Sonic Youth

How can the dynamic capacities of noise be harnessed for utopia?

In the month leading up to the U.S. presidential election, Dave Eggers, the author, philanthropist, and founder of the satire site McSweeney’s, enlisted a number of musicians across genres and disciplines for what would become the “30 Days, 30 Songs” project, a vocal gesture against a Trump presidency. Building on their earlier “90 Days, 90 Reasons” venture that sought to secure the 2012 reelection of Barack Obama, artists like Aimee Mann, R.E.M., and Death Cab for Cutie unveiled a new song each day for 30 days, culminating in a 30-song compilation firmly opposed to the “ignorant, divisive, and hateful campaign” of republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

Tracks like Jim James’s “Same Old Lie” and Cold War Kids’ “Locker Room Talk” each took jabs at Trump’s glaring racism, misogyny, and financial corruption; Franz Ferdinand’s “Demagogue” noted the man’s “tiny vulgar fingers,” while others like Moby’s “Trump Is on Your Side” called him a billionaire who “got a free ride” and has “never really worked a day in his life.” Yet even as the caustic falsetto of Death Cab for Cutie’s “Million Dollar Loan” cut deep into the increasing plausibility of a Trump presidency, somehow the song failed to inspire much enthusiasm beyond the insularity of the liberal media cycle, with no effect on the larger outcome of the election itself.

In Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams question the efficacy of contemporary activism. In an age when social media is “littered with the bitter fallout from an endless torrent of outrage and anger,” it often feels like the Left has grown stagnant, unable to chart new trajectories for reform beyond dated grassroots action and the polarizing frustrations of social media. As the pair note, the public is “more concerned to appear right than to think about the conditions of political change … Public demonstrations of empathy with those suffering replace more finely tuned analysis, resulting in hasty or misplaced action — or none at all. While politics always has a relationship to emotion and sensation, when taken as the primary mode of politics, these impulses can lead to deeply perverse results.” As public expressions of compassion and solidarity have come to rival marches and demonstrations as the dominant form of political discourse, neoliberal protest music — “30 Days, 30 Songs,” like Third Eye Blind, Green Day, John Mayer before it — has come to seem better suited for sharing and agreement among the like-minded than the sort of direct action upon which protest music was once established. The liberal “folk-political” song, steeped in nostalgia for the mass radicalization of the 1960s, invokes an era defined by collective action while serving mostly as a substitute for action itself.

The liberal “folk-political” song, steeped in nostalgia for 1960s mass radicalization, invokes an era defined by collective action while serving as a substitute for action itself

Elsewhere in Inventing the Future, Srnicek and Williams note the declining efficacy of grassroots activism itself, a progression they associate with the rise of neoliberalism and its sweeping eclipse of the international Left. In an age when government is increasingly global, when neoliberalism has become the “[dominant] hegemonic ideology,” resistance on the Left often feels like it’s lagging, trapped in narratives that prioritize “folk political” action “of the transient, the small-scale, the unmediated and the particular,” rather than offering any greater threat to the global establishment. Where once strikes, sit-ins, and trade unions were all effective modes of anti-capitalist resistance, these practices now seem an inadequate response to the massive interconnectedness of 21st-century late capitalism: “Increasingly, multipolar global politics, economic instability, and anthropogenic climate change outpace the narratives we use to structure and make sense of our lives.” Reflecting in the aftermath of Occupy Wall Street, they find that such “folk political” movements were largely misguided in their attempts to “make global capitalism small enough to be thinkable.”

This isn’t to say that protest music is over. Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” and Beyoncé’s “Formation” build on the rich history of civil rights-era music, engaging with topics like racial discrimination and economic injustice. Equal parts grassroots and digital gesture, the #BlackLivesMatter movement has shown the radical potential of social media and its ability to close the gap between viral awareness and grassroots political action — elevating both by establishing new demands for policy reform on both local and global fronts. With its own history in the utopian possibility of the nightclub, electronic dance music has found similar footing as a sanctuary for black and brown, queer and otherwise marginalized listeners to witness the “communal potential” of rhythm and dance.

Now more than ever, new speculative forms feel necessary to help realize what a world beyond oppression and inequality can look like in better service of the individual. Protest music must build movements around the technological possibilities of global resistance — and across the world, new modes of electronic music have begun to do just that. Pushing the aesthetic boundaries that have long guided both dance music and R&B, artists like Lotic, Arca, and Chino Amobi have spent the last few years revealing new capacities for activism as much rooted in speculative digital technologies as in grassroots assembly. Leveraging “noise-sound” as an expressive tool of dissent, such artists have flipped music’s most fundamental elements, pulling the violence of modern warfare into loaded audio weapons with sights set on larger reform.

In 2005, the IDF unveiled a new weapon. Breaking the sound barrier in low-altitude flyovers, the Israeli Air Force initiated dozens of thunderous “sonic blasts,” leaving hundreds of Palestinian civilians with migraines, nosebleeds and heart problems, in some cases even inducing miscarriages. Later captured in a vehicle-mounted blaster and dubbed “The Scream,” the weapon shoots repeated low-frequency pulses that leave victims doubled-over, dizzy and often vomiting. Similar tools known as “Long Range Acoustic Devices,” have been in use for almost a decade, most memorably on activists in conjunction with the Occupy Wall Street, #BlackLivesMatter, and #NoDAPL movements. Sold as a “safe, highly intelligible communication tool,” LRAD has proven to be more destructive than advertised, at times inducing fluid-leakage from the ears of an increasing number of near-deafened victims. Where human tolerance usually hits what’s known as its “threshold of pain” around the 130 decibel mark, LRAD systems can in some cases get as high as 162 decibels, easily causing serious damage to the middle and inner ear’s receptive ability.

