This is a continuation from an earlier post. There I discuss Sara Ahmed’s work on the politics of disorientation. In this post, I look at the ways that New Wave’s musical disorientation re-centers conventional accounts of whiteness, specifically, white (men’s) anxieties about their bodies.
New Wave and No Wave are both part of the post-punk rock and pop scene of the late 70s and early 80s. They are each heterogeneous genres; sometimes their boundaries (what bands get included or excluded) are more the result of convention (what critics, fans, and radio programmers treat as belonging in the genre) than of actual stylistic, aesthetic, or socio-political similarity. Simon Reynolds’s Rip ItUp & Start Again is a really good introductory overview of both scenes, their intermingling and their divergences. Theo Cateforis’s new book, Are WeNot New Wave?, also looks like it will be a great resource (I can’t wait to read it!). I’ll be using Cateforis’s previously-published account of Devo’s work below; there’s an interview with him about his new book here on the IASPM-US blog.
Some New Wave bands (like Devo, which I discuss below, or early Human League, for example) and most No Wave bands used similar aesthetics and composition/performance practices: minimalism, repetition, abrasive and/or dystopian themes and timbres, abrupt and jerky affects, halting and awkward covers of rock and pop songs, and the like. In other words, there is a common interest in making music that doesn’t sound conventionally “pretty” or “pleasurable.” New Wave and No Wave are rock-based outgrowths of post-punk, but they repudiate rock’s aesthetic conventions; they don’t follow rock’s norms for what counts as a “good” song or performance. It’s anti-pop (or rather, it’s pop that’s anti-rock), in the way that Dada is anti-art: the thing that’s likeable about it is how conventionally unlikeable it is.[i](Both genres get this from punk, which, though confrontational and amateurish, was actually, at the level of musical practice, often very conventional. All you need is three chords to start a band—the same three chords that everyone from Chuck Berry to Beethoven use as the basis of their songs.) In other words, new wave and no wave styles each, in their own ways, capitalize on disorientation, on rock audience’s disorientation. I want to take this aesthetic similarity and use it as a means to distinguish between two distinct political approaches to whiteness. While New Wave, at least in its artier, more avant-garde incarnations, might have more aesthetically in common with No Wave, it has more politicallyin common with classic rock…at least with respect to its approach to whiteness.
New Wave and No Wave emerged at a time when white rock musicians’ understandings of the racial politics of the genre were beginning to change. And this change wasn’t necessarily motivated by white anti-racism; it is likely that this shift is due to generational tension among whites (thus keeping whiteness at the center, non-white people and identities persist in their instrumentality and marginality). One of the ways white artists in the late 1970s could distinguish themselves from the previous generation of white rock avant-garde, which was their present-day rock mainstream, was by adopting different attitudes toward and techniques of cultural appropriation. In the late 1950s through the 1960s, the racial politics of white rock relied on a black/white binary: whiteness was disembodying and alienating, and blackness, particularly black masculinity, was sensous, sexual, and “authentic.” White (mainly male) rockers thus treated black music and the masculinities expressed in it as a means for white people to re-connect with their aesthetic and corporeal sensuousness. So, 60s white rockers turned to black music as a cure for white squareness and alienation. 70s white (male) rockers developed several alternatives to their older brothers’ white hipsterism. Some, like Devo, still associated whiteness with alienation and squareness, but rejected the detour into blackness. Devo took an alternate route through hyperbolized white squareness, and other bands, like the Ramones or the Lounge Lizards appropriated 1950s white pop culture (the former sincerely, the latter ironically, both obscuring its appropriation of black and southern European immigrant cultures). Or, one could find a different detour through another, preferably more exotic, style of blackness, like reggae, ska, Latin jazz, hip hop, anything but the plain ol’ Delta Blues. Think of it as a turn from the Mississippi Delta to the Caribbean, sometimes detouring through Britain or the Bronx (or both). Or, one could look to appropriate across an entirely different, more distant body of water—the Pacific. If blackness represented authenticity and “realness,” Asian cultures, especially Japan, represented the future. (As The Clash say, “Give me Honda, give me Sony.”) So, some avant-garde bands, in an attempt to emphasize their avant-ness, appropriated and/or fetishized Asian femininity as a means to identify with a sort of orientalized version of the future. (Lydia Lunch and Siouxie Sioux come to mind here). Just think of the opening scene of Blade Runner, where we see a picture of a Geisha projected on the side of a mega-skyscraper. Or, finally, bands could claim race-blindness or race-neutrality…which, as we know, is really just adopting a position of white privilege. Anyway, the point here is that avant-garde white rockers of the late 70s were looking to distinguish themselves from the racial politics of 60s and early 70s rock, and there were a lot of ways to go about this, not all (or most) of them any less racist than the practices they were rejecting.
