Saturday, May 30, 2015

Yoko Ono by Joy Press

YOKO ONO PROFILE 

The Wire ISSUE 146, April 1996

by Joy Press



"I never will forget the dawn in the Abbey Road Studio when John and I hugged each other after completing the Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band record. When I was a little girl, I read of Monsieur and Madame Curie discovering radium, with, naturally, the Madame sitting in the driver's seat. That was how I felt...I was a composer who was stretching her ears to the edge of the boundless universe."
- Yoko Ono, liner notes to the London Jam CD, from Onobox

Standing in the vestibule of the Dakota building in Manhattan, I tell the guard: "I'm here to see Yoko Ono." It seems like a stupid, surreal thing to say - like announcing, "I've got a pizza delivery for the Pope" - but he lets me in anyway.

Upstairs, Yoko is sitting in her kitchen, a vast room as big as my entire apartment, with sofas and a television at one end, and a mosaic-topped kitchen table at the other. Dressed in a plain black shirt and stonewashed jeans, she chainsmokes slim cigarettes and speaks in skewed English. Contrary to myth, she turns out to be funny, self-effacing and surprisingly mumsy; when her son Sean shows up, she fusses and frets that he'll be late for his voice lesson.

Every so often I have to remind myself: this is one of the most famous women in the world; a woman who was also, once, a key member of the Fluxus movement, a leading performance artist and 'High Priestess of the Happening', and collaborator with John Cage, David Tudor, LaMonte Young and Ornette Coleman. Her music in the 60s and early 70s was groundbreaking; on such albums as Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band and Fly she merged rock 'n' roll and New York downtown avant gardism. 



Years before Patti Smith, Siouxsie Sioux or Diamanda Galas, Yoko invented 'the scream': a spectacular eruption of shamanic female energy, dervish-whirling through soundscapes as hybrid and chaotically miscegenated as her own East-meets-West upbringing. She was an ardent feminist whose performance art, films and music aggressively addressed women's oppression. Yet her own achievements were eclipsed when she threw in her lot with John Lennon. Suddenly the arc of Yoko Ono's career nosedived; she went from diva of the avant garde to dragonlady.

In 1992, as the world began to re-evaluate some of the liminal figures haunting that edifice known as 'women in rock', Yoko was asked to compile her life's work for a five CD set called Onobox. It got rave reviews and avid attention from young musicians who had only ever known her as a cultural pariah - the woman who broke up The Beatles. Courtney Love, Yoko's modern-day shadow, promptly claimed Ono as her patron saint, and even named a song after her: "Twenty Years At The Dakota".





Now, four years after Onobox Yoko has made a return to her avant garde roots with Rising, her most uncompromising album since Fly. She is accompanies by IMA, a group of ace teenage musicians spearheaded by son Sean Ono Lennon. And later this year, her record company will release remixes and cover versions of songs from Rising, recorded by young Ono fans like Thurston Moore, The Beastie Boys, Tricky, Ween and female Japanese-American art-popsters Cibo Matto.

"I didn't know there were so many brothers and sisters out there thinking in the same direction as me," Yoko tells me. She sounds genuinely astonished.

Remember the holes in your mind

Yoko Ono is descended from emperors and samurai. Her father was a concert pianist turned Tokyo banker who, legend has it, often measured his daughter's hands to see whether they were big enough for her to be a first-rate pianist. (They weren't - she's a tiny woman.) Yoko spent most of her childhood in Japan, including some very hard years during World War Two. When she was 20 the family moved to upstate New York, where she went to Sarah Lawrence College. There she discovered Schoenberg and spent much of her time trying to find the right outlet for her fierce creative impulses.

"I felt that I was a misfit in every medium," she has said. "I thought that there might be some people who needed something more than painting, poetry and music, something I called an 'additional act'."

John Cage changed the course of Yoko's life, pointing the way towards an interdisciplinary art. In 1958 Yoko and her first husband Toshi Ichiyanagi, a young Japanese musician, attended Cage's experimental music composition class at the New School in new York City. The class attracted a panoply of young avant garde painters, writers and musicians -including Jim Dine, Richard Maxfield, larry Poons and Allan Kaprow - who embraced Cage's notions of incorporating indeterminacy and chance into art. By offering her gigantic Chambers Street loft as a performance space, a la Dadaist Cabaret Voltaire, Yoko helped foster this burgeoning experimental scene. Her friend LaMonte Young, newly arrived from Berkeley, performed there, as did Henry Flynt (who coined the term 'concept art'), electronic composer Richard Maxfield and Yoko herself.




At the time, Yoko was working on conceptual art that she called 'Instruction Pieces' (Painting To Be Stepped On consisted of the instruction: "Leave a piece of canvas or finished painting on the floor or in the street"), and doing performance art happenings. One of her earliest happenings, A Grapefruit In The World Of Park, was a multimedia work in which the performers wore contact microphones to capture the sound of perspiration and other "sounds you hear in silence" - her words echoing Cage's statement that "My favourite piece is the one we hear all the time if we are quiet". George Maciunas, soon to be ringleader of the Fluxus movement, was smitten by Yoko's stuff and asked her to exhibit in his gallery. With its Zen humour and interactive/confrontational qualities, Yoko's work fit the Fluxus vision of 'total art' perfectly: action, sound, movement, poetry and visuals brought together in a multimedia soup that melted the membrane between everyday life and art.



Throughout her career Yoko tweaked taboos by flaunting the female body in her work, from the infamous performance Cut Piece to the film Fly, in which a camera follows a fly crawling over the landscape of a woman's nude form. Even today, the concept of Cut Piece resonates; Yoko knelt onstage with a pair of sharp scissors and asked the audience to cut the clothes off her body until she was naked and exposed. Exploring notions of voyeurism, violence, and victimisation, it's one of her earliest and most powerful feminist statements.


