Unpacking Big Black in the Age of #MeToo

Can One of Noise Rock’s Nastiest Albums Save Us From Ourselves?

Original SAF cassette inlay card

Violence, S&M, misogyny, a disembodied female head thrown back in orgasmic grimace. A guitar that sounds more like a fork spinning in a blender stuck on High than an instrument. When Big Black released Songs About Fucking on September 10, 1987, everything about it was shocking.

Thirty-one years later, it still is. That’s the point. And it’s one worth reexamining in the age of the #MeToo movement as Touch And Go Records released a new vinyl edition on October 19th, remastered by singer/guitarist Steve Albini and Shellac bassist/engineer Bob Weston.

The context behind music is just as important as the music itself. In 1987, the world looked like a much different place. While women’s rights movements emerged in the ’60s and ’70s to respond to pervasive threats like catcalling, street harassment, and unequal representation of women in the workforce, the patriarchy was still firmly in control of the dominant narratives steering American culture. There were nonprofit groups like Take Back the Night marching to bring awareness to sexual and domestic violence, but the country was still years away from Riot Grrrl, the Anita Hill trial, and Time’s Up mobilizing an entirely new generation of women to stir us into paying attention.

Just as the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963 is often credited with sparking the second wave of feminism in the United States, it’s time for us to recognize SAF in its own right as one of the most important acts of artistic subversion of the last quarter-century. Songs like “The Power of Independent Trucking” may be about horrible everyday people doing horrific things, but they’re also deliberately jarring cautionary tales about how, as Albini puts it, “slowly, without trying, everyone becomes what he despises most.”

Hair metal bands like Mötley Crüe, Whitesnake and Def Leppard may have dominated album sales in 1987 by celebrating coked-up chauvinism, but the Evanston, Illinois, noise-rock trio chose a distinctly different path, one that announced a critical moment of reckoning with toxic American masculinity that our culture had never seen before, and has rarely confronted sense.

Growing up as a bullied skinny asthmatic in the Texas Bible Belt, subversive art like noise music has been inherently seductive to me since I hit puberty.

Big Black publicity photo

At first, it just made me feel incredibly uncomfortable. Sweaty. Anxious. I couldn’t understand how anyone recreationally listened to music as loud, sharp, and pulverizing as something like Songs About Fucking. But for some reason, I listened on, and then, one day, it clicked. I suddenly heard something beyond the maniacal arrangements, punishing electronic drums, and whiplash time signatures. What I found astonished me.

This was far more than just “noise”—it was a musical rebuke of the sexual and gender norms that terrorized my young-adult identity. And it hit me in the face with all the grace of a sledgehammer.

 

“The Power of Independent Trucking”

The backbone of this country is the independent truck

The power of the trucker comes from his truck

The best thing about trucks is the cab overhead

That’s where those truckers generate their

Backbone!

Backbone!

Backbone!

Backbone!

Holding my hand while I piss in her face

[She’ll do it with love, sitting in a cage]

I keep on pulling on the rig

I keep fucking up, so it’s you I disgrace

Backbone!

Backbone!

Backbone!

Backbone!

Move you move like an animal

Making a noise like an animal

Fornicate and fornicate

Sing a song about fucking

Make you move like an animal

Making a noise like an animal

Bake a chicken and pluck an eye

We’re gonna talk about fucking

 

Subversion has been in rock’s foundations since its very inception.

Ever since Black Flag put a policeman fellating the barrel of a revolver on an album cover or Elvis scandalized teeny-boppers by gyrating his hips, acts designed to provoke conversation have prodded music into new, exciting, unknown territory. From Public Image Limited to Brainbombs to Big Black, shoving humanity’s nose in its own shit has become arguably one of the most influential driving forces in heavy music, ever, period.

And that goes beyond simple shock-rock establishment. The arrival of the Sex Pistols might have disrupted our culture to the point newscasters were proclaiming the End of Western Civilization, but SAF doesn’t push those same buttons. It goes much further. Johnny Rotten singing “Anarchy in the UK” was a silly Halloween costume you could try on for fun; songs like “Precious Thing” are so unflinching, aggressive, and creepy in their satire that their critiques of masculinity feel like a horror film you have to watch with the lights on, and one that has you interrogating your own sense of self long after the credits have rolled.

Sound has a power to influence us like nothing else.

There’s something especially penetrating and pure about its control over us that sets it apart from every other artistic discipline. Can you name another field of creative expression that the CIA has used as a method of “enhanced interrogation” for prisoners of war?

