90s alt rock masculinity as private individual grievance, and WAX TRAX!/97XTRABEATS as a (queer?) alternative to that ‘alternative’

This was originally published on July 2, 2023 on my Substack newsletter. I’m republishing it here to get this post on my platform(Never trust platforms you don’t own.) If you would like to support the work I do (I don’t get research funds now that I’m not faculty), I’m running a sale on newsletter subscriptions: a year for $24. Offer is good until 23 February 2024.

This is the talk I gave at the 2023 IASPM meeting in Minneapolis. It reworks some material I’ve already published here, but in a new theoretical framework that connects it to the work I’ve been doing about Woodstock 99 and its connection to contemporary alt right media, and some of the stuff in the vibes book about sexuality/gender/race as a regime of legitimacy rather than normality.

At this point, there’s two book projects I’m working on: one is the vibes book, which is very much a philosophy book theorizing what I call the biopolitics of legitimation and its connection to the math behind contemp tech algorithms and the discursive politics and aesthetics of post-normative neoliberalism. The other is more of a pop music studies (re)narration of the trajectory of modern rock/alt rock/indie rock from 1990-2010(?) as the story of the entwined effects of the Telecom Act of 96 and the Welfare Reform Act of 96: the latter act codified the gender/race/sexual politics I’m talking about in the vibes book (legitimacy as private responsibility over norms as relative deviations from a population), just as the former privileges broadcast industry owners/ownership over any notion of the public good. This paper talks a bit about that theoretical framing.

ABSTRACT: Running from the late 80s through 2010, 97Xtrabeats was the weekly dance music program on Oxford, Ohio’s 97X WOXY. Pulled from a 1991 station memo, this paper’s title shows that WOXY’s affinity for Chicago label Wax Trax!, a label whose queer owners and many queer artists making industrial music that was to varying degrees influenced by the house music drifting north from the Warehouse. Studying Wax Trax! Supergroup Excessive Force’s 1993 EP “Gentle Death” alongside XTRABEATS flow sheets from the same era, I show how these Midwest industrial dance institutions articulated a disregard for musical legitimacy (or the legitimate transmission of stylistic purity). Whereas Yetta Howard has argued Wax Trax! Bands expressed queerness in the form of anti-normativity, I argue that this disregard for legitimacy is a response to evolving gender and sexual politics codified in the Welfare Reform Act of 1996; in this new regime, gender and sexuality are policed not for their ab/normality, but for their legitimate exhibition of private responsibility. Building on Daphne Carr’s analysis of Trent Reznor’s expression of private individual grievance, I argue that 90s alt rock increasingly framed white masculinity in these terms, and this gender framework was amplified as alt rock bubble enabled the Telecom Act of 96 burst, and corporate alt rock radio programmers narrowcast to their core audience of young white men. With their disregard for stylistic legitimacy, “Gentle Death” and XTRABEATS represent an alternative to 90s alt rock masculinity, a masculinity which we see today in alt-right media.


On March 1 of this year, I was on the train home from work and TikTok fed me a video of Lizzo performing a live cover of Rammstein’s “Du Hast” at her Berlin show earlier that week. Although you might think a Lizzo cover of a white German industrial rock band would sound unusual and out of the box, it actually fits squarely within a specific strand of industrial dance. 

This strand of industrial dance has, like Lizzo, firm roots in the midwest. Chicago label Wax Trax! Is the most well-known example of this style of industrial dance, with bands like My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult, Excessive Force, KMFDM, and others combining more straightforwardly industrial sounds like film soundtrack samples and guitars with some of the then-new house sounds wafting north from the southside. Another moderately well-known example of this midwestern industrial dance is the Oxford, Ohio radio station 97X WOXY’s weekly dance program, 97XTRABEATS. The line in the title–”No dance show can be 100% Wax Trax!”–comes from a 1991 station memo from XTRABEATS DJ Jae Foreman to Program Director Phil Manning; as the archive of XTRABEATS flow sheets shows, WOXY programmed its dance shows with a Wax Trax!-like disregard for rigid boundaries around who and what belonged in an alternative dance show, and often included music by Black artists working in adjacent genres. Two years earlier, the Minneapolis legends Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis work with Gary, Indiana native Janet Jackson to release “Rhythm Nation 1814,” which many consider to be Janet’s “industrial album.”  If the former’s “Black Cat” and 1000 Homo DJs’ Reznor-featuring cover of “Supernaut” sound like the same song from different parallel dimensions, a Lizzo Rammstein cover is just a new take on an old midwestern tradition.