In retrospect Cut Piece seems dangerous, even foolhardy. Yoko admits that she can't imagine doing it now. But back then, she recalls, "There was the feeling that I wouldn't respect myself if I didn't have that courage. There was always that notion in me that art should come first to a dedicated artist, and life comes second." Luckily Cut Piece had a built-in obsolescence point, since Yoko always wore her best suit for each performance. "My wardrobe went down very rapidly, until there were maybe two clothes left," she chuckles. "But the feeling was to use my best clothes - for art's sake."

From the early 60s onward, Yoko's voice became her trademark; a visceral wail, Roland Barthes's "language lined with flesh". Her vocal techniques emerged gradually, she says, out of a desire to find new sounds - interior or imaginary sounds. After experimenting with ambient noises and musique concrete, she started reciting poetry in performances, "accentuating syllables in a strange, almost dissonant musical way".

While preparing for a show at the Carnegie Recital Hall in 1961, Yoko had a flashback to her childhood in Japan which further inspired her. "I still hadn't gone through the experience of childbirth then, but I remembered that when I was a very little girl, I overheard these servants talking about how painful it is to bring a child into the world." The servants' yowling re-enactment of labour stuck in Yoko's mind.

"I remember it even now, exactly how it sounded," she explains, panting and moaning for me. "Around that time in 1961, I had a miscarriage... or an abortion," she mutters under her breath. "And that reminded me of those stories. So I thought, I'm going to try to recreate that sound of a woman giving birth." She recorded the groans, but when she went to play it back, she accidentally hit the reverse button. The result was so spooky and weird that "I rehearsed it to simulate the backwards sounds. That's how it all started."

Aside from singing 'backwards', Yoko also absorbed a style of Japanese kabuki called hetai "which requires you to strain your voice a bit". The child of a Buddhist mother and a Christian father, Yoko was perfectly placed to syncretize East and West. Much of her early work was meditative and owed its spiritual force to Buddhism. She said at the time, "I think of my music more as a [Zen] practice [gyo] than as music." And her performance art often drew upon the natural world, as in 1962's Wind Piece, in which she invited the punters to move their chairs aside to make an aisle for the wind to pass through.

Who was in those early audiences? Was it mostly other artists? "The avant garde scene in new York was very large, and a lot of people would show up," she explains. "I had a mailing list of about 200 people. In those days, because I was very work-oriented, I would do a concert or an exhibition once a month almost. I thought that was 'success', you know, not knowing there was another world where a million people buy your records."

Yoko admits that she was hurt by sexism, as rife in the macho avant garde art world as anywhere else. When male artists go out on a limb they are considered brilliant and daring, but when women do the same, they are crazy. "Crazy or downright annoying!" she agrees. "Many times I was not invited to a group show or to perform, so I had to do a concert on my own. In hindsight, maybe that helped me."



Yoko still bumps into some of her old Fluxus colleagues on occasion; thanks to a resurgence of public interest in the movement and various retrospective exhibits, former Fluxus artists sometimes find themselves corralled in a room for group photos. Today, former pals like LaMonte Young and Terry Riley are practically demi-gods to a certain circle of younger musicians, but Yoko seems wary of discussing them.

"I admit LaMonte Young's talent," she says stiffly, "but there should be equal respect, you know?" He doesn't respect you? "Ah, I don't want to go into it...There is always an ego problem amongst artists. I suppose with the kind of work that he's doing, it is very important that he have an incredible pride to carry him along. We were all like that."

Choose your cliche: Yoko the cold, calculating bitch who leeched on Lennon's fame and fortune, or Yoko the martyred wife who sacrificed her brilliant career for her husband. The reality, as usual, wavers between these two extremes. But in terms of the public perception of Yoko Ono, there's no getting around the fact that racism and sexism played a big role in her demonisation.

Think of The Rutles, Eric Idle's Beatles satire, in which Yoko's equivalent was transposed into a leather-clad, goose-stepping Nazi. And Esquire magazine once ran the headline: "John Rennon's Excrusive Gloupie". Of the blatant, unremitting prejudice, Yoko says quietly, "That was a situation that all of us Japanese-Americans went through at the time. But then I was singled out to be personally attacked. What was that about? At the time I was thinking, why, why, why me? But something good might have come out of it, in the sense of making me stronger."

Yoko met John Lennon in 1966. At the time she had showings at two hip London galleries; after years of critical neglect she was finally hitting her stride as an art star. Which is why critics have suggested that, in terms of her career, meeting Lennon was the worst thing that could have happened to her.

"I don't agree with that at all," she insists. "I was stuck in the avant garde thing. Where do you go from there? If I had insisted on staying there, I could've been known as the person who never budged from her belief, and been canonized by now..." Like LaMonte Young? "Yeah. But the fact that I rolled around in the mud, so to speak, was very good for me. By going off with John into a totally different world I got so much inspiration. Yes, on a career level maybe I lost credence totally. Maybe not totally...well, almost totally..."

She takes a deep breath and lets out a nervous giggle. "I always had this innate confidence that my artistic activity will not be killed. Even if I had to stay put for a whole year to get pregnant, that was fine - I thought, one day I'll use that experience to make something out of it."



Surprisingly, Yoko insists that she was an outcast in the avant garde community even before she took up with a pop star. She made a film called Bottoms/Film#4: two hours of bare bums which Yoko called "an aimless petition signed by people with their anuses".

