Punk Rock, Materiality, and Time

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I spent part of the weekend doing three things: learning how to make pasta with my new pasta maker, listening to low-fi punk, and reading Kathleen Davis’s Periodization and Sovereignty (Penn 2008). I am not sure that I learned much applicable to this blog from making pasta (although it was delicious last night at dinner), but low-fi punk, a short Twitter exchange, and Davis’s book did bring together some ideas that I had been meaning for some time to post to our semi-dormant Punk Archaeology blog.

The low-fi sound that has become popular thanks in large part to bands like the White Stripes, the Black Keys, and other purveyors of so-called Punk Blues positions itself as an antidote to the austere, “over-produced” stylings of contemporary pop music.  (Recently, I’ve been hanging out with the album “GB City” by Bass Drum of Death, but I also listened to Soledad Brothers self titles solo album and their more polished 2006 offering The Hardest Rock. My original idea for a post was to compare the low-fi, thoroughly average sound of “GB City” to the produced sound of Arcade Fire’s “Suburbs”, but that seemed too easy). The sound harkens back to garage rock and rough live albums produced in make shift recording studies on 4 and 8 track recording machines.  Low-fi recordings replaced the spaceless character of the recording study with the gritty and flawed presence of the garage, the basement, or the warehouse. Echoing and distorted vocal tracks compete for space against raw guitars and abusive drums. The best low-fi captures something of a hastily-arranged live recording without actually being anywhere in particular. Low-fi comes from anyone’s basement, garage, or abandoned strip mall.  It embodies marginal (maybe even abandoned) spaces (it’s not surprising that Detroit has become a Mecca of low-fi sound) and pushes out music that speaks to haste, temporary accommodations, and immediacy without specificity.

With the advent of digital music, low-fi has projected the materiality of its sound by producing vinyl LPs or even cassette tapes.  The sonic texture of the 8-track recorder in the basement or garage comes packaged in neatly anachronistic forms that insists upon a material presence even more physical than the music itself.  A friend of mine (on Twitter ironically enough!) suggested a track from an Oblivian’s album recently. When I asked whether she could share the track with me, she told me that she only had it on vinyl! So the grounding of low-fi music in a time and place moves from the practice of recording and to its materiality as a recorded product. Digital music, which can exist simultaneously in an infinite number of places resists any effort to impose physicality (and with music moving to “the cloud” in the very near future the location of music recordings will become all the more ambiguous).

The link between the physical sound of the low-fi recording and its circulation in physical media positions low-fi (and punk) to resist (in an ironic way, to be sure) the ephemeral character of so much “cultural” production today. From blogs and ebooks to musings in the indistinct space of social media, the viral distribution of music and video, and claims of a reimagined-ascetic minimalism, the space or even material nature of cultural production is collapsing in on itself.  In the future (bee-boop-boop-boop-beep), the diagnostic rims of Late Roman fine ware vessels will be stray bits of sound, text, or video clinging to the deteriorating disks of disused servers or discarded along with iPods and Kindles in modern middens.  Unlike the vinyl LP or even the (comparatively) primitive cassette tape, there is little on the iPod or Kindle that links it physically to the music or text stored on the device. Moreover, the use of these devices  do not cause the music or text to deteriorate.

So, I sat around this weekend, grading papers, making pasta, reading Kathleen Davis’ book, and listening to the space of low-fi sound spooling off a hard drive and running through my stereo. I could listen to it as much as I wanted and wherever I wanted.

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