A Look Inside Paul Hegarty’s Noise/Music

[The following excerpt is reprinted from Noise/Music (Continuum Books, 2007), pp. 119-130; copyright © by Paul Hegarty. Used with permission of the author and the publisher.]



From Throbbing Gristle to the industrial music of the late 1980s (Skinny Puppy, Ministry, Consolidated), power is an essential part of the content and/or ‘message’ of industrial music—the use of samples from politicians or religious fundamentalists supplying the key, within either jarring noise music or powerful rhythms overlaid with largely electronic instruments. Unlike subversive music of the 1960s and 1970s, industrial music is formally complicit with power—replicating some of its structures (e.g. aggression, control, propaganda). Its critiques then, while far from being nuanced, are ambiguous, often suspect or seemingly absent. Very often it could seem to be captivated by power. At its best, industrial music also deals with this complicity—both in terms of content, drawing the listener into complicity, and in terms of form, where the listener is either distracted from the violent content or made to submit to it. Beyond the structure of the musical pieces themselves, the overall practice is also a playing out of power, through challenging institutions, the listeners’ moral expectations, and in concert, often establishing a threatening ambience. Many of the famous instances of performance art/noise/industrial music took place in the ICA, London, thus reducing the expectation of a standard concert or event at that location. It is of course possible to argue that initial and excessive shock is a distraction—presumably one reason that all industrial music backed away from this in the long run, or adapted it to annoy core ‘transgressive’ lovers of violence (e.g. Whitehouse’s joyous rocking out, almost karaoke version of themselves on recent tours).1

Throbbing Gristle used imagery from the Second World War, including a lightning flash as their logo, and at some stages wore camouflage uniforms. Their use of what was forbidden, as material, often involved Nazism or other abusive, violent power relations, such as stories of serial killers. Genesis P-Orridge, however, persisently claims that Throbbing Gristle offered a critique of our fascination with violence, how we repress that fascination, and how the media play on it. As seen in the previous chapter, he singles out Whitehouse as a group that was and is simply exploiting ‘extreme’ material (see Industrial Culture Handbook, 12–13, for a general distancing from such in the content of TG’s material). If industrial music is ambiguous about power, violence, extreme behaviour, exploitation, and so on, then we can also see that P-Orridge is disingenuous about this—there was no judgement on offer in Throbbing Gristle, but a set of subtle questionings disguised as violent and offensive valorizing of unacceptable imagery, movements and individuals. The strength was precisely in the uncertainty and the excitement that it generated (much more effective than the frisson some might get from ‘transgressively’ listening to groups that are oriented to the extreme right wing).

Industrial music is a Foucauldian take on power. In his Discipline and Punish (1975) and The History of Sexuality (1976),2 Michel Foucault argued that modern western society is ‘carceral’—a giant prison, where every structure and institution is there to tame and discipline us (the French title is Surveiller et punir—the visual control of surveillance is central). Power is internalized by individuals through endless micro-processes where the body is regulated, defined, identified as the means of controlling you. Many have taken this as a call to arms to bring down and challenge power, and Foucault occasionally suggests this, but as History of Sexuality emphasizes, it is not that easy, as the only imaginable paths to freedom are also caught up with power. Therefore, the ‘sexual revolution’ of the 1960s and 1970s was no such thing, but at most a new way of structuring power relations. Power relations can be worked on, and there are, briefly, the noises of ‘counterdiscourses’ that resist dominant ideas and rules (even if these are then incorporated as renewals of norms). The implications for industrial music are significant: power is to be used, not wished away. Even a subversion of power must entail the resources of power—and not even an opposing one, but those of the dominant structures, hence the purpose of transgression—without taboo and belief in that taboo, there is no transgression. Powerful, mechanized and/or tribalistic drumming sought to reconfigure an audience’s relation to what they were hearing—this would not be entertainment, ambience, sound track. Rhythm, volume, noises, harsh interferences and frequencies—all targetted the body as listening device so that the mind-body dualism the modern western listener has been disciplined into was undone, even—perhaps especially—if only momentarily. It is a given that the musicians in question believed that this was not something that could be suggested or offered politely—the work was too extreme to function except at maximum intensity (this applies equally to recordings, even if the listener is allowed considerable scope to refuse). This is neatly summarized by Test Department:

