Problematic Thoughts 01 - Hardcore Music

Transcript with links:

By Doctor Comrade

This is something new I wanted to try out to give people a chance to take the Handsy Comprehensive Exam blog on the road with you and listen to a handsy rant. On today’s demo episode, I’m going to talk about hardcore music and stereotypes about hardcore fans. I’m also going to intersperse music throughout the episode so you know what I’m talking about, so be prepared for some short example clips. If I get any kind of positive response, I’ll make these short, angst-ridden rants a regular thing. So here’s a theme song I made for this episode.

Problematic Thoughts 1

When I first started writing this post, my intention was to full-throatedly defend hardcore music against people who claim that it isn’t music, it isn’t good music, or it isn’t of value. But as I worked through my thesis and contemplated my argument, I realized that I would be concluding the essay by saying something like, “And so everyone has their own taste, no one’s taste is objectively better than anyone else’s, and therefore normative declarations about good or bad are completely relative.” But this, of course, is normative in a relativistic way, demanding equal consideration for all kinds of tastes and preferences. That seems overly self-absorbed.

However, I have often read criticisms of so-called “scene kids.” You are probably familiar with this trope, which is commonly found both within and outside of hardcore forums. Scene kids are the emos of the 2010s, they dress in black and listen to “screamo” or “death metal.” They wear skinny jeans, dark makeup, and dye their hair funny colors. They are stereotyped as the only kind of people that listen to this music, which also infantilizes the music itself and discredits the older fans who enjoy it by associating them with the unrefined or immature masses. Even metalcore fans seem to hate scene kids, who allegedly give the genre a bad name. I think you might recognize some of these gripes: this is what every generation encounters when a sub-culture emerges outside the imagined norm. Punks had Mohawks and piercings, metalheads had tattoos and violent concerts, hippies had long hair and androgynous clothing, grunge kids had torn jeans and long hair, and entire books have been written about rap culture and their unique appropriations of clothing and music. All of these groups have been accused of despising and subverting authority. I’d say that American culture has a long history of demonizing its marginalia, those who choose to defy the dominant logic of conformity by embracing alternative cultural forms that appeal to them.

In the words of From Autumn to Ashes in their song, “Deth Kult Social Club”: there is no dream worth pursuing when there is nobody embracing and there is no war worth fighting when there is no blood worth spilling.

The song is jarring, and I read the lyrics first to prime you for a positive and peaceful message that was delivered in a way that may have shocked you or seemed paradoxical to the song’s content. However, are the lyrics not in their own way timeless calls for peace in cyclical eras of realist politics? And what about their delivery seems so irreverent to their overarching theme? We’ll return to this point shortly.

Scene tastes are rendered inferior because their identities are constructed beyond mainstream acceptability. In fact, their rebellion against the supposed mainstream marks them as internal enemies to the social order that narrowly defines acceptability based on individual choice like clothing and music preferences. But in quick order, these criticisms can also be rendered unacceptable. Referring to people as “scene” implies that there is a unified scene of which they are a part, whereas hardcore music is remarkably diverse, caters to uncountable fan bases, and produces music in dozens of sub-genres.

More importantly, if someone is labeled scene, then certain assumptions are made about their personality and identity, reinterpreting their rebellious performance as inferiority. It seems obvious that every person takes part in some kind of scene; fans who enjoy comic books, country music, Real Housewives, martial arts, anime, etc. Moreover, “scene” assumes static membership, implying that people can only belong to one scene at any given time, and that their identity is inherently part of these choices.

Only someone completely ignorant of hardcore would try to delimit the “scene” that includes such diverse bands as A Day to Remember, Born of Osiris, I See Stars, Dangerkids, Thursday, Architects, Periphery, The Used, and Every Time I Die. If those names don’t mean anything to you, then any negative opinion of hardcore music is unfounded and pathetic. Perhaps too you should consider these terms: grindcore, metalcore, post-hardcore, thrashcore, electronicore, christcore, straightedge, and mathcore. When I describe this “genre” of music, people think “screamo.” Yet this view is irredeemably shallow and reductionist, confining music to a vocal style that in itself is incredibly diverse (from growls all the way to screams that originate in different parts of the throat and nose), not to mention the vast array of different guitar, bass, drum, synth, key, and string sounds that any of these sub-genres contains.

