17 Feb 2014

Chapter 1.4: Asymmetrical Warfare: Voice, Topic, Resistance

This post is part of my series on Pop, Power & the Vocal-Subject

The previous essays in this series have begun to look at the power relationship inherent in all pop songs, between the ‘vocal-subject’ and the ‘objective musical forces’. The last essay in particular concentrated on the power and control that these instrumental forces exert on the vocal-subject, in terms of ‘technologies of control’ (timbral, rhythmic, dynamic, textural), but also ways in which the vocal-subject can resist this domination. The strategies of resistance addressed in those analyses, through co-opting, subverting, derailing or ironising the instrumental forces, constitute what I would call resistance through strength, which is often effected through the unique linguistic power of the vocals, allowing them to assign meaning directly, as well as their strategic placement in time relative to the beat.

In this essay, I will explore some very different ways in which the vocal-subject can resist the power of the instrumental forces – what I’ve previously called the ‘song world’ or ‘situation’ of the song – focusing instead on the possibility of critique and resistance through an affirmation of weakness. Rather than beginning from a discussion of objective musical forces and their ‘technologies of power’, this discussion begins with the vocal-subject and how, through ‘asymmetrical’ power relations and irreconcilable difference, their very weakness can become their strength. With this shift in focus from forces to subject, there is an accompanying shift from class-based politics to identity politics, ethics and post-colonialist thought. Yet the ‘sonic warfare’ metaphor still carries, feeding into the notion of ‘assymetrical warfare’: conflict situations between unevenly-matched groups, such as in guerrilla warfare.

This essay also marks a shift away from the battle lines of rhythm, harmony and structure. A political praxis of strategic weakness occurs on two new terrains, perhaps more familiar to conventional music criticism; these are the parameters of ‘production’ – the relative placement of musical elements on the sonic ‘stage’, their relative dominance in the mix, vocal processing etc. – and of genre or ‘style’. These latter terms are thorny terms indeed, so entwined are they with different musical contexts, practices, uses, cultures, etc. For my argument, I am interested in ‘style’ as it manifests itself sonically – the timbres, melodic formulae and structures which ‘mean’ pop punk, or soft rock, or R&B, along with all their socio-cultural and ideological connotations – and for this reason I will stick to the term ‘topic’, borrowed from classical musicology, to signify a set of stylistic conventions that can be inserted into a musical composition at will, in order to conjure up a certain set of associations. Hence, the term ‘topic’ works well for the ‘00s polystylist art-pop artists on whom this chapter focuses.

Positioning the Vocal-Subject

Before the containment of the vocal melody within a fixed key and harmonic progression, or its domination by a rigid pulse, there is already a power relation established between voice and instruments on the track, in terms of their relative presence and forcefulness in the mix. This is not just a matter of volume, but of timbre as well. Most pop music aspires to a ‘balanced’ mix, whereby the voice is clearly present and audible, even central, yet embedded within a well-spaced array of other instruments. The fuller the instrumental track, the greater prominence a well-mixed vocal will necessarily have in relation to any one instrument (although in practice, instruments are often grouped by function, so that lead melodic lines, bass and beats are more prominent than subsidiary details within a texture or arrangement). In the more ‘epic’, stadium-sized rock and pop tracks, in which one voice is balanced with huge string sections and choirs, the voice will take on a highly meaningful ‘superhuman’ self-importance – the vocal-subject appearing as a kind of colossus – in relation to the breadth and sweep of the surrounding world, which can often seem unconvincing and delusional. At the other end of the spectrum, the hushed vocals in the music of the xx, for example, seem all the more intimate in that they are balanced with a very sparse, empty texture, often a single, distant guitar line. There is a kind of law of sonic ‘perspective’ at work here, in which the vocal-subject appears particularly small (with all the attractiveness of the small and vulnerable) through this ‘balance’. Indeed, much of the power of Scott Walker’s recent music – and the way that he appears as a vocal-subject in his songs – is through playing with this perspective, moving from narrow to vast terrains, total silence to symphony orchestra, while keeping the voice centred. In this way, the vocal-subject seems to emerge from a claustrophobic passageway into an underground cathedral, before stumbling into an open grave, etc.

But song mixes aren’t always balanced, with the vocals clearly in the foreground; often voices will get lost or absorbed into the texture, covered over by distortion, noise or reverb. Clearly, the history of recorded music has seen a broad spectrum of production aesthetics, from the cleanest to the messiest, but influential examples of aesthetics that tend to dethrone the vocal from its central position might include Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’, the Jesus and Mary Chain’s perverse homage to the same (via a wall of noise), the close, rattling sound of Steve Albini’s most iconic productions, the trademark gothic murk of 4AD in the ‘80s, and particular styles within metal and hardcore punk. In all this music, the voice is threatened with being overpowered by the surrounding instrumental forces, and obscured; this is not just a sonic expression of relative force, but also involves the threat of rendering the lyrics inaudible, which completely transforms the listener’s relationship to the vocal-subject, and severely restricts the vocal-subject’s capacity to resist through its monopoly on linguistic meaning (as described in the previous chapter).

These kinds of production aesthetics express what I will call an asymmetry of staging, the first of three ‘asymmetries’ that I will discuss in this chapter. The implication here is that a ‘symmetrical’ relationship between vocal-subject and instrumental forces is that of the ‘balanced’ mix, which I will also associate here with the idea of normativity. While it might not be the case for every listener, especially those immersed in the metal and punk subcultures, there is certainly a ‘normative’ balance of musical forces in pop and rock in general, which maintains a particular ‘normal’ position for the vocals. This would be the unremarkable or ‘unmarked’ configuration, the kind of production that wouldn’t elicit a special mention in a review, the kind that is ‘unexceptional’.

The idea of markedness, which will feed into my analysis later, originates from structuralist linguistics. It is predicated on the idea of an asymmetry between certain oppositional pairs of words, wherein one is taken to be ‘normative’ or assumed, unless the other is specified. There is a gendered dimension to markedness in language; for example, in the pair ‘actor/actress’, ‘actress’ is the marked term since ‘actors’ can be any gender whereas to specify ‘actress’ is to specify female. The idea of markedness has extended into the study of cultural structures, and is applicable to such dichotomies as ‘male/female’, ‘white/non-white’, ‘straight/non-straight’, etc., in which, in any linguistic culture, the unmarked term would be assumed until the marked term was specified (consider the phrase ‘male nurse’: if we say ‘nurse’, we assume ‘female nurse’ unless we explicitly say ‘male nurse’ – the ‘male’ here is the marked term of the male/female dichotomy).