There is death thrown into life. A deadness for those shackled to the familiar. A world lying cold and inactive, the movement of nature broken and overwhelmed, destroyed by blind faith in efficiency. People submerged by the commonplace, programmed by a technology whose language of command, analysis and control strangles the mind with a cold logic. Dislocated, the body greeds for the new, a release of power, the capacity for risk. From this need a huge sound emerges drowning everything, the redundant, the inflexible, the inevitable collapse, the old and the trivial are annihilated by a sheer and diabolical intensity. (sleeve notes, Test Department, Beating the Retreat [1982])

For Test Department, as for other mid-1980s industrial bands, this embrace of power was not defeatist, and only a misreading of Foucault could think he was either. Test Department engaged with actual politics, supporting the miners’ strike, recording with the striking Welsh miner’s choirs (Shoulder to Shoulder, 1985). They used Communist imagery in way that was provocative, but also pretty clearly symbolized their views. The difference beteween them and established Communist parties was that power could be harnessed at individual and micro-levels: ‘all the power which stands against you is your potential power. You stand as the transformer, where power against weakness becomes power against power’ (sleeve notes, Beating the Retreat).

The initial subversion proposed by industrial music is a total refusal of values and morally induced fear of phenomena and imagery. Ideology comes in, either as musicians clarify their perspective or as a specific tool for further confusion (Laibach). Many of the groups seem to favour right-wing thinking and events—to a large extent because this was taboo—note that it is not the valorization of anything indigenous, or of an authentic national working class, that is of interest. However, Boyd Rice, and, apparently at least, groups like Death in June and Der Blutharsch, have assumed views familiar from elitist if not race-based extreme right-wing thinking. Those who might imagine an easy collusion between right-wing ideas and aggressive performance that targets the audience should note that many of the overtly fascistic musicians moved away from experimental and/or industrial approaches, in favour of renovated folk music (precursor to the ‘new folk’ of the 2000s), true to actual fascism’s mistrust of the new, and took an imagined heroic past as point of reference. Similarly, though, we could argue that the recuperation of fascism’s own aesthetic preferences (rather than fascism as aesthetics) is also an interesting way of troubling preconceptions, in that statuary, European folk musics, epic architecture and events were all borrowed for industrial imagery from right-wing aesthetics while not being necessarily, and certainly not inherently, fascistic.3

Laibach are a particular case. What would briefly be known as ‘electronic body music’ did seem to be a fascistic mobilization of a newly ultra-disciplined body—whether in the politically neutral Nitzer Ebb or the overtly right-wing Front 242. Reductive, repetitive music combined with lyrical interests of earlier types of industrial music and, consciously or not, removed the gender trouble of Throbbing Gristle in favour of a muscled homo-eroticism. Laibach joined in with this style, creating pulverizing versions of major hits such as Opus’ ‘Life Is Life’, Queen’s ‘One Vision’ and the entirety of the Beatles’ Let It Be. Often, they would declaim in German, exposing the previously unnoticed totalitarian moments of songs, with their demagogery there for all to hear. Such deconstruction extended beyond music, as they established the movement Neue Slovenische Kunst, an organization looking to restore Slovenia, and Slovenian culture (which has a substantial German component). Their use of fascist and Communist imagery and language, combined with a heroic agrarian aesthetic, made them seem to valorize a Volkbased ‘renewal’, but what they managed (and still do) to do was subvert the then still extant Communist regimes of Eastern Europe, liberals in the west, and presumably fascists, who would tire of their frivolity.

Other groups were or are more concerned with the practice and playing out of power between individuals, whether sexually, violently, abusively or in terms of other extreme behaviours. The logic is that this in some way represents a repressed and profound human reality. While there is not much happiness in, say, Whitehouse or the Swans, there is a great deal of black humour, for example in the very excess of the subject matter. So Whitehouse’s obsession with sex is highly exaggerated, to the point of parody, in ‘My Cock’s on Fire’, ‘You Don’t Have to Say Please’ or in later albums like Cruise. Whitehouse represent a strand of industrial or noise music that has been called ‘power electronics’. The terms covers a lot of noise music, but initially (c. 1980), it applies to music based on synths, electronic machinery, often with use of effects and samples, and connected to ‘extreme’ events, characters, obsessions. This can be done more or less suggestively, like Throbbing Gristle, or on Whitehouse’s Buchenwald (1982). That album recalls the Nazi death camps, but largely without lyrical content. Instead, piercing electronics alternate with hums, oscillations and occasional screamed vocals. Is this aestheticizing mass murder (bearing in mind the many references they also make to serial killers)? Or is it something like the ‘art after Auschwitz’ Adorno thought nearly impossible? I think its noise lies in not telling us, but in trying to summon something of ‘unspeakable’ events. Musically, Whitehouse did not deviate much from the one sound palette until Cruise, where a more digitally constructed pulsing noise took over. Overall, the complexity and amount of text spoken or screamed has gone up, and the music acts as doubling of the text—i.e. performing in such a way as to physically create the effect the texts comment on. The music can variously be taken to be accompaniment, literalization, doubling, ambience, or in fact the central part, with the texts an attempt to match the physicality of the sounds (albums since 2001 see words battling with music, making the relation internally noisy).

