Theses on Sleater-Kinney, pt. 1

In celebration of the Sleater-Kinney box set release (yes!), including full color vinyl, and next January’s new album (woo-hoo!), I’m sharing in today’s post an experimental writingsk-box-set-records piece of mine from 2003, which appeared in Cultural Studies <=> Critical Methodologies. Late in summer 2000, in a basement club at Oberlin College, I saw Sleater-Kinney for the first time. They put on amazing, amazing show (The White Stripes opened!), and repeated listenings to All Hands on the Bad One (2000) inspired me to subject the inspiration to prose, and to try the format of a set of theses.

As I note below, my ideas below have some correspondence to Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach” (1845), as I found Bad One to be distinctive in its aesthetic effectiveness, its political effectiveness, and the ways in which the songs implicated the singer and the fans in different moments in the circuits of production and consumption.

This piece long precedes, of course, the current debates about rockism and poptimism, and reflects my own becoming as a thinker. Below I’ve included six of eleven theses, and I’ll post the remaining five on Sunday. Enjoy—or let my younger self have it, via the comments below.

Theses on Sleater-Kinney (2003)

Abstract: Marx wrote the “Theses on Feuerbach” in 1845 in preparation of The German Ideology, which he co-authored with Friedrich Engels. Engels only discovered the “Theses” after Marx’s death, and he regarded them to be “the brilliant germ of the new world outlook.” In postmodernity, our outlooks are certainly less sweeping, and here I offer a set of cultural materialist theses on the sound of the all-female rock trio Sleater-Kinney, in a dialogue often faithful to Marx’s original work.

1

The chief defect of much previous post-punk (Sonic Youth, Bikini Kill, and Pavement, to begin) is that the materiality and responsibility of subjective, everyday life is conceived from standpoints of the abstract subject—urban dweller, riot grrl, or suburban malcontent. The preservation of the dialogic force of rock, in which the singer-song-music—the text, if you will—is phantasmatic extrapolation, refraction, a fiction, into which the lyric-music listener can situate herself comfortably: think Cibo Matto’s “Working for Vacation,” or nearly every song by every singer, in which love/disappointment/anger is ideal, idealized, preserved perfectly for negotiated readings. One size fits nearly all.

In the opening verse from All Hands on the Bad One (2000), Sleater-Kinney in word and sound collapse the parallel planes of the dialogical imagination to implicate and position both singer and lyric-music listener in a new, practical-critical location.

Eye cream and thigh cream, how ‘bout a get
high cream?
Nothing I do smoothes out the feelings
of being used

“The Ballad of a Ladyman”

2

In the rock canon, the question of objective truth is not new: think Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues,” John Lennon’s “God”—“Yoko and me, that’s reality”—or Public Enemy’s “Prophets of Rage.” In S-K’s “The Ballad of a Ladyman,” in the narrative, the straight male listener is on the outside, de-scribed from the responsible, practical activity of the narrator or object of desire, situated anew, in a condition naked, objective, and distant.

I could be demure
like girls who are soft
for boys who are FEARFUL
of getting AN EARFUL
but I GOTTA ROCK!

But the sound’s a bit different, one relatively autonomous from Patti Smith’s androgynous confrontation, or PJ Harvey’s banshee blues. This sound undermines the text, invites him in, to stand where she stands, with crimson lips, dacron skirt, and polyester blouse. It’s the affirmation of desire, as singular and social. Pop as political once again becomes urgently personal, generating material effects.

3

Amid a crunch of vocal chords and drums and wires, Sleater-Kinney’s “show us your riffs” doctrine displaces the ironic detachment of postmodern affect, affirming the integral nature of self-change and revolutionary practice—i.e., strumming, picking, singing, and pogo-ing, be it onstage, on the club floor, or in the bedroom.

You don’t own the conversation, honey
You don’t own the stage
We’re here to JOIN THE CONVERSATION
and we’re here to RAISE THE STAKES
Now do … you … hear that sound
as the Model bre-hey-hey-eaks
TAKE THE STAGE!

“Male Model”

The shift in voice is from narrowly autobiographical to openly dialogical, for the stage is actual and metaphorical, always already multiple, and there for the taking.

4

Forerunner as foil: Liz Phair on Exile, for example, for contemporary suburban boy listeners, starts out from the fact of private self-estrangement, of the duplication of the world into the private and public spheres. Her work reifies the personal in the realm of intimacy, discrete from the social, secular world. The former must, therefore, be understood in its contradiction and revolutionized in practice. Certainly, Phair’s voice, lyrics, and sound disrupt old notions of gender, power, and sexuality, and in concert she invites audience members to breach the footlight divide, to join her onstage, among props comprising house beautiful. Her invitation into her home, however, reproduces the private-public problematic. In this moment, sensuous affirmation by a different mode of practical, human activity is deferred, rather than affirmed in the negative.

5

In contrast, in concert, in Sleater-Kinney’s forceful ushering of belligerent men from the center to the edges of the floor, the band problematizes the gender privilege of height, creates space for grrl power in practice, and fosters practical, egalitarian power as possibility in the rock formation.

6

The ideological gap between art and commodity often bemoaned so clumsily is tarried here with sharp eloquence. Rather than deny the ubiquity of the circuits of production, Sleater-Kinney cast themselves in each moment of that circuit, as raw material, commodity form, and consumer.

But they took our ides to their marketing stars
and now I’m spending all my days at girlpower.com
trying to buy back a little piece of me

“#1 Must Have”

But this condition is merely the raw material for new songs, new affirmations, the soundtrack for sensuous, creative activity.

And for all the ladies out there I wish
We could write more than the next
marketing bid
Culture is what we make it Yes it is
Now is the time, Now is the time, Now is the time
To invent, invent, invent,
INVENT, INVEN-HEN-HEN-ENT, invent

“#1 Must Have”

 # # #

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