Noise can just as easily be an agent of change or torture, it just depends on who’s making it.

“He’s A Whore” single cover

More than 50 years ago, researchers first showed that “sensory deprivation and manipulation, including extended bouts of noise,” could cause a subject’s personality to disintegrate.

“Beginning in the ’50s, programs that trained American soldiers and intelligence operatives to withstand torture had a musical component; at one point, the playlist reportedly included the industrial band Throbbing Gristle and the avant-garde vocalist Diamanda Galás,” reported The New Yorker.

All the more reason we should be treating noise with more respect, a fact underscored by all the uncomfortable issues SAF pulls to the surface and forces us to confront.

A misogynistic truck driver singing “songs about fucking” isn’t intended to be funny, even if it is in a juvenile way upon first listen; it’s Albini holding up a mirror to an entire gender and spitting in its face. The resulting effect of the album’s puncture-wound production intimacy makes it feel like every lyric dribbles down your face.

Today, Albini admits that he understands how some of these lyrics can be triggering for victims of assault, rape, or sexual abuse.

“I appreciate that some of this is playing with fire, and if I’m going to do that, I am obliged to do it in a way that is both responsible (respects the truth) and worth the risk (not capricious, not frivolous),” Albini wrote to Australian musician Evelyn Morris in 2016“In no way do I mean to dismiss or belittle the suffering of people who relive trauma when triggered. It’s an established and powerful psychological effect, and my sympathy goes out to whoever suffers it. The argument for leaving such things to people with firsthand experience is that using imaginary scenarios in art makes it likely that what is portrayed misses the kernel of truth that justifies the insult of broaching the topic in the first place. The problem with making victim triggering the responsibility of an artist is that it also mutes what could be an avenue for understanding for people who are not yet sympathetic, who are blissfully ignorant.”

Even beyond its revolutionary music, SAF’s mix of taboo subjects with its disruptive, confrontational nature is precisely what make it so galvanizing even in 2018. In a world stirred by the voices of #MeToo and Time’s Up, provoking conversation about issues that are difficult or even unpleasant to discuss and giving the powerless a voice is critical.

But what can men really do? Albini, like many feminist men, says he prefers to stay out of the way and let women take charge.

But perhaps there’s another way, too. Maybe men can act as feminist allies in this conversation by supporting that overall cultural critique, not by supplanting women’s voices, but, as Albini points out, by subverting those in power: Men.

“Every facet of humanity, even the worst, is present to a degree in all of us, and any of us can inhabit that perspective either willingly or be driven to it,” Albini told Morris.

Big Black-era Albini in action

“It is important that we deal with it on a cultural level because sure as shit it will appear in real life. If things like this remain unspoken, the thinking doesn’t die; it spreads subcutaneous like a fungus, making everything sick… it has to be stated plainly. Daylight is a great disinfectant.”

Rather than turn a blind eye, or reinforce Heavy Music’s normalization of the negative treatment of women, SAF recognizes an important human truth: Without confrontation, these behaviors don’t just remain hidden among our worst impulses—they just might evolve or spread even further, pernicious, unabated, a secret cancer inside all of us.

To address these harsh truths head-on, the stories told on SAF are uncomfortable, and that’s OK, even necessary. As we continue to explore social self-awareness, having this kind of dialogue is our duty if we want to ever confront systematic problems like sexism, homophobia, misogyny and chauvinism in a lasting way.

With that in mind, though, if we’re going to listen to a song like “Bad Penny” today, with conscience, don’t we owe it to those society has kept powerless to come to some kind of humanistic reckoning with all of this?

SAF back cover

Can anyone really be “woke” while listening to Whitehouse?

Don’t we owe a debt of responsibility to those who have grown to accept their own struggle and voicelessness as a foregone conclusion, a basic fact of life?

In many ways, these are some of the reasons why I’ve stepped away from music writing. Yes, I have a story to tell, but is the story of a cis straight white-guy thirty-something really that necessary anymore?

Shouldn’t music and music journalism be making more room for marginalized voices?

These are questions that are worth asking more today than perhaps ever before.

SAF has taught me many things about life and music, but its one central message continues to endure beyond all others: You can’t exorcise your demons if you can’t look them in the eye.

 

Cole Hill

Cole Garner Hill is an award-winning filmmaker and musician. His debut solo album was released in 2014 on Pour Le Corps Records, and the short film he co-wrote and executive produced, 'Son' won the Grand Jury Prize at the Oak Cliff Film Festival.

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