A musical journey with Psychobilly author Kimberly Kattari

This week in North Philly Notes, Kimberly Kattari, author of Psychobilly: Subcultural Survivalwrites about the significance of subcultural music communities.

Since seventh grade, my identity has often revolved around my interest in some genre of popular music. First it was heavy metal. The first cassette I bought was Metallica’s self-titled album (known as “The Black Album”) and the first song I learned to play on the guitar was “Nothing Else Matters.” Then came grunge, then punk rock, and many other styles, all of with which I resonated strongly. I’d signal my interest in that style of music through my fashion and style choices—long thermals under band shirts or flannel for grunge; dyed hair, fishnets, and safety pin “jewelry” for punk. It felt great to be on the same wavelength with others who shared my passion for that style of music, were invested in what the lyrics were about, and felt that our musical taste said something about who we were.

I think my deep desire to be part of a musical community stemmed from the fact that I was once completely not in touch with popular music. As a kid, I was mostly exposed to the classical and world music my parents listened to. I regularly attended concerts with them at university concert halls, the Hollywood Bowl, and the philharmonic. In the fourth grade, while my peers danced in the schoolyard to songs by New Kids on the Block and giggled about which member of the boy band they had a crush on, I was clueless. I was listening to Robert Schumann, Ladysmith Black Mambazo (an a cappella group from South Africa), and KODO (a taiko drum ensemble from Japan). By the beginning of seventh grade, I still hadn’t branched out from the music my parents listened to. On the first day of my English class, the teacher asked everyone to introduce themselves and share their favorite musician or band. I froze. I didn’t really know any “popular” bands that someone my age would like. I blurted out the only musician’s name I could remember—Rod Stewart (my mother was a fan). Let’s just say this was not a “cool” choice. My classmates laughed. I was completely embarrassed.

After that day, I started to pay more attention to the music that my peers listened to. I still love classical music and “world music” too. I went on to earn my doctorate in ethnomusicology after all (and began to understand why the term “world music” problematically reinforces colonialist legacies). But I also became fascinated with understanding how and why people identify with different types of popular music, why we resonate with one type and not another, and how we feel connected to others who share our musical interests because we usually have more in common than just our musical tastes. Music says something about us.

Psychobilly_smFast-forward to 2007. I had just finished writing my Master’s thesis on reggaetón, exploring why fans across the United States felt that the music expressed their bicultural identity and values. Then a friend invited me to a show featuring a psychobilly band called Nekromantix. I had never heard of “psychobilly.” Intrigued, I went to the show and was stunned by what I saw. The fans blended aspects of 1950s rockabilly and punk rock. They looked like a hybrid of Elvis and the Sex Pistols. Some had a greased-up pompadour, while others had an exaggerated flattop mutated with a Mohawk. Clothes and tattoos featured symbols that signified an obsession with the macabre—coffins, bats, skeletons, monsters—done in a cartoonish, horror B-movie camp style. The music matched the fashion: it sounded like a harder, faster, more “punk” version of rockabilly with lyrics about “getting horny in a hearse” and running scared from the “gargoyles over Copenhagen.” The lead singer played a stand-up bass (a rockabilly staple) but it looked like a coffin. He rolled his eyes back into his head, looking psychotic, while growling lyrics about dancing with the dead in a graveyard (“Dead MoonWalkin”) (2004, Dead Girls Don’t Cry, Hellcat Records). Here, in a dive bar in Austin, Texas, was a whole subcultural community I never knew existed. I was having flashbacks to being in seventh grade: how could I be completely clueless about this whole other world that some people were clearly committed to? I was intrigued to learn more about why people identified with this particular combination of vintage rock ’n’ roll, punk, and campy horror.

Psychobilly: Subcultural Survival explores how and why members of this subcultural community identify so strongly with it. I spent more than ten years interviewing musicians and fans about their participation in this scene. Above all, psychobillies expressed to me that this scene gives them a place to freely express their non-mainstream identity. As one interlocutor put it, “Psychobilly is the only place where I feel like me.” Most of my interlocutors said that they don’t normally fit in with others and have been socially and/or economically marginalized in a variety of ways. So they free themselves from normative expectations at psychobilly events: they “wreck” (erratically mosh around in a pit while throwing their fists every which way); they dress in ways that might scare “normal” people; and they sing along with tongue-in-cheek songs about killing the cheerleader (which aren’t meant to be taken seriously but still express a defiant and rebellious attitude).