Today I want to take a close look at the sound of this Midwestern—or more narrowly, Northwest Territories (OH, MI, IN, IL, WI, MN)—industrial dance tradition as a gateway for thinking about its politics. I focus very narrowly on 1989-1995 because this is a very fecund time for this scene, with huge releases from Nine Inch Nails, KMFDM, and others, and because this is also the period when the aggrieved white masculinity that will come to define Woodstock 99-era “bro-ified”, “red state” (KROQ PD Keven Weatherly) alt rock takes root in the work of Midwestern acts like Nine Inch Nails and Smashing Pumpkins. As sound studies scholar and music journalist Daphne Carr put it, NIN’s songs “focus almost exclusively on the personal tragedy of the people and institutions that fail one individual: Trent Reznor. NIN’s lyrics explore the repressions of religion, family, and society, but only as they pertain to one life” (21). Whereas industrial music traditionally rages against the machine both literally and figuratively, Carr argues that Reznor reframes industrial’s heaviness as an expression of private individual aggrievement. Though the story of 90s alt rock is conventionally understood as a Seattle story, an enduring impact has also been made by the politics of Midwest acts like Nine Inch Nails; 90s alt rock mainstreams Reznor’s style of masculinity as private aggrievement as Clear Channel alt rock radio programmers doubled down on “Break Stuff”-style content as a way to narrowcast to the format’s core audience of young white men. 

90s alt rock and the masculinity it mainstreamed represent the combined effect of the Telecom Act of 1996 and the Welfare Reform Act of 1996. Though that story is not the focus of this paper, let me briefly summarize it here because it is the thing I show alternatives to. The telecom act’s deregulation of terrestrial radio ownership led to an alt rock radio bubble, and when that bubble burst programmers tried to shore up the format’s core audience by narrowcasting to young white men. The music they programmed centered a Reznor-like white masculinity grounded in private responsibility and invested in a desire to preserve rock’s stylistic integrity, which reflected the evolving politics of race, gender, and sexuality that the Welfare Reform Act codified. As political theorist Melinda Cooper has shown, in the early 1990s, neoliberal and neoconservative responses to the AIDS crisis were remaking the politics of sexuality from one of ab/normality of behavior to one of il/legitimacy in the transfer of private wealth. For example, the idea that the family not the state should provide care to AIDS patients, and that the costs of sexual behavior should be borne by private individuals and their families and not by the state both guided AIDS policy and reshaped LGBTQ activism to focus primarily on marriage—a law that establishes the legitimate transfer of private wealth. In such a system, the figure of the so-called welfare queen is demonized not for the abnormality of her sexual behavior, but her inability to privately assume its costs (think Cathy Cohen here). White masculinity as a posture of private individual grievance at not getting what one believes is one’s legitimate inheritance (in power, in privilege) came to dominate 90s alt rock as part of the intertwined effects of both the Telecom Act and the Welfare Reform Act. The Telecom Act created a market bubble that led alt rock radio to be programmed narrowly to reflect the white cisheteromasculine identity of their target demographic just as the boundaries and texture of white cisheteromasculinity was changing.