Whitehouse raise the questions of misogyny and misanthropy perhaps more than anyone else, and are not particularly interested in justifying their purported outlook.4 But the shocking elements are not necessarily where we expect them, so neither is the ‘noise’. On Quality Time (1996), the strangest track is ‘Baby’, where splashing water mixes with laughter and other vocal sounds. It raises the spectre of child abuse (as the voice slows and goes from pleasure to pain) and recalls ‘Incest 2′ on Buchenwald, which also has bathing sounds (i.e. water being raised and let go). It could also be an ‘adult baby’ scenario, with the deeper, slower bits of the voice of the adult male, and the other, higher moments the vocal playing out of the fantasy. Or both possibilities together? Meanwhile ‘Quality Time’ insists on the female point of interest being a ‘human toilet’, and she ends, kneeling, eating a man’s shit, as she is penetrated from behind (I think). The explicit degradation cannot be ignored, and William Bennett’s vocals parallel the lyrical content, veering from commands, to wheedling to very high-pitched screaming, culminating in a screamed ‘Quality Time!/Quality Time!’, which seems to undermine the whole preceding tale, by making it seem ridiculous.5 In this track, the synths brood and structure periods of silence where presumably initial reluctance is overcome, through the male’s cajoling.

Is such an aesthetic oppressive? Looking away from the content of Whitehouse tracks, and even the harsh electronic ‘soundscapes’, there is still another level where power operates, and it is certainly totalitarian, in that it seeks to be a total experience that inflicts itself. The purpose of the approach varies: on the one hand, the volume and difficult sounds try to convey the affect suggested in the vocals; while on the other, the text of a track is part of an overall bringing of the listener into a shared abjection. There is power in the infliction of message and and sound—and it might well be that this, albeit not always in this form, is essential for noise to occur, to be brought to be. Between listener and perfomer there is a contract, akin to that outlined by Deleuze in his Coldness and Cruelty, on Leopold van Sacher-Masoch. The masochistic contract permits a temporary suspension of equality. Unlike the spurious contract of slavery (where a slave loses the capacity to contract through contracting), it is important to note the suspension of law, and its replacement by rules, guidelines, etc. Whitehouse seem a long way from the consenting sadomasochism/BDSM Deleuze proposes in his rethinking of the term ‘masochism’. They praise sadistic inflicting of pain and humiliation. An early collaboration with Steven Stapleton, The 150 Murderous Passions, tries to bring out the closing section of de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, through electronics, Stapleton’s graphics and a hint of the content of the book. These ’150 passions’ are extremely violent, and odd in that de Sade merely lists them, where generally he dwells lovingly on details. The album echoes this, a hint of perfunctoriness as we descend, conveying an inevitability of ‘evil’. But it is not really sadistic. It might be Sadean, i.e. accepting of his philosophy and interests, but it is not really sadistic in practice, as not inflicted. Just as with de Sade, the listener/reader has put his- or herself in a position where ‘infliction’ will occur.

Whitehouse certainly aim to shock—like all avant-gardes, industrial and noise music expect to shock, and, just in case you weren’t surprised, the content tries to be as offensive as possible. But it is also highly literary, a very self-aware ‘shockingness’, that quickly palls, at least as shock. Only after any outrage fades can listening happen. In terms of noise that raises a near-insurmountable problem—it has to keep the promise/threat of noise while suspending it, or even ignoring the possibility of noise in favour of message/signal. It also signals something important about the listener. As Bataille argued, in writing of the too-easy acceptance of de Sade as libertarian, a moralist and a political radical, de Sade receives an unwanted use-value, and loses the transgressiveness, and this is what needs to be maintained (see chapter 7). Similarly, is there much point to Whitehouse once we either accept or dismiss the content or get used to the form? Whitehouse did come to recognize the need to change, to at least temporarily shock or at least surprise, but the question doesn’t go away. This failure to constantly shock is inevitable, rather than a fault, and Whitehouse continue to turn on themselves, and perceptions of their ‘predelictions’, constantly trying to get us hearing instead of securely listening, trying to break a masochistic contractual listening.