The hybridization of stylistic elements of rockabilly and punk started to make more sense to me as I talked to members of the subculture: psychobillies combined aspects of two genres that had each represented working-class expressions of rebellion against the status quo. But psychobillies rebelled even further by rejecting the clichés that characterized rockabilly and punk by the early 1980s. Instead of singing about pink Cadillacs and bopping on a Saturday night (typical rockabilly) or political rage (conventional punk), psychobillies celebrated their defiant attitude in songs like “Scum of the Neighborhood” by Batmobile (Batmobile, Kix 4 U Records, 1985): “We’re the scum of the neighborhood, going out tonight / We like to walk in small streets and get messed up in a fight / Crushing skulls and pulling knives, we care for nobody’s life.” Influenced by horror and science fiction, the lyrics allowed fans to escape reality and fantasize about an imagined world where they yielded the power and inverted social and economic hierarchies.

This book not only illustrates how subcultures represent important spaces for people to resist hegemonic expectations and imagine an alternative to their daily lived experience, but also how they help participants stake out their own way to survive tough times. Having been rejected or excluded from traditional avenues for economic success, many psychobillies lean on each other for social and economic support.

In short, this under-the-radar subculture exists because people rely on it in meaningful ways. It’s an important vehicle through which members of this community express a non-normative identity and draw on the support of others who share their experiences, values, and interests. The subculture survives today because it helps people survive. It allows them a place to be—in their own way and on their own terms.

Notes from the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition

1776_regIn this entry, Mari Yoshihara, author of Musicians from a Different Shore: Asians and Asians Americans and Classical Music, offers her impressions on the recent Van Cliburn International Piano Competition

By Mari Yoshihara

I had the fortune of attending the Thirteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition held in Fort Worth, TX, from May 22 through June 7, 2009. Held every four years in Fort Worth, the Cliburn competition is now considered one of the most prestigious piano competitions in the world. In addition to the $20,000 cash prize and a CD recording, the winners get three-year concert management for performances around the world that often launches their performing career.

The competition is a perfect example of the phenomenon I discuss in my book, Musicians from a Different Shore: Asians and Asian Americans in Classical Music. This year, 16 out of 30 contestants were Asian. This year’s list of awardees—the gold medal was shared by Nobuyuki Tsujii of Japan and Haochen Zhang of China; Yeol Eum Son of South Korea won the silver; the crystal medal was not awarded—is historic in many ways. For one thing, this was the first time in the history of the competition that the gold medal went to an Asian. Also, the two gold medalists were the two youngest contestants in this year’s competition. And finally—this is certainly the most attention-grabbing fact of all—Tsujii is blind from birth.

While I had mentioned the competition in Musicians from a Different Shore, this was the first time that I had actually attended the event. And it quickly became clear to me that studying the event through documentary films, recordings, and media coverage is one thing, and experiencing it in situ is quite another. In the course of my interviews with the event’s organizers and jurors, I was persuaded of the competitions’ merit in identifying those artists who are most prepared to launch a concertizing career; but in the end, who wins and who doesn’t interest me beyond the reality TV-like curiosity. I did become a convert, however, of the event as an occasion to experience the intensity of a live musical performance. These young (age 19 to 30) musicians have dedicated their entire lives to this art form and worked for years toward this competition. They perform with their future career at stake, making bare every bit of their musical ideas, technical skills, spiritual and emotional state, out for the world to peruse (for the first time, the entire competition was webcast throughout the world) and for the jurors to assess. To witness this extremely courageous and vulnerable act live in the performance hall was immensely moving. And regardless of what happens to the long-term trajectory of these musicians (as a performing career involves many variables beyond musical skills and talent, not all competition winners end up having a renowned performing career), it is an incredible honor to share in the moment of the launching of the career of these young artists. And to have experienced live the performances of these pianists—from his recital in the preliminary round, Zhang’s performance had struck me as something by an extraordinary genius; and Tsujii’s playing moves the audience on so many levels, musical and spiritual—brings the listeners together in a way that defies facile description.

Listening to all the performances live, interviewing the contestants and jurors, meeting various people involved in the event, observing what goes on offstage and outside the concert hall, and getting to know some things about the Fort Worth community greatly expanded my understanding of the practice of classical music in the context of an event such as the Cliburn. It gave me tremendous food for thought as I reflect upon my own ideas about identity and music. Yet I was glad to confirm that my concluding sentences in Musicians from a Different Shore were proven by my experience at the Cliburn: “I believe that music produces power through the meetings of the performers’ and listeners’ subjective engagement with the musical text and the social, collective experience of music. Asians’ and Asian Americans’ realization and performance of identity in and through music help us see how the subjective and the social meet.”

Mari Yoshihara is the author of Musicians from a Different Shore: Asians and Asians Americans and Classical Music http://www.temple.edu/tempress/titles/1776_reg.html

%d bloggers like this: