A Personal History of Substratal Misogyny Through Underground Music

11/30 ADDENDUM: The text below has been substantially edited since it was first published last week, in response to complaints made by the second member of the musical project in question and numerous other women who came out in support of her. In short, the piece was read as a public, personal attack on the second member, a woman, by the author, a man. Obviously men attacking women is problematic and since personal attacks on women by anyone, male or female, are not part of our agenda here, and since no one involved in the production of this website aims to cut down women or hurt women’s feelings, we worked together to revise the piece out of respect for the second member and the concerns she and others raised. We take allegations of anti-woman action seriously, and since both p.m. and I are invested in dissolving the stigmatization and feminization of mental illness, we were particularly horrified by the interpretation of the piece as discrediting a woman by means of reference to mental instability. We hold ourselves responsible for these misinterpretations and have endeavored to remedy them through reflection, scrutiny, revision & expurgation. We’re very sorry for any pain we have caused through the release of this article.

We do not, however, withdraw any of the p.m.’s analyses as presented in the current iteration of the text.

In explanation I would first like to acknowledge one of the accusations leveled at the piece, that of “mansplaining,” to be defined as “a man condescendingly speaking to a woman about something of which he has incomplete knowledge.” The danger of mansplaining lurks eternal whenever men become involved in the work of feminism, because, being men, they naturally lack experiential knowledge of what it feels like to be a woman in a man’s world. For this reason – in supplement to the primary reason being that most men don’t care too much about women and consider the struggles against men’s rape, abuses, bodily and psychological colonization, commodification and exploitation of women on a global scale to be “women’s issues” thus not their problem – men shy away from engagement in feminist thinking and action, as if out of fear of trespassing. But as asserted by the title of bell hooks’ terrific, must-read introduction to feminist theory: “FEMINISM IS FOR EVERYBODY.” Feminism, or radical feminism in this case – since “feminism” alone means less and less all the time – is a movement, with a perspective, a praxis, a politics, a purpose (social transformation), a body of literature, which men can and must enter into with as much passion as women if we are going to realize the unmaking of the heinous complex of male supremacy and the remaking of a kinder reality (for all beings) in its place. Men can speak about their relation to feminism without becoming mansplainers, but such requires care, humility, and a willingness to admit one’s own deficits and limitations. Clearly we were careless with this piece. We’re learning. It is a difficult and delicate process to become a person who doesn’t suck, reared in American-Masculinist-Capitalist culture, because I think we’re all socialized toward being unbearably awful. But one thing I’ve learned for sure is that I do want pro-feminist men because the larger our movement, the greater our strength, the more we can accomplish. Men can read radical feminist literature, and they should. Men can take radical feminist action, and they should. Men can model their lives after radical feminist principles, and they should. But most men don’t, because 1) they don’t care, and//or 2) because feminism has become a theoretical ghetto with a “girls only” sign nailed to the door. This doesn’t help our cause, as women. Therefore a secondary but requisite course of feminist action is demanding that men care, rather than excluding them from the exigent effort of anti-patriarchal social overhaul because they do not have the disadvantage of being female in a woman-hating society. I will always challenge males to cease being Men, to disaffiliate from Manhood, and contribute as they can to the work of feminism.

Moreover we have edited rather than rescinded the piece because, while we apologize for the hurt it caused on a personal level, we do not apologize for our views on the widespread social phenomena – in which p.m. was a participant – addressed in the text. We do not apologize for being critical of whatever fuels masculinist institutionalized violence or complacency to the violent paradigm men have created, meaning: we do not apologize for criticisms of the toxic hyper-normative sexual practice of sadomasochism//BDSM, or of narcotic escapism to dull the ache of living in a despairing world rather than taking action against it, or of nihilistic paralysis within privileged niches, or of the exploitation of any and all marginalized and objectified beings, including animals. Therefore we’re critical of the practice of eating animals’ dead bodies and the body-products of female animals reduced to commodities for human use. Yes, we’re critical of pizza—and we will not apologize. We do not apologize for being critical of self-involvement at the expense of vital social conscience + consciousness. We recognize that people – yes, even female people! – may choose to participate in these behaviors and activities, but just because someone – yes, even a female someone! – chose something does not make that thing by default a good choice. We are critical of the choices we, as cultural agents continually involved in the production of the society in which we exist, are making, in our art & in our lives, because we recognize that our choices have real consequences. If these criticisms annoy you or offend you, we are not sorry.


(BY: P.M.) 

Please note! These critiques can also apply to many active (and inactive) music projects in the ‘underground’, so this essay is intended not as self-damnation or self-absolution, but as a case study. Critical analysis and reflection to encourage rigourous thought + careful action. The essay is about me and my relationship to the project. It is not an attack on the other person who was in the project, but it is necessary to look at the project as a whole.

“Oh, that stings good, piekpieeek piek pieeek…!” – Die Dominas – Die Wespendomina

Creating a cover version of Die Dominas “Die Wespendomina” proved to be the final straw for an underground electronic music group created by myself and M, called VVAQRT. Released in 1981, everything about Die Dominas’ sole recording is playful paean to BDSM; the name, the song titles + lyrics, the cover sleeve. The music itself is a kitschy exotica-lounge song which has been pummeled + stretched into a surreal cartoon-dungeon soundtrack. In early 2013, a European record label (“NO LABEL”) proposed to release a VVAQRT EP, as long as it included a cover of “Die Wespendomina”. I was already familiar with + enjoyed the Die Dominas record and enthusiastically agreed. I set to work creating a suite of songs to appear with the cover, and had them finished in a couple months.

However, in late 2014, when the vocals were scheduled to be recorded, I refused to have any part of the release if it were to use the lyrics from the Die Dominas song, because I did not want to espouse any positive message regarding BDSM. It was decided to record vocals with different lyrics for the ‘cover’; the music, which had been recorded over a year previously, bore almost no resemblance to the original. But the incident was a stark illustration of my changing political (personal) thinking, as well as my attitudes regarding artistic motivations and purpose.Agreeing to the Die Dominas cover proposal was just one incident among many that are illustrative of an overall artistic methodology which I came to recognize as inherently harmful: fetishization of the past, and the use of form-as-content. Why would I only recognize them after 3 years of work in VVAQRT? The answer is in two parts: learning to be more conscious of male supremacy, and importantly, applying what I had learned to myself. Learning + consciousness-raising was – and, of course, remains – a long, ongoing process. The argument regarding Die Dominas was a step in thinking about VVAQRT critically – and not hiding behind convoluted postmodern arguments, or absolving myself of responsibility because I was ‘supporting a woman’s art’ – which also quickly led to acceptance and realization of other key facets of the group: obliqueness, cynicism/nihilism, and the use of potentially radical tropes as adornment.

The name VVAQRT itself does not contain any inherent meaning – when I coined the string of letters, I wanted a name that referenced only itself. But the group’s conceptual basis owed itself to the past – or what I thought of as the most interesting parts of the recent past – the Western traditions of avant-garde, Surrealism, Futurism, + postmodernism, as they were expressed underground music from the 1970s + 80s – namely post punk, minimal synth, + coldwave. I was immediately enraptured by the sounds of these genres (ranging from medieval harmonies to crude tape experiments), as well as their DIY + punk-leaning ideologies.