Superficially, Swans share the same concerns as Whitehouse, but despite titles like ‘Raping a Slave’ and details of abusive sexual and emotional situations, the content is not the same. Swans’ music (in the early to mid-1980s) is a strippeddown brutalism. The lyrics are highly repetitive, simplistic anti-poetry. This gives a focus matched in the music. Where Whitehouse set up a spatialized experiential listening, Swans close off space in the repetition of riffs and unvarying percussion. Swans are interested in creating a visceral reaction. Michael Gira, mainstay of Swans, has no time for what was initially thought of as noise music—i.e. improvisation based on seemingly non-musical elements, saying that ‘there are all these bands around New York, these noodling little artists who get together and improvise in some loft, invite their friends over, play Kazoos through pickups and beat up their guitars. That’s a noise band’ (in Neal [ed], Tape Delay, 145).

So Swans play at high volume to dispose of polite alertness. Away from the high volume of performance, this is achieved through the monotonous reiteration of violence musical and lyrical. The CD format has actually helped this go further, as where the record was divided up, or shorter, now there are full CDs’ worth of insistence. Listening cannot settle into this particular repetition, unlike that of ‘krautrock’ or American minimalists (and I would include the ostensibly noisy, but actually only loud, Glenn Branca in this), as it is too simple. Where minimalism and rock repetition imply variation, Swans’ reiterations are made mindless, coming close to machinic. What prevents this attaining a Kraftwerk-style purity is the dissonance achieved in even the oddly sparse arrangements. On recordings, this is abetted by abrupt editing, illustrating the arbitrariness of ending, as opposed to offering closure, either in glory or failure.

If Einstürzende Neubauten renconfigure the shape of a rock band or performance, Swans replicate it as lifeless, or as being killed. Cop/Young God (1984) or Greed/Holy Money (1985–6) suck the masculine vigour out of rock, excising the energy in slow, repetitive blocs where each moment reappears fractally as the bloc that is a song, then album. Any complexity there is being undone, as in the opening of ‘Time Is Money (Bastard)’, where rapid-fire electronic percussion gives way to relentless rhythm that drudges the listener through tedium and into a catatonic non-listening. Like Throbbing Gristle, but made much more explicit as subject matter, the key interest of Swans is power through physicality. For them, we are ruthlessly embodied, our entire thinking driven by it. While institutions have been able to exploit this, it seems a timeless and inevitable condition of humanity. This is played out through the relentless and lengthy non-exploration of almost static if violent music, and endless returning to the abject body, one rarely personified or ‘subjectivized’. This is why it is important not to mitigate what seems to be (a mundanely) excessive dwelling on exploitation and harm, nor to vary the sound to ‘shock’ people. Here the ‘problem’ for the listener is what Agamben terms the normalization of the ‘state of exception’, where the exercise of sovereign (in his sense arbitrary and total) power is no longer occasional or transgressive, but made into a new law.

Noise is akin to the masochistic contract, but is it still forcing desire and pleasure into a situation where power dominates? Noise cannot want—it can put you into an unwanted liberation, force you to be free, somewhere between Rousseau and Sade. Noise might be the opening up of desire, or the erotic, but it has to suspend it—no release, just a sudden end when it does stop. Noise brings you to your body, your body without organs, perhaps, but also a body made ear. When noise occurs, listening gives way to hearing, giving way in turn to the loss of hearing— not literally, but in the sense of losing the ability to distinguish sounds, to keep sounds as a merely auditory input. The volume and the harshness of the sounds bring your body to be, in noise, even in the loss of awareness. In the case of the Swans or Hijokaidan, this would be in the unrelenting mass of sound. In the case of Merzbow, Masonna or Violent Onsen Geisha, harsh changes do not allow you to settle, however submissively.

Is noise fascistic? Noise cannot carry content, so not overtly. Many have misunderstood noise and industrial music’s interest in extremes, and presumed that the use of certain imagery might imply advocacy of Nazism, for example, or violence, in general. Beyond the level of presumed content, though, there is still the question of noise itself being in some way fascistic (formally, or, alternatively, in its relation to the listener). Historically, we can point to the Futurists’ love of the sounds of war as indicating fascist potential, but in practice the extreme right is not at all interested in noise. It seeks loudness, rather than noise, and the restriction of sounds into a monitored code: i.e. in the form of state-sponsored, pseudo-traditional music, clear transmission of ‘the message’ when in power, more ambiguous when ‘subversive’. Noise is the outsider to be expelled. In this, as in most other areas, fascism is merely the extension of rationalized liberal society.

