This morning I was fortunate enough to present a paper in the Perverse Affects papel at the Neoliberalism, Racialization and Queering Public Spaces symposium at the University of California, San Diego. Needless to say, presenting to an audience that included the likes of Nayan Shah, Jasbir Puar, Chandan Reddy, Paul Amar and Paola Bacchetta was daunting to say the least (particularly when I was still "test-driving" the ideas in my paper) and I definitely stumbled over several sentences during my delivery, but all of the participants were incredibly gracious and gave thoughtful, generous feedback. Actually, the experience was so overwhelmingly positive that I decided to post my paper here. Normally, I'm a complete control freak when it comes to letting people see my work in its early stages (particularly on an archived platform that could come back to haunt me later in my career), so this posting is a definite step outside of my comfort zone. As/if you read this, please bear in mind that I am still working through some of these ideas (though I always welcome generative feedback).
Viral Auralities: Queering the Lesbian Body Politic in Lesbians on Ecstasy
In his book Audiotopias, Josh Kun lays out his conception of music as an audiotopia, an “architecture of sound” that allows the listener to inhabit a sonic space of difference that provides access to cultural traditions separate from his or her own (3). Indeed, he notes, “I can put on a song and live it, hear it, get inside its notes and chords, get inside its narratives and follow its journeys and paths” (3). This paper, however, asks what happens when those notes and chords get inside you? Rather than invoking sound as a medium for transmitting potentially emancipatory information or as a means of registering resistance to coercive dominant cultural forms, I invoke sound as a contagion, a means of spreading sonic and social dissonance that disrupts and transforms the essentializing music of earlier lesbian musicians. In particular, I take up the queer dance music of the Montreal-based electro-clash group Lesbians on Ecstasy (or, Lezzies on X) to argue that the band’s covers of classic lesbian music use electronic distortion to contaminate earlier, homogenizing articulations of lesbian identity. In doing so, Lesbians on Ecstasy queers the lesbian body politic imagined in, by and through the implied listener of music by 1970s lesbian musicians like Meg Christian, Cris Williamson, Teresa Trull and the Berkeley Women’s Music Collective, opening up a wider field of possibilities for queer identifications that allow for bisexual, transsexual and transgender subjects.
Although the terminology of the contagion is typically vilified in normative discourse, I take it up here as an inherent signifier of the potential for resistance. Historically, dominant cultural discourse has used the rhetoric of contagious sexuality to bar individuals who don’t conform to normative sexual and gender categories from certain positions, particularly those involving interaction with youths, for fear that this non-normativity might spread to the youth. Likewise, initial reactions to rock n roll (and the dancing that it encouraged) used a similar rhetoric of sexual contagion to reify the underlying white suburban paranoia of racial mixture (even if that mixing was only cultural). While the imagery of the contagion is thus tied to powerful histories of oppression and persecution, it also gestures towards a potential to destabilize the very formations of power that this rhetoric was meant to protect. The contagion is that which has the capacity to violate borders, to reveal them as contingent at best, and imaginary at worst. By infiltrating and contaminating, the contagion ruptures boundaries and insists on hybridity. In this sense, the contagion is a fundamentally queer figure, and I invoke it as a symbol of resistance.
But resistance to what? In short, resistance to a specific construction of the lesbian that essentializes normative gender constructions, that conflates the “woman” with the mystical, the natural, the organic, the whole, the pre-modern, without questioning the premise that woman is itself a stable, meaningful category. Moreover, the magical, mystical harmony evoked by this imagined past subsumes the differences that necessarily characterize our individual lived experiences as raced, sexed, gendered, and classed subjects. In the woman-loving women’s music of the 1970s, lesbian harmony is manifested sonically by the music itself.
To explore this further, I turn to the music of 1970s lesbian music icon Teresa Trull, specifically the song “Woman-Loving Women”, which was included in the infamous compilation Lesbian Concentrate. Released by Olivia Records in 1977 as a response to a particularly virulent strain of rabid homophobia injected into public discourse by Anita Bryant, Lesbian Concentrate was offered as “an energetic affirmation of lesbian identity and culture.” Although my paper will challenge the continuing usefulness of the exclusionary lesbian identity being offered, I think it’s important to contextualize such music as an emergent response to a dominant culture that was openly (and oftentimes violently) hostile towards non-normative sexual and gender identification. At such a moment of crisis, a unified lesbian community would have constituted a practical necessity for survival. Although to some extent today’s queer community still lives with many of the same dangers, it is important to critically attend to the political necessities and embodied vulnerabilities that shaped past cultural productions and the identifications that they could engender. Thus, I will critically engage in a close reading of the lesbian soundscape of Teresa Trull’s “Woman-Loving Women” before turning my attention to the ways in which Lesbians on Ecstasy use distortion to engage with some of the elisions produced by the harmonious sonic spaces of earlier lesbian music.