More specifically, if white rock masculinity is traditionally about dis identifying with the norm through the performance of Blackness and other forms of gendered, sexualized “abnormality”—think Ingrid Monson’s paper on white hipness here—the gender politics of 90s alt rock depict this shift Cooper and others note from a politics of norms and normativity to a politics of legitimacy and criminalization. Reznor isn’t trying to prove he’s the exception to the norm or too hip to be square; he’s an aggrieved private individual who feels he hasn’t gotten what he’s owed, i.e., his legitimate inheritance of patriarchal racial capitalist privilege. As jazz studies scholar Dale Chapman has gestured toward, neoliberal logics of legitimacy manifest in music as concerns over the unadulterated patriarchal transmission of artistic style, such as a neoclassical jazz tradition passed from 50s bop legends thorough to the 80s unadulterated by fusion or disco. With its focus on playing guitar-centric (sometimes rap-)rock to narrowcast cisheteromasculinity to an audience of young white men, 90s alt rock radio and the charts that record its spins, the orthodox story of mainstream alt rock is also a story of legitimacy. 

The story of Wax Trax! And 97XTRABEATS reveals an alternative to what became the hegemonic story of mainstream alt rock: rather than focus on the private individual or the narrow genre and demographic purity of alt rock as a radio format, artists on the label and programmers at the station adopt a “no hard and fast boundaries” approach to genre and demographics. Examining how Wax Trax! Supergroup Excessive Force’s 1993 EP Gentle Death uses and arranges the vocals of legendary Chicago house vocalist Liz Torres and diving into the archive of 97XTRABEATS flow sheets, I show that this tradition is premised on a complete disregard for preserving any sort of legitimate stylistic tradition or lineage. 

Yetta Howard has argued that Wax Trax! Bands like Thrill Kill Kult and The Revolting Cocks practice a form of sonic queerness in the form anti-normativity and queer failure. Here, I use GENTLE DEATH and XTRABEATS as ways of thinking of queer extra-legitimacy. At the same time and in the same place that Corgan and Reznor were pioneering the privately aggrieved white masculinity that will soon take over corporate alt rock radio, this EP and that dance program are developing an queer alternative calibrated to the newly-emerging discourses of sexual legitimacy.

First, I’ll closely listen to Wax Trax! Supergroup Excessive Force’s 1993 EP “Gentle Death” to document the influence of Chicago house music and musicians on both that EP and KMFDM’s future work. Then, I’ll look at 97XTRABEATS flow sheets to show how their “no rigid boundaries around music” programming strategy was a deliberate choice to avoid the exact sort of narrowcasting to white dudes that drove corporate alt rock radio in its late 90s nadir. Finally, I’ll conclude by distinguishing non-legitimacy from omnivorous consumption and reflecting on what kinds of otherwise practices these examples could help us imagine.

Part 1: Excessive Force’s GENTLE DEATH

Excessive Force is a Wax Trax! Supergroup comprised of members of both KMFDM and Thrill Kill Kult; they were active in the early 90s. Their two releases are some of the clearest evidence that the house music played in clubs far to the south of Lincoln Avenue (where the store/label headquarters was located) was making its way into Wax Trax!’s sound. I’ll focus in on EF’s 1993 EP Gentle Death and its lead single “Violent Peace (Bitchmix)” because the fact of who the singer on that track is and how it and other songs on the EP gesture towards her oeuvre as a house singer in the early Chicago scene suggest a stronger and more sincere connection between Wax Trax!, KMFDM, and the Black electronic dance musics bubbling up in the Midwest at the time of that EP’s release than the current scholarly record admits. Although industrial music scholar Alex Reed argues that KMFDM’s use of “gospel backup singers” (30) and other “gestures from traditional African-derived musics” (216) is “irony” (30) and “kitsch” (217), the evidence from Gentle Death suggests that KMFDM and Excessive Force regarded house music and its influence on them no more ironically or kitschy than they considered their own work (this is a band, after all, that recorded a song with repeated extortions about how much they suck, which ironizes precisely the sort of genre boundary policing—“whatever we tell you is meant to be crap/we hate all music and especially rap”—Excessive Force eschews).