The uneven distribution of power ‘synchronically’ within a track is not only produced by the balance of voice and instruments in a mix. It can also involve the relative sound qualities, or ‘timbres’, of the voice or instruments themselves. I have already discussed the ‘terrifying’, punishing power of thick, heavy, grainy, weighty and hard sounds; the overdriven, power-chord laden guitar riff is one obvious example. Voices can also be strong or weak, hard or soft, full or shallow: timbral qualities that can be produced through different types of breath control and content, huskiness, depth, nasality, accent and onset, etc. Asymmetries of timbre occur when the sound quality of the vocals is markedly weaker or thinner than that of the instrumental forces. Again, there is an idea of normativity invoked here – the hypothetical ‘symmetry’ – which pertains to learned notions of genre. A voice will appear relatively ‘weak’ in a song if it appears weaker than the voice type that one might ‘normally’ hear, ‘matched’ to the instrumental forces that characterise the genre in question. This is, to some extent, what Linkin Park and Evanescence trade on, as well as various ‘00s emo bands (i.e. the non-‘screamo’ ones). Punk and metal have developed vocal styles to match the brutal, macho power of the instrumental playing, yet the more melodic, ‘emotive’, less hard-edged vocalists in these bands create a sense of personal crisis from their asymmetrical relationship to the harsh sounds that enclose them.1

To put it another way, a pure and delicate ‘folk’ voice in an R’n’B setting, or a croaky old ‘country’ voice in a noise rock setting, is going to sound not only ‘out of place’, but put-upon, coerced and threatened by the more insistent and penetrating sounds that surround it, even if the mix is perfectly ‘balanced’. This leads us to a third, overlapping asymmetry: the asymmetry of topic. This would be when one element (e.g. the vocals) seems to ‘belong to’ a different genre than the rest of the musical elements. This might be a black soul voice in a hard rock song, or a reedy indie voice in a techno track, or a vocoded voice in a folk song. In this case, the voice doesn’t necessarily have to adopt the timbral qualities of weakness in order to inhabit the position of underdog. I discuss some key examples of this later on.

Clearly the three asymmetries of staging, timbre and topic intersect with and exacerbate each other. There is a kind of mechanism of ‘intersectionality’ between the three.2 A breathy folk voice set low in the mix of a hardcore song will sound more out of place and overpowered than a punk vocalist staged the same way in the same mix. In this way, there is a huge spectrum of possible subject positions that the vocal-subject can occupy in relation to the songworld’s ‘normality’. Whereas the asymmetry of topic evokes a kind of ‘failure to fit’ with the world, a disjunction between the logic of the instrumental forces and the voice’s essential qualities and capacities (a ‘cultural’ difference, if you like), it retains a kind of openness of possibility; the asymmetry of staging however, in which the voice is explicitly positioned beneath, and stifled by, the instrumental forces, constitutes a more ‘physical’ or ‘material’ oppression. The combination of these two tensions can function as a performance of the oppression of the cultural ‘Other’, within a particular topic (i.e. the ‘cultural logic’ of a particular musical genre).3

Political Strategies of the Vocal Minority

It isn’t enough to simply point out potential asymmetries; an analysis of the resistant potential of the ‘weak’ vocal subject within a ‘marked’ power relationship must involve an assessment of the attitude of that subject, and the effect of the relationship as a whole. For one thing, I should clarify that asymmetrical power relationships in tracks are very often more aesthetically interesting, suggestive of meaning, and thereby critically acclaimed and lauded. As with everything, the ‘unmarked’ balanced relationships of normality – consistent genre signifiers and an unremarkable distribution of musical power – can appear transparent, taken for granted. Songs often need some form of asymmetry to inject some tension or interest into the mix, if only to render the generic stylistic language substantial in comparison.

What was the key component of the Strokes’ musical aesthetic? It was, of course, Julian Casablancas’s overy compressed, distorted vocals, which created an asymmetry of staging and of genre in relation to the garage rock norms that they were revisiting, bringing the other elements of the music into focus in relation to this dynamic position of the vocal-subject. The effect is something like what Simon Reynolds and Adam Harper have identified as the ‘hauntological’ aspects of Ariel Pink’s music, in that the guitar music of which the Strokes began a massive revival has come back distanced or displaced, a ‘diminished return’, one vocal processor removed from a full reincarnation of this past music in 2001. Yet the concentration of this effect on the vocals means that, rather than a kind of blanket mediation, wrapping the whole track in crackle or alo-fi filter effect, it is the vocal-subject’s relationship to a guitar rock environment that is problematised. Whereas, in guitar rock ‘normality’, the vocal would have been mixed with the same power and presence as the rest of the band, suggesting a symmetrical distribution of power (which in rock often comes to express a kind of camaraderie between all the elements of the band), on Is This It, Julian Casablancas’s vocals are weakened, with an effect that is sometimes blasé, sometimes a little desperate, but always relatively deprived of control over the situation. To retain the hauntological angle, it is as if the vocal-subject is singing along from a radio or record player, a ghostly voice from a less hi-fi past, the traces of a more rough-and-ready ‘60s garage aesthetic flickering over him alone, like ectoplasm. This dynamic, asymmetrical power relationship, which paradoxically characterises a more sympathetic and human vocal-subject, shifts the music into more interesting territory by unmasking something of its struggle.4 A very similar effect is produced on LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Losing My Edge’, which – in addition to its ‘anti-lyric’ – pathetically detaches the ‘passé’ vocal-subject from the (retro) ‘present’ of the rest of the track, even as he strains to keep up.

The case of Ariel Pink is a lot more extreme; at times his music activates both asymmetries of genre and of staging, in which his voice is covered over by blaring analogue textures, while at the same time his vocal style – deadpan or riotous – belies the implied topic, whether it’s lounge, disco or pop. As the hauntological argument goes, we’re hearing these genres as postcards from the past, wrapped up in vinyl or cassette noise, harking back to archaic and fetishised modes of bedroom recording and production. But at the same time, the effect is often to cast the vocal-subject adrift in these off-kilter nostalgic episodes, buried beneath unpredictable, fantasy forces against which it can exert little resistance. There is a sense that Pink’s voice is being pulled and twisted into line with the soundworlds into which he arrives, forcing it into strange shapes – from growling bass to helium falsetto – and yet never quite losing its underlying identity. The impression I sometimes get from song-to-song on an Ariel Pink album is of figure of the time-traveller in kids’ cartoons, having to obey the imperative to ‘not touch anything’ whenever they materialise in a new time period (before getting chased by dinosaurs or accidentally mistaken for a knight or something). The Ariel Pink vocal-subject that materialises in the depths of these blurry, half-remembered soundworlds does seem to interact with the instrumental forces, but at the conspicuous expense of any more solid identity within a more predictable logic of sound events.