After the film's release, she says, "All my avant garde friends dropped me because I got a tremendous amount of attention and reviews. This nice avant garde artist couple had a dinner party, and the wife told me, 'My husband feels like you sold out and we're not inviting you for dinner...' I was stuck in a strange place, up in the air. I was not in the avant garde world but I was not as big as the [mainstream] world that John was in. 1967 was a very lonely passage, it was like I was in nowhereland. That's when John noticed my work. And he picked me up!"



Not only did Lennon rescue Yoko from her limbo, he also introduced her to whole new kind of music: rock 'n' roll. Ono's radical vocals and mystical mindset combined with Lennon's raw rock sensibilities in a way that was sheer sorcery. Their first joint experiments with looped tapes and sound collages, Unfinished Music No 1: Two Virgins (recorded about the same time as "Revolution No 9", Lennon's Stockhausen-influenced noise collage on 1968's The Beatles) were out-and-out avant garde. But with Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band (1970) and Fly (1971), the couple combined experimental production, freeform jazz spontaneity and rock 'n' roll primitivism.

On the riotous "Why", Ono's voice seems to transcend the limits of her body, searing and soaring over the Bo Diddley-esque beat and Lennon's sulphurous guitar; on its sequel, "Why Not", Ono gargles strangled syllables over a bluesy groove, sounding like a child that's been skinned alive. Consider the John Cale-LaMonte Young-Yoko Ono nexus, and you realise that Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band and Fly - in their exploration of noise and the mantric powers of repetition - are an unacknowledged parallel to The Velvet Underground's White Light/White Heat.



"When John and I got together I was not thinking pop music so much as rock," Yoko explains, dragging on her sixth cigarette. "I was interested in that strong, heavy beat, which I equated with the heartbeat. I thought avant garde music is mainly for the head - most male avant garde composers avoided the voice because it was too animalistic. They were into very cool instrumental kind of things. Cool was in, and by using my voice I was a little uncool in their eyes. Strange, isn't it? The sound of my voice was too human and emotional. Because of that, I kind of rebelled against that avant garde tendency and I went more animalistic. When I heard the rock beat, I thought, oh this is what I was looking for! And I never looked back."



Although those records met with a mostly hostile reception from critics and public alike, Yoko says, "We felt, John and I, that we created a whole new sound, a new world. Even though most people were busy throwing our records in the trashcan! We didn't expect that -we thought the whole world would recognize that this is a new sound." So the couple believed they had created a 'New Music' that was a "fusion of avant garde jazz rock and East and West". For Fly, Yoko recruited her old Fluxus pal Joe Jones to create one-of-a-kind sculpture-instruments "which played themselves without any musicians" (as she explained in the Onobox notes). And she utilized various items of exotic percussion like tablas and Cuban claves.



At roughly the same time, the likes of miles Davis, Can and Tim Buckley were on a similar genre-crunching trip. The lock-groove freak-outs "Touch Me" and "Mind Train" (which a strangely humble Yoko edited from 17 minutes down to four for Onobox, to 'spare' the listener) are remarkably similar to the punk-funk jazz fissionof Miles's On The Corner. Similarly, "Don't Count The Waves" and "The Path" are proto-dub explorations of echo and studio space that reverberate with cosmic dust and radiowaves. They sound weirdly like parallels to Can tracks such as "Augmn" from Tago Mago.



 Was Yoko aware of what these other artists were doing? "No, I didn't connect that at all," she says icily, and perhaps a little disingenuously. "Okay. So I thought Miles Davis was probably doing something great, but I thought it was just instrumental stuff. And it probably was. The vocal thing I thought of as separate." It seems hard to believe that Ono was unaware of Davis's work on Bitches Brew, a big hit with counterculture 'heads'. But perhaps this brings us back to her earlier point about artists' egos - it was only her unswerving belief that she was out on her own, creating a new musical universe, that propelled her through all the barriers that the art world threw in her path.




These two early albums elicited some of the best playing of their careers out of Lennon, Ringo Starr, and even Eric Clapton How did she do it? "I think it was a lot to do with John," she says. "It was always in the context of doing his [recording] sessions: it was like, you're here anyway, who not do Yoko's song? It's not like we made phone calls and said, 'We're going to do Yoko Ono's stuff now, let's get into the studio.' It wasn't like that at all! 'Midsummer New York', for instance, I think it was two in the morning and all that time we were doing John's stuff. Everbody's tired and John says, 'Let's do this one song Yoko showed me this morning.' And it's like, okay..."

She rolls her eyes in a superb imitation of bored, patronizing musicians. "I was always an afterthought. But it worked out well. On 'Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band', you hear John saying 'Did you get that?' I kept it in because most of the time when we did my stuff, all the engineers picked that time to go to the bathroom. They couldn't stand it probably! A lot of things were not taped, and a lot of things were lost in my life." 



Although many of her early instruction pieces were published in the book Grapefruit, Yoko says that much of her work has vanished over the years. "If I were a guy that wouldn't happen. I heard that Allen Ginsberg's mother kept everything that he wrote since he was three. It must be a big file. But in my life, a lot of things happened to me, and the war..." she says, alluding to her childhood experiences in war-torn Japan. "I'm lucky I kept a few things. Woman's career is not taken seriously, so no one's keeping an archive for you."


There's no way back so just keep walking


After the extremism of those two shattering records, anything less untethered was bound to sound tame in comparison. Yoko's post-Fly work in the 1970s was fervently feminist, but sonically sedate and session-musicianly. She was palling around with Yippies Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin (her Fluxus-honed instinct for the spectacle melded perfectly with their pranksterish sensibilities), and attending to numerous cool causes.