Gentle Death features a then-legendary house vocalist and incorporates references to her work and her brand throughout the EP. Four songs on the EP include vocals from a singer that Metropolis Records’ website copy for the label’s 2007 re-release describe as “House Queen Liz Torres.” Torres had a long and as yet under-studied career as a house vocalist. Born in Puerto Rico and raised in Chicago, Torres appeared on numerous early house records across several local Chicago labels. After her 1988 album “Can’t Get Enough” was released in the UK by Jax Trax records and her single “A Touch of Love” was released as a 12” in 1989 by the UK label Black Market Records, Jive records discovered her and offered her a major label solo deal. 1990’s “The Queen Is In The House” was meant to convey her status in the Chicago house scene to the growing pop house audience, but instead it flopped, no thanks to the label’s failure (or refusal) to promote it. So, in 1992 or 1993, Torres was a local Chicago house legend whose ascension to the national stage had been cut short. 

At that same time, Excessive Force was in the market for a femme vocalist, as both their style and KMFDM’s had been evolving beyond the very metal and hip hop-focused style of KMFDM’s 1989 album UAIOE and toward something both more melodic and more danceable. The title track of Excessive Force’s first EP, “Conquer Your House” kicks off with some very house-like arpeggiated piano loops punctuated by a gruff spoken phrase by Konietzko and a non-verbal melodic ornament from a femme vocalist. KMFDM’s next album, 1990’s Naive, picks up this house influence on its title track, with some melodic femme vocals by Christine Siewart, pulsing synths, and organ-like sustained chords. The 1991 Thrill Kill Kult remix of KMFDM’ s1990 “Naieve” has a jacking bass and highlights the choral and organ elements in the original, in clear reference to Chicago house alongside UK acid house. 

Released hot on the heels of these tracks, Gentle Death pulls together these existing house influences into a more explicit sonic statement. Comparing “Violent Peace (Bitchmix),” which appeared on the original EP release, to the original mix of “Violent Peace” (start that link at 48:35), which was added to the 2007 re-release of the EP, clarifies just how explicit a sonic statement the band was trying to make about house music and Torres’s importance as an icon of that scene. The original “Violent Peace” mix is a guitar-centric track with Torres’s vocals squarely in the middle- to- background. “Bitchmix,” however, sends the guitars to the mid- to background and foregrounds Torres’s melodic vocals and pulsating synths. [0:45] The choice of this remix over the original guitar-forward one for the original EP is telling: on what you could charitably call a stylistically diverse EP that includes a number of guitar-forward tracks, it’s significant that they chose to feature the house-ier mix as the lead track over the guitar-forward mix more sonically and stylistically consistent with EP as a whole. If they just needed femme vocals, they could have easily stuck with the original mix. However, they chose the mix that highlights Torres in her own house-y element.

Other gestures to Torres’s past work pepper the other tracks on which she appears. For example, “Queen Bitch” features the refrain “The bitch is back/I’m Queen Bitch…Liz Torres”; “queen” here likely refers to the title of her album on Jive, “The Queen Is In The House,” which features a song “Payback Is A Bitch.” It’s pretty safe to say most of KMFDM’s audience wouldn’t be familiar enough with Torres’s work to make the connection between the terms in that refrain and on her solo album. However, that would also be a very good reason to edit those references out; but they didn’t, which suggests there was at some level a decision to keep them in, just as there was a decision to use the housier mix of “Violent Peace.” The deliberateness of that decision is also supported by the fact that this style of song would become a standard KMFDM formula, from “Jezebel” through 2014’s “Naive”-interpolating “Salvation” and beyond.