In all these cases, asymmetrical power relations are used to problematise the notion of the vocal-subject’s control over its environment, as well as its autonomy more generally. What might be called the ‘political strategy’ of such a presentation emerges in the vocal’s attitude towards its domination through production or ostracisation through topic. Hardcore bands like Minor Threat and the Nation of Ulysses stage the vocals among a frantic hail of noise, against which the voice resists and fights back desperately. The straining of the vocals, pushing into the realm of animal noise, is the necessary result of the ‘organic’ voice, the bare humanity of vocal presence, being pitted against the electrically charged tools and weapons of the band. Compare this to the vocals in shoegaze music - My Bloody Valentine or Slowdive – in which diaphanous vocals float within the swirling currents of the backing, neither resisting nor even engaging. To give in to superior musical forces suggests a very different political attitude than fighting against them. However, both can be used constructively.

Staging Oppression: Nirvana and Cloetta Paris

By materialising an asymmetry of power through timbre and production, a song can ‘call out’ oppression while maintaining the constitution of the subject. The vocal that doesn’t fit, isn’t balanced, remains out of joint and is thereby unable to express clearly and lock into the texture on an equal footing, demonstrates what Adorno might call the falseness of the kind of integration, balance and harmony of the ‘normal’ symmetrical production techniques and genres. Such asymmetries can be used to question concepts of direct collective expression, or of collectivity (or expressivity) as such. The band may seem to be saying one thing and the voice something else; or the instrumental forces may seem to signify some strong idea, identity or attitude while the weakness of the voice that should be giving the most direct expression of this attitude (grounding it in reality, fixing it in language and humanising it) belies its universality or sincerity.

Consider the differences between Nirvana and Pearl Jam. While Pearl Jam yoke their heavy riffs to a powerful voice, the heroic yodel of Eddie Vedder, Nirvana’s (arguably heavier) riffs are juxtaposed with Kurt Cobain’s blasted, wasted vocals. Grunge may have constituted a general moment in which hard rock/punk rock turned against itself, turning to lyrics of pain, degradation, despair and self-loathing which made the vocal-subject come into focus as a suffering persona, at the same time more individualistic than that of metal or punk. The transformation from the defiant machismo of rock to the impotent panic of grunge comes through a kind of realisation of being surrounded, which is most clearly achieved via the asymmetries that are employed in Nirvana’s music (as well as their ‘alt-rock’ relatives: Mudhoney, the Jesus Lizard, the Melvins, etc.) and never really fully consummated by the more bravura bands: not only Pearl Jam but Soundgarden and Alice in Chains. Cobain’s vocals are not only set ‘too low’ in the mix and subsequently stifled by the other instruments, but their marked weakness in comparison to the normative rock vocal-subject is demonstrated through his straining for the higher notes and grinding at his vocal chords with the apparent threat of ripping them apart. This effect is highlighted through the ‘quiet verse/loud chorus’ structure of some of their songs, in which the voice, which is balanced with the thinner texture of the verse, is suddenly made to compete against a much thicker texture in the chorus, and made to seem weaker and more overwhelmed through the contrast.

Eddie Vedder and Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell as vocal-subjects sometimes seem to hold an ambivalent position in relation to the social and psychological forces of angst, alienation and depression that can be heard in the thunder of guitars and drums in their music. In contrast, the sheer, unrelenting hopelessness of the power imbalance and the absolute suffering of Cobain as vocal-subject, despite his attempts to articulate agency or self-possession, or some sort of perverse delight in submission and degradation, renders the ‘truth’ of the situation in a political strategy that resembles that of early 20th-century Expressionism (i.e. meaningless, terrifying, universal angst). It may not offer any escape routes or lines of flight, it may seem wholly nihilistic, but it is still political in that it is an assertion of the fact that everything is not alright, that harmony is a lie and collectivity is impossible, and that even supposedly emancipatory projects – like rock music, which was originally about ‘freedom’ – have those that they exclude, and even end up oppressing.

By unbalancing rock music, Nirvana reveal the violence in what might otherwise be the attractive power of that ‘centrifugal’ force of timbre and volume – one of the two technologies of musical power that I discussed in the last essay – that was once thought to have the potential to batter down the doors of the Old World. Similar asymmetries can be used to reveal the violence of the other technology, the ‘centripetal’ force of control, of rhythm and pulse. This often takes the form of an encounter between the ‘organic’ and the ‘synthetic’, with acoustic and ‘bodily’ sounds having long since joined forces with ‘electric’ amplified sounds, against the threat of the digital and the automated. (Although analogue electronic technology is increasingly included in the former category, as the confrontation shifts from organic/synthetic to material/virtual, along with the battle lines of moral panic and righteous nostalgia in media discourse.) The threat of the automated beat, the synthesised instrument and the processed voice is not only the threat of automation in the workplace – the replacement of craft and human skill with robotic precision and homogeneity – but also of the rationalised, technicised society of Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man (1964), the totalitarian dystopias of science fiction, the bionic and the android.

These tensions are some of the most fully and expansively explored in all pop music since the ‘70s, and also some of the most extensively discussed. However, for an example of how this fits into the argument of asymmetrical power relations and political strategies, I want to draw on a relatively obscure album: Secret Eyes by Cloetta Paris. While this is one of my favourite albums of all time, it can be quite difficult to put my finger on why I love this music quite so much; I think the peculiar relation that the voice has to the rest of the track certainly affords a clue. Cloetta Paris was one of tweepop/synthpop genius Roger Gunnarsson’s projects, alongside Nixon, Free Loan Investments, the Garlands and writing/production for Sally Shapiro; as with Sally Shapiro’s work, the project pits a breathy female voice against a very synthetic italo/synthpop palette.5 Despite the fact that this combination has become semi-familiar from its use by associated acts, there is an extreme separation between the incredibly integrated, precise, sealed-off instrumental backing, fully automated as if the product of a synchronised swimming team of kitsch robots, and the vocal-subject’s thin, pallid, almost translucent tone. The quiet meekness of the vocals suggest insularity – singing to oneself – while the insistent, dispassionate backing, with its very full texture of very flat sounds, suggests a karaoke track, The poignancy of Cloetta Paris’s music comes from the implications of combining these two: a kind of private karaoke.

We can say that there are imbalances of power in both genre (the archetypal, ‘unmarked’ voice here might be something more clipped or cold, more Gary Numan, or perhaps a stronger, less self-conscious Eurodisco diva) and in timbre (given the breathiness and softness of the voice). In this case, the fact that the voice is very high in the mix – sticking out, unintegrated in that sense – also lends to the sense of detachment, with the listener being situated ‘close to’ the vocal-subject and sharing in their exclusion. Most of the songs are sorrowful, although never histrionic, and the sheer impossibility of the voice having any impact on the course of the backing sounds gives each track a kind of sweetness of sincerity that comes from the determination shown in each new, dogged attempt.