Her collaborative album with Lennon, Sometime In New York City, and her solo records, Approximately Infinite Universe (backed by the hippy group Elephant's Memory) and Feeling The Space, featured such forthright songs as "What A Bastard The World Is" ("All of us live under the mercy of male society/thinking that their want is our need") and "Potbelly Rocker", a loose, jazzy slip of a song dedicated "to wives of rockers who are nameless, who live in the shadow of groupies and who get a weekend loving once every month...between the tours spiced with crabs and gonorrhoea".




Stray moments of intense strangeness found their way onto these records, such as the eerie "YangYang", and "Woman Power", one of the few mid-period songs which really succeeded in fusing powerful politics to equally powerful rock. A stomping Amazonian tirade recorded in 1973, "Woman Power" anticipated the marriage of Metal riffs and rap bombast more than a decade before Run DMC sampled Aerosmith for "Walk This Way".



Despite such strident pro-women rhetoric, Yoko wasn't a big hit with the radical feminists because she stood by her man at a time when separatism was in vogue. To women who felt overshadowed by men, Yoko was living proof.

"You're right - feminists didn't like me either. I was just a rich man's wife to them. That was the initial stage when feminists were totally down on wives and prostitutes!" she says gleefully. Ironically, the late 70s saw Lennon and Ono grow into the ultimate roles-reversed couple: he was house-husband, baking bread and looking after the infant Sean, while she managed a business empire that some estimate at £100 million.

At the dawn of the 80s Yoko turned to electronic technology. "Walking On Thin Ice", the last track she created with Lennon, is one of her best, most disturbing pop songs: over a motorik disco pulse, Yoko croons softly while sonic debris careens and crashes around her. Much of Double Fantasy, Season Of Glass (co-produced by Phil Spector) and It's Alright are peppered with synthesizers and lush, multi-tracked vocals (she used 81 tracks on the epic "Never Say Goodbye", a herculean task in the days before mixing desks were computerised).  

"In the 80s, after John's passing, I really fell into music in a way that was like a security blanket," she explains. "I needed to hold onto something. Doing something elaborate, like elaborate harmonies or instrumentals, was a way of getting into a more complex place, which was therapeutic. It made me feel there was a whole new world I was delving into." She chose to use actual gunshots in the staccato, atonal epic "No, No, No," and later wrote that she had finally learned what musique concrete really meant.



When asked for specifics about her interaction with technology, Yoko grows a little vague, saying only that she's always been involved in twiddling knobs in the studio. A statement that seems overly modest, considering that she has produced or co-produced every one of her albums. "Sometimes I get into that kind of thing," she says, "and sometimes I think about the fact that in the computer age we get more and more removed from ourselves, and I want to go back to the simple animal in us. I hate it when things get too academic. If I play with technique, I want to play with it towards an end. Otherwise it can stunt you...In Classical music, people were doing very complex things, for the same of being complex. I leaned that rock, with two simple chords, can bring an incredible communication of the spirit."

The way Yoko tells it, Rising closes a circle that began with Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band, in more ways than one. Firstly, it is a return to uncompromising art rock. The album opens with the roiling Speed Metal pummelling and vocal convulsions of "Warzone". Then there's the requiem "Kurushi" (a Japanese word which vaguely translates into 'tortured' or 'suffocating'), the wonderfully flaky "Ask The Dragon", and "Rising" itself, a lovely song in which plaintive chants dissolve, over 14 minutes, into naked grief and cathartic chaos.



On a personal level, Rising is also, says Yoko, "a reminder of when John and I did Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band. It was that kind of feeling. I felt that Sean was very supportive of me, just like John. So there were no silly questions - you know: 'Why are you screaming Yoko?'"

When Sean was a small boy, his voice often appeared on Yoko's records. I suggest that he probably absorbed her aesthetic sensibility from the womb onwards. But Yoko insists that she was taken aback by his interest in her music and his desire to play (alongside Sam Koppleman and Timo Ellis) on Rising. "I naturally assumed that when he grew up he would respect his father's work a lot. I never thought he would even listen to mine. I never pushed it or even explained it to him, but then I'm seeing him playing my old records and...I was surprised."

This seems rather self-deprecating to me, and not a little sad. Why wouldn't a son be interested in his mother's work? "My work is the work of an outsider, and his dad is very mainstream..." She pauses. "Well, he created the mainstream! So it's natural for Sean to go to that. But the fact that I was an underdog probably appealed to him. And it's worked out very well for the mother and son relationship!"

Rising came into being after playwright Ron Destro approached Yoko to write some songs for his play Hiroshima, timed for the 50th anniversary of the bombing of the city. The first song she wrote was "Hiroshima Sky Is Always Blue," recorded with Paul McCartney last year but not included on the album. Scenes in the play's script sparked painful memories: the bombing of Tokyo, hiding in an air raid shelter, moving to the countryside and nearly starving, then returning to the ravaged city where she was surrounded by the walking dead. "I had been wondering why this experience I and all of us New Yorkers are going through now felt familiar - this feeling of tension and insecurity and fear. I was thinking, I remember this feeling, when was the last time I experienced this? And I realised that there was a parallel in my life."



Yoko's first live performance with IMA was at a memorial event held in an ancient shrine near Hiroshima. The songs on Rising were rewritten for Japanese drum, Chinese gong, didgeridoo and tablas, and IMA wore kimonos. Although she's mindful of the 'One World' idea of melding East and West, she explains that therewere practical reasons for the Asian instruments. "It was a thousand year old shrine, a national treasure, and they weren't used to people getting on the stage wearing shoes even. We wanted to respect that - to the point that I think we surprised them. If we used electric guitars we'd have to have heavy speakers and amplifiers, so I made it all acoustic - acoustic and interesting."

Over the years people have despised Yoko One for being too cool, too cocky, too 'inscrutable'. Back in the 60s and 70s, with her hot-pants and black beret, her anger and pronouncements about changing the world, she was as threatening to the pop status quo as any angry young woman could be.

