Some Notes on “Cosmic Thing” & Why It Is ‘Important’

These are really just notes, jotting down some ideas I had in the car yesterday for future reference. There’s a book project in here somewhere.


Most writing on The B-52s foregrounds their identities–queer, southern–and leaves the music in the background. That strategy is both a common way to dismiss the artistic contributions of musicians from marginalized groups (see Adrian Piper’s 1990 essay “The Triple Negation of Colored Women Artists”) and a huge misrepresentation of how such musicians negotiate their identities and the political, economic, and aesthetic systems that push them to the margins. For example, in a 2018 interview with Jezebel, SOPHIE affirms her interviewer’s question that “is the music itself an extension of the way you present your identity to the outside world?” with the claim that “I’ve always found expression through music. That’s my chosen method of communication. I can speak through my appearance a bit as well, but the medium I’m more experienced with is music.” I want to foreground the music on The B-52s 1989 album Cosmic Thing as a way to understand both their queer white southerness/southern white queerness, not so much as just an identity but as a politics, specifically, as a politics responding to the beginnings of the neoliberal formations that came to be fully operational in the first quarter of the 21st century, such as Reaganomics and other kinds of neoliberalization, the AIDS crisis and the gay rights movement, and the political and cultural formation known as The New South.


  • The album’s structure as an album is important. The crux of this structure is the move from Loveshack to Junebug-Roam-Bushfire-Channel Z. The breakdown of Loveshack is actually a proto-soar: there’s the intensification of rhythmic events leading up to the “Tin Roof? Rusted!”, which is like the scream or siren in a lot of 2010s soars, and then the downbeat of the outro. This is then followed by Junebug, the first song they wrote together after going on hiatus bc of band member Ricky Wilson’s death from AIDS. So with Loveshack’s soar we have a sonification of creative destruction/resilience, and Junebug is the sonic expression of the specific white queer southern resilience before it was co-opted 30 years later. This is a “funky” (CF Stallings) resilience that takes parting and other non-work or post-work activities as a model for politics.
    • The progression up to Junebug through Roam and Bushfire to Channel Z is a climax up to a plateau and then a…sublation(?) — There’s a move from damage (the soar) to a kind of faux resolution and healing (the uncomplicated pleasure of the middle tracks) to a more complicated heart///brake or pleasure-amid-pain-and-mourning in Channel Z.
      • Junebug, Roam, and Bushfire all fade out; none has a clear end point. It’s like a processing and working through of that manic energy on Junebug. Channel Z feels like it could go that way. But then it comes to a fake-out firm stop, and reaffirms that firm stop with a coda that also firmly haults. This feels vaguey James Brown-y.
      • Topaz and Follow Your Bliss, the remaining 2 tracks on the album, have a very chill-out, coming down in the morning feel.
    • It’s also notable that for an album that begins by getting right to the chase (The opening track has basically no intro and blasts off from the “Gyrate, till you’ve had your fill!” downbeat), Junebug has a looooong introductory stem (that begins in R mono and slowly fills L for stereo). Not sure about the meaning of this yet…
      • Junebug also has a lot of the dolphiny and other animal sounds common in the band’s earlier work. The feel is almost frantic or manic. Feels kinda ZE records, mutant disco-y (no surprise bc produced by Don Was). (It has 2 bridges? Kind of like Killing Joke’s “Eighties”….)
    • Fred’s voice is entirely absent on Roam, but it comes back on Bushfire and Channel Z. Roam is kind of the album’s banger, but it’s also the album’s most traditional pop-rock song–it’s easy to just surrender to the aesthetic and sensory pleasures of the songs–the groove, Wilson and Pearson’s vocal harmonies. Bushfire and Channel Z are both apocalyptic songs–they make disaster _feel good_. Damage and world-destruction aren’t resiliently overcome so much as accepted as the milieu, the everyday atmosphere we can create communities that shelter ourselves from. The rickety party-houses like the rusted-tin-roof party shack from earlier on the album or Charlotte, NC’s “ghetto fortress” club called The Milestone (which was around and hosting shows in the 1980s) are such shelters. Schneider’s vocals on Channel Z (especially in the bridge) echo some of the problem catalog skits on Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814, also released in 89; there’s even half a “yeah! Woo!” sample on Channel Z”.
  • The colors and the cars in the “Loveshack” video echo the ones in OutKast’s BoB video.
  • We need to talk about Sara Lee (the politics of this record are so far from the ultimately macho and very legible politics of Gang of Four), Don Was (Is Loveshack to some sort of vaguely surf-rock what Kid Creole was to vaguely Afro-Caribbean music? (On the surf rock point, Schneider says the eponymous shack was nicknamed “Hawaiian Ha-Le”)). We also need to talk about the guitar timbre on this album, which sounds very Bangles-y and entirely unlike the grungy sludge to come in the next few years. It also lacks all the warmth of, say, Peter Murphy’s Deep.
  • Those party shacks like The Milestone are a way New South kids found creative space amid gentrification and the New South’s project of privatizing all public space and turning urban spaces basically into malls. The Milestone has survived as most other historic local music venues such as the Double Door and the Tremont have succumbed to development largely because it’s deep into the traditionally African-American side of town that only now seems like it could possibly be a target of future gentrification.
    • This band was always into finding campy fun in the glittery detritus of the atomic age/Jim Crow south, whereas New South politicians and planners in Atlanta and Charlotte swept both the dirt and the glitter under the rug, demolishing the old infrastructures and replacing them with glossy, clean new ones that cover over the past–and all its ongoing racism, cisheterosexism, etc.–with an apparently neutral and apolitical present.