“No one dance show can be 100% Wax Trax!”
This was originally published on April 25, 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.
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. While listening to that TikTok clip, mind immediately went to the KMFDM-centric Wax Trax! Supergroup Excessive Force’s 1993 EP Gentle Death.
Specifically, my ear connected Lizzo’s “Du Hast” cover to Excessive Force’s “Violent Peace (Bitchmix).” 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.” I want to spend a little time thinking about “Violent Peace” and Gentle Death, 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 my friend and 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).
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 that track 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, though 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,” 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. 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. So while Alex is largely right that overall industrial as a scene is mainly white and tends to treat Black popular musics without sufficient respect, the evidence suggests something else is going on with Gentle Death.
It’s not a stretch to argue that this difference is due at least in part to context. The late 20th c midwestern US was a hotbed of Black pop music–funk (Dayton was a huge center for funk music in the 70s), house, techno, the Minneapolis sound (Prince, Jam & Lewis), the entire Jackson family, etc.–that influenced white industrial artists living and working in the area. For example, then Cleveland resident Trent Reznor’s “Down In It” (from 1989’s Pretty Hate Machine) couldn’t be more hip hop influenced if it tried. And, in the same way that fans commonly refer to Rhythm Nation 1814 as Gary, Indiana native Janet Jackson’s industrial album, KMFDM/Excessive Force should be heard as midwesterners bridging (largely white) industrial with Black pop musics from the 80s and 90s midwest.
The midwestern-ness of 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 1990 memo about the program from XTRABEATS DJ Jae Foreman concludes “NO DANCE SHOW CAN 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, 1990); that list begins with My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult’s “Sex on Wheelz” and ends with 1000 Homo DJs’ “Supernaut” (which is a really hard track to mix in and out of because it’s comparatively slow)– both Wax Trax! bands. 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.
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.
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.
As I argue in my WOXY book, this “no rigid boundaries around the music” approach has its roots in both the cultural/political context of Southwest Ohio in the late 20th century, and the increasingly “bro-ified” alt rock radio industry of the 1990s. That cultural/political context is one of intense conservatism: just as the City of Cincinnati charged the Contemporary Art Center with obscenity for displaying some photographs by Patti Smith’s best friend Robert Mapplethorpe, the midwest is home to the Disco Demolition Night, artists like Kid Rock, and, uh, that current Ohio Senator from Middletown, which is about 20 or 30 minutes from Oxford. For much of WOXY’s existence, Oxford was represented by Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner. Conservatives tend to be the kind of people who argue in favor of maintaining and policing rigid boundaries around people (like, uh, border walls if you want to be bluntly literal about it), just as cultural conservatives tend to be the ones in favor of rigid boundaries around music (think of Ben Shapiro’s “hip hop isn’t real music” schtick as a quintessential example of this move).One of the recurrent themes of my 20+ years of research in popular music studies is the fact that drawing boundaries around musical styles is always a proxy for drawing boundaries around groups of people (in part thanks to the early record industry using racial categories as their primary means of organizing market segments). As I explained here, late 90s alt rock radio used rigid boundary policing around “rock” as a way to narrowcast to a rigidly defined audience of young white men.
WOXY was well aware of that multi-layered boundary policing: 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.
I can’t claim to have access to what Konietzko and crew were thinking when they made Gentle Death, but I can point to concrete evidence that they were on a label that appealed to audiences like WOXY and its listeners because they released music that kept an open and expansive attitude toward style, sound, and genre. Unlike Clear Channel doubling down on boundary policing and narrowcasting as an attempt to keep corporate profits up, these two ma & pa/pa & pa businesses cultivated the devoted and diverse audiences they needed to survive by allowing people the independence to cross musical and demographic boundaries. It’s in this sort of context that hearing Lizzo cover “Du Hast” sounds like a variation on a longstanding theme.
Besides Lizzo, the other contemporary place that theme pops up is Lady Gaga’s 2020 Max Martin-produced single “Stupid Love.” With its heavy, distorted, pulsating bass synths and melodic treble vocals punctuated by Gaga introjecting “look at me” “hey-ya, hey-ya” at the lowest end of her register. Who knows how direct the influence of KMFDM/Excessive Force is on this Gaga track; however, I did write a whole book arguing that the writer and performer of songs like “Bad Romance” is significantly influenced by goth music, so there is some evidence that Gaga’s influences are at least adjacent to Wax Trax! Artists. At a time when house–especially ballroom–is back in the mainstream, it’s not too surprising that an artist who has released songs with very Depeche Mode-y and Madonna vibes happens to hit on the same formula KMFDM and Excessive Force hit on when they listen to and work with house music and musicians.