This asymmetry is at its starkest when the instrumental forces are the hardest and most driven. On ‘Breakdown’ and ‘I Miss You, Someone’, the voice is compelled to fit her sentiments into carefully regimented phrases, with no space for elaboration, reflection or wallowing. The effect is of an uncaring world which rationalises disaffection and sentimentality into a closed, compartmentalised song structure, to which the voice is nevertheless compelled to submit, and does so with simple and gracious resignation. But in the very human materiality of the voice, the refusal to be absorbed and autonomised (despite the occasional flicker into vocoded half-life), the subject’s humanity is maintained and the rationalisation and technicisation of feeling, expression, and indeed the pop song, is undermined even as it achieves domination.

The album’s cover of ELO’s ‘So Serious’ (above, which currently happens to be the ‘No. 1 Most Played’ track on my iPod) adds another lever to the general disconnection by drawing even closer to a karaoke track – a fully synthesised instrumental version – against which the unlikely voice provides the lyrics and melody, loaded with her own painful meanings which are nevertheless ignored by the peppy, brutal backing track. But there is also a sense of the vocal-subject putting the human breath back into these automated instrumental worlds, resisting their totalisation but also permitting them to resist what might be their instrumental destiny, by bringing out what could be heard as the perfect beauty in the harmonic progressions which they represent in a kind of idealistic way. ‘Young Girls In Town’ is not only the most joyful lyric, but it is the song in which the voice is most integrated within the backing, through the Sally Shapiro-style shimmer of reverb across all elements, and the joining with a vocoded chorus who seem to invite the vocal-subject into the synthetic world of the track. But still, the earnest declarations of invincibility and worldliness seem like a bittersweet fantasy when sung by this delicate, transparent voice: the ‘young girl in town’ sounds very young indeed.

Towards A Minor Music: Antony & The Johnsons

Asymmetrical power relations in which the voice is conspicuously lacking in power or control over the rest of the track, through being mixed away from, or distanced (via distortion or reverb) from, what could be heard as the ‘foreground’ of the track – the field of immediacy, of action and ‘the present’ – must almost always be consigned to a ‘critical’ political strategy. They mobilise a negative hearing of a negative situation, in the manner of Adorno’s negative dialectics. These tracks force us to identify with weakness and difference as negatively experienced, and mourn for the impossibility of balance, harmony or even of counterpower and effective insurrection.

But there are other political strategies in which tracks can be heard to mobilise asymmetrical power relations in an affirmative way, to identify with difference and even weakness as positively experienced, actively opposing the oppressive totalising (or fascist) tendencies of power and sameness through affirming its very difference and weakness.

Some of my favourite artists couch their music in a fundamental opposition between a fairly strong stylistic language and a vocalist that seems to belong to a thoroughly ‘other’ topical world. My posts on Antony Hegarty elsewhere on this blog, especially the post concerning his first few albums and EPs, effectively introduce this idea. The poignancy of Antony, and the crux of his powerfully articulated politics, has to do with the disjunction between the ‘kitsch’ styles on which his music rests and the absolute Otherness of his vocal presence. On songs like ‘River of Sorrow’ (below) and ‘Divine’, he commits fully to the sincerity of the ballad and torch song template, the simplest and most sentimental of pop formulae, which could easily appear completely transparent, or offensively disingenuous when deployed by a more normative vocal presence (the weepy bearded ‘acoustic’ artist, the brazenly calculated X Factor diva). What happens when Antony (as vocal-subject), whose vocal timbre is not just androgynous and queer but racially ambiguous, commits to these banally ‘emotional’, ‘sincere’ musical configurations – the progressions, the tempi, the arrangements – is not only that their emotion and sincerity reappears. But, moreover, these aspects reappear through Antony’s inability to enter fully into the archetype of the topic, the heteronormative love song, our treasured narrative of gendered romance by which our very humanity is measured. His voice will always stick out, announce its difference.

In this way, not only is Antony’s ‘tragic’ situation as perpetual ‘outsider’ intimated, with respect to the normative bourgeois ideology of romance, but the very situation itself is also painfully disavowed. This disavowal takes place through a kind of ‘double manoeuvre’, which firstly shows the potential truth and beauty in what we’ve come to hear as banal, and secondly mourns for the possibility of anything so simple as truth and beauty, as accessible to the lonely, more-human-than-human vocal presence of Antony. One (fairly prosaic) way of hearing this strategy would be in relation to gay marriage: the modern ‘romantic’ narrative of marriage is considered deeply banal when rehearsed to death by heteronormative rom-coms, but it regains its underlying poignancy as representative of a fragile ideal of absolute, spiritual partnership – an eternal and transcendent love – when it is viewed as something desired by a group whose inclusion is denied. The desire to be included in the myth of marriage by those excluded from it – like Antony’s desire to enter fully into the supposed romance and sincerity of the ballad – stops it from seeming so hopelessly functionalist and outdated. And yet, at the same moment, when the desire behind the desire for marriage equality becomes clear – not just the desire to overcome exclusion or discrimination but the more general desire for the kind of transcendental, spiritual union that marriage promises – the absolute failure of marriage as an institution (or torch songs/ballads as a style) to fulfil this desire becomes clear. We feel not only the sadness of the excluded but the future disappointment of the naïve (like the (supposed) citizens of those ‘developing’ countries who demand Western-style modernity, for capitalism and liberal democracy (who may exist more absolutely in the Western media and mentality than they do in real life)), who put their faith in a material institution which we already know can never be adequate to the immensity of their desire.

The discourse that Antony deploys in his lyrics and visuals renders the situation even more complex. In later songs that address transgenderism and transsexualism, like ‘My Lady Story’ and ‘Today I Am A Boy’, it is woman-ness itself which is the pure, elusive object of absolute desire. This pure woman-ness is equal to the pure ‘normative’ transparency of the ballad or torch song style, to disappear into it, to ‘pass’ as a woman, to appear ‘real’. It is not that Antony’s vocal-subjects will ‘never be women’, in that they will still always be trans women as well. It is that the category of woman – the female gender – is itself a construction, an empty signifier, in which no full redemption can be found. It is the illusory object of the vocal-subject’s desire, like marriage, but it can never give him what he wants. ‘Kinky’ sex is the other explicit subject of Antony’s ‘asymmetry of topic’; the non-normative timbre, and the ‘perversions’ and ‘fetishes’ described in the lyrics by the vocal-subject (BDSM, but also gay anal sex itself, especially from the perspective of the ‘passive’ partner), fail to fully integrate with the earnest kitsch of the instrumental topic.6 Tracks like ‘Cripple And The Starfish’ (below) and ‘Fistful Of Love’ express the desire for these deeply non-normative expressions of sexuality to articulate the same pure, banal love that more vanilla sexual euphemisms seem to achieve in mainstream romance songs. Once again, it is not only Antony’s exclusion that we mourn in this ‘failure’ to efface difference (and, in the case of his expressions of passive sexual roles, weakness) from his music, but the impossibility of sex – even as it is pursued through more and more extreme forms of vulnerability and intimacy – to fully effect the absolute consummation of divine union. However deep we penetrate each other, and however much bodily fluid we deposit there, we will never ‘know’ each other fully, never fuse completely.