But if noise evokes anything, it is often not that far from phenomena that fascism, or totalitarianism in general, might praise: the non-rational, some form of sacred, giving yourself over into something beyond the individual, attaining some more authentic, lost sense of either body or mind, the notion of submitting, the control on the part of the noise producer, the power of a spectacle that is physically oppressive. Bataille had the same problem: in looking at phenomena outside the capitalist worldview, his theory seemed to tend toward fascism. His answer is relatively simple, and transferable to noise: fascism is part of what he calls the ‘heterogeneous’, but is specifically about the control of that realm.6 It is ultra-profane rather than sacred. The sacred, here as noise, is at a different exit point from the rational, liberal, capitalist world, and the loss of that world’s restrictions stays loss. Noise and other recent experimental musics run a risk in ambiguity: there is no judgement of good or bad—in the music or performances themselves. The imposition of high volume, for example, is masochistic, contractual (as Deleuze would say in Coldness and Cruelty),7 whereas music in commercial city centre areas is not—so noise, even if it will not offer a ‘positive’ stance, can invoke resistance, can be it.

The noise of consumer society has to be jammed somehow—wearing aWalkman, listening to a noise music CD would not be enough—this individualizes revolt into a neatly controllable form. Listening to noise which confuses you, or prevents you from operating correctly in the city, would give you a radically broken perspective. Noise is always on the side of more—even if not always (or ever) good or bad noise. Noise is not just volume, but the spread, dissemination and dispersal of its non-message. Samizdat, CD-Rs, graffiti, shareware—all act as forms of noise in spreading themselves parasitically. A few years ago, there was a sense that this could lead to a form of future rebellion through hacking, but that has been surpassed by the Net’s will to noise, which is self-creating, auto-reproductive, autodestructive. Within noise, we might detect another proliferation: Deleuze and Guattari name it ‘microproliferation’, and this can lead to the destruction of sound from within itself (A Thousand Plateaus, 296), taking silence, music and noise with it.

Noise can be about confrontation, and this confrontation can, say, in the case of punk or hip-hop, mean that noise (often imposed negatively as a critique of that music) can become a means to ends: without descending to the level of music as message, some (few, in fact) have managed to combine ideas in words and ideas in sound, while remaining noise. For this to work, the message must be limited, self-reflective and only function in the confrontational encounter with the noise. Whitehouse, especially in recent albums, have merged the physical with the mental/psychological: the words and harsh sound need each other, depend on each other, risk being lost in each other. This dependence and mutual loss of identity occurs between performer and audience in all noise. The prime purpose of confrontation is confrontation itself. Those who are there when noise is occurring do not lose themselves in some sort of happy bonding, but are driven inward, too far, and therefore lose ready access to this inside. In its place, through what was initially staged as confrontation, there is now an immanent group, where we are neither individuals nor a community (except in the Bataillean sense of one based on the moments of sacrifice).

Does exclusion imply a catalyst for rebellion, through the creation of such a community? Noise is on the side of revolt rather than revolution (not that this can be said of all experimental music), as revolution implies a new order, and noise cannot be a message-bearer (other than of itself as message). A politics requires consciousness and agency, not present in noise itself. The use of noise, however, would not be in the way of politics. We could imagine a politically engaged use of noise, where the noise had purpose—and this could be minimal (creating a group, community and so on, as in Hakim Bey’s notion of the temporary autonomous zone), or maximal (using noise to highlight issues or problems). Noise itself could serve a didactic end, and ‘change the way we think’ or perceive things. Any of these would disqualify the event or sounds from being noise as such, as the noise would now be drawn back into the realm of the useful, the realm of clearly assigned values, only with noise now as positive value. The values or the binary opposition would have been revalued, in a simple reversal, rather than being transvalued. To counter this, or in the full knowledge of this, noise and noise music are not purist, and therefore cannot complain about being adulterated, without also losing their status as noise. Occupying this paradoxical space is what noise is (not) about. Then, noise has structured the space as a process, and we have something like Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘smooth space’, a vague location full of intensities and noises (A Thousand Plateaus, 479), defined by what occurs in them, and then as them (482). Attali advocates ‘composing’ (see Noise, 133–48), which is a form of ‘active listening’ and participation. We can challenge power through ‘conquest of the right to make noise, in other words, to create one’s own code and work’ (Noise, 132).8 Ironically, it is the success of the ‘music business’ that could lead to its downfall, as ‘no longer having to say anything in a specific language is a necessary condition for slavery, but also of the emergence of cultural subversion’ (122).

