Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Ugly American

"I have been active in music, making music addressing these issues since the late 1970s, and this is the first time I’ve ever been asked about them specifically, and for that I thank you. I consider women’s perspectives to be critically important to our scene, and I am pleased to be asked to comment rather than being used as an unexamined data point. Without being asked, I have always felt it appropriate to let women speak for themselves, and given the sensitive nature of the subjects and the obvious provocations in my history, I suspect my uninvited input in such conversations would be more irritating than enlightening. I appreciate being invited in... 
"As a man, I’m circumspect about active efforts on my part. I feel pretty strongly that women should take the lead and the initiative, and in efforts that have actually changed culture it has been women defining and driving the conversation: suffrage, reproductive sovereignty, legal, structural and pay inequity, rape and exploitation consciousness.
“My first job when confronting an issue defined by women is to listen to them.”
"My lack of perspective and ingrained privilege could lead to clumsy and counterproductive affairs, so I do my best to support women in their efforts, don’t tolerate sexism in person and work on expanding my enlightenment concerning women’s issues. 
"I want to make a distinction between not tolerating sexism in person and allowing sexist language and behaviour in characters and protagonists in song. The perspective of a song, it barely needs to be said (although apparently it needs to be said) doesn’t represent the mental state of the musician, and inhabiting it while conscious of the difference is important. I’m not deflecting such criticism by saying they’re “just stories,” I’m saying that every facet of humanity, even the worst, is present to a degree in all of us, and any of us can inhabit that perspective either willingly or be driven to it. It is important that we deal with it on a cultural level because sure as shit it will appear in real life.

-Steve Albini, Steve Albini talks to LISTEN:" I try to Be an Ally in Feminism", LISTEN

As always, an interesting take by Albini, and one has to admire his career consistency on the subject, but one has to wonder at one point do these two notions- listening to/advancing the cause of women and routinely taking the vantage of "characters" who oppress them- conflict enough for it to make an impact.

"Every facet of humanity, even the worst, is present to a degree in all of us".  So, how then is one supposed to make the distinction in art between whether a Big Black or a Rapeman song is being misogynistic or simply about misogyny, particularly when Albini never seems to be taking on the perspective of the abused/suffering woman or even the male who finds himself victimized by sexism and misogyny?  And if Albini is acknowledging that the worst aspects of humanity are present in all of us to a degree, who are we to say that he is not just as driven by his own internal misogyny as he is by some unspoken disgust?

And furthermore, Albini has routinely dismissed feminist objections to his work by projecting his lyrics onto characters or personas who represent the dark nihilism and cold brutality at the fringes of human nature. While Albini may agree or disagree with their assessments, are these protestations not women speaking for themselves?  When he declines these viewpoints out of hand as some kind of facile surface interpretation of art, Albini actually participates in the long tradition of white men determining how oppressed groups should best dismantle their oppression.  Likewise, it suggests that their issues with his music ultimately stem from women and feminists just not getting it, a common condescension that repeats regularly whenever controversial and intentionally provocative art is called to task by the tender spots it sought to poke.

In '92, looking back on his career, Albini stated "The idea that Rapeman or Big Black were misogynist seemed completely misdirected to me. The songs were all personas. If the persona adopted for a song happened to be a sexist pig, I don't see how that relates to my personal politics. But that's a leap that people make all the time. Accusations of proto-fascist ideology, sexism and machismo were much more appropriate for heavy metal than the scene in which we operated."

Now, it's obviously unfair to trudge up something from 20 plus years ago as an accurate representation of where Albini still stands, but I think it's telling how concerned Albini is here about his songs not being a reflection of his personal politics.  What he doesn't really seem to either comprehend or value is the fact that for activists, it's not of any particular note what Albini the individual thinks or feels, but how his art contributes on an institutional level to things like male entitlement or rape culture.  I have no gripes personally with Albini (well some, but not as it pertains here) and remain a fan of Big Black, but there is a way in which all music about these extreme forms of human/testosterone-based behavior only perpetuate their dominance.  Revelling in grotesquerie may say something profound about modes of domination and the violence of willpower, but it also bestows those things with power and mystique, potentially attracting those for whom the inevitable ethical questions Albini seeks to ask might lead to the wrong answers because of the cues and triggers provided in broader culture.  Where Albini's art itself may only be providing us with thought-provoking ambiguity, the gaps it leaves open (and particularly those it edits out and silences) find their fulfillment elsewhere.  Maybe this is not Albini's problem- he didn't start the cycles of violence- but it'd be a significant leap to say that unadulterated examination serves as any kind of solution.

"It is imperative for an artist to be honest, to respect the creative impulse, wherever that may go.", Albini says in the LISTEN interview. "Anything less is just decoration or inconsequential humming. Sometimes the resulting art is repugnant, but I believe the world is better for it, that it is made richer by having those thoughts explored. Essentially any theme or subject could trigger memory of trauma depending on the context."

In such calls for absolutely honesty, one can't help but hear a tinge of the Trump supporters who claim that their fearless leader is "just speaking the truth". The danger in asking artists to be honest is that they're no purer than any one else.  Their honesty is filled with just as many falsehoods and distortions as their subjects.  One need only taking a short trip around reddit or 4chan to find people with absolute honesty opining about and relishing in their darkest thoughts.  The major difference is that modern day trolls are perfectly okay with the disgusting ramifications of their thoughts (which frequently become actions in the form of harassment, humiliation, other antagonisms), whereas Albini is conflicted.  But to the perpetually victimized, is there a difference?  Or is their world of threats just infinitesimally larger?   4 million trolls and a noise rock guru making art of their marginalization. This laissez-faire perspective on art as a passive reflection ignores the fact that this vile behavior is not boundary-pushing.  Maybe at a time it was, but it's gone mainstream.  And even as we tacitly condemn it, we allow it to continue.

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