As I have argued, Antony’s vocal disjunction and failure to assimilate does not articulate oppression or repression by superior powers; the instrumental forces in his music are very soft indeed, and relatively pliable. Nor does it merely articulate a failure to integrate into a harmonious ‘whole’ that we can otherwise believe in and aspire to, as is the liberal fantasy, including all the world’s diverse groups as equal stakeholders in ‘democratic’ capitalism. Antony’s differences are affirmed, his sexual idiosyncrasies are declared with absolute sincerity and self-belief, and it is through this affirmation that all of sameness, all of homogeneity, seems to fall apart. Only difference, idiosyncrasy and ‘perversion’ remains, making the point that all attempts to totalise and generalise, to categorise around an idea of ‘normal’ or ‘regular’, will always constitute a violent act, the imposition of power against which weakness and singularity is the only truth.

On his third album The Crying Light, Antony uses the same strategy to introduce his commitment to environmentalism, which has become a central part of his work since then. Just as this environmentalism is totally entwined with his feminism and his transgenderism, so they can all be articulated together within the same musical relationship. Like pure woman-ness and a non-perverse sexuality, the natural world is an ideal category to which Antony wishes to escape. However, as ‘Another World’ very clearly articulates, this natural world is always already compromised. What makes this political strategy distinct from his problematisation of gender and normative sexuality is not that the category of an idealised natural world is shown up to be an illusion, but that it is being undermined, disavowed and destroyed by harmful forces. It is the real destruction of the environment that is mourned in these elegies, not the illusory nature of an absolute gender identity or of complete sexual union.

Antony Becomes-Woman, Joel Becomes-Indigenous
I truly believe that, unless we move into feminine systems of governance, we don’t have a chance on this planet. 
– ‘Future Feminism’ (Cut The World), Antony & the Johnsons
Antony’s most recent work continues to affirm his ethics of difference and singularity, with a stranger, less regulated conception of gendered and sexualised music (and something of a departure from the pure, kitsch topics previously desired), couched in a continuing understanding of the natural world as a world of harmonious plurality. On Swanlights, there is a move away from a clear asymmetry of topic, to an investigation of more ambiguous musical styles in which Antony’s voice can articulate more of a ‘utopian’ political strategy, painting natural scenes that are removed from any social ideas of normativity.

On the track ‘Future Feminism’ (above), included on his live album Cut The World, he describes quite explicitly his conception of the relationship between environmentalism and feminism. This speech also makes explicit what I see as the affinity between Antony’s asymmetrical power relations and the political project of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. In their book Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature (1986) and then again in A Thousand Plateaus, they discuss the notion of ‘minorities’ and the ethical commitment to ‘becoming-minoritarian’ as a key part of their wider project of ‘deterritorialisation’, which can be understood as escape routes (or ‘lines of flight’) from ‘fascistic’ structures of power relations, hierarchies and regimes of representation. For D&G, the idea of the ‘majority’ (and the desire to become-majoritarian, or normative – essentially the desire to be included within a homogenous Volk) is one which leads inexorably towards fascism (not just fascism as a political formation, as we’d recognise it, but ‘micro-fascisms’ as well which might affect us at every level of our lived experience). They understand Kafka’s ‘minor literature’ as stemming from his ‘use and transformation of a majority language’: i.e. writing in German as a Czech Jew (another example would be black writers using the American language). In this way, traditional concepts of territory (related to language and power) are destabilised, the machinery of dominant culture (through the use of language) is deconstructed, while ‘minority’ status (a kind of perpetual ‘homelessness’ is affirmed) and effects an active escape from the rigidity of this majority culture and language.

For D&G, there is no fixed or ideal state of being, all ontology is one of active process and flux (of molecular particles which agglomerate into ‘molar’ forms). Everything and everyone is always in a process of becoming; this means that every new moment, every new ‘becoming’, is an opportunity to escape from fixed schemes of representation and subjugations within structures and hierarchies of power (what they’d call ‘territorialisations’). This involves ‘becoming-minoritarian’ which really means escaping from the dominant, normative, ‘unremarkable’ ‘way things are’ – the unmarked term, the transparent or obvious or commonsense or regular (the white, straight, Western, male, middle-class, etc.). And, for D&G, the first stage of becoming-minoritarian is always ‘becoming-woman’ – even for women – wherein ‘woman’ really means non-majoritarian since, within a patriarchal system, ‘man’ is the primary majoritarian category (even if men don’t constitute a ‘majority’ in the statistical sense).

By singing within heteronormative, gendered musical topics, Antony’s music can be considered a ‘minor’ music, whose destabilisation of the language of these topics creates a similar array of escape routes. But his work is also closely allied to the idea of ‘becoming-woman’ in a specifically D&G sense. He is not articulating a desire to materially occupy the gender category of ‘woman’ – as in: ‘woman as a molar identity within the dominant patriarchal machine’ – but to become-‘non-man’, as in ‘non-majoritarian’. His call for ‘a switch from patriarchal to matriarchal systems of governance’ has nothing to do with what some people call ‘misandry’, but is about escaping from majoritarian (and hence fascist) ways of doing things and moving towards a minoritarian conception, in the process of which real possibilities can be imagined, alternatives articulated and revolutions effected. So, just as Kafka’s minority status destabilised not only the majority language of German but also the ‘minority identity’ of the Prague Jew, desiring instead an escape from such groupings altogether, so Antony’s ‘becoming-woman’ (as a woman speaking a male language, a queer speaking a straight language, a trans person speaking a ‘cis’ language) upsets all these categories, deconstructing the ‘majoritarian’ system of categorisation itself, and desiring an escape beyond it.

Another fantastic example of a vocal-subject who affirms a non-normative identity within a regimented topical world is Joel Thibodeau of Death Vessel. While Death Vessel’s music is primarily rooted in a country/folk idiom, the vocal-subject appears within this very ‘traditional’ topic as starkly strange and ‘other’. Thibodeau’s voice is both androgynous and ageless; its very high register and reedy timbre are perhaps most suggestive of an adolescent girl’s voice, and yet it is obviously not the voice of an adolescent girl. The asymmetry of topic operates in the same way as with Antony: the vocal-subject appears as non-normative against the instrumental forces, which signify very clearly and very forcefully towards a particular genre and its connotations. Again, this disjunction allows the substance of the country topic to ‘appear’, in a way which it wouldn’t if the vocal-subject was a grizzled country veteran or fresh-voiced folk siren, and the whole musical track would fade into transparency as ‘country music’, confirming only our pre-drawn conclusions: American, rural, Christian, ageless, communal, traditional.