While noise cannot remain message and still be noise, musicians can create other kinds of noise, such as the moral panic that seeks to disqualify NWA or Body Count on grounds of being a danger to society, or in terms of hip-hop not using much of music’s canon of activities (instruments, ‘tuneful’ singing, original music). Groups can mobilize noise or the way they are defined negatively as social or musical noise. When noise catches on, it will no longer be any sort of avant-garde: uniquely, perhaps, if it were to become a movement or inspire one, it would already be failing. On the other hand, the artists are trying for something; there is an attempt at communication—an excessive one, even. Maybe noise will fail more prosaically, and always be marginal (which would allow ‘noise practitioners’ to be perceived as an unrecuperable force). Success, would, in any case signal the end of noise—and when assessing those who would challenge power in order to be redefined as not-noise (i.e. marginalized social groups), it must be borne in mind that they will often be trying to end noise, just as Cage sought to bring noises into organized sound.

Public Enemy encapsulate hip-hop’s attack on power, in moving on from a moralistic critique of black oppression and exclusion that prevailed in the 1960s and 1970s, and on to an ultra-rationalistic attack. This is formed at the lyrical level by what principal lyricist Chuck D imagined as despatches from hidden black urban America, and at the musical level by samples, musical and otherwise, scratching, beats (often from the first two), all maintained intensely. It is not just in the explicitness and anger of the lyrics that this music differs from ‘protest’ music, but in its construction—the rhythm (at the forefront of tracks) and speed of it would create a different physical response and engagement, moving on from jazz, rap and funk, even while referring to them, often by incorporating samples (see Mark Dery, ‘Public Enemy: Confrontation’, 412).9 According to Dery,

Public Enemy’s backing tracks are every bit as political as its lyrics. Part morality play, part musique concre` te, part blueprint for the building of a mindblowing bomb, the band’s music is a noisy collage of sputtering Uzis, wailing sirens, fragments of radio and TV commentary about the band itself, and key phrases lifted from speeches by famous black leaders, all riding on rhythms articulated by constantly changing drum voices. (‘Public Enemy: Confrontation’, 408)

Public Enemy’s approach is not dramatically different from that of industrial music, although of course we can point to the different situatedness of black hip-hop artists compared with industrialists, but we should not determine outcomes and effects from that context. Power will be exposed by a competing display of power—adoption of uniforms, display of weaponry adding to the music (the evolution of gangsta rap will turn this rhetorical use into actual events, but centred on rival factions rather than targeting the police as, say, NWA would have suggested). Institutional power will be exposed lyrically, and the responses of dispossessed black America suggested likewise. The videoclip will add to this. ‘Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos’, from It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back highlights conscription, the ‘over-representation’ of black men in U.S. prisons—and the narrator, innocent except for being a ‘militant/Posing a threat, you bet it’s fuckin’ up the government’, leads a breakout, killing a guard along the way. The video was widely perceived as advocating violence on law enforcement personnel (David L. Shabazz, Public Enemy Number One, 72, 86).10

Like the Burroughs-inspired experiments of industrial music, Public Enemy try to reveal the machinations of power and discrimination in a technologically reflexive way—i.e. how it is told is important; how it is framed is part of ‘the message’: ‘our music is filled with bites, bits of information from the real world, a real world that’s rarely exposed’ (Chuck D, quoted in Dery, ‘Public Enemy: Confrontation’, 415). The exposure is only possible through a radically empirical component (sirens, chases, shots, speech fragments, etc.) and the abstracted, heightened ‘realism’ that would create proximity to the listeners, particularly a young black audience (e.g. the rap declamation of the state of excluded blacks, pounding rhythms suggesting the urban environment): ‘from the beginning, [producer Hank] Shocklee and Chuck D conceived of Public Enemy as ”a musician’s nightmare”. ”We took whatever was annoying, threw it into a pot, and that’s how we came out with this group”, Shocklee recalls. ”We believed that music is nothing but organized noise” ‘ (Dery, ‘Public Enemy: Confrontation’, 418). This ‘pot’ is how the samples, lyrical approaches, volume, add to an evocation of the urban as well as a call to action. Without the ‘pot’, it is just a politics lecture.11

Public Enemy’s use of volume does differ from industrial methods. While shows do play with the spectacle of power in a similar way, the recordings feed into car-dominated urban areas, where stereos get bigger and louder, and above all, bassier. The music is literally mobilized (see Chuck D on this, in ‘Public Enemy: Confrontation’, 413) and becomes noise for those even in the car, who now hear throughout their cyborg car-bodies, as opposed to via their ears alone. For others, the booming bass car is simply noise pollution. This noise undermines the physical integrity of the area it crosses, particularly if suburb or exurb, a perfect interference, compared with the oppressive power in inflicting music over long periods, which might be an interesting social intervention, but is not noise. It is organized, homogeneous aggression, akin to state displays of power (or, of course, its use of persistent music to annoy its enemies [Waco siege, Iraq]).