But while I agreed with some of the ideas expressed in those genres, others I felt ambivalent towards or disagreed with – especially among the more “extreme” genres, such as power electronics + industrial. But as a male consumer of media with liberal ideas of “artistic freedom” + postmodern ideas of a “multiplicity of interpretations”, I had a combination of privilege + willful misinterpretation that allowed me to enjoy media such as the Die Dominas record, while disagreeing with its overarching message. And if an element of a release were too blatantly misogynistic to reinterpret (without the veneer of ‘choice’ or ‘exploration’ or ‘investigating’), I could simply ignore that part of it, or treat that part as strictly an aesthetic choice – as form, rather than content or ideology. I did not question my (male) privilege of treating art as a variety of offerings, rather than as the fabric of mythology that binds beliefs to social systems. This privilege also contains the implicit assumption that art can exist on its own metaphysical plane, pure + untouched by the messiness of reality. One of primary consequences of this ‘transcendence’ is the elevation of technique + form to content. With no connection to reality, Art (now with a capital A) can revel in itself, becoming a bauble or a playground. Thus, I was primed to create music that could scavenge from a range of sources without rigorous critique, as well as function within + for itself.

M was part of the group from the start and was solely responsible for the lyrics and visual aesthetics. Her work, while in a different medium, was similar to mine, albeit skewing more towards collage and deconstruction. Many of the lyrics from the first record were snippets taken verbatim from online comments, advertising tracts, jingles, and many other sources of “cultural detritus”. Many pop-culture tropes were embedded in the lyrics, but reconfigured so thoroughly as to blur the lines between disdain and admiration, or satire and embrace. In my view, these lyrics assisted in reinforcing obliqueness for VVAQRT, and functioned similarly to the music: not only could there be manifold interpretations of them, they could also exist without context, as purely aesthetic products – further reinforced by invented words sprinkled throughout the songs of the first album. The second album (Detainee)’s lyrics appeared to owe much more to personal experiences, and the ensuing connections to wider social issues. There were far more references to various cruelties + injustices, and in my interpretation, I took the album to center around the confluence of militarism, mental illness, misogyny + consumerism. The song “Purge” most clearly exemplifies these themes, as the lyrics are a litany of economic, emotional, and physical violence experienced by women in relationships with men, blending father-daughter with husband/wife/‘romantic’ tropes – revolving around a chorus of “Womenfolk are sniveling wenches meant to be seen and not not / And if you’re careless, drop the dishes, you’ll be given coal and switches”. So it was an artistic endeavor I wholeheartedly supported, and it was completed in early 2014. But, after Detainee’s release and a subsequent tour, my reservations regarding the project slowly accrued, culminating in the Die Dominas cover song discussion and the group’s ensuing disbanding.

Throughout 2014, I became more acquainted with radical feminist writings, and was especially affected by Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse and Aurora Linnea’s PARiAH series. While I had some basic ideas along the lines of “men and women should be equal/misogyny and patriarchy are bad”, these works not only opened my eyes to the pervasiveness of male supremacy, but also its depth, which both writers outlined through historical, personal, and artistic analyses – making clear the effects/reflections of arts/myths on our lives/actions. Their writing immediately resonated – and I was able to grasp their examples and critiques as soon as I read their words, because I’d seen everything they’d described, every day – yet hadn’t grasped the extent/felt the weight of male supremacy/was in a privileged class, encouraged to think of systemic oppression in individualistic terms. Thus applying those same critiques to myself was a slower process. As a product of intellectual masculinity – most of my education was in the fields of physics and music theory – I was trained to always analyze ‘the external’, drawing a clear boundary between myself as an individual and everything else. So with VVAQRT, something I was intimately connected with, I was set to defend it as something positive – hence my justifications for VVAQRT, especially Detainee. The line between art and artist was basically non-existent, so I was primed to always defend my part in VVAQRT, without truly considering any critique.