The differing qualities, and associated ideologies, of the musical topics in these two examples mean that the results are different. By occupying this musical topic, Thibodeau’s vocal-subject isn’t holding it up as an empty vessel containing only an ‘absence presence’ of lost truth (in the way that Antony’s ballad forms operate), but is instead attempting to reactivate some latent truth deep within it, which has been formalised and schematised and banalised into obscurity. In the way that his vocal-subject occupies these songs, I hear Joel Thibodeau as a kind of indigenous presence within country/folk music. His presence is one which ‘precedes’ the musical language’s instrumentalisation by nation, by Puritanism, by hetero-normativity, by whiteness, by industrial agriculture and private landownership, and by petit bourgeois individualism.7 He lives and moves within the instrumental forces like someone more in tune with the breadth of their possibilities, the esotericism which emerges in his lyrics, the way that he plays with structure and melody, fragmenting and looping and digressing without relinquishing the familiar textures and timbres. He occupies the musical terrain, we might say, in a more ‘natural’ state, which really means more open, less consigned to reproducing pre-existing patterns, structures, meanings and narratives.

The ‘becoming-indigenous’ in Death Vessel is then a way of imagining alternative ways of ‘living within’ a musical world, in particular a musical world that signifies ‘nature’, ‘landscape’ and a ‘national place’. Specifically, Thibodeau as vocal-subject presents an indigenous relationship to the ‘country’ of country music that precedes strict divides in terms of gender, and also in terms of age. Thibodeau in his vocal character and in the maturity and density of his words appears as ageless, but through a perpetual youth, in contrast to the ‘ageless’ growl of the perpetual old man of country, whose persistence stands in a clear relationship to the persistence of patriarchy.

To talk about Death Vessel’s relationship to country and folk music in these terms might be seen to challenge the discourse of authenticity, which appears to offer an ethical imperative to conserve and respect a working-class, oral tradition like country music ‘as it’s really practised’, and to reproduce it (or encourage its reproduction) as such. Yet, in this hearing of Death Vessel’s music, country music is not the object of critique, and the discovery within country of a strange, wild pre-modern or pre-social voice (a ‘noble savage’, as I am potentially casting Thibodeau) is not to point to a ‘truth of country’, an ‘ur-country’ or ‘natural’ country music; such projects would be as pointless and problematic when applied to a diffuse collection of musical practices as they are when applied to a particular nationality or race. Instead, as in D&G’s Kafka book, the use of a majoritarian language by a minority voice (whose very uniqueness can easily stand for ‘minority’ itself) effects a ‘making strange’ of the language, through which it can be reassessed, and its assumed connections to power structures, hierarchies and ideologies can be cast off. To ‘become-indigenous’ means, for the ‘non-indigenous’ majority, to see our terrain, our home, our material surroundings in a new light.

And, of course, even the ‘indigenous’ peoples of the Americas, Oceania, the Arctic, et al., are only ‘indigenous’ in comparison to the most recent, ‘modern’ wave of settlers. A ‘becoming-indigenous’ would have to push past the category of ‘indigenous people’ utilised by imperial modernity (and employed in the (necessarily) pragmatist counter-struggles to preserve what is left of their culture and autonomy, by engaging with the aggressors on their own terms of law and property); it would have to demolish such an arbitrary identity. It would need to involve a constant becoming, back past generations and generations of successive displacements and conquests, to what D&G (in A Thousand Plateaus) call ‘becoming-animal’. In this way, the project fuses with Antony’s ‘becoming-woman’, which is really a ‘return to nature’ or to a feminised earth goddess: a ‘becoming-nature’.

All this is to say that, through his minoritarian status (i.e. within the asymmetrical power relations of topic), Joel Thibodeau’s vocal-subject initiates a process of escape from what might be heard as the ‘typical’, normative, wholly unremarkable and in this way almost ‘unhearable’ country song. Yet this escape route is made through the soundworld of country, of everything in country that is not straight and not male and not ‘American’; as ‘indigene’ of the country music landscape – guerrilla in this ‘asymmetrical’ war – the vocal-subject knows all the secret passageways and lines of flight.

Deerhoof Vs. Evil: Satomi Matsuzaki as Truth Process

For me, this line of argument could only lead to Deerhoof. Satomi Matsuzaki, as vocal-subject, appears as the very quintessence of the West’s celebrated Other. A small, East Asian woman, her vocal persona is unambiguously small, East Asian and female. Not only does it stand in an asymmetrical topical relationship to the muscular guitar rock, knotty jazz and spacey grooves that the band traverse, but in its childlike flimsiness, its lack of nuance and absolute vacuum of what we’d recognise as ‘emotional’ grain – those sobs and shivers and lumps and chokes that ‘emotive’ singers pour into their performances to signify feeling – it stands in opposition to all vocals in Western pop music. It is in some ways the absolute opposite of the stereotypical ‘black’ voice, with all its intricately contoured chestiness and power: the vocal ideal that stands as a yardstick for ‘good singing’ on shows like The X Factor.

Deerhoof’s oeuvre, their albums and their songs themselves range restively between styles, settling on what could be exemplary classic rock riffs before stepping sideways in key and texture, launching into carillons of synths or paring down to weird monophonic guitar figures. They move in and out of recognisable topical worlds, sometimes moving rapidly through successive tableaux of what could be conventional rock songs (on their older records), sometimes settling into weird hybrid styles that combine rhythms, timbres and structures from different topics (on their more recent records), but what is significant is that Matsuzaki’s vocal-subject remains an alien presence within all these soundworlds. This is largely down to the heaviness and rawness of the guitars and drums, that refer to punk and garage rock, but also to what cannot be totally exorcised from the structural play of the music: the earnest white-maleness of prog and math rock (and, occasionally, the earnest black-maleness of avant-jazz).

What is significant, then, is that the vocal-subject remains in the position of the Other, even as the instrumental forces change around her. We might pose the question then as to what possible topic Matsuzaki’s voice could be balanced within, could be a normative feature of (the same could be asked of Antony and Joel Thibodeau, of course). And the answer that Deerhoof seem to give is no topic. They suggest that there is no ‘home’ for a voice like Matsuzaki’s in any of the Western rock worlds that they reel through. This isn’t to deny the existence of Japanese groups like Melt-Banana and Plus-Tech Squeeze Box whose female Japanese vocal-subjects compliment avant-garde musical textures extraordinarily well. This asymmetry of power relations only materialises within a dominant cultural language: the different genres, and their ‘proper’ meanings and voices’, that we ‘know’ as a Western pop audience.

