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Noise as Queer Expression

Noise as Queer Expression

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Published by Adam Scott Roan
Noise as Queer Expression
Noise as Queer Expression

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Published by: Adam Scott Roan on Jan 28, 2013
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02/14/2013

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Noise Music as Queer ExpressionIntroduction
“The blindfolds we wear during live performances are a criticism of the superficiality of gay culture -the fact that it has turned into a market, just like everything else,” says Joel Gibb,front man of the Ontario-based indie-pop band the Hidden Cameras. With a generation of queer  people throwing aside Foucault for Queer TV, it certainly is difficult to dispute that we are becoming a demographic to which big businesses are trying to appeal unapologetically. Gaymusic, for instance, is mass-marketed in palatable sub-genres overflowing with queer stereotypes, from the show-tune chamber pop of Rufus Wainwright and the Magnetic Fields tothe singer-songwriter folk pop of k.d. lang and Catie Curtis to the electronic disco of the Scissor Sisters and Junior Senior. But how is queer is queer culture if it simply conforms to theexpectations of mainstream society? The “constituent characteristic” of the term “queer,” asAnnamarie Jagose explains, is “its definitional indeterminacy, its elasticity” (1). True queer music would be something that can never be mass-marketed, something that eschews widespreadappeal in favor of true artistic expression.In his essay “Sexual and Musical Categories,” Fred Everett Maus suggests that “…it isalready easy to see that non-tonal compositions are queers in the concert hall…[T]hey aremarginals, oddballs, outsiders…products of the degeneration of tonal order” (159). From thisreasoning follows a considerable theoretical link between noise music, both classical and popular, and queer identity. In Maus’s essay he describes the almost perfect parallel between the“essentialism vs. social construction” debate of sexuality and the debate over tonality. Indescribing the theoretical writings of Heinrich Schenker, he states, “Schenker’s creation of anelaborate tonal theory in response to post-tonal music resembles, to some extent, sexologists’ Noise Music As Queer Expression 1
 
 back-formation of the concept of heterosexuality” (162). He then proceeds to equate MiltonBabbitt with Foucault: “Babbitt suggested that Schenker’s theory be understood, instead, as based on a number of axioms rather than as a natural phenomenon” (163). According to Babbitt,traditional tonality, twelve-tonality, and atonality are all constructed ideas of musicality that liein some multi-dimensional spectrum with one no more natural than the other. Similarly,Foucault emphasizes that “Sexuality must not be thought of as a kind of natural given which power tries to hold in check…It is the name that can be given to a historical construct” (105).Remarkably, when “musicality” is substituted for “sexuality,” Foucault’s description of the“great surface network” of sexualities is practically indecipherable from Babbitt’s account of tonality (105). Like Foucault’s constructionist theory of sexuality, Babbitt’s idea recognizes thehistorical invalidation of non-tonal music and denies the presumptions of naturality that underlieit.But while social stigma may make noise queer in the musical realm, what, if anything,links it directly to queer sexuality? Pinpointing any specifically queer aspect of noise music isimpossible: the term “noise” is applied to such a broad variety of styles of music (rock, classical, jazz, digital electronic, analog electronic, etc.) that finding a unifying queer motif in noise is asdifficult as finding one in all of “non-noise” music. The improvisational nature of much of noisemusic makes the task even more daunting. Instead, noise empathizes with queer sexuality,giving it twofold practicality for queer musicians and music fans. First, it stands as anunmarketable (and thus untainted) queer alternative to the “queer” culture being packaged anddistributed for mass consumption by mainstream heteronormative society, making it a poignant political tool. Second, it serves as a uniquely appropriate outlet for both queer sexual expressionand the anger and despair caused by homophobia. Noise Music As Queer Expression 2
 
Noise Music
While waiting in line for a Black Dice concert a few months ago, I had a niceconversation with a lesbian couple waiting behind me about the Afrirampo and Lightning Boltshow we had all seen over the summer. Once I was seated inside the auditorium, I met two gayhigh school students who were sitting in front of me, and we talked about our shared love for John Cage. After the opening act, I turned around to talk to the man sitting behind me about our favorite noise rock bands. When I asked him if he liked Xiu Xiu, he said that the homosexualimagery of the lyrics made him uncomfortable, and his gay friend a few seats down teased himabout it. I went to a Wolf Eyes show a few weeks later and saw more of the same: adisproportionately large portion of the audience was in some way queer. Noise music has become one of the biggest underground musical movements over the past few years, and everynoise show I attend seems to have more and more queer people both on and off stage.But what exactly do I mean when I say “noise music”? As previously mentioned, theterm “noise” can be used to refer to a wide variety of musical styles; the artists mentioned aboverange from analog electronic (Black Dice) to noise rock (Afrirampo and Lightning Bolt) toclassical (John Cage) to noise pop (Xiu Xiu). Jagose describes the modern use of the term“queer” as “an umbrella term for a coalition of culturally marginal sexual self-identifications”(1). Similarly, “noise” refers to “culturally marginal” music, including discordant compositions,free improvisations, and pieces featuring feedback and other dissonant sounds. The only trulyuniversal characteristic of noise music is the contextualization of sounds that are traditionallyconsidered non-musical into a musical setting. Today there are countless noise artists indifferent sub-genres, but even as the field grows in popularity, its harsh, unconventional naturekeeps it restricted to the underground music scene. Noise Music As Queer Expression 3

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