But my mind began to change when I began to thoroughly consider how the content of Detainee was being received by others. It soon became clear that many of the cultural references contained within were things that many listeners actually enjoyed and did not view as critique. Or the references were viewed as irony, but so seamlessly as to make the distinction between enjoyment and irony to be non-existent. This ‘ironic enjoyment’ crossed into actions as well. What concretized this connection for me was a photo taken during the final VVAQRT tour. It was of freshly manicured and painted fingernails posed over a pizza. Perhaps one could interpret such an image as a critique of the demands of femininity coupled with a symbol of ‘slacker culture’ + dairy industry, but, I found that to be impossible because it was real – no amount of ‘irony’ would negate the fact that everything in the photo had occurred. And moreover, the image was gleefully embraced when it was posted on social media platforms, without any hints of critique or analysis by those who saw it. The image was viewed as fun. It struck me that this was a recurring pattern for my participation in the project – that a smokescreen of irony or a veneer of ‘commenting’ could be used to justify the willing participation in activities or thought-processes that were obviously harmful to both oneself and others. Cynicism and nihilism played a large role as well – as an individual, one’s actions have limited effects – and this realization, coupled with a position of economic privilege, creates an easy excuse for a despairingly hedonic lifestyle – which was indeed what I led. So any of the potentially radical tropes addressed by VVAQRT (as a whole) would merely serve as window-dressing for an ideology of acquiescence and selfishness. That anything critical of wider systems (which I would claim to despise) would function merely as adornment – as justification for myself, and to others as way of garnering respect within an artistic scene – a nod, complete with a wink – or adornment.

That tour also caused me to fully realize and contextualize the project’s interaction and effect upon audiences. Both were based within the context VVAQRT performances, which were almost always the same: a ‘nightclub’ (ranging from legal bars to decrepit warehouses), a place operating primarily as an venue, hosting music and other performances regularly – sometimes ostensibly to exist as ‘countercultural’ spaces, but overall functionally indistinguishable from any type of nightclub: a place for fun, for escape, for fleeting chemical or sonic pleasures. VVAQRT performances originally were rooted in immobility to signify discomfort/disgust and to draw focus upon the music – but since both the music and lyrics (which were usually indistinct) were based upon [Art/obliquity/adornment], they could only function as entertainment, or ‘party music’. It became abundantly clear that the prevailing atmosphere of performances was that of a party – a fun time + a temporary escape, and a place to bolster social connections. Also troubling to me was to hear a roomful of people singing along to the aforementioned song “Purge”. While it could be argued that the harsh themes addressed in the lyrics had been sublimated by live performance to become a source of “empowerment”, I couldn’t see much evidence of that. And if that were the case for some audience members, I had begun to have doubts as to the validity of an absolute embrace of personal empowerment: I now understood it as an inherently limiting endeavor – while theoretically good for an individual, it catered too well to the particularly American construction of the atomized individual, casting aside systemic analyses as either too difficult, too depressing, or even incoherent. Therefore, one just makes the best of things for oneself, and places the pursuit of pleasure above all else. I could not do that anymore, and so performing in nightclub/party spaces became less and less appealing to me. I had realized that imparting anything of substance in these environments would be impossible without very careful planning – and I felt that VVAQRT was functionally no different than a rock cover band, just performing for a different demographic.

After the tour, the growing ideological rift between myself and VVAQRT’s methods had become insurmountable – I wanted to change to the live performance to make it harsher – more direct and pointed – to puncture the party atmosphere. But that did not happen. Moreover, I’d begun to understand that my role/identity for VVAQRT was that of the ‘troubled artist’, casting maudlin inclinations as inescapable, as a refinement of self-pity. This artistic proclivity of mine created an undertone of nihilism within VVAQRT. But my introduction to radical feminist theory was the basis of rekindling hope and engaging in critical self-analysis – and it quickly became clear that feeding + harvesting despair for ‘artistic purposes’ was contrary for any growth, and any constructive action + production.

As stated at the beginning of this essay, I believe these critiques of VVAQRT can also apply to many active (and inactive) music projects in the ‘underground’ – so this essay is intended not as self-damnation or self-absolution, but as a case study. My involvement in this type of music stemmed from a disgust with ‘popular music’ and also ‘pop culture’. But in embracing something that sounded ‘different’, and sometimes made references to potentially radical tropes, I failed to critically analyze it – and when I did, I quickly fell into nihilistic drug use, to mute despair and consciousness. It will always be an ongoing process to learn to think – but it is an obligation, if we are to have any hope of real change, of dissolving this male supremacist system and all its incarnations and effects, of embracing others + ourselves.