My argument for the particular strategy of resistance that the vocal-subject employs in Deerhoof’s music differs somewhat from the ‘minor music’ argument, in that rather than taking its effect in the process of listening – in the subversion of a ‘major’ language in the very act of comprehension – the vocal-subject is able to affect the instrumental forces themselves, through her very presence as ‘Other’. My hearing of Deerhoof (especially their earlier albums) is then that it is the very non-fit of Matsuzaki which forces the instrumental textures to change, to slip through keys and styles, to fragment and reconstitute. Heard in this way, it is no autonomous spirit of ‘progressiveness’ – the doomed mission of ‘70s prog bands to reach the ‘high art’ potential latent within rock, folk and metal – that motivates the stylistic eccentricity of Deerhoof’s experimentalism. Viewed in these terms, we can understand the vocal-subject as the aporia that arises in each instance, the universal remainder, which forces the instrumental paradigm to shift again, to try and accommodate her, explain her, normalise her, assimilate her. This is the power of the vocal-subject from the point of view of the instrumental forces (which are, from this perspective, driven by the desire to do pop, to find the chorus, to settle in a key, to achieve the (Fascist) dream of pop perfection).

But we should also understand the dynamics of the Deerhoof record from the vocal-subject’s perspective, as the core human presence with whom we should identify (even us guitar-playing white boys), and as the active agent of resistance against the instrumental forces. The most important quality of the vocal-subject’s relationship with the shifting soundworld is that she remains deeply engaged with each new section, adapting her rhythms, melodies and lyrics to it, making it her own. Unlike some vocal-subjects that I have mentioned, who take more of an ‘anti-lyric’ relationship to erratic accompaniments (Scott Walker as mentioned, Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu, Eugene Robinson of Oxbow), Matsuzaki’s vocal identity is formed of pure melody. Hence the descriptor ‘sing-song’ which gets applied very often to her vocal style. And, as pure melody, she penetrates immediately to the heart of every new textural construction, tapping into it on a level of pitch, beneath timbre, beneath noise, beneath distortion.

In the same way, she evades the ‘lyrical’ aspect of lyrics, by crafting words which sit between symbolist poetry and total nonsense, often unintelligible, as well as singing occasionally in Japanese which, for most of the listenership, will also be completely unintelligible. In this way, too, she sets herself against the white European male tradition that famously celebrates language and the structuring of the world through language above all else. A natural comparison here would be with the music of Ponytail, in which Willy Siegel generally evades language and lyric, meeting the rock tracks with her own howls and whoops, making at the same time a comparable gesture of oppositionality from the position of an autonomous female otherness. But Siegel’s power to affect the substance of the track is compromised by the asymmetry of production, as well as her position largely outside of the structural development of the music, floating free of pitch, rhythm and harmony. Deerhoof’s vocal-subject appears at the very centre of every new musical structure, with the same unconquerable self-possession. She remains radically self-assertive, through the arcane logic of her words and the impenetrability of her vocal personality. In this sense, as a musical Other that no musical manoeuvre can fully assimilate, she has something of the Lévinasian Other to her: wholly unknowable. To be encountered by a vocal-subject like Matsuzaki, who is neither prepared to use lyrics to express herself as a typical bourgeois individual song subject (the ‘white’ voice) nor to fill her vocal physicality with all the non-linguistic expressive markers of deep feeling, of unequivocal human authenticity (the ‘black’ voice), invites us as listeners to adopt something like Lévinas’s ethics. Deerhoof present us with a rather more challenging task of meeting a musical Other – the ‘other singing human’ whose musical apparition invites us to (attempt to) know them and their experience, through the song as a whole – than in music which features vocalists who show us their emotions (or their sexuality or their authenticity) by layering on the requisite performative signifiers.

But it is not so much Lévinas’s ethics that can illuminate this particular hearing of what I’d call Deerhoof’s political strategy, as the ethics of Alain Badiou, as outlined in his Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil. Matsuzaki’s incorruptible remainder, appearing at the heart of every new configuration of style, metre or key, preventing it from sealing itself into obviousness, forcing it to move on in another bid to interpellate her: this tenacity can be related to Badiou’s concept of the truth principle. For Badiou, the encounter with the Other constitutes an encounter with the Real: the unseen, unacknowledged factor in any supposedly ‘total’, balanced and integrated situation (his key examples include the proletariat within capitalism, and the immigrant workers within French society). They constitute the factor that cannot be acknowledged if the dominant structures of a situation are to maintain their belief in their own consistency, integrity, logic and validity; the Real is, ‘in a situation, in any given symbolic field, the point of impasse, or the point of impossibility, which precisely allows us to think the situation as a whole’ (Badiou 2012: xvii).

Badiou’s formula for ethical action, those actions which constitute an ethical life, involves a commitment to a ‘truth’ – the belief in a break with the status quo which occurs in what he terms an ‘Event’ – which cannot be verified but must instead be carried and supported by a Subject in their ongoing actions. The Subject must proceed in the full belief that the Event has taken place, and live that truth which bears witness to the unjust domination of the situation from which it breaks. For this reason, a truth-procedure must depart from an encounter with the Real (‘a happening which escapes all “normality” (xvii)’). For Deerhoof, the ‘situation’ in which this encounter happens is Western pop music – instruments, keys, metres – musical matter which coheres into what we know to be style and genre, the structure of the pop song, the musical forms that we can reduce to these terms. And the appearance of the vocal-subject-as-Other, the radically non-Western, non-blues, non-rock voice of Satomi Matsuzaki, functions as this ‘essential encounter’, occurring at the very edge of the ‘Void’ of the situation, those voices who cannot be included in the freedom and human expressivity, the authenticity and supposed universality, of rock music as it stands.

Yet it would be too easy (and too problematic) to hear Matsuzaki as Other (or ‘Event’) within these tracks, in light of whose appearance we might attempt to identify with the guitars or drums as 'ethical subjects'. As vocalist, she challenges us to identify with her as vocal-subject, despite her refusal to signify with easy emotive tropes or a clear lyrical persona. We are helped, here, by Badiou’s ethics, through which we might identify with this vocal-subject as Subject committed to a truthful decision (which could mean nothing more than the decision, as someone with a vocal quality very rarely heard in rock music, to sing and keep singing and appear fully ‘herself’ as a vocal persona and lyricist). Badiou’s ethics takes a clear stance against the ethics of theorists like Lévinas, Jacques Derrida and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, which he sees as predicated on victimhood. While they might understand ethics as beginning with our infinite responsibility for the Other, and a humanism that begins with this encounter and continues by acknowledging the utter impossibility of speaking for or representing them in any way, Badiou’s ‘affirmationionist’ project begins with the affirmation of the possibility of a Subject, which is always the Subject of a particular truth. For Badiou, a truth itself must be universally true – indifferent to difference – which troubles the absolute, unrepresentable particularity of every human experience key to the post-colonialists’ project.

