The Sex Revolts has just come out in French (trans. Samuel Roux) on Éditions La Découverte and was this very week described as "irritating but stimulating" by Le Monde - which I think is a fair description of both the intention and the outcome, actually!
(I thought the French subtitle was an error for a moment there - but "gender" in French = "genre". Which is interesting if you think about it, being a genreologist and all.)
A bit more than a year ago the book came out in Germany, also for the first time, on Ventil Verlag. And here is an in-depth interview about the book and its I did with Julian Weber for Taz.
It came from different sources and with different inflections. But there was a general interest in the shocking, the abject, the dark side of human psychology. Some of it came out of industrial culture, the evolution from Throbbing Gristle to power electronics outfits like Whitehouse, Ramleh, and Sutcliffe Jugend. In the latter case, it’s a band name inspired by the Yorkshire Ripper, a serial killer. At the same time, as a development out of hardcore punk and noise rock in America, you had groups like Killdozer or Butthole Surfers who had songs about grotesque or upsetting things. Live there might be video projections of horrible accidents or surgery. Big Black were major figures on this scene and when they broke up Steve Albini formed a group called Rapeman – a name that got a lot of negative responses, in the U.K. certainly. Songs about the killing of women were almost a stock theme for a certain kind of alternative rock band. On the fringe of the alternative music culture, selling in the same kind of fanzine shops or records shops, there were also zines dedicated to murder or other forms of extreme human behaviour. ANSWER ME! was one in the early Nineties – they did issues themed around on suicide, murder, rape. You had publishers that specialized in this kind of thing, like Feral House.
Now, the horrible side of life and the bizarre freaky evil things humans do are fascinating, there’s no denying that. And some of these groups were really powerful as sonic experiences. And you could argue that this kind of subject matter is a legitimate subject for artistic exploration, confronting the ‘dark side of human nature’ or the extremes of desire. You might defend the early work of Nick Cave in the Birthday Party or with the Bad Seeds on that level and place it in a tradition of decadent and surrealist writing, Lautreamont, etc.
Nonetheless, there did seem to be something oddly fixated about the interest in the murder of women. It was noticeable that the songwriters almost always wrote from the point of view of the man doing the killing, rather than from the point of view of the victim.
There were a lot of things going on with this culture - a desire to shock, to push further than had been gone before, a cynical and nihilistic worldview, and a sort of hunger for stimulation, which leads to developing a tolerance for horrible images, so you need to keep upping the extremism.
But there was also an impulse to goad bourgeois liberals and upset sensitive people – rooted in the same psychology and - in some cases the same politics - as the current alt-right drive to trigger “snowflakes” and to reject political correctness. So for instance, the guy behind ANSWER ME! – Jim Goad – went on to write the book The Redneck Manifesto: How Hillbillies, Hicks, and White Trash Became America's Scapegoats. Most recently he published a book called The New Church Ladies: The Extremely Uptight World of "Social Justice." “Church Ladies” is a reference to powerful older women involved in the social life of churches, organizing events and fundraisers etc – and by implication it references a entire matriarchal tradition in America that goes back to the temperance movement – basically the idea is that these women are priggish do-gooders trying to stop men having fun, whether it’s drinking alcohol or watching porn or telling offensive jokes. Goad was been cited as an influence on Gavin McInnes, formerly of Vice and founder of the Proud Boys movement.
In my memory female bands like Babes in Toyland (who are mentioned in your book later on), Frightwig, and many more were active in that very same scene. I didn’t take notice of any hate against them, (but perhaps from todays perspective, there was).
They were probably considered cool hard-rocking girls. And some of the groups, like Babes and early Hole, were exploring similar zones of abjection or body-horror, but from a different angle. Courtney Love was a big fan of Big Black – and the early Hole records were very noisy, quite different from the more focused, anthemic sound of Live Through This. She said something along the lines that Big Black, underneath all the nastiness of the lyrics, were just sad, sensitive, lonely boys – she could sense a pathos underneath all the vicious noise that seemed to want to hurt your ears. And there’s probably something to that. There is a phase that boys in their early teens go through where they are interested in all things dark and horrible – it might lead them to read books on serial murderers, or the concentration camps. Or an interest in horror movies. It’s kind of an attempt to harden the character armor and be cynical and cold, with a dark view of the world. Alice Cooper said that his fanbase was 13 to 15 year old boys!
