Pinch til the feeling’s gone

Light observations on a recent Screaming Females show. I went though a few phases with this band. At first I just thought they sounded good, and I honestly felt like their songs were kind of whatever, but I eventually came around. The fact that their songs are engaging but not terribly easy to get a definitive handle on is the point (it might even be intentional, although who cares).

Seeing them live clarifies a few things, the most obvious of which is that Marissa Paternoster is a demon. Both the unrealistic facility of her shredding and the deep intensity of her singing are entirely piercing. I’m really not the romantic type, but this just isn’t the same thing as being good at playing music. It’s magic. It’s not, however, an explanation. The other members are just as impressive and just as important, it’s just that they have less flashy jobs. More than that, they are crazy tight as a band. They actually stretch their songs out a lot live, with lots of solos and extended bridges and soforth, but none of it feels superfluous. Their cohesiveness makes it feel like they’re not showing off; for all their intensity, it feels like they’re working. Maybe this is kind of an obvious thing to be impressed by, but I was impressed regardless. It was invigorating, and I don’t feel invigorated very often.

So they’re kind of the Platonic ideal of a rock band, and this is somewhat unexpected, because they present themselves in the opposite manner. Their major theme is ugliness, which is reflected in all of their album and merch designs. It’s aesthetic-ugly and not ugly-ugly, of course, but it still conveys the sense of initial off-putting-ness that is the salient part of ugliness as a concept. And they have the expected corresponding lyrical preoccupation with the “down” side of things, i.e. failure and misery. So because of all this and because they just hit harder than hell, it makes some amount of sense to think of them as a punk band.

The first time I saw them I was actually thinking a little about how you would classify them (not because that matters or anything, but just because you wonder about things sometimes), and seeing them perform I suddenly felt that it was overwhelmingly obvious. They’re a metal band. Assuming one does not understand genres reductively, this straightforwardly describes the type of music they play. They have expansive songs filled with squeedly solos and big theatrical vocals. And they’re not really that noisy; something like Dinosaur Jr. is a relevant point of comparison, but Screaming Females are more precise and clean without going all the way into pop songwriting (and they actually have quite a facility with slow songs). They’re about as far from three-chord thrash as you can get while still being a rock band. In this sense, metal is the opposite of punk: in lieu of simplicity and directness, it focus on musicianship, complexity, and theatricality (actually, metal is sort of pop hardcore, when you think about it).

If this all seems obvious, that’s great, but people sometimes have difficulties in this regard. There was a guy in the merch line talking about how this was “totally a punk show” and “bands are so tame nowadays” and blah blah blah (and using the precise “sick, bro” demeanor which you are currently imagining), and I just felt like this was a really sad perspective to hold (as well as being a deeply ironic way to feel about punk, of all things). You imagine that there’s some kind of holy grail out there, and you spend all your time looking for it instead of noticing everything else that’s going on. And even when you think you’ve found it, the only thing you can actually see is what you’re already expecting. Like, there was Bad Moshing at the show, which is fine, I honestly don’t even care, it’s just that I feel like people are using pre-scripted fake engagement to avoid real engagement. You can mosh to anything that’s loud and fast enough, so, like, go ahead, but if that’s all you’re doing, if that’s the only point you can conceive of music as having, then what you actually have is nothing. This is what’s so toxic about the idea that “things used to be great and now they’re not like that anymore.” When you think this way you both ignore everything that’s actually happening right now and reduce anything good you find to a shallow veneer of idealized aesthetics. Bands are like this right now. This band is like this right now. This is what it means for a work to possess immediacy.

This was, of course, the point of punk itself, to the extent that there can be said to have been such a thing. Speed and intensity don’t necessarily characterize punk music – “I Wanna Be Your Dog” is a slow love song. And it is actually this tradition that Screaming Females is upholding, just by being a working band that keeps moving and doesn’t pander. They used to close with “Boyfriend,” their punkest song, but they cut that in favor of doing “Criminal Image” with multiple Big Rock Finishes, after which they explicitly refused an encore with a throat-cutting gesture to the sound person.

Regarding the moshing, Paternoster did the obligatory thing and reminded everyone to not be violent assholes (she’s smallish, so there may have been some personal relevance there), and it’s the fact that this is obligatory which is the point. Musicians understand the situation, but people haven’t caught up yet. There’s a sense in which this is as it should be – if artists weren’t ahead of their audience there wouldn’t be any point – but it also feels like it’s been a while and we’re still working on these basic problems. You obviously have to have some kind of pretty strong self-motivation to be doing this sort of thing, but I feel like it must still be frustrating, to be trying to convey something non-trivial and to have people interpret you in the most trivial way possible.

So, you know, you can approach things from whatever angle you want, obviously. But it’s sad to think that people are missing things that are right in front of them, just because they think they already know what they’re looking at. It’s limiting. There’s more going on than just the stuff that people always talk about. The way something looks isn’t the same as what it is.

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