The materials that go into the music are themselves noisy—heterogeneous, often untuned, or, alternatively, ‘borrowed’, in the case of samples, and sometimes this would be heightened in the studio, contributing to the above-mentioned ‘pot’ (‘Public Enemy: Confrontation’, 411), but Public Enemy will always stop short of interrupting the message fatally. Chuck D notes, for example, that although fast rhythms are essential to Public Enemy, there is a limit to rapping speed, because it is important for the lyrics to be understood (414). Much of the actual noise ‘of’ Public Enemy rests in reactions to them, just as with NWA, whose provocative use of the word ‘nigga’, in name and title of their second album, their aggression toward the police, their acknowledgement of the violent life lived by many blacks in America were all perceived as advocacy of violence. (Tricia Rose argues that black rappers are kept marginalized, kept as threat, even after having commercial success [Black Noise, 184].)

Two techniques, far from unique to Public Enemy, although less widely accepted in the late 1980s than since, constitute noise in musical terms, or, more precisely, to what is deemed to ‘properly’ musical. These are, of course, sampling and DJing. Both are non-musical in that they do not involve a musical instrument and are not ‘creating out of nothing’ as is imagined on guitar or piano. So, as Susan McClary notes, ‘the romantic search for authenticity is thus frustrated in advance by this music that foregrounds its own fundamental mediation’ (Conventional Wisdom, 160).12 Sampling is the Duchampian recognition that art can be made out of existing objects, and that once you do this, the status of art objects alters in turn (e.g. in this case, we stop imagining that playing the guitar involves a pure interaction of skill with musical creativity, and instead see a set of conventions playing out across a machine with finite [if huge] possibilities, further structured by tonalities and playing strategies). Sampling allows referencing as well as selecting elements to structure the new work. In Public Enemy’s case, this includes references to black culture, to black protest, as well as samples highlighting oppression. The sample is noise in two, almost opposed, ways: if presented as is, its empiricism is radically non-musical; if altered or ‘manipulated’ (a slightly unpleasant term that to me seems to relegitimize practices under the aegis of skill), then their reality, presumably the purpose for including them, is disposed of. The musical sample seems to suggest lack of creativity, but is a rejection of isolated ‘genius’ musicians in favour of an intertextual music world. Even though the grafting of one track onto another, whether mainstream R&B or ‘mash-up’, is not of great interest in its own right, it carries its small noise in the unexpected encounter of often very different musical genres, and the listener’s first moment of encounter. The sample is also legal noise, with copyright issues to the forefront in a corporatized music business. Over the years, the music industry worked out protocols of recognition, royalties, and so on, though John Oswald’s whole career of ‘plunderphonics’ and Dangermouse’s Gray Album have still managed to annoy copyright holders. The scratching of and use of beats from records is an extension of making music up from samples (in fact with the DJing coming first in the cases of Jamaican dancehall and late 1970s rap). The group format is radically altered, as now the machinery consists of record decks, mixers, drum machines and other samplers. The rest is essentially vocals. Hip-hop emphasizes the focus on the vocalists, but in the case of Public Enemy, the music is not just background—and this stresses the noise of replacing musicians with DJs—in a way, records are generally allowed to be background, even if we ‘should’ have instruments, but foregrounding them through ‘bad’/inappropriate playing of records, and turning this into the musical element is not ‘proper’ music.13