The “race”-based fears and the fears about an unleashing of sexuality were linked at this point. You had the fear of these “jungle” rhythms and the wild dancing they encouraged – a loosening of inhibitions. Instead of the romantic pop and slower dance modes of the Fifties, this was music that incited young people to move in more abandoned and overtly sexual ways. The fear was that girls would become sexually awakened by this intensely rhythmic music that appealed to the body very directly, and also by these charismatic, disreputable singers – who had derived their vocal and performance style from black music. There is a Cramps poster that is based on an early anti-rock’n’roll leaflet: the slogan is something like “Does Rock and Roll lead to Sin and Disease?” It’s trying to scare both parents and kids with the idea that this music leads to sex before marriage, promiscuity, and venereal disease.
Yes, absolutely, our book is not denying the liberating energies of rock’n’roll or the various youth cultures that sprang out of it, or the idealism involved in the counter-culture. The desire to break away from domesticity and the traps of a conventional bourgeois life is both understandable and gives the music a power and energy that is compelling to this day. It’s just that it was often inflected with a misogynist aspect, with women and “the feminine” associated with everything that is holding the young man back from a life of freedom and heroic adventure. Of course, domesticity is just as much, or even more, a trap for young women - indeed at the same time as rock is busting loose, the anomie and boredom of suburbia inspires to Betty Friedan to write her 1963 book The Feminine Mystique, which kickstarts the second wave of feminism. Although the counterculture wanted to transform life radically in a lot of respects, often the attitudes to women and the roles they were assigned were very traditional. Even the idealized images of women in psychedelia tended to make them into the ethereal dream-women, seen as healing and caring companions, rather than active figures embarking on adventures of their own.
It's hard to reconstruct how subversive growing your hair even a little longer than the norm was in those days. In their early days, The Beatles hair barely reached their collars but it was considered a huge transgression – very daring and, for their female fans, exciting. To have your ears covered up by hair, if you were a man was almost an outrage! As a publicity gimmick to get his career going, David Bowie started a pretend movement called the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men. He managed to get on BBC television and talked with a straight face about the kind of insults that young men with long hair like himself used to get. Which was doubtless true and based on real abuse said to him in the street, even if the movement he created was a kind of media prank. People were very unsettled by blurring of gender boundaries. As well as being seen as effeminate, long hair was considered a mark of bohemia – having it would disqualify you from any kind of normal job in an office or public service. You had to be pretty brave and uncompromising to go through life with long hair – meaning, just down to your shoulders.
Bohemianism, though, was about scruffiness. There was another kind of long hair that came out of flamboyance and an interest in style. That kind of long hair for men coded as a kind of dandy-ish vanity and self-preoccupation that was considered unmanly and decadent. Men weren’t supposed to pay much attention to their appearance. That was a feminine domain. And if you did show signs of overt care with your hair or clothing, people might assume you were gay.
What happened in the Sixties was this approach to self-adornment or grooming drifted from the margins into the mainstream. Things that only certain daring people at art school or in subcultures like mod had done become much more common, such that by the early Seventies your average clerical office worker has hair down to their collar and covering their ears, and might wear a pink shirt or a brightly colored tie.
But men taking an interest in “feminine” things like style or grooming doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to change their attitudes about women. You can be a dandy and a misogynist – and also not want to go fight for your country.
With the hippies in America, the long hair was a form of soft protest against the draft, you were making yourself look as far from a soldier with cropped hair as possible. Remember in America, they had the call up, but the UK didn’t participate in the Vietnam War, and compulsory national service had ended in 1961 – there was a whole generation of young British men coming through who didn’t have to toughen up with two years in the Army.
In America, the “I’m not fit to fight” aspect was one of multiple meanings of long hair – another was kind of “natural”, wilderness look, that carried over into growing beards and so forth. So in that sense, very different from the dandy, mod sensibility.