These philosophical/political approaches to witeness are not universal to the subgenres with which I identify them; rather, I take two “representative” artists—Devo and James Chance—to tease out two different political approaches to generally similar aesthetic material. So, this is not a historical thesis about what bands did or thought, but a philosophical analysis of concepts, discourses, and judgments. I’m taking works by Devo and Chance as examples of the philosophical approaches to whiteness. More specifically, they represent two ways white people problematize their whiteness, or treat their whiteness, their white racial identity, as a problem.
So, I’m being kind of fast and loose with my use of “New Wave,” and I admit that. No Wave is a smaller, more contained scene, but New Wave is more or less an umbrella term that can refer to everything from the synthpop of early Depeche Mode and A Flock of Seagulls, to the avant-pop of Talking Heads, to the goth-y pop-rock of The Cure. I’m interested in a specific slice of that New Wave pie, the bands that use disorientation, awkwardness, discomfort, dissonance, irregularity, and other anti-pop aesthetics. So, the Talking Heads sometimes do this (e.g., “Psycho Killer”), Public Image Limited definitelydoes this, as do the early Human League, The Au Pairs, Pere Ubu, and more “noisy” British proto-industrial bands like Cabaret Voltaire, The Normal, and Throbbing Gristle. In some ways, this is the darker side of New Wave. I’m mainly using “New Wave” as a foil for No Wave. I take Theo Cateforis’s reading of Devo as New Wave exemplar as a means to call attention to specific features of No Wave. So, while Devo’s aesthetic and political practices might not be universal among New Wave bands, that’s fine, because I’m not arguing that they are. I’m using Devo as exemplary of a particular strain or approach within the very heterogeneous New Wave, a strain that throws No Wave aesthetics and politics into particularly clear relief. So, Cateforis’s reading of Devo might not be representative of “New Wave” in general, but it does represent an approach that, as I will show, clearly contrasts to strategies that are representative of No Wave in general.
Following Theo Cateforis’s analysis of whiteness in Devo’s songs and performances, I argue that what Cateforis identifies as “the whiteness of the New Wave” is actually continuous with the approach to whiteness that characterizes mainstream rock music from the 1950s through the 1970s.[ii]Now, because New Wave is really heterogeneous and contradictory as a genre, there is no single approach to whiteness and to race across the genre. So, I want to clarify that I’m focusing on a very narrow and specific type of “New Wave whiteness.” In short, the approach to whiteness that Cateforis calls “New Wave whiteness” isn’t actually that new. Devo, like the classic rock bands they parody, treat whiteness as a problem for white people: it is alienating, inhibiting, domesticating (and thus potentially feminizing), technocratic, and all around no fun. Whiteness is, in other words, really “square.” Devo takes the squareness and critiques it not via explicit dis-identificaiton, as the Rolling Stones do, but by parody and exaggerated identification. Devo performs a musical argument ad absurdam (taking something to its most extreme expression, at which point it breaks and reveals its faults).[iii]
The (D)evolution of Whiteness?
Cateforis centers his analysis on Devo’s cover of the Rolling Stones “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” This approach is particularly productive, because the Stones and Devo adopt opposite approaches to the same underlying assessment of whiteness. Both bands think mainstream whiteness—or rather, white masculinity—is alienating and dehumanizing. For example, Devo thinks white America has “become enslaved…to a stringent mechanized work ethic” (565) that prioritizes “self-denial and self-control” (568). Whiteness is so rigid, rule-bound, and immersed in intellectual and technological pursuits that it blocks white people’s abilities to experience aesthetic, sensory, and sexual pleasure. This is not a new idea—it has been around since at least the late 19thcentury (See my articles in Contemporary Aesthetics and The Journal of Black Masculinity for more on this point.). So, both Devo and the Stones think their whiteness is a problem. The Stones address this problem by dis-identifying with whiteness: they reject white cultural norms and appropriate (what they understand to be) black musical and corporeal styles instead. In the mid 20thcentury, it was a common stereotype that black men were not alienated from, but in fact too strongly connected to their bodies, bodily pleasure, as well as aesthetic virtuosity and aesthetic pleasure. So, many whites adopted this stereotypical blackness, hoping it would “cure” their problematic whiteness. (Ingrid Monson’s article on white hipness is excellent on this topic.) This is the approach the Stones took, and it was common among both British Invasion and US rock bands in the 60s, and 70s.