These creative choices in the presentation of Torres’s vocals and past work suggest that neither she nor her work is being treated ironically or offered as kitsch. KMFDM has certainly presented its own German-ness as kitsch and object of ridicule, but I don’t hear any such treatment of house music on Gentle Death. I think its entirely plausible that a band fronted by someone signed to Wax Trax!, a label owned by two white queer Chicagoians, and living in the apartment above the label’s eponymous record store, would approach house music not as some foreign novelty to be ironized, but as part of their local sonic milieu. The legendary Belmont Avenue nightclub Berlin, for example, is long known as a haven for both LGBTQ+ people and Wax Trax!-style industrial music. Excessive Force and KMFDM had been incorporating house-style gestures in their music for a few years before Gentle Death was released, and from this perspective their collaboration with Torres is just another step down the path toward developing a signature style of industrial house. This track is an early example of one of the standard KMFDM song formulas (KMFDM is nothing if not formulaic!), the synth- and melodic femme vocal-driven track punctuated with some guitars and gruff half-spoken vocals from Sasha Konietzko that served as the foundation for their biggest hit, 1995’s “Juke Joint Jezebel.”

Far from any attempt to rigidly police any sort of “true” tradition of industrial music for industrial (i.e., white) people, “Gentle Death” exhibits a collaborative syncretism between established practitioners of geographically close but stylistically distant styles of music. The multi-genre approach on that EP isn’t ominvorousness—that redoubles on genre distinctions in order to note their plurality. It is analogous to postmodernism, in that it’s not following the orthodox “master narrative” of the industrial music tradition; however, unlike true postmodernism, which actively rejects master narratives (that’s the “post-“, as Appiah would say), Gentle Death just ignores it.


This approach to refusing rigid boundaries around industrial/alternative dance is echoed in Oxford, Ohio radio station 97X WOXY’s weekly dance program XTRABEATS, which ran from the late 80s through 2010. A 1991 memo about the program from XTRABEATS DJ Jae Foreman concludes “NO DANCE SHOW SHOULD BE 100% WAX TRAX!”, suggesting that the label had a significant influence on the station and its listeners.

That proclamation is immediately followed, at the top of the memo’s second page, with the top 10 dance tracks for that week (June 8, 1991); that list begins with My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult’s “Sex on Wheelz” and ends with 1000 Homo DJs’ “Supernaut.” The Alpha and Omega on this playlist are both Wax Trax! bands, the latter one of many Al Jourgensen-spearheaded label supergroups, this one named, legend has it, by label co-owner Jim Nash’s exclamation upon hearing one of Jourgensen’s new tracks: nobody except “1000 Homo DJs” would ever listen to the track. The rest of the list includes Seal, the KLF, local band Royal Crescent Mob, 808 State, EDM supergroup Electronic, and the hip hop duo Third Bass. Though this top 10 leans hard toward industrial dance, it’s not at all gatekeepy about it.

[SLIDE 10] My archival research has also uncovered some XTRABEATS flow sheets from 1990. This first one from July 7, 1990 includes Wax Trax! Artists Ajax, Acid Horse Meat Beat Manifesto, PTP and RevCo alongside The KLF rebranded as The Timelords and Jorgensen-and-Barker-produced band Dessau. At least from this flow sheet, Foreman’s proclamation that no dance show should be 100% Wax Trax! Was a response to the actual XTRABEATS programming situation: there was a lot of content from that label. However, given the label’s high number of releases from side projects and supergrops such as Excessive Force, Acid Horse, RevCo, and Dessau, there is a sense in which there are no hard and fast boundaries internal to the label, as artist geneaolgies zizag from one project to another creating a catalog that’s very difficult to reduce to clear lines of artistic influence and lineage. The aforementioned cover of “Supernaut” sonically embodies this lack of concern with legitimate attribution: the vocals are sung by Trent Reznor, but they are processed so they are difficult to audibly recognize as THAT Trent Reznor because his label, TVT, prohibited him from officially appearing on outside projects. Thinly disguising Reznor’s voice under some effects, 100 Homo DJs ignores his contractual agreement with TVT to protect the legitimate use of branded content. The high volume of Wax Trax! Artists on these XTRABEATS flow sheets represents something that’s less brand loyalty for its own sake and more an attempt to program music whose conditions of production reflected the same “no hard and fast boundaries” approach to music the flow sheet was designed to reflect.