Of those three, Iggy Pop is the one where his libido is mixed up with militarism. The Stooges’s music feels ballistic, like it’s on the warpath. On “Search and Destroy”, Iggy’s describing himself in terms of a commando squad on a mission, or a guided missile. He sings “I’m a street-walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm”. So he’s a fast-moving killing machine of a feline predator, and instead of love or even blood, his heart is full of napalm, the incendiary weapon. This is an image he’s using while the Vietnam War is still going on, when just about the most shocking image of that era is the girl running screaming down a road having torn her napalm-soaked clothes off. It’s the complete opposite of hippiedom, it’s already the beginnings of punk – hate and war replace love and peace. In songs like that and “Death Trip” and “Raw Power”, Iggy’s about summoning up within himself of the will to power, and going into the dark zone where self-aggrandisement and self-destruction become the same thing. The power of the music is undeniable, but you have to confront that it is tapping into dark energies.
Iggy carried on using militaristic imagery – he did the album Soldier in 1980 (which includes a song titled “I’m a Conservative”) and in the early Nineties he did a record called American Caesar. The title comes from a book about General MacArthur, who was a military genius who also entertained ideas about running for President. “Caesarism” – the exaltation of military prowess and seeing it as a qualification for political leadership – is on the edges of fascism. Trump has that bizarre, pathetic obsession with having generals in his cabinet and wanting to throw huge military parades.
Bowie doesn’t really go in for war imagery much, but he did of course have his “strong leader” phase, when cocaine and half-understood Nietzsche and his readings of the occult all combined in his addled head, and he started going on about how he’d like to rule the world. At that time in the mid-Seventies, he would talk about how liberalism and permissiveness had gone too far and that it all needed to be “cleaned up” – which is similar to the line of talk that Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver was making, also in the mid-Seventies, when he goes on about a “rain coming to wash all the filth and scum off the streets” of New York. Bowie was probably inspired by some of the depravity and decadence that he’d seen – and possibly participated in – while living in Los Angeles. So this preoccupation with filth is similar to the Freikorps imagery of swamps and threatening floods (again, very Trump and resonant with imagery used by a lot of xenophobic, authoritarian, ‘strongman’ aspiring politicians around the world).
At different points in the Seventies, Bowie identifies himself (and Lou Reed, his ally) with decadence, and then later on, he imagines being the strong leader who’ll end the decadence. He’s also picked up a vibe at huge arena concerts where it gets to feel like he’s like a messiah or dictator, and that he could tell the audience to do anything. He’s aware of the manipulative power of stage gestures, huge volume, and lights.
You also cite Nietzsche’s aphorism: „Under conditions of peace the warlike man attacks himself“ to describe the self destruction but also the „soldier like“ orchestration of bands like Radio Birdman and the Stooges: How much of the Stooges‘ music is playful provocation and how much is a subconscious rapport about troubles with their soldier fathers? Obviously it went out of hand, xxx
“Playful” doesn’t seem like what’s going on here – it’s pretty earnest, pretty serious, pretty heartfelt. There’s a real identification with the military. And it’s a lot to do with wanting to live a heroic life, a life of adventure. What are the avenues for that in life? Well, you could join the army, or you could join a rock’n’roll band. (There are others, obviously). But the parallel between being in a band and being in a military unit have struck many performers. Patti Smith went through a phase of wearing aviator’s goggles and seeing her group as a sort of roaming squadron. In the metal world, this sort of parallelism between military and music is really common. You come to town, make a huge noise that sounds like explosions, strike all these heroic postures, and then like a band of Vikings, you wassail and frolic with the local women, before moving on to raid another town. A tour is like a tour of duty.
The late 1960s are widely assumed as to being the Golden Age of Rock. The album format, radio airplay, tv-appearances would help promoting major rockstars to the mainstream, the velocity of touring would transport (mostly male) stars like Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix to world wide fame in just a few years. „Too much too soon“, the excessive lifestyle, the sex, the drugs: Did the myth-making-machine of Rock actually promote sexual liberation, drug use and antisocial behavior? And what happened when it collided with the traditional values and gender roles of the mainstream?