Now aged 63 and a widow, she may find the public more sympathetic. Her rage is still intact, but tempered by a lifetime of humiliations and misfortunes, she seems more like a sage than a virago. The keynote to Rising might be found in the title track: "Have courage/Have rage/We're rising". The message is there ("We're all victims of the immaturity of the human race, and we can all stand up together and do something about it," as she paraphrases it for me), but filtered through some of Yoko's most virulently virtuoso singing.

I ask whether she prepared or rehearsed her vocals in advance. "[For] a song like "I'm Dying", the band started playing and the first words that came to my mind were "I'm dying". And I thought, 'Am I gonna say that?' There was a little resistance, because I didn't want the whole world to think...'Oh, she's dying!' But I thought I should say it - daring to not censor yourself. It is a bit frightening, but that's how it is.My feeling is that it's a matter of attitude - if you think that when you feel now is an accumulation of 60-something years, then anything that comes out now is okay. Then you don't have to prepare. Just let it come."


                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

the missing chapter from Simon Reynolds and Joy Press's The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion and Rock'n'Roll, 1995

This was originally planned to come right after the chapter on Malcolm McLaren and The Stranglers and chauvinism in punk. But we cut it out partly for space reasons and also because we felt in the end it was more like a survey of thinking on the topic than a significant contribution to it. Still as an introduction to the rock vs pop dichotomy as figured in music criticism it has some interest in the light of recent debates about rockism versus popism.

BOYS'S OWN ADVENTURES: Critical Bias

Although The Stranglers were marginalised by the music press's
political-correctness police for their blatant sexism, in a sense
they were only amplifying and exposing what were unspoken assumptions about rock as a boy's own domain. Malcolm McLaren, too, was so deeply entrenched in this thinking he couldn't conceive of a place for women in his masterplan--except as clothes designer (Vivienne Westwood) or clothes mannequin (Jordan).

Although punk opened many opportunities for women, it also had the effect
of broadening and intensifying the long established great divide between rock
(for boys) and pop (for girls). Punk rejected the love song, attacked disco for its
"mindless escapism", and, by expunging the raunchy, syncopated, blues-derived
elements from rock'n'roll, made it anti-sexual, thus eliminating women even
as subject matter. Punk's definition of valid music as loud, aggressive, confrontational, and anti-sentimental, was the latest turn on
a long-standing snobbery that dated back to the Beatles v.Stones
dichotomy. The rock/pop divide went through many evolutions: afficianados
of acid rock and white blues looked down on Motown and bubblegum
pop; connoisseurs of progressive and heavy rock sneered at glitter and early Seventies soul; partisans of punk and New Wave derided disco; indie/college rock despised the 'fake soul' and 'plastic', machine-made dance music of the Eighties. But the underlying, gender-based structure remained a constant: a largely male connoiseurship considered themselves superior to a mass audience seen as essentially female. The rock listener brought a critical awareness to the music,
it was felt, whereas "pop" fans were undiscriminating dupes of capitalism,
suckered by image, hype and sugary melodies. Active participation (in a
counter-culture or a rock critical discourse) was set in opposition to passive
consumption of product; the authenticity of the rock artist was contrasted with
the inauthenticity of the pop artefact. While the rock artist's self-expression
came from the soul, the pop star was little more than a robot manufactured and
manipulated by a manager/producer/puppeteer.

There have, of course, been a number of groups and artists who've straddled
the divide, winning rockcrit kudos and girly fandemonium - The Beatles, The
Stones, The Doors, Prince, Madonna. And there have been attempts to bridge the
gap, or even to collapse the pop/rock distinction altogether: most notably, the
self-consciously arty wing of glam rock (Roxy Music, David Bowie, Marc Bolan)
and its early Eighties ancestor, New Pop (ABC, Culture Club, Scritti Politti, Human
League, Adam and the Ants). More recently there've even been those who've gotten
a camp, postmodern frisson out of crossing the great divide, trespassing into
the forbidden zone of girly-teeny taste, and boasting of a passion for some
previously denigrated artiste or style: the girl groups of the Sixties, disco,
the MOR-shlock of The Carpenters and Abba, the Eighties conveyor-belt starlets
churned out by Stock Aitken Waterman, and even, occasionally, contemporaneous
teen sensations like Aha and Take That.

But the rock/pop, masculine/feminine distinction has endured, and has even enjoyed a new lease on life with the rise of "alternative" music in the Nineties. A gamut of 'hard' sub-genres--funk-metal, industrial, grunge, thrash-metal--have re-established blunt aggression,
belligerent blare, and an aesthetic based around muscular, sweaty live
performance (rather than the studio-concocted idioms like records and videos) as
the benchmarks of validity in a resurgent rock.

* * * *
Surprisingly, there have been few attempts to formulate a coherent theory that
validates the unspoken assumptions about rock and gender that lie behind the
valorisation of "hardness", and the elision between concepts like "hardcore",
"underground" and "youthful rebellion". Only with the gradual weakening of the
left-liberal consensus that has hitherto informed rock criticism have people
emerged who've dared to argued the case for rock'n'roll as intrinsically
masculine. The cultural critic Camille Paglia has extended her general theory
that all great art is male to cover rock'n'roll. In an interview
with Spin magazine in 1991, she cites lack of testosterone as the reason "why women have done [little] in terms of great lead guitar work, because to do great solo guitar work you have this egotistical, aggressive attitude. One of the bitterest disappointments of my life has been the failure of women to contribute
anything important to rock'n'roll. They have done many interesting things in
pop, but not in rock. There is not one great female lead guitar player. When
the femininsts talk about men keeping women back, I say bullshit. And here's an
example in our time, in the last 20 year years; nothing is stopping a woman from
picking up a guitar. I think it has to do with hormones."

