press.

New website!

I’ve migrated from my rather antiquated site to a new one hosted by WordPress, which I’m hoping will enable me to post more actively. I’m unsure about the precise nature of the content that will emerge: perhaps the occasional album review, media commentary, or informal conference report alongside career updates. This is a kind of test post while I play around with themes and layouts.

Thanks for visiting, and feel free to add me on Twitter, which I’m trying to use more consistently.

Here’s an image of two hard copies of my PhD thesis, which I submitted on Tuesday!

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