Here’s an example, I’ll play two quick clips and see if you can tell them apart. [here are the links: 1 and 2]

These songs seem completely different: the first is a pop-punk or radio-rock ballad, and the second is an anger-filled diatribe about violence and exclusion. But I fooled you: both songs are by the same band, A Day to Remember, off the same album, Common Courtesy. I picked those two songs because not only do they show the dynamic range and talent of one of my favorite bands, but they also illustrate a point internal to my argument. Without the knowledge, you would never know that a so-called “scene” band could produce both pop-punk and metalcore. 

I played these two songs to reveal fissures within totalizing narratives. In this sense, totalizing narratives are constructed by a delimiting language, a language which seeks to “know” a sub-culture by producing knowledge. The term “scene” comes to signify a set of connotations about a group of people; these connotations are an intellectual shortcut by which to judge the phenomenon of scene kids who maintain identities beyond acceptability. You can see that the language used to describe people, in this case scene kids, allows the listener to conjure up a very specific set of characteristics. Think about the words punk, emo, and hippie, and you’ll think of their stereotypical characteristics. When “scene” comes to mean “weird and immature,” then you will understand how this narrative has produced the knowledge that scene kids are weird, immature, and therefore inferior, through linguistic association.

I turn now to the composition of the music itself. You’ve already heard how one band can shift seamlessly between various sub-genres. Now I will play two bands that have both been labeled “electronicore,” meaning they incorporate synth and electronic music into metalcore. The first song is called “Crystal Ball” by I See Stars, a band from Michigan, and the second song is called “The Origin” by another Michigan band Born of Osiris.

I hope the differences are apparent to you. The first song has clear dubstep elements paired with down-tuned, palm-muted, distorted guitar chugs, in addition to more ambient sounds created on an electronic keyboard or in a digital sound editing suite. The music is accompanied by screamed vocals by one of I See Stars’ two vocalists. The second song features some of these familiar elements, like ambient sounds created digitally, and then these sounds are also accompanied by a pair of screaming vocalists, who sometimes harmonize their screams and sometimes do complementary parts. But as the song develops, you can also hear the guitarist playing a solo as the bassist and drummer establish a metalcore-style rhythm or breakdown.

Within this specific sub-genre, both bands share similar attributes but also significantly differ. Born of Osiris and I See Stars both employ heavy breakdowns and rhythms, but I See Stars rarely solo on guitar whereas Born of Osiris have distinct separate guitar parts for each song. Even within a sub-genre, these bands challenge techniques of knowledge that categorize information in order to understand it. When I told you that both bands were electronicore, even if you didn’t know what that meant, you knew that somehow they adhered to similar principles. Yet in practice, it’s apparent that neither band is easily categorizable into the same discrete class. This is why I think all of hardcore becomes grouped together. Through limited experience by non-fans, people tend to pick the most obvious attributes and ascribe them to the entire genre: screamed vocals, distorted guitars, and heavy drums. Hardcore becomes itself, it becomes self-evident to people who are unfamiliar with it, when they create intellectual categories for its categorization. When organized by its prominent characteristics, non-fans do not see the various subtleties between bands, songs, and sub-genres. And perhaps, they don’t see subtle differences between individuals either, the so-called “scene kids,” because they focus on what makes scene kids different from the mainstream, rather than seeing the differences that make them all individuals.

I guess what I’m saying is everyone has their own taste, which becomes clearer once the subtleties of their favorite things become more apparent to those who lack inside knowledge. No one’s taste is objectively better than anyone else’s, people enjoy different stuff and they key in to specific aspects that appeal to them. Maybe these so-called scene kids enjoy hardcore music because it speaks to them, gives them something to hold onto, an identity that meshes with their personality, tastes, preferences, and desires. In this way, normative declarations about good or bad are completely relative and based on subjectivity. QED.

Thank you so much if you made it this far, I really appreciate it. If you enjoyed this handsy rant, let me know and I’ll make more. Remember to follow me on twitter @screaminvegan. Like the handsy comprehensive exam facebook page at facebook.com/handsycomprehensiveexam. Follow Hannah on twitter @hans_labyrinth. Email us at handsycompexam@gmail.com. And of course, follow all our updates at handsycomprehensiveexam.com. Thanks again for listening and we’ll have another podcast up in a few days.