In recent years, pop music has had an analogous role in warfare, used to incite fear, inspire allegiance and, in some cases, even enact torture. Since at least 2003, unbearably loud music has been used alongside violent temperature changes on “high-value” Guantanamo detainees to extort information. Later, the New York Times reported that American Special Operations forces in Baghdad were found “[blaring] rap music or rock ‘n’ roll at deafening decibels,” forcing Iraqi victims into a searing, bloodshot submission. With high-intensity tracks like Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” and Drowning Pool’s “Bodies” blasted at volumes rivaling early LRAD, U.S. forces weaponized music as yet another unregulated form of “no-touch torture,” preventing daily functions like sleep and prayer for weeks at a time.

Now more than ever, new speculative forms feel necessary to help realize a world beyond oppression and inequality, in better service of the individual

But what are the implications of weaponized sound as a scalable tool for dissent? How could the dynamic capacities of noise be better harnessed and mobilized to create more effective tools for conscious action? Over the last few years, electronic music has reclaimed its political roots: From across the globe, artists like Lotic, Arca, and Elysia Crampton have made strides toward dance-driven destruction. With the explosive sounds of gunshots and breaking glass, tracks like Lotic’s “Damsel in Distress” ripple with a noisy chaos, an entropic overload of generations of diaspora and colonialism, now reified in sound. His more recent remix of Beyoncé’s “Formation” presents the scorched portrait of a crisis front, as skittered sounds blur a song already draped in ties to Malcolm X and the “black power salutes” of Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and generations associated with the Black Panther movement, into a high-pitched, fast-paced oblivion.

Even at its wildest and most political, contemporary music has long been dependent on a tricky relationship with the gatekeeping outlets behind streaming platforms and media channels that not only constrict the speculative potential of what a music can be, but also limit the sound’s vast potential for political engagement. At the end of last year, Berlin-based musician and software developer Mat Dryhurst wrote that contemporary musicians need new tools to help shape their productive capacity for change. He notes,

I’m bored of handing control of my work to centralized platforms that have no interest in representing the community of artists I identify with. An independent music industry was built by artists, for artists decades ago, and I think that we need to devise an equivalent infrastructure for online media. That doesn’t mean SoundCloud with a different name and font, but an entirely different logic that is as nuanced and distinguished as the independent communities that use it.

Through his work with Saga, a software plugin that allows artists to host their own work and track its distribution throughout the web; and the Blockchain initiative, which turns Bitcoin’s properties as decentralized currency into an evolving exchange of time-stamped digital objects with the potential to be monetized by play count, Dryhurst and others have realized that on some level, progressive music isn’t compatible with the current paradigms of corporate oversight guiding media ventures like streaming platforms and the networks of social media.

NON Records, the collective behind music from Angel-Ho, Nkisi, Elysia Crampton, and Chino Amobi, among others, pairs elements of noise music with the shock-and-awe spectacle of the political state at war. With a digital-first, non-hierarchical structure spreading across the African diaspora, NON Records “resides in villages, towns, and cities across the globe,” committed to the “militant realities” of the global front, merging the weaponized potential of sound with explicit aims for political reform. In an exchange with the Fader, a spokesperson from the label notes that “NON uses sound as a weapon to destabilize and deterritorialize our audience,” working toward a level of political and economic independence seemingly only achievable on the scale of a new nation-state. With the sound and iconography of a crisis zone, the collective — whose involvement with grassroots work can’t be understated — has set their sights on scale, establishing a network of resistance through which citizens of the diaspora and beyond can unite to coordinate action.

These sounds represent a conspicuous detachment from the sort of Leftist nostalgia guiding other, more “folk political” forms of protest music. For black, brown, queer, and otherwise marginalized bodies, the reflexive look backwards is an eternally fractured gaze, one constantly defined by the rise and fall of activist movements that, though essential, have since been absorbed into neoliberal narratives that actively work to depoliticize productive action. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous March on Washington is often cited within a liberal push for nonviolent demonstration, and much of the context surrounding the more combative movements of Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party has been derailed by a distinctly neoliberal narrative, which perhaps fears that violent protest would disrupt the economic and political supremacy still firmly at the root of white society. Perhaps it’s this very logic that guides “folk political” music like “30 Days, 30 Songs.” Black movements since the ’60s have, instead, been largely built on a push for a more viable utopia; the rise of Afrofuturist forms like techno and hip-hop have often been more speculative in intent than others.

It’s now more necessary than ever that activism reclaim its ability to aggravate, antagonize and disrupt the established order, to build a growing coalition of Leftist resistance. The Left can no longer afford to limit itself to the inefficacies of small-scale strikes, sit-ins, demonstrations and social media actions. As technology has delivered a vast spectrum of new grassroots organizational tools to the public, the “folk political” music of our time feels too often caught between nostalgia for the direct action of a long-gone era, and hope that the politics of social media can indeed induce lasting change. Only with speculative practices that close the gap between global and local aims can political music again look beyond the short sight lines of nostalgic activism and the echo chamber of social media towards new capacities for productive reform.

Rob Arcand is a freelance journalist and culture writer based in Brooklyn. He writes about music and aesthetics and has appeared in Tiny Mix Tapes, Thump, and the Quietus.