According to Cateforis, what was new or “novel” about Devo was “their dehumanized, robotic approach to the music,” “their suburban-robotic image,” and “the way in which they had sacrificed ‘hip humping’ dancing for ‘the choreography of synchronized robots” (565). Uncoordinated, awkward, unadept at sexually suggestive dancing, and “suburban,” Devo performs an exaggerated whiteness. Performing “a white male [body] too controlled and too disciplined to appear natural,” Devo critiques “white middle-class emotional sensibility, where abstinence and repression are designed to regulate the white body, to conquer its fleshy imperfections and elevate the spirit over the troubled torso” (581). Thisis what is “new” about them: they don’t attempt to reject white “squareness,” to escape from it in black music; rather, they explicitly adopt white “squareness” in order to point out its flaws.
How do they do this?
Devo used various compositional and performance tactics to create “discomforting” affects (Cateforis 567): (1) rhythmic irregularity, in the form of (a) asymmetrical meters, (b) an obscured downbeat in the instrumentals (the “skip”), (c) asynchronous downbeats in the instrumentals and the vocals; and (2) sabotaging the standard “tension-release” structure of a rock song (only tension, no release).
(1) Rhytnmic irregularity: Cateforis argues that Devo’s “use of rhythms could act directly on the body, encouraging a rigid, robotic, and discomforting reaction in their audiences” (Cateforis 567). For audiences accustomed to regular meters (4/4, 2/4, or cut time), asymmetrical, “odd meters like 7/8” (Cateforis 567) produce a sort of Heideggerian broken-hammer effect: expecting something with two or four beats per measure, the seven-beat pattern disrupts their habitual responses to music; the awkwardness of the uneven 3+4 or 4+3 division of each bar is augmented by the fact that their bodily response to the meter is mediated by their conscious awareness of it—they can’t just follow along by habit, they have to pay attention. Similarly, Devo obscured the downbeat in their cover of “Satisfaction.” According to Cateforis, this cover uses a modified reggae convention for “dropping” or “skipping” the downbeat—so, the reggae convention won’t sound right to rock audiences, and Devo’s modification “seems to bear little relation to a reggae beat” (Cateforis 572). The instrumentals do not establish a recognizably rock or a recognizably reggae downbeat. The difficulty in locating the downbeat is exacerbated by the fact that the vocals put the emphasis on different beats—the vocals follow the rock convention of emphasizing 1 and 3, while the instrumentals emphasize 2 and 4. The song feels “out of synch” (Cateforis 574) because it fails to identify a definitive downbeat. This “serve[s] to jolt the listener, making one acutely aware of the skewed relation between the voice, body, and music” (Catefories 574). In this wayDevo would use odd, awkward musical structures to prevent listeners from relying on implicit understanding. They would force listeners to respond with “self-conscious control.” This “self control required to avert the physicality of other dancing”—i.e., regular dancing to classic blues-based rock—highlights in Richard Dyer’s words the ‘triumph of mind over matter’ that constitutes a white cultural ideal” (Cateforis 568). So, Devo used musicalawkwardness to turn listeners’’ attention to the awkwardness, nerdiness, and squareness of white bodies.
(2) All tension, no release: Devo used formal structures to intensify the affective anxiety and discomfort generated by the rhythmic irregularity. More specifically, they excised and/or reworked the tension-release structures the Stones used in their original version of “Satisfaction,” so that the song built tension, but did not release or resolve it. “The original,” Catefories argues,
is a classic model of what musicologist Richard Middleton has referred to as the ‘tension/release’ popular song form. The Rolling stones set the ‘tense’ tone immediately with the timbre of the opening distorted guitar hook…the release comes during the chorus” (574-5).
