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.

Redefining Toxic Masculinity in Trump’s America

This week in North Philly Notes, Cynthia Barounis, author of Vulnerable Constitutions, writes about “anti-prophylactic citizenship,” and Trump’s rhetoric.  

When I first began to develop the concept of “anti-prophylactic citizenship” five years ago in my research on queerness and disability, I did not anticipate how explicitly its opposite would take shape in the campaign, election, and presidency of Donald Trump. To say that Trump ran on a platform of racial exclusion and xenophobia is to state the obvious. But less frequently do we invoke the word “prophylactic” to describe Trump’s obsession with closed borders. Our discussions of prophylaxis tend to center, more progressively, on preventative medicine and public health. Against the puritanism of abstinence-only education, safe sex campaigns advocate the availability of prophylactic barriers to minimize the risk of STIs. And against the autism panic of anti-vaxxers, immunization records in schools are a commonsense strategy for protecting children against preventable outbreaks of contagious diseases.

And yet this primarily medical term also cuts to the core of the Trump administration’s attitude toward those populations he has named as threats. Indeed, there is perhaps no greater symbol for national prophylaxis than Trump’s promise to “build a great, great wall on our southern border.” A prophylactic barrier is designed to preemptively seal off the body from foreign invaders. While Trump has not succeeded in erecting his wall, his administration has enacted more insidious forms of border security since he took office, from the discriminatory Muslim Ban to the mass detention of asylum seekers and the unconscionable separation of parents from their children at the border. Even as I write this, Trump is making new headlines in his refusal to admit Bahamian climate refugees into the U.S. in the wake of Hurricane Dorian because they contained “some very bad people and some very bad gang members and some very, very bad drug dealers.” To make America “great again,” in this worldview, is to safeguard the imagined purity of an American “us” against infection and contamination by a supposedly un-American “them.”

Recognizing Trump’s rhetoric as fundamentally prophylactic allows us to more easily see the ableism that motivates his fixation with closed borders. During an interview with NPR last month, Trump’s acting head of Citizenship and Immigration Services, Ken Cuccinelli, took it upon himself to rewrite Emma Lazarus’s famous poem, etched onto the Statue of Liberty. Quoting the iconic lines, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” Cuccinelli improvised an extra addendum: “Who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.” More than just an ableist metaphor, the requirement that immigrants be able to “stand on their own two feet” and not request assistance sends a clear message: sickness and disability have no place within Trump’s America. To what extent does the nostalgic rallying cry “Make America Great Again” resemble the rehabilitative pressures that demand that certain individuals become able to “walk again”?  More importantly, what would it look like to refuse that demand, requesting care instead of cure and demanding access rather than quarantine? What would a model of anti-prophylactic American citizenship look like?

Vulnerable ConstitutionsAs I was writing Vulnerable Constitutions: Queerness, Disability, and the Remaking of American Manhood, I discovered the answer to this question among an eclectic set of American novels and memoirs, from the canonical voices of William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald to the more explicitly radical writings of James Baldwin and Samuel Delany. Each of these writers rejected the prophylactic impulse to seal off the borders the body (and nation) against infection. In so doing, they rebelled against the medical wisdom of their day. Against doctor’s orders, they imagined a new form of American masculinity that celebrated the virtues of the viral. In their works, I was fascinated by the number of shapes these infectious visions took, from the risky intimacies cultivated among queer barebacking subcultures in response to the AIDS epidemic to the rejection of the sanitizing psychiatric labels and coercive therapies applied to gay men in the 1950s and 60s.

Rather than embracing an ideal of impenetrable masculinity, these writers believed that individual body, as well as the body of the nation, becomes healthier and more robust as it drops its defenses. They help us to envision an alternative form of manhood that dictates that the body remain open, incorporating and adapting to those elements that others identify as ‘threats.’ This alternative masculinity, of course, is not beyond critique. Its glorification of risk and resilience (“what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”) might simply replace one masculine ideal with another. But by celebrating the value and even the pleasures of contamination, it is a masculinity that is “toxic” in the most positive sense of the word.

 

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