The teenager that was me cast a wide net. I voraciously consumed music, with a discrimination that was overwhelmed by curiosity. During a mosh-pit at Lollapalooza II, during the sundown set of Ministry, way over my head in a pool of leather clad, tattooed and pierced industrial warriors, I was struck by a revelation. After this concert was over, all of these giant freaks, unrecognizable to me then as anything but an darkly obscure cult, they too were going to leave and, most importantly, they were going to go somewhere. As in, they must convene somehow, somewhere else. It was my first recognition of the notion of sub-culture, one which propelled me towards a deep descent into the esoteric world of underground music.
In my suburban town I found refuge in among Heshers and Industrial music fans, but my own tastes were vastly more eclectic. I found little support outside of a handful of older skaters and the odd kid visiting from another suburb which happened to have a something of a “scene”. I brought back a strange bounty from voyages into the Big City – Sebadoh, Merzbow, John Coltrane, Mercury Rev, Pansy Division, Bikini Kill. Truthfully, it wasn’t well received by my friends. They liked “heavy music”, which didn’t preclude the majority of what I was into, but it didn’t describe it either. Among my friends I was a proponent of the suddenly ubiquitous assortment of female fronted and all women groups, among them Babes in Toyland, L7, Hole and 7 Year Bitch. I was mostly alone. One friend, something of a figurehead among our crew and a fellow guitar player, confessed with surprising sympathy for my politics that he wanted to like those bands “but they just don’t ROCK, yknow?”
I always chalked these kinds of conservatisms up to small town world views and a shallow understanding of the music. Sadly, it is a model that replicates itself endlessly. To my friend’s credit, he managed to help me understand a fundamental conflict in the culture wars of Identity Politics. The problem is not that white men don’t want to share power. The problem is that other cultures just don’t rock.
Though I’d been playing Noise for years (I abandoned learning guitar chords in favor of sticking metal in my guitar strings and playing feedback about 2 weeks after getting my first guitar) it wasn’t until about 2001 that I first found myself actually playing to a Noise audience. The first half of the Oughts were an especially energetic time for experimental music with free-form, abstract, improvised music being made by rock bands, folk musicians and certainly a wide swath of self-identified Noise acts. At the time there weren’t a lot of hard categories (with Harsh Noise and Power Electronics being meaningful exceptions). I was very fond of saying that Noise had a “Hierarchy of Sound”, meaning that a persons physical appearance, economic situation and social abilities didn’t matter nearly as much as the sounds they made. Certainly there was a “boys club” quality to Noise, and it was hard not to notice that it was a mostly a straight white boys club, but I never saw anyone outright refused access to an audience due to race, gender or sexuality. In a lot of ways, Noise was a place where a person who made a compelling piece of work didn’t have to be concerned with the barriers towards acceptance that they might find in other fields, artistic or otherwise.
Of course, after years of touring, releasing records and meeting people I realized this wasn’t true. The problem wasn’t ever outright segregation or oppression, though if you want to see a shining example of white hetero-patriarchal privilege one needn’t look much further than any real or virtual gathering of Power Electronics folks. No, other than a misogynistic and racist fringe which you’ll find in almost any sub-culture, there was tolerance and support for women, queers and people of color making Noise. The real problem lies in the frame of reference which is used to participate in Noise music. Anyone is invited to make Noise, so long as they agree to a set of conditions that, while not explicit, define an Inside and and Outside. Anyone can make Noise music… they just have to Rock.
What my metal-head friend’s “Rock” criteria means is that there is an informal consensus about the qualitative nature of music, from its content to its aesthetic to its physical volume, that assigns its qualitative value. For most people its an “I know it when I hear it” kind of thing, though plenty of more poetically or even systematically inclined people could do a good job of describing it. What Metal, Noise, Punk and frankly most sub-genres of Western Music have in common is that these qualitative values as much as the cultures themselves have primarily been created by white (or occasionally black) hetero-patriarchal communities. In other words, they made the rules, and anyone can play, but only by their rules. So in this sense, there is no disputing the possibility of women, queers or people of color performing and being celebrated in those spaces – there are absolutely people who do. What is really the crisis or problem here is that the parameters of what a valued form of Noise is has already been agreed upon and defined by a minority and is being imposed upon anyone else who wishes to enter the field.
A simple argument could be made that if you don’t love it, leave it… or go do your own thing… or “sooooo?” That might be a convenient answer for some, in particular people who are invested in the exclusivity that can be a critical part of micro-cultures. Realistically though, most people who are involved in Noise music as performers, producers, supporters and fans rub up against multiple communities, many of whom self-identify as being involved in Noise. Being decades old at this point (pick your birthdate from Futurism to Throbbing Gristle) Noise Music has moved beyond its own specialization and become a intrinsic part of a vast array of musical practices. While its commercial unviability has protected it from the utter co-option and recuperation that has befallen most other radical musics, there remains a strong pull amongst its communities to delineate boundaries and literally determine what is and isn’t Noise. What’s at stake for a practitioner and a fan alike is access to various resources, not the least of which is the Community itself.
Noise being a culture, it holds that music is not the only thing that is defined by the aforementioned minority. Aesthetics, language, social space, physical space and boundaries are all predetermined factors that one must consent to in order to participate. While there is not a simple totalizing descriptor that could possibly encompass everything that is part of the general culture of Noise, I doubt you won’t witness a black hoodie, a manly exclamation of “brutal”, a gross consumption of alcohol, or a general every-man-for-himself attitude towards physical safety at any given underground Noise show. Certainly, many people might feel safe, welcomed, or general affinity with these things, yet for others these kinds of predetermined codes and behaviors are alienating and exclusionary. The answer to what must be done is not the coercion and conformity of people within these existing spheres. Rather it is the expansion of space and possibility for what can constitute Noise and its communities.
As with most conservative and fundamentalist factions there is always resistance to this kind of critique. A general myth is put forward that things arrange themselves according to a mysterious logic which different societally reinforced privileges have an acausal relationship with. There is a reactionary view that there was no problem until someone “made it a problem”, though strangely the problem is seemingly “made” simply by identifying and naming it. (By this logic one could say there was no such thing as a mountain until someone pointed it out and said “look, there’s a mountain”). Amazingly, a person who identifies a real experience of exclusion or oppression will be told that they aren’t having that experience by someone who, quite honestly, has no way of knowing what anyone else is experiencing without asking or listening. In addition to all of this, the persons making the critique or analysis will be told that they are trying to “divide the scene” even when what they are advocating for is a broader inclusion through diversifying the range of what that scene can comprise. Sadly, from this fundamentalist perspective, further exclusion is a more reasonable approach than dialogue, questioning, or critically engaging with this differing perspective.
What Noise needs is not a narrow definition of what its possibilities should be, but a constant upheaval of what is so that it can evolve, expand and challenge the comfort zone of culture and society. While traditions hold value, they are not justification unto themselves for their existence. Noise can calcify and become a rote or static form if it’s left well enough alone, but for some, if not many, Noise offers itself as a praxis by which a politic is transformed into an experience of sound. That politic may be made explicit as misanthropy, anarchy or feminism. It may be an ambiguous T.A.Z. where-in relationships and politics have to be negotiated individually and in the moment. Whatever it is, those who act to create new spaces for activity, challenge our assumptions of what is or isn’t qualitatively valued, or else offer alternative perspectives from which new hybridizations of cultural influences can emerge, these people deserve support and encouragement. Their work can redefine our experience, our practice and potentially aid in everyone’s liberation from the chains of oppression.