Like all tonal songs, the Stones’ “Satisfaction” uses carefully planned and controlled dissonances to build harmonic tension, which is then released—either partially, through modified cadences, or fully, in a perfect cadence—when the band hits specific chords. The dissonances are resolved into consonances. In Devo’s version, however, tension is built not harmonically, but formally: the band pushes against audience knowledge of the original Stones version of the song, delaying or deleting the musical events (i.e., harmonic development, cadences) that the audience anticipates. “The tension here,” in Devo’s version, “arises from…incessant repetition played against our knowledge and expectations of the original’s form” (Cateforis 576). So, instead of building to a “climactic point of tension” (Cateforis 576) as the Stones do, Devo uses repetition to interrupt the buildup. It’s a different kind of tension that they build: they’re not developing teleologically toward a climax and denoument; they’re repeating “monomanical[ly]” (Cateforis 576), exponentially intensifying discomfort. So, if the Stones build and release a sexualized sense of friction, Devo augments anxiety and irritability.[iv]
This qualitative shift is apparent in Cateforis’s description of the difference in Jagger’s and Mothersbaugh’s vocal performance:
Jittery and unpredictable, Mothersbaugh’s delivery in ‘Satisfaction’ provides a vastly different subject position than the confident tones of Mick Jagger’s British homage to the American R&B blues shouter…Mothersbaugh’s use of these quirky, nervous vocal patterns helps to intensify the images of awkward, twitching human bodies wracked and overrun by anxious neuroses” (579-580; emphasis mine).
Devo builds tension by “intensifying” rhythmic, vocal, and formal irregularities. White audiences experience these musical irregularities as intensifications of their own “awkward, twitching human bodies.”[v] As Cateforis puts it, “the quirky vocal exaggerations and the frantic bodily motions all came to be trademarks of new wave’s particular white-tinged style” (582). The perceived musical “problems” express or augment the white body problem.
Meet the New Boss, Same As the Old Boss
Devo’s awkward, twitchy, glitchy approach to the white body does not begin from a new politicalapproach to whiteness or the white body problem. In their cover of “Satisfaction,” whiteness is a problem for white people because it causes and/or contributes to the white body problem. They do develop a new responseto this problem. Instead of dis-identifying with white cultural practices and aesthetic norms, as the Stones did with their appropriation of the Delta blues,
What new wave did reject, at least from a musical standpoint, was the expressive history of the blues and other African American forms as any kind of unequivocal authenticity. The tight, nervous constriction of the new wave beat defused any attempt to assimilate the presumed ‘naturalness’ of the black body” (583).
So, as Cateforis argues, Devo’s awkward, disoriented, herky-jerky aesthetic is an attempt to dis-identify with the previous generation of white musicians’ solution to the problem of white alienation.[vi] And it is here, in the approach to stereotypical blackness, that New Wave and No Wave overlap: No Wave musicians also reject the previous generation of white musicians’ attempts to “assimilate the presumed ‘naturalness’ of the black body.” If racist stereotypes about blacks, and racist logics of cultural appropriation, are what cohere white aesthetic and corporeal schemas—if these racist stereotypes and practices are what allow whites’ experiences of their bodies and of music feel seamless and smooth—then, argue No Wavers, it’s best to just renounce seamless, smooth, pleasurable relations to our white bodies and our white music.