Over the long run, rock music -and then later rave culture – has normalized and banalised what once used to be bohemian behavior. Ordinary people get up to incredible debauches in terms of chemical intake in an average weekend. But it’s probably overstating it to say that rock is entirely responsible for this. After all, people have drunk enormous amounts for centuries, when the occasion calls for it. It’s not like people before rock’n’roll were living pure, restrained lives necessarily. They were getting absolutely off their heads on Martinis or beer or whatever. I think rock just helped to add a few more intoxicants to the menu.
It probably contributed to the sexual revolution, but more significant would be the invention of the pill and the legalization of abortion. People in the pre-rock’n’roll era wanted to have sex before marriage just as much, it’s just that they had to be more discreet and they were more afraid of the consequences.
Nick Cave probably sees himself as a writer as much as stage performer – and he’s addressing the kind of themes and scenarios that inspire him, extremes of human emotion, desires taken to the limit. And a lot of what he’s exploring is part of a much longer history – the human condition, the kind of passions and failings and dark drives that fuel the tragedies or myths or legends. It’s not that topical or tied to the contemporary scene.
Morrissey was such a provocative and dissident figure in the Eighties, that his current politics is confusing and upsetting to fans. In the Eighties, the Smiths seemed like part of the opposition to Thatcherism and the values of consumerism, materialism, yuppiedom. Morrissey was promoting a radically fluid idea of sexual desire and sexual identity with his love songs that had no defined gender object. At the same time there was a delicious camp and playful vein of homo-eroticism running through many of the songs and the imagery on the record covers. Although there were nostalgic aspects to the Smiths and his comments about black music seemed blinkered, overall you felt like he was a progressive figure – and certainly a great original and a poet. You tended to give him the benefit of the doubt and think that a song like “Bengalis in Platforms” was an aberration, a misjudgment. Morrissey seemed to be the enemy of all kinds of bullying and to be on the side of the excluded, the persecuted, every minority or outcast group. But it is possible now to see that the nostalgic fixation on the English past that was always there has led him down a troubling path. It’s very sad to see him supporting Brexit and the For Britain party and complaining about left-wingers.
There is definitely a relationship between some elements in the German kosmiche music like Can, or Manuel Gottsching’s late Seventies records and E2:E4 in particular, with the way that house music and others kind of electronic dance music works. Structurally, with the circular patterns, the pulsations and caressing textures, and also in terms of how it affects the listener: hypnotic trance, a feeling of being wombed or floating in a benign space like the ocean or the cosmos. There is a line you can trace from psychedelia, through German kosmiche, to ambient music, to people like the avant-disco producer Arthur Russell, through to outfits like Basic Channel / Chain Reaction, or the Gas records, or Seefeel. It’s a radically androgynous music.
Riot Grrrl was very interesting as a cultural eruption, an explosion of zines and stances and provocations. As music, probably the more interesting stuff came later, with groups like Le Tigre and Sleater-Kinney (and the wonderful Portlandia could be considered an offshoot, in a way). For its immediate purposes of evangelizing and inciting young women, Riot Grrrl turned to the basic template of punk rock, for its directness and expressive power in terms of rage or defiance. Riot Grrrl tended to subordinate music to message, whereas the postpunk figures like the Slits and the Raincoats were also trying to experiment with form.
What I like about the introduction of your original version, you declare, you like the Stooges nevertheless. Meaning you work out their dark side, their problems, but you still like to get down to „I wanna be your dog“. In the light of #me too, this attitude has come under attack. There’s now a shame culture. If we have a review of Iggy’s new album „Free“, somebody will post a comment about him, having treated women in a bad way. What do you make out of that development?
A lot of the rockers – however inspiring or thrilling their music might be – got away with terrible stuff. Acknowledging the bad conduct – and the questionable or offensive or just out-dated attitudes in the lyrics – is possibly a way of keeping the other aspects of their music, that dynamic energy so that you can use it in your life, as a positive impetus. But maybe that’s too hard to do in many cases. With rock music or popular music generally, the music makes a direct, visceral appeal for the listener to commit to it totally; the artist or the song wants the listener to go along with its energy absolutely. Trying to do that while also retaining your ambivalence or moral detachment from it - that’s very difficult. It’s easier just to reject the work or the artist completely. And what do you do when the music itself is fueled by hostility or hatred?