Thus, I remember in the Pitchfork review of their latest album Breakup Song a complaint that ‘someone with a looser, more impulsive style … might fare better’ as vocalist in some of Deerhoof’s music. (What does ‘fare better’ even mean here? What is the ‘good’ that ‘better’ implies?). Such a reaction would suggest that, even on these albums whose richer, more heterogeneous textures would appear to aim for a less defined, less dominant stylistic language in which to contain Matsuzaki, she still sticks out, still fails to cohere into the reviewer’s idea of good taste or carefully cultivated eccentricity.

Badiou allows us to return to the idea of the vocal-subject’s capacity to ‘name’ the elements of the song world, as a kind of transformatory process, by making a distinction between the ‘language’ of the song’s (objective) situation and the ‘subject-language’ of the situation as the vocal-subject inhabits it.
  1. First, Badiou concedes that the elements of a situation have to be ‘named’ in order for humans to be able to discuss them, ‘to socialize their existence and arrange them in terms of their interests’ (81). For Deerhoof, this might mean the necessity of maintaining certain topical ‘rules’, which allow ‘stylistic’ references to cloy together, as well as regular time signatures and tonalities.
  2. "Every truth is…concerned with the elements of the situation, since its process is nothing other than their examination from the perspective of the event. In this sense, the truth-process identifies these elements, and some-one who enters into the composition of a subject of truth will certainly contribute to this identification by using the language of the situation… From this point of view, the truth-process passes through the language of the situation, just as it passes through its every knowledge. (81)" So, for Deerhoof, this might mean that Matsuzaki enters into, engages with and uses the musical materials (melodic lines, structural boundaries, rhythmic motifs) in order to occupy the texture in her own way.
  3. Fundamentally, as Badiou says, ‘a truth changes the names of the elements in the situation’ (82). The guitar lines might no longer cohere in the same way, the downbeat may no longer function as the downbeat, the keynote may no longer function as the keynote but may even sound dissonant in the new key.
  4. It is here that Badiou attests to the existence of a ‘subject-language (the language of the subjective situation’ which exists simultaneously to the ‘language of the objective situation’ and ‘enables the inscription of a truth’ (82). He goes on: "The important thing is that the power of a truth, directed at opinions, forces the pragmatic namings (the language of the objective situation) to bend and change shape upon contact with the subject-language. It is this and only this that changes the established codes of communication, under the impact of truth." Thus the coherence of the musical physics (clear key areas, predictable structures, regular phrase lengths and recurring melodies) are ‘bent and change shape’ as the singer engages with them and draws them out into her own idiosyncratic shapes and structures.
Whether the ‘subject-language’ in my analogy is the vocal line itself, the song as vocal song, or Deerhoof’s music in general (as inhabiting the ‘situation’ of rock music) could be disputed. It may well actually be Deerhoof per se that is the 'truth procedure' here, in their enactment of a Badiouan blueprint for progressive change.8

The title of Deerhoof’s 2011 album pitted them against Evil. For Badiou, evil is everything that threatens the Subject’s fidelity to the truth of the Event. This can include a betrayal of the truth, in which the voice might change or soften itself and its idiosyncrasies in order to fit the strictures of the musical topics, but it can also include the terror in which an absolute truth is enforced by the Subject, coming to dominate a situation itself (Badiou’s examples include Stalinism). Matsuzaki as vocal-subject bearing witness to her truth arguably manages to resist these paths. Her joyful fidelity to her own unique voice dissolves each of the band’s attempt to settle on anything approaching a conventional, ‘known’ musical style. The vocal-subject returns and returns the same in each new situation. Her ‘truth’ is in this sense ‘universal’. Unlike Kurt Cobain, she cannot be overpowered and refuses to suffer, despite her meekness. Unlike Antony, her minority status articulates not just an absolute and irreconcilable difference but an indifference to difference, an imperviousness to the constantly changing forces surrounding her. And as a result, through all their mutations, Deerhoof will never ‘sound like’ anything except Deerhoof.

1 Perhaps this gives a clue to what was so ‘nu’ about ‘nu-metal’. However, as their detractors would probably suggest, by introducing a more ‘ballady’ pop-rock vocal style into these more ‘extreme’ genres, both Linkin Park and Evanescence are actually invoking something closer to a ‘normal’, ‘unmarked’ vocal style, effecting a kind of ‘reactionary struggle’ in the name of an individualistic, solipsistic humanism, in which their situational ‘minority’ status stems from adherence to a more general ‘majority’ position.

2 For intersectionality, see, for example, Crenshaw 1989.

3 For the Other, see Lévinas 1991, Said 2003, etc.

4 I would argue that this is one of the things that separated them from also-rans like the Hives and the Vines. Such effects, to my mind, seriously problematise some of the more critical stances in Reynolds’s Retromania. I hope to write a critique along these lines sometime in the future.

5 In many ways, Cloetta Paris extends the fascinating asymmetries pioneered in the 'feminine turn' of punk music: Riot Grrrl perhaps, but also Tweepop, C86, 'indiepop' in general. This music was all about a radical softness, setting a defiantly fey, delicate, cute and melodic vocal-subject loose within a variety of rock worlds, from retro guitar pop to noisy garage punk. Nirvana were already taking notes, via their famous link to the Vaselines. What became the defining characteristic of indiepop music - the 'sweet' melodies - was only the secret weapon of those vocal-subjects that (unlike in Riot Grrrl) had relinquished any attempt to fight noise with noise - see Abebe 2005.

6 And this is why the attempts to orchestrate these older tracks on the recent Cut the World live album failed so miserably. Never mind that they'd never be able to compare with some of the fantastic newer arrangements, for songs like 'Epilepsy is Dancing' and 'Another World', and that some of the harmonic choices were very strange; any arrangement of 'Cripple and the Starfish' for orchestra would automatically risk compromising the pivotal patheticness of the original.

7 N.B. When I say an indigenous presence within country music, I don’t mean literally taking the place of the real indigenous peoples of America, who have their own musical tradition which sounds nothing like the ‘timeless’, ‘idyllic’ ‘Americana’ of country music, but more of an imagined indigenous presence in the ‘soundworld’ of country music.

8 Or it might be this essay that is the truth process, for affirming the unfalsifiable belief that the music of Deerhoof has anything in common with Alain Badiou’s ethics. If this essay manages to changes anyone’s ‘hearing’ of Deerhoof, then the ‘subject-language’ that I’m outlining in these essays has had its effect.

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