While New Wave and No Wave both rejected the classic rock response to whiteness, their motivations are different. New Wave and No Wave think whiteness is a problem, but they disagree as to what, exactly, the problem with whiteness is. Devo, like the Stones, thinks whiteness is repressive for white people. As Cateforis argues, “new wave accepted and even celebrated the cultural contradictions and awkwardness of its own whiteness” (583). So, their refusal to appropriate blues, rock, and R&B styles is motivated by the desire to more intensely focus on white people and their/our issues.[vii]The No Wave bands I will analyze below can be interpreted as critiquing the racisim that underwrites white identity. In my reading, the musical irregularity or “contortion” in the works of James Chance his ZE Recordslablemates interrupts whites’ experiences of white privilege. Their songs suggest that whiteness is discomforting for whites because it is oppressive for black people. (I’m narrowing it to blacks here because the racial politics of mid-20th century US pop music followed a black/white binary, even if, in practice, that binary was troubled by, say, the role of Nuyoricans in early hip hop.) While their music continue to engage with African-American musical styles and practices, what it does not assume that this interaction will somehow suture whites’ uneasiness with their white bodies. Rather, this engagement with African-American musical traditions makes white people feel more uneasy with their white bodies, not just because they are white, but because they are implicated in white supremacy. Put differently, the No Wave songs I’m interested in don’t express the worry that white people couldn’t get any satisfaction; they express the worry that whites’ “satisfaction” was predicated on racism. Thus, these songs can be interpreted as subverting and stunting what whites have learned experience as musical and physical satisfaction. Thus, in New Wave, whiteness has the effect of regimenting and quantizing both the music the body; awkwardness is the effect of too much organization and control. In No Wave, whiteness has the effect of disorganizing both the music and the body; awkwardness is the effect of critiquing the devices one might use to get a foothold on oneself, one’s relations to other people, to the environment, etc.
I’ll discuss No Wave more extensively in a later post. But for now I just want to clarify that I’m reading No Wave as philosophically suggestive, and not as a historical phenomenon. I’m doing a reading of songs and performances from the perspective of a contemporary audience. I’m not making claims about the original context, about the musicians’ intended meanings, their personal and/or professional politics, etc. These artworks, regardless of authorial intent or original meaning, allow for if not encourage certain readings/interpretations today. I take No Wave as an example or case study, and use it to think through some philosophical issues related to the politics of whiteness and white embodiment. But more on that later.
OH, and!: At some point I need to think more carefully and extensively about the relationship btw this Devo cover of “Satisfaction,” the Benny Benassi “Satisfaction” track, and the ways that “Swagger like Mick Jagger” gets dropped in postmillennial electro-influenced tracks with AutoTuned vocals. Is this indicative of some recognition, by whites, that black music is techy and futuristic, not just “authentic” and roots-y? Basically, it seems like the traditional associations–among race, masculinity, aesthetics, authenticity, subjectivity, etc–are all scrambled, or something. Something interesting is going on and I want to think more about it.
[i] Simon Reynolds describes No Wave as “on the slippery cusp between art and anti-art” (145).
[ii]Cateforis, Theo. “Performing the Avant-Garde Groove: Devo and the Whiteness of the New Wave” in American Music, Vol. 22, No. 4 (Winter, 2004), pp. 564-588.
[iii]“Moving their bodies in a series of sharp, jerky motions, they proceeded to reduce one of rock’s most sacred cows, the Rolling Stones ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,’ to an absurd procession of minimalist, stunted riffs and nervous vocals. To many, the band’s performance was a bewildering, antagonizing intrusion into their weekend entertainment” (Cateforis 564-5; emphasis mine).
[iv]“In the original version, this section [and I try] serves as a build-up of controlled tense anger. But in Devo’s hands, the irregular stuttering resembles more the voice of someone with a nervous tic” (Cateforis 580)
[v] It’s worth noting that these twitching bodies are noticeably awkward only because their habitual musical experiences are disrupted. Anyone who has played an instrument knows that it involves a lot of awkward, “twitchy” movement: crooking one’s neck to play violin or viola; rapid, stylized, difficult movements of the fingers over strings or keys; odd facial expressions; etc. We, both as instrumentalists and listeners, have just become habituated to the movements and postures involved in playing a musical instrument. We don’t read regularly musical bodies as awkward and twitchy. So, musical irregularity can point out the bodily irregularity required to perform music.
[vi]“Devo’s stiff bodily movements ultimately defuses and mocks the emotive, sexualized gestures typical of the late-seventies male ‘cock rocker,’ the aggressive masculine performer stereotype” (Cateforis 579)
[vii] Cateforis argues that New Wave’s rejection of mainstream musical and political norms “could only ever be a revolt against the self” (583).
I’d take this article and apply it to Genghis Tron plus almost every nu-metal band signed to Relapse and probably every nu-metal band period, plus a lot of metal bands that people don’t consider to be “nu-metal” but really have the same sellout goal, whether they are consciously after it or not.
I’d also love your take on the Gathering of the Juggalos, where the white rappers ICP bring in a handful of nu-metal bands but mostly try to sell the festival on the older black artists there.