In Teresa Trull’s song, “Woman Loving Women”, the melodious harmony of the individual musical components creates an idealized, euphonic soundscape within which, the lyrics tell us, a mystical bond connects all women and “woman” is understood to be a stable, homogenous, biologically-determined identity category. Trull’s musical space is built around harmonies. The warm, unprocessed sound of the acoustic guitar and piano, the soft, demure drumbeats and the polished, folk-style female vocals create a sense of instrumental unity and natural affinity. It invokes the community and intimacy of small performance venues and, I contend, employs what I am calling an aesthetics of the authentic. This aesthetic model locates beauty in the seemingly natural—the acoustic guitar, the unprocessed vocals—and privileges white, Western musical instruments, so that the implied lesbian-listening subject reflects larger patterns of negation in the dominant culture. Such a model fetishizes the quote-unquote “natural” and elides the technical processes required to record and reproduce music without rendering visible the technical and discursive apparatus that produced it. This essentializing perpetuation of the “natural” necessarily excludes transgender bodies and precludes internal divisions (after all, the “natural” is characterized as being already whole). In other words, the music’s sense of intimacy and community is predicated upon a naturalization of constructed and policed categories, not just in its reliance upon gender constructions, and not just in its reproduction of essentializing discourses, but also in the forced harmony of the soundscape in which the lyrics are being presented. The polished, mellifluous sonic space of the song marks it in contradistinction to the imperfections that necessarily characterize the real spaces in which listeners live and consume music—in its perfection, the music alienates itself from spaces of lived experience and the complex specificities of identification.
By sampling from and reworking classics such as Trull’s “Woman-Loving Women”, Lesbians on Ecstasy radically reshape the song’s acoustic terrain as it imbues the soundscape with a deeply immersive sense of rupture, ambiguity and multiplicity. In the Trull original, none of the instruments compete for dominance. The relative volume of certain instruments is privileged over others in order to produce a sonic image of harmony and wholeness. This sonic backdrop shapes the way that the listener engages with lyrics like “We’re women-loving women, come sing it loud along, we’re sisters united by a love that is oh-so-strong.” Listening to the lyrics without the music, we can hear the problematic assumptions they are built upon: not just that woman is a meaningful category, but also that all women naturally love all women, that all women experience being a woman in the same way. But in a sonic space permeated by an acoustic sense of wholeness, these assumptions are somehow obscured by the fact that the messages seem to emerge so naturally, so effortlessly, from the harmonious instrumental background. By contrast, in “The Cold Touch of Leather,” Lesbians on Ecstasy reinterpret Trull’s song. The band reproduces the original lyrics’ call for community, but they relocate that call in a more complex, polyrhythmic and electronically mediated soundscape. (I should note here that when I say complex, I’m not referring to artistic merit; I’m referring to the actual shape and contours of the sound wave produced.) Layering samples of drumbeats over one another, Lesbians on Ecstasy create an almost poly-vocalic rhythmic backdrop, an electronic soundscape seemingly inhabited by moogs, vocoders and synthesizers. As opposed to the aesthetics of the authentic that we hear in much of the folk-influenced lesbian music of the 1970s, Lesbians on Ecstasy revel in overt technological mediation. In this respect, Lesbians on Ecstasy’s music gestures towards the idea of the sonic posthuman, the individual who can lose himself or herself in a soundscape that seems to define itself in opposition to the embodied human, in fact, in opposition to the biological in general. Recently, Josh Kun has argued for an understanding of music as sonic utopic spaces that listeners can inhabit in the here and now. If this is true, then Lesbians on Ecstasy’s music seems to offer the listener an opportunity to temporarily inhabit an acoustic future in which the embodied human is noticeably absent. Yet even as the soundscape seemingly offers the listener access to a posthuman sonic future, Lesbians on Ecstasy anchor that world in lived lesbian histories, histories that are archived in the music from which Lesbians on Ecstasy sample. However, the history archived in 1970s lesbian music is a privileged history, a history of the implicitly white, middle or ruling class U.S.-American who happens to identify as lesbian. In her analysis of Lesbians on Ecstasy, Jack Halberstam acknowledges “the brilliance of Lesbians on Ecstasy has much to do with the way the women bury familiar and cozy lesbo classics in the static and fuzz of electronica.” As with any canon (literary, musical or otherwise), what gets included and what gets excluded reflects formations of privilege and power. Halberstam’s comment reveals the ways in which the lesbian listening-subject is always already figured as a privileged white.