There is a circular logic here, much the same as that which sees great art
as consisting of huge canvases or gigantic sculptures, as grand statements, thus
excluding from consideration the more modestly scaled, intimate work that women
have excelled at. If great guitar work is defined as over-arching feats of
phallocratic pyrotechnics, as the solo (rather than the more co-operative,
mutual guitar interplay of a mostly female group like Throwing Muses, which by
no means lacks aggression or visceral impact) then certainly, it's true that
women haven't contributed that much. If what is valorized is a masculine aesthetic
of self-aggrandisement, the musical equivalent of the tragic soliloquy, then females will necessarily be at a disadvantage. If Luce Irigray is right, and women don't have subjectivity in the male sense, then the equivalent of the solo in female rock is the gaps, fragments and breakages.

Over the decades, a critical lexicon has congealed in which music is
celebrated for its punishing properties, its hardness, heaviness and
abrasiveness. The mass success of "grunge" in the early Nineties was, in some
sense, the final washing up in the mainstream of an ethos and aesthetic
originally trailblazed by gonzo writers like Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer and Nick Tosches, the so-called Noise Boys. This masochistic, masculinist sensibility has evolved through the Seventies and Eighties, marginalised but hugely popular in the form of heavy metal, and marginalised and not very popular in the lineage that includes proto-punk, US hardcore and noise-rock. Then it triumphed in the early Nineties with grunge - a style which re-integrated punk and metal as nouveau hard rock, complete with sado-masochistic forms of audience participation like moshing and stage-diving (which are gender divisive in the extreme).

In the interim, the Bangsian discourse was honed into a fine, if myopic, art by fanzines like Forced Exposure, where music was appraised in terms of ability to induce a kind of pleasurable agony (contributors to the zine included Big Black's Steve Albini). The subtext of a lot of this writing is "are you man enough to withstand" a ferocious dose of "ear-gouging agresso-hoot without surcease" or "squirrel-blasting entertainment" (to quote Forced Exposure's Byron Coley). For the most part, the terms of this sensibility are never probed or unpacked, but are taken for granted, as the Way, the Light, and the Truth (in the gospel according to Lester). Not that female artists are entirely excluded, at least so long as they are tomboys, exhibitionistic self-abusers, or scarifying extremists. But a female sensibility, male fragility - get outta here.

The closest anyone has come to a critical formulation of the post-Bangs
aesthetic is Rock and The Pop Narcotic by Joe Carducci. This aggressive but
closely reasoned polemic explicitly defines rock as a male activity. As he writes, "It is no use pretending that if we could just technologically relieve females of the
burden of reproduction and then rear them to be little leaguers, that they would
be as interested in careers in baseball and rock and roll as boys are. Boys are
generally mechanically, physically inclined and if society no longer demands of
them that they hunt for food by age 14 and mate as soon as they hunt well enough
to feed a family, then they are going to have to find something to do with that
energy from that genetic program. Drugs are definitely capable of obliterating
that unusable energy and rock concerts are a conveninent combination of
catharsis and catalyst. Both at the same time are, like, the ultimate (I'm told
)."

Carducci's biologically determinist convictions about rock's essential
masculinity dovetail with his materialist and reductionist definition of rock.
Rock is rock'n'roll "made conscious of itself as small band music". The essence
of rock is rhythmic, based in the interaction of drums, bass, and rhythm guitar,
which interlock to create "multidimensional simulataneity" (the illusion, at
once visceral and spiritual, of three players becoming one). Good songs are a nice
bonus, but worth nothing (in rock terms) without the friction of riff, bassline
and beat. This drummer-centred formalism leads Carducci to dismiss as irrelevant
elements like image, lyrics, attitude, the vocalist's charisma and/or neurosis,
vocal harmony, and arthouse/highbrow conceptual trappings. All of these, he
says,adulterate rock purism with pop appeal or cerebral baggage, and are thus only of interest to male wimps and to girls. Neither group understands rock because
they're alienated from their own physicality (in the case of egghead males) or, argues Carducci, they don't have the hormonal set-up to really feel rock in their guts (girls).

For Carducci, rock is strenuous, an art form that is honed by assiduous
gigging and rehearsing. Rock is corrupted (i.e. turned into pop) when it
panders to feminine sensibilities, emphasising the lead vocalist, glossy production,
image, sensitivity, and downgrading rhythmic heat and grit. Effeminate and gay
influences are also inimical (the British art-school and New Pop sensibilities
were deeply pernicious, in Carducci's nativist, anti-Anglophile reading of rock
history). Finally, rock is corrupted when its muscular work ethic is allowed to
go flaccid in the delicate hands of eggheads who think conceptual leaps can
replace the hard slog of paying your dues. The result is ethereal, rarefied
music that appeals to the contemplative brain rather than the viscera.

Against the graduates who have weakened rock (either as performers, or as
critics whouniformly project their irrelevant left-liberal politics onto the
music), Carducci heralds a New Redneck ethos as the salvation of rock. New
Redneckism was trailblazed by SST (a label Carducci had been closely involved with) in the early Eighties with image-less, hardworking neo-punk bands like Black Flag, The Minutemen and Husker Du. New Redneck is a return to rock's origins in the "Born
To Lose" worldview of the American South (as expressed in blues and hillbilly
music); this worldview struck a chord with blue collar and lower middle class
youth throughout white America. The born-to-lose attitude remained a constant as rock evolved through the sludge of Black Sabbath-style metal, the frustration of punk, the toiling catharsis of Eighties hardcore, right up to today's grunge. This music connects, viscerally, with young men's sense of
the world as made up of struggle and impedance: heavy music fits heavy themes.

