Politics of Feminism and Sound

The political changes that have occurred in America during the last 100 years are intimately tied to music, the complex soundscape of our culture reflecting political upheaval and social change . As Jacques Attali said, “music is prophecy” (36), the mechanism through which a society’s fears, angers, and joys are refracted as sonic creation. One incident of music giving voice to a political movement was the connection between late 20th century feminists and the rising girl-rock scene blossoming in the punk underground. These women “made audible the new world” (36) that they wished to live in, a world where women are not only powerful, furious, and strong but understood and accepted as equal emotional and psychological beings. This research embodies the relationship between politics and sound because as a comparative study of the music and theories of feminists in the late 20th century, it illuminates the effect of an evolving sonic community on a crucial political movement.

This Clip of Bikini Kill Live is a prime example of how girl rockers of the punk underground were pioneering the political agenda of third wave feminists of the 80’s and 90’s. You can hear Kathleen Hanna, the band’s lead singer, shout “this is cellulite, this is what it look like…it’s real…you don’t see this on MTV!” before launching into “Don’t Need You”, a song about female autonomy. With words like “we don’t need your protection…does it scare you boys that we don’t need you?”  these women used music, a passionate and direct wire to raw emotion, to empower themselves as free-thinking, radically independent individuals.

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HELLO WORLD, I’M YOUR WILD GIRL: Third Wave Feminism as a Sonic Community

The media and the music industry dump terabytes of content onto the masses constantly, from music to images to the sordid details of its star’s lives. This content undeniably changes its consumer’s soundscape and sonic pallet. Music is, however, also political, historically embodying and vocalizing the sociological state of the union.

The emergence of females as powerful sound sources in pop culture and the music industry signified a change for women everywhere. With women like Cherie Currie and Joan Jett writhing around on stages screaming their lungs out, or later Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill smashing guitars and squeezing her leg fat, proclaiming self-love in front of large rowdy crowds, the soundscape of what is meant to be a female in the western world was fundamentally changing. Sonic content touched the feminist movement in a unique way, shaping the way the thinking, feeling woman was perceived.

For example, the stereotype of women as being intrinsically weak and puny has only recently begun to be digested by feminist ideology. Could the first major chunk have been cleaved from this obstacle due largely in part to the efforts of she-rockers? Take the emergence of powerful women in the music industry and compare them to the changing role of a woman in society, and what do you see? Kathleen Hanna once said that “everywhere I looked, I saw sexism. I had never been looking before. And once I had that lens on, I just got more and more rageful.” Her role as a female creator of sonic content allowed her to translate her dissatisfaction and anger into something that could be consumed by the population and affect its perception.

Music, according to Jacques Attali, is “a herald, for change is inscribed in noise faster than it transforms a society.” The emergence of women as sonic powerhouses in rock & roll and pop culture projected the sprouting and growth of women’s rights in America. As these iconic women showcased the anger and rage at their oppression they felt through music, the masses were in turn exposed to women in a new light. Angry, powerful women changed the public’s perception of feminism, altering it fundamentally through its growth and elevating the focus from merely seeking political and legal equality to understanding women as dynamic human beings with a full range of emotions.

The angry noise of 80’s and 90’s girl rockers, or riot grrrls as they were called, added new energy and body to second wave feminism, giving birth to the third wave. This second wave, the politically charged movement that took hold in the early 60’s, was based mainly on obtaining equality in the technical sense. It grew from the suffrage-focused first wave of the early 20th century. These women fought for legal rights, such as owning property, abolition of de facto inequalities, reproductive rights, and against domestic abuse. However, when women brought their desire for equality into the sonic realm, it changed the goals of feminism, focusing it more on understanding and accepting the emotional and psychological side of women rather than just equalizing them in legal terms. This is because music is intimately emotional, a direct wire to pure feeling that could now be tapped into in order to understand women in a new way.