Industrial music and hip-hop both address power, and do so via various noise strategies, principally in the mimicking and perversion of institutional power being exposed, criticized, and so on. Incorporation of noises, or playing at volume, is not enough to signify noise (actually, that is precisely what it does, signifies rather than being noise).14 As with all noise, it turns into style, to paraphrase George Melly, and the evocations of power become clichéd. Industrial music is the exemplification of noise’s relation to power, which is that it is other to power, but cannot overturn it. Hip-hop’s mobilization of noise sets up a resistance, that if it works, the noise dissipates, but a more activist engagement can result. Lyrically, 1990s rap does go to extremes, and offensiveness, more or less purposely, but formally, an extreme simplification is increasingly the way rap is in opposition to musicality, which heightens the lyrical or vocal part. Commercially successful rap, gangsta or not, in its assertions of power, and a powerfully recentred subjectivity, fits neatly into corporate power, in a way that 1980s rap and hip-hop did not really envisage. Meanwhile, industrial music got closer to rock musics, which in the form of hardcore or grunge, had incorporated noisiness (volume, lo-fi, feedback, samples, and so on) without ever really bringing the interference of noise. As noted above, this allows others to assert their authenticity due to not being appropriated, or listened to as entertainment (one target of this thinking, Trent Reznor, addressed this in Nine Inch Nails’ Broken). These incorporations should not be seen as a bad failure, but as the inevitability of noise in failing. That groups like Swans moved on from their early aesthetic to a psychologically and musically more varied approach is not a maturation or a stepping back, and neither is it any less interesting or challenging for not being noise in the way it attempted to be in the mid-1980s. The same can be said of hip-hop’s move away from the confrontations of Public Enemy or of the Wu-Tang Clan’s referencing of global popular culture. But the moment where noise directly addressed power was literally fleeting. With the noise music of Japan, power is not dismissed as such, or escaped, but exceeded.



1‘Industrial music’ did not uniformly follow this path. Groups like Nurse with Wound and The New Blockaders would continue to push the limits of musique concre` te and take it in ever noisier directions. We could imagine such highly influential ‘bands’ informing a more organic and teleological history with ease, as they lead into later types of explicit ‘noise music’. Alternatively, they could be the noise to the current historicizing and theorizing of noise, a hidden spine, perhaps. Or maybe the lymphatic system within its arbitrary body.

2Foucault, Discipline and Punish (London: Penguin, 1991) and History of Sexuality, vol. I (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978).

3Giant stadia, concert halls, transport systems etc., might be fascistic but they do not belong to fascist regimes alone. Furthermore, as Bataille argues, all architecture disciplines and ultimately limits humanity (‘Architecture’ in Neil Leach [ed], Rethinking Architecture [London and New York: Routledge, 1997], 21).

4See www.susanlawly.com

5Bennett’s voice has a major role in Whitehouse, as the initially maniacal or murderous voice comes apart in screaming. At one level, this signifies the arrival of protagonist and listener as some sort of culmination of abjection or ‘shitfun’, but it is not a voice of power—its variability suggests frailty and the high pitch a denial of masculinity and control. This is not a voice that can carry a message—instead it is carried by the text and sound. Pete Best’s voice offers a contrast, with its ranting, wheedling, spitting—this has become part of the rhythm of Whitehouse’s sound since Cruise, as lengthy tales of exploitation accompany the pulsing electronics.

6See ‘The Psychological Structure of Fascism’, Visions of Excess, 137–60.

7Gilles Deleuze, ‘Coldness and Cruelty’, in Masochism (New York: Zone, 1991), 9–138.

8Attali also refers favourably to pirate recordings, and to illegal radio stations (131). These certainly challenge the production system, but are they really outside consumerist consumption of goods?

9Mark Dery, ‘Public Enemy: Confrontation’, in Murray Forman and Mark Anthony Neal (eds), That’s the Joint: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader (New York and London: Routledge, 2004), 407–20.

10David L. Shabazz, Public Enemy Number One: A View Inside the World of Hip-Hop (Clinton, SC: Awesome Records, 1999). The book contains a lengthy over-empiricist study of audience reactions to this video and that of ‘Get the Fuck Outta Dodge’, looking for gender and race differences (72–105).

11Tricia Rose notes the connection forged by this complexity, as one of ‘the tension between postmodern ruptures and the continuities of oppression’ (Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America [Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1994]), 115.

12Susan McClary, Conventional Wisdom: The Content of Musical Form (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000).

13Recently, DJs playing sets of records have tried to move away from the organicist ‘flow’ achieved by mixing and matching tracks, and highlighting the sound of records being played (as was done in samples in both industrial music and hip-hop)—Miss Kitten, for example.

14For subversive signifying, where the dispossessed, notably those from the African enforced diaspora, express their contextualized subjectivity in ‘signifyin’, and in doing so, begin a resistance to it, see Henry Louis Gates, The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).


  • READ Chapter 13, “Listening”, from Noise/Music by Paul Hegarty.

  • READ an interview with author Paul Hegarty.

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