Of course, heavy metal also has a heroic side, most notably in the
operatic vocals and strutting machismo of the lead singer, and the grandiosity of the lead guitarist. For Carducci, the phallic triumphalism of the guitar solo
"symbolizes masturbation rather than fucking, or power/rape, as the lib-politicos might have it. The teen male metal audience then is celebrating the rock stars ability to dramatise and enculture masturbation ballets so well that they attract females (groupies) and therefore get to proxy fuck for all of their teenage charges".Carducci admits this doesn't seem like a very healthy arrangement, but its
pent-up frustration seems preferable to wimpy non-rock of The Smiths or REM's
ilk.

In fact, he rejects wholesale, as heretical, fraudulent non-rock
off-shoots, "college rock" or "indie" - partly because they are largely rooted
in the non-blues, folk-derived styles of groups like The Byrds and The Velvet
Underground, and partly, one suspects, because they appeal more to girls and
non-macho boys. College/indie, he argues, is a misguided sensibility because
it's overly concerned with songcraft; more perniciously, it is culpably
Anglophile; worst of all, it fetishises incompetence (as Carducci puts it, if
Led Zeppelin had a good rhythm section, these groups don't want one).

Ironically, the college rock milieu whose taste Carducci derides as
emasculated is just as much a boy's own world as the world of hard rock. Here,
male cameraderie is expressed not through sports or motor maintenance but
through collecting music, debating music, curating rock culture. To lapse into
Carducci's thinking, this is a homosocial fraternity of nerds, rather than of
brawny, brawling regular guys. In the UK, this sensibility is generally
known by the shorthand term "trainspotter" (derived from a particularly
anal-retentive, futile pastime of collecting the numbers from locomotives). Its
origins, according to Simon Frith and Howard Horne in Art Into Pop, lie in the jazz clubs of the late Forties and Fifties. These were "rooms above pubs,
people's bedrooms even, where serious young men (and a few young women) gathered
to play and discuss records". The peculiarity of jazz in Britain was that
"something understood as a folk form, live music for dancing and community
entertainment, became a recording cult, music for collectors, for an elite of
jazz students, musicologists and discographers. Solemnity not excitement defined
true jazz fans, who self-consciously distanced themselves from the general
public and were suspicious when anyone like Louis Armstrong became popular." Music was seen in terms of authenticity versus commercialism - an opposition which has
endured to this day, and with the same male v. female subtext. Jazz appealed
because of its propensity for being taking seriously, for being more than mere
fun. As Francis Newton observed in 1959, "the quintessential location of the
fan is not the dance hall, the night club, or even the jazz concert or club, but the
private room in which a group of young men play one another's records, repeating
crucial passages until they are worn out, and then endlessly discussing their
comparative merits".

As Frith and Horne note, this milieu is still recognisable as the
readership of the British weekly music papers, New Musical Express and Melody Maker: "the lower-middle-class, young, predominantly male, suburban, self-educated, would-be cultured, self-defined musical connoisseurs". Jazz, like blues, acid rock, punk and indie after it, was a way of imagining yourself as an individual, of marking yourself out as different from the pack with their mass-produced pleasures, as somehow more elevated than a mere consumer. It's
notable, however, that just as they are unlikely to amass sports data or tinker
endlessly under the hoods of cars, women seldom seem to build up huge record
collections or obsess about hi-fi equipment. They tend to have small,
well-played collections and rudimentary music centres or even just a cassette
player and masses of tapes (given by trainspotter male friends). * *

* * *

The idea that popular culture is somehow female, that it is designed for a
female mode of consumption (superficial, distracted, fickle) rather than for the
considered appreciation associated with male high culture, has a long history.
"Escapist", "corny", "manipulative", "sentimental" are all alleged attributes of
mainstream pop culture that carry a taint of the female, whereas modernist,
avant-garde, confrontational or "serious" art tends to evoke a stern sobriety
that definitely possesses a male aura.

We've already seen how Philip Wylie's 1942 tract Generation Of Vipers
railed against the de-virilising effect on American society of a (feminine)
popular culture. Nearly fifty years later, militant rappers Public Enemy made
much the same complaint about black moms in "She Watch Channel Zero", which
criticised women for being TV junkies addicted to soaps and Oprah Winfrey-style
counselling programmes, and thus neglecting their children (black women's
contribution to the struggle being rearing strong warriors) while being
encouraged to have unreal expectations of life/black men.

In rock discourse, the "correct" response to music (considered, critical)
has long been contrasted with the degraded involvement of fandom, seen
simulataneously as blindly loyal, undiscriminating, clouded by emotion, AND
fickle, superficial. Once again, it's the female teenager who's the model of all
that's unseemly, easily manipulated. The 19th century notion of hysteria - as a
specifically female disorder, in which morbid over-excitement of the emotions
was attributed to disturbances of the womb - was revived to describe the outbreaks
of teenybopper fandemonium. Rock has always admired groups for inciting such
excessive, out-of-control responses, while despising those caught up in them. A
good example: Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham would, in their early days of
pop success, start girls screaming in the audience by shrieking and squealing
himself. He would also employ male youths to push violently through the crowd
in order to escalate fandemonium.