The sonic community of third wave feminism was loud and furious; wailing guitars, smashing drums and powerful, crude lyrics rejecting classical ideas of femininity. Bands with names like “The Butchies” or “Jack off Jill” sonically cut their hearts out on stage, singing about issues like rape, violence, homophobia, and misogyny.  They weren’t just playing the boy’s game, they were making it their own. Third wave feminism focused mainly on female empowerment, and the sound of riot grrrls embodied feminine rage.  How did these two closely-linked worlds interact? The purpose of this research project is to explore the dynamic relationship between sound and feminism as it emerged in the emotionally-charged third wave. What barriers did these women break down? Where did they place their efforts and what was the nature of their relationship with feminism, in scholarly theory or street protest alike? To what extent did the music of powerful women affect how females were perceived or how they perceived themselves? Through a comparative study of the sounds and theories of feminism in the late 20th century, I hope to illuminate the effect of an evolving sonic community on it’s constituents.

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Elevator music: The forgotten noises of ambient sound

In considering the sonic content that makes up my life, I couldn’t help but notice the abundance of passive noise, sounds that I don’t even notice because they’re so commonplace. In this Audiography, my “Elevator Music,” the passive, background sounds that facilitate a day to day existence are documented in context of the role they play in everyday rituals and habits and what implications they hold.

BLINDS: After you wake up, you can usually hear the sound your roommate makes when opening up the blinds to let the sunlight in. There’s been much less of it, now that it’s really winter. The blinds sound almost crudely mechanical, a utilitarian noise byproduct of another action.

PILL: The shrink wrapping around your morning medication is really way too complicated for reason to explain but you crack it open anyways – the sharp, popping noise is a ritual of sorts that you just as easily forget as soon as you swallow with some water

HANGERS: The soft “snick, snick” of a plastic hanger gliding over the aluminum bar in your closet makes an appearance whenever you consult your wardrobe: However, this noise is muffled by your mental chatter before it can even be considered as a noise worth giving attention to.

DOOR: The sound of a door – a smooth swish, the gentle “click” of validation, and the louder sound of locks slipping past each other as you tug the door open is so commonplace that it transcends association with any one emotion or state of mind. You hear in the morning and late at night; when you’re tired, anxious, excited, or resigned; alone or with a huge gaggle of people. You here it when you want to go home to the dorm, and when you want to really go home go home because you’re sick of the day to day noise that crowds your thinking spaces.

BREAKFAST: When you’re having breakfast outside of New World Tortilla before it opens in the few spare minutes before your math class starts you focus on reading the paper online, or checking your e-mail or finishing an assignment. The concurrent burble of the morning time around flows you – the clatter of dishes, beeps and creaks and the radio fading in and out, maybe making a brief cameo in your steam of consciousness but never really elevating itself to “the object to be observed”(Chion, 1994). These sounds remain “a vehicle for something else,” (Chion, 1994), just a small blip on your radar reminding you that life continues outside your own bubble of consciousness.

SNIFFLES: The byproduct of the pervasive cold weather, the integral soundbit of a snuffling stuffed nose doesn’t even get a head turn of recognition anymore.

SALAD: The noises of eating are often dubbed over by conversation or forgotten, if your mind is busy. They’re frequently gross and never enjoyable, so no one complains when they settle to the bottom of our consciousness.

LINESUPS: As you try to desperately finish your programming assignment for computer science class before it’s due, the chatter your friends make fills the space around you like it often does, a sort of soft, ambient padding against the admittedly silent and jarring sound of being alone. It does however tend to decrease productivity.

FUEGO: Another sound of utility, you barely even notice the flick of a lighter anymore as you light candles or watch your friends have a cigarette.

HOMEWORK: Music fills your room as you whittle away at this week’s assignments. You’re so attached to that dear machine, it would seem as if you’d be attuned to the clicking keys, but this noise is covered up by all the other traffic running through your mind.