The other two XTRABEATS flow sheets I found in Matt Shiverdecker’s station archive are less narrowly dialed-in on the Wax Trax! Scene. They include a range of European and British artists, a They Might Be Giants remix, some hip hop from Stetsasonic, Digital Underground, and DJ Chuck Chillout, along with the usual cast of Wax Trax! Bands.

With their broad stylistic diversity, these XTRABEATS flow sheets demonstrate that even in programs focused around one genre (here, dance), 97X stuck hard and fast to their “no rigid boundaries around the music” ethos—an ethos reflected in many of the Wax Trax! Artists programmed on the show.

WOXY’s “no rigid boundaries around the music” approach has its roots in both its original challenges selling a station to advertisers in the traditional, demographic market-segment fashion, and its response to the rise of corporate alt rock radio in the 90s. First, a 3000-watt station whose listening area included parts of the Cincinnati, Dayton, and Richmond, IN markets without fully covering any of them, 97X never had the audience numbers advertisers were accustomed to looking for. So they had to sell themselves with a different tactic: instead of appealing to demographics, 97X packaged itself as speaking to anybody who wanted to hear more new and different music than they could hear anywhere else. For example, by the late 90s, 97X was playing their heavy rotation at a comparable rate at which KROQ was spinning their light rotation. 97X’s entire brand strategy was “no rigid boundaries around what we play or who listens to the station.”

[SLIDE 11] With a decade of this strategy under their belt, by the time corporate alt rock radio started to use rigid boundary policing around “rock” as a way to narrowcast to a rigidly defined audience of young white men, 97X was explicit about their track record of doing the opposite. As program director Mike Taylor told the Cincinnati Enquirer in 2003, alt rock radio is “top 40 for males 12-24. It’s Eminem, Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park, Kid Rock. We don’t play any of ‘em.” Understanding this narrowcasting as an artifact of alt rock radio’s Clear Channel-ification, 97X programming remained true to the actual history of the genre. As a 1998 newsletter to advertisers puts it, “we know Modern Rock didn’t start with Nirvana, goes back past 1987 and includes styles that range from Rock to Reggae, from Punk to Pop to Dance and Dirge.” WOXY recognized that the issue of rigid boundaries around music was tied to the issue of drawing rigid boundaries around groups of people, and they weren’t interested in catering to listeners who were themselves interested in policing those sorts of boundaries. And given the XTRABEATS flow sheets I’ve found, it’s clear that this “no rigid boundaries” approach to music is one of the main things that made WAX TRAX! artists so appealing to WOXY staff and listeners.

Unlike Clear Channel doubling down on boundary policing and narrowcasting as an attempt to keep corporate profits up, “Gentle Death” and XTRABEATS cultivated the devoted and diverse audiences they needed to survive by allowing people the independence to ignore the demographic and stylistic boundary policing corporate alt rock radio maxed out in their attempt to shore up both their performance of masculinity and their stock price at a time when both gender norms and property relations are increasingly governed by logics of legitimation. As Melinda Cooper has shown, the late 80s and 90s were a time when even hegemonic white gay bourgeois masculinity is redefined in terms of legitimate access to intergenerational wealth and credit. What I see in Gentle Death and XTRABEATS is a concrete alternative to that, a practice of openness to influence from a range of styles which is unconcerned with the legibility of one’s influence as others play with it. And although this is all happening around the time Petersen & Kern publish their famous “omnivorousness” paper, this openness is not omnivorousness, because the latter actually doubles down on category distinction in order to claim to have transcended it. Like omnivorous consumption, 90s “alt” rock was a new neoliberal hegemony dressed up as progressive departure from the norm. WHat I hear in “Gentle Death” and XTRABEATS is a real alternative to the fake “alt” 90s, some examples that it might be helpful for us to think with as we figure out how to navigate a world of simultaneous corporate DEI and resurgent fascism. How, for example, could “Supernaut”’s treatment of Reznor’s voice be a useful example to think from as Hipgnosis and other music asset holders try to expand the boundaries of music copyright?