Fred and Judy Vermorel have attempted to formulate a revisionist treatment
of fandom in their books Starlust and Fandemonium. Instead of the
traditional view of fans as deluded dupes of capitalism, they celebrate the excess and hysteria of fan worship as an intensity that transcends and trangresses
consumerism. They see fandom as consumer mysticism, an investment of passion and
obsession that is empowering, particularly for young girls. Stars become
vehicles for the exploration of fantasies. The Vermorels emphasise the extent to which pop stars are used (as a spur to imagination and ingenuity), and are used up
voraciously, callously disposed of in an endless turnover of new idols. By a
cunning sleight of thought, they turn girl-fans' fickleness into a mark of
superiority, elevating them beyond the earnest, slavish loyalty of the male band
follower. Camille Paglia has also identified a mystical proto-type for fandom
in the orgiastic religious seizures to which women and effeminate men in Ancient
Greece were prone. She sees a similarly idol-atrous and excessive quality in
teenybopper crazes and the gay worship of icons like Judy Garland.

* *

The ability to go "wild in the streets" (as The Stooges' song has it), to
explore the wilderness or roam the urban jungle, has always been a male
privilege. And manifestations of male wildness, in the form of youth
subcultures, have been privileged as the focus of study. The seminal work in
this field - spawned by Birmingham University's Centre For Contemporary Studies
in the Seventies and including the Resistance Through Rituals collection and Dick Hebdiges' Subculture: The Meaning Of Style - focuses on the ways that tribal youth movements like mods, skinheads, punks, etc, create an oppositional
identity for themselves by taking stylistic elements from the
mainstream culture and subverting their meanings - sometimes in a conscious
process of bricolage, other times more instinctively.

For the most part, these deviant subcultures are male-dominated, offering
women only the most peripheral roles. In her 1980 essay "Settling Accounts With
Subcultures: A Feminist Critique", Angela McRobbie pointed out subcultural
theory's blindspot when it came to women: its romanticisation of male adventurism and neglect of female forms of pleasure and fantasy. The homosocial cameraderie of the gang is seen,by left-wing sociologists, as a brief blaze of glory before the ignominy of settling down to marriage and responsibility. This brief interim of wildness (before being tamed and socialised) was regarded by the CCS' neo-Marxist
academics as a sort of proto-political protest against the dead ends faced by
working class male youth. But as McRobbie points out, it's much harder for
girls to participate in these symbolic flights than it is for boys, since "girls are
allowed little more than the back seat on a drafty motorbike".

Extreme homosociality has generally been the rule in subcultures (it's a
truism that the mods dressed to impress other boy mods); the male bonding of
deviant subcultures mirrors the homosociality of "respectable" men-only forms of
leisure (sports,working men's clubs etc). Subcultures seize on style - a domain conventionally denigrated as female - and turn it into "a male but never unambiguously masculine prerogative". The narcissism and excess of subcultural style has long managed to trangress conventional notions of proper masculinity, while steadfastly marginalising women. We're back with the effeminate thuggery and androgynous misogny of The Stones.

Overall, McRobbie argues that "the signs and codes subverted and
reassembled in the 'semiotic guerrila warfare' conducted through style don't
really speak to women at all"... "The attractions of a subculture - its
fluidity, the shifts in the minutia of its styles, the details of its combative
bricolage" are off-set by its monolithic and conformist attitude to women. Male
dandyism and effeminacy is privileged as transgressive, while the female
equivalent (tomboyism) is considered unglamorous. Similarly, male drunkeness
and drugginess is cool, while women who get wasted are considered undignified
and unfeminine. It's difficult to imagine how a female equivalent to Lester
Bangs or Jim Morrison - perpetually out of it, reeking because of an aversion to
baths - could be tolerated or conceived of as impressive. Similarly the
rowdiness of the gig or the wildness of the streets carry risks for women
(physical harm, rape) that seriously diminish their allure. At gigs, women are
often unable even to see the band, let alone barge their way into the fray at
the front of the stage.

Boyish irresponsibility is just not an option for that many women, who are
often expected to spend more time at home, helping mother look after younger
children or performing a disproportionate fraction of the household chores. Pete
Townsend spoke in Rolling Stone about how rock was a "force that threatens a lot of the crap which is around at the moment in the middle class... [it's like]
mother has just fallen down the stairs, Dad's lost all his money at the dog
track, the baby's got TB. In comes the kid, man, with his transistor radio,
grooving to Chuck Berry. He doesn't give a shit about mum falling down the
stairs. He's with rock'n'roll."

The site for teenage girls' leisure is interior, the bedroom, rather than
the streets. Here girls explore fantasies, individually or in groups, experiment
with dress and make-up, prepare for their infrequent forays into social spaces like
a dance or nightclub. When it comes to "semiotic guerrila warfare" or
subcultural tribal conflicts, girls are non-combatants; they keep the home fires
burning.

Some female artists have attempted to write about the intensity of interior life
- The Raincoats' "Adventures Close To Home", Throwing Muses' "House Tornado" -
re-imagining domesticity as a site for conflict and self-exploration. But home
life doesn't lend itself to the romantic imagery that is the staple of
rock'n'roll.

Another domain for female cameraderie and self-expression is shopping
(especially in the USA, with the rise of mall culture). Writing about the Pet
Shop Boys' "Shopping", Simon Frith and Howard Horne celebrate the female and gay
sensibility of pick'n'mix self-expression through consumer choice, and suggest
that shopping around is the female equivalent to hanging around, as valid and as
deserving of being romanticised as the delinquent adventures of male gang
roaming wild in the streets. Consumption is "the fantastic site where our most intense experience of ourselves as ourselves (active and special) is lived out". But it's hard to see the gregarious jollity of browsing through the racks as on a
par with the adrenalin buzz and outsider postures of rock'n'roll. In rock'n'roll,
consumerism (no matter how "passionate") is seen as the antithesis of the wild
life, the "life fit for heroes". We need to ask whether shopping is denigrated
because it's associated with women, and whether the appeal of the heroic life,
of combat and crusade, is precisely that it is situated on terrain that's empty of
women.


copyright Simon Reynolds and Joy Press