It’s a tricky one - there isn’t an easy answer, an easy solution, to this question of what do we do with great art made by bad people. Or great art, that has some ugly or disturbing emotions or ideas in it. Each person has to make their own decision, about what they can make allowances for. It’s perhaps unreasonable to expect artists to be perfect beings in their private conduct, or have ideas and values that are in line with what we currently think is valid or righteous. You have to historicise and contextualize to some degree. But when artists are discovered to have done genuinely reprehensible things, it’s understandable if someone decides “I can’t have this in my life”. You can feel that the work is stained permanently.
In recent years, documentaries, autobiographies by/about Wayne Kramer and Klaus Dinger, to name just two, were published. And basically, that can be said about many artists, what came to light were stories of being victims: In the case of Kramer he was abused by his stepfather, in the case of Dinger, he suffered a romantic love relationship with a woman from Sweden). It might be much too essential, too monothematical, to combine a broken family life, a scattered life story with the artistic outcome, in what way, psychoanalysises can help to explain those factors?
It can be illuminating, but it’s also reductive – it limits the meaning of a song or album or an artist for the listener. A classic example of this is what happened with Joy Division. At the time of the release of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and Closer, almost nobody knew why Ian Curtis had killed himself. Only a few people around Factory Records knew about the marriage break up, the affair, the epilepsy and the depressive medication he was taking to deal with – the real-life factors that shaped the mood and the lyrics of those records and also his decision to end his life. But since the publication of his widow’s memoir, and the two films 24 Hour Party People and Control, this life-story of Curtis’s struggles has become the meaning of the songs, fixing them to a biography and a set of problems. It illuminates the songs to some extent but it also confines them.
There are cases where an artist is very public about this kind of thing – as with John Lennon on his first solo album, doing songs like “Mother” and “My Mummy’s Dead” and “Working Class Hero”. But generally it can only ever be a speculative thing, trying to psychoanalyse an artist by their songs or even their public statements. And it does run the risk of being reductive. It’s better to psychoanalyse the song, ask what the song “wants” or “fears”. That’s often what we’re trying to do with The Sex Revolts.
It’s probably most detectable in the migration of “punk” as an attitude, from the cultural left to the far right, as traced by Angela Nagle in her book. And some of the people already mentioned like Jim Goad (funnily enough “goad” in English mean to “poke” or “provoke” or “bait”) or Gavin McInnes are examples of how that punk impulse to trample on liberal pieties and desecrate sacred cows can so easily switch towards the reactionary.
Some of the figures involved in formulating punk as a sensibility, like Legs McNeil of Punk magazine, already went in for this liberal-baiting thing – deliberately using offensive words in order to trigger the righteous and right-on progressive. You had the side of punk (especially in the UK) that was earnestly left-wing and idealistic, aligned with things like Rock Against Racism. But there was another side that was cynical, nihilistic, anti-sentimental… and it’s easy to see how that sensibility could get captured by the right. Because it’s all about being callous, hard-hearted, not caring.
Not fascist, but certainly Social Darwinist and ruthlessly hyper-capitalistic, would be the value set of trap music. When Cardi B says “I'm a boss /You a worker, bitch” or Rae Sremmurd, early in their career, do a song like 2015’s “Up With Trump” (complete with a video in which someone wearing a Donald mask parties with them), you can see an identification with the ruling class – a desire to be an overlord, not an underdog; an intention to join the few and leave behind the many (an inversion of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party slogan ‘for the many, not the few’, itself derived from the poet Shelley). To be fair to Cardi B, she has campaigned in various anti-Trump causes. But even after he became President, Rae Sremmurd still cited Trump as a model because he represents “owning businesses, being bossed up”.
Yet trap is irresistible as music, so what do you? It’s the same dilemma as with the Rolling Stones and The Stooges. It’s also potent African-American expression with a prominent place in mass culture, so you have to see something valuable there. Perhaps we can take trap as a diagram of capitalist desire while also dancing to it.