If the resonance of sounds “entails adjacency, sympathy and the collapse of the boundary between the perceiver and the perceived” (Erlman, 2010) then even the most seemingly insignificant noises contribute to the stage life is acted out on. Considering these resultant noises through a new, more critical lens let me “take control of the sensory experience” (Horowitz, 2012) I have everyday and see the soundtrack of my life in a new light.


Works Cited

Seth Horowitz, The Science and Art of Listening (New York: The New York Times, 2012)

Veit Erlmann, Reason and Resonance: A History of Modern Aurality (New York: Zone Books, 2010)

Michel Chion, “The Three Listening Modes.” The Sound Studies Reader. Comp. Jonathan Sterne. New York: Routledge, 2012




Soundscape: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass’s account of his life from a slave in bondage to a free man is an intense story, heavy with fear, anger, and the longing for freedom. The role that sound plays in this story is prominent and sound is a vital part of Douglass’s narrative. These sounds were a part of Douglass’s life as much as the sights he saw or the things he touched. To most accurately capture the soundscape of the antebellum south as Douglass portrays it, the most vital keynote sounds must be utilized in a serious, dramatic manor of storytelling. The role of silence versus noise, singing and group song, and the sounds of southern labor are the keynotes of the soundscape in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, as they contribute to the major themes of Douglass’s tale while enriching his compelling, descriptive narrative.

The sound backdrop for most of Douglass’s narrative is the grueling noise of labor. What this would sound like is hard to imagine; no cars rattling by, no airplanes yawning overhead, no electronic chatter. What this soundscape should be characterized by is the sound of labor, bondage, and slavery. The snapping flash of the cowhide whip, the “heart rendering shrieks”(3, 2) of flesh being from the backs of the “gory victim” (4, ~) and the dripping of hot blood where the everyday sounds that Douglass endured. Douglass and slaves like him took the “cursing, raving, cutting and slashing”(7, 1) from the “savage monster[s]”(3,2) that were their overseers, and were powerless to do anything but silently comply.

The clamor of sounds that describe life on the plantation is directly countered by the silence of the northern shipyard. The noise of the plantation is a screaming, screeching cry for freedom while the silent shipyard, free from “deep oaths or horrid curses on the laborer” (67,1) represents the tranquility of the free men who own their labor and lives. In the midst of the silent workers, “all seemed to go smoothly on.” (67,1). Silence equating freedon and noise representing fear and oppression frequent Douglass’s narrative and are an important part in the recreation of the soundscape. For example, the soundtrack of Douglass teaching his fellow slaves to read in the Sabbath school would be a silent one, marked only by the occasional shuffling, low voices and chairs scraping against the floor. Douglass himself says that the slave owners would rather see their slaves engaged in “degrading sports” such as “wrestling, boxing and drinking whiskey” (48, ~), all loud and noisy events, than “to see [them] behaving like intellectual, moral, and accountable beings” (48, ~) in silence.

Finally, the role of singing in Douglass’s story is very prominent and would be an important part of the soundscape. However, Douglass presents singing in a different light, a negative one. He says that “slaves sing the most when they are the most unhappy”(9, 1).  The songs of the slaves were “sung to drown [their] sorrow” (9,1) and therefore the songs in the soundtrack of this story would underly the pain and agony the slaves endured. Minor keys and slow, weary melodies would characterize these songs. Struggling, gasping voices and drawn out notes would convey the desperate state of the slaves, while the sound of many voices blending together would represent the large body of enslaved people. The songs of the slaves would, overall be a major part of the soundtrack for Douglass’s life.

To paint the soundscape of slavery for a dramatic, tense retelling of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, sounds able to convey the desperate affliction of the slaves would be vital. The role of sound in the narrative of the life of any person is to generate powerful emotions and describe the world around them. These keynote sounds and sound themes as described above would accurately portray the intensity of the journey to freedom and would supplement the moving tale of liberation from the dark chains of slavery.