In the beginning of the “The Cold Touch of Leather”, the sonic space is traversed by a rhythmic beat that sounds reminiscent of a heartbeat. The viscerally-felt low-end bass tones of this sound combine with its evocation of its biophysical analog (the heartbeat) to invoke the sonic fusion of the biological and the electronic. Reveling in the transgression of this boundary, the musical space evokes Donna Haraway’s Cyborg politics, which she describes as one that “insists on noise and advocates pollution, rejoicing in the illegitimate fusions of animal and machine” (177). One minute into the song, the contamination that such a politics seems to privilege becomes even clearer as a mechanical trill disrupts the song and marks the point at which the soundscape itself not only ruptures, but ultimately reconstitutes itself in an even more distorted iteration. As the listener inhabits this soundscape, the visceral power of the distorted, rhythmic sound permeates the listener’s body, producing an affective identification with the tone of the soundscape. In her discussion of the queer possibilities of listening to electronic dance music, Susana Loza writes that in order to utilize the hybrid possibilities in this, “electronic dance music, popular culture and modern science inject flesh with fantasies of immortality, limitless pleasures and unadulterated agency.” Because material conditions and present social formations prevent queer bodies from accessing immortality, limitless pleasure and unadulterated agency, this injection saturates embodied listeners with utopian desires not yet available to them.
Such an injection, I would contend, is sonically delivered through the sound of distortion. On a musical level, distortion performs a function analogous to contamination. It disrupts, corrupts and transforms. Distortion denaturalizes the reproduction of sound, revealing it as technologically mediated and subject to violation. More importantly for our purposes, distortion creates a fundamentally different soundscape, one that revels in noise, contention and ambiguity. More importantly, it carries with it resonances of power. Electronic distortion (for instance, the type produced by a guitar amp) is created when an amp is over-driven—in other words, when too much power is pumped into an amplifier in an attempt to reproduce a signal at a sound-level that exceeds the components’ capacity to do so “cleanly,” meaning without rendering visible the presence of technological mediation. This process deforms the note’s sound wave, creating a more complex waveform that has the ability to perpetuate itself indefinitely. Distortion therefore creates a sound whose affective power lies in its ability to evoke the capacity to violate temporal and material limitations. Distortion therefore figures as the sound of rupture and produces in the listener a sense of power. Indeed, in sociologist Robert Walser’s study of heavy metal music, he offers a quote from one producer working in the industry: “Distortion gives that feeling of ultimate power. The more distortion you get, the more satisfying it is. There’s something slightly superhuman, psychologically speaking, about [it].”
So distortion always signifies and reproduces in the listener the excess of power which produces it, and it is this sonic evocation of power that allows queer electro-clash band Lesbians on Ecstasy to rearticulate the positive lesbian identity of 1970s woman music as a sonic space that reflects the multivalent, contentious political and subjective terrain of queer identification. In the songs that they sample, Lesbians on Ecstasy reify a collective musical history that perpetuates the negation of queer histories and cultural productions of queer people of color, transnational migrants and working class subjects, as well as queers living outside of the United States and Canada. In this respect, Lesbians on Ecstasy continues the definition of the legitimate queer subject as a white, urban or suburban, middle class or ruling class U.S. citizen. Nevertheless, their use of distortion as an affective contagion capable of representing and, to some extent, affectively reproducing the complexities and contradictions of identification gestures towards new possibilities in the sonic war on totalizing epistemologies.
Halberstam, Judith. “Keeping Time with Lesbians on Ecstasy.” Women & Music 11: 51-58.
Harraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto.” Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991): 149-181.
Kun, Josh. Audiotopias. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005.
Loza, Susana. “Sampling (Hetero)sexuality: diva-ness and discipline in electronic dance music.” Popular Music 20.3: 349-357.
Walser, Robert. Running With the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1993.
Weinstein, Diane. Heavy Metal. New York: Lexington Books, 1991.
Lesbian Concentrate: A Lesbianthology of Songs and Poems. Olivia Records, 1977. Retrieved from Internet Archive on 16 April 2011.
Lesbians on Ecstasy. We Know You Know. Alien8 Recordings, 2007.