Politics As Sound: The Washington, D.C. Hardcore Scene, 1978-1983
By Shayna L. Maskell
If you’re looking for an academic book that analyses the D.C. hardcore scene from the late 1970s into the early 1980s, you’ll find a wealth of material in Maskell’s new book.
Shayna L. Maskell’s Politics As Sound explores several key themes of D.C. hardcore, including the interrelation between city space and sonic production, the construction of and resistance against racial identity through music and performance, and the socioeconomics of punk. For each thematic thread, Maskell looks at a particular band associated with the scene. The majority of the book focuses on analyses of Bad Brains, Teen Idles, Minor Threat, State of Alert (S.O.A.), Government Issue, and Faith.
The book begins with an introduction to the spatial and aural history of Washington D.C., going back as far as the eighteenth century before moving into a discussion of the capital city’s past lives infused with jazz, blues, and go-go. There is a symbiotic relationship that can develop between urban spaces and musicians, Maskell suggests, so much so that the histories become indelibly intertwined to create a chicken-and-egg question. In other words, did the space of the city produce the culture of the music within it, or vice versa? Maskell links the sounds of jazz, blues, and go-go that permeated D.C. to the music of Bad Brains, referring to the “complicated ways in which race is (de/re)constructed in D.C. hardcore.”
Digging into this idea, Maskell discusses H.R., the frontman of Bad Brains: “H.R.’s inventive and emotive use of his voice enacts not just the emotions of personal heartbreak and suffering but also reactions to the complex and often incongruous demands placed on a black man in a white world and on a black band in a white genre.” Maskell goes on to argue that, “if (most) punks despised guitar solos, then Bad Brains’ embrace of them could signify their Otherness within this nearly all-white musician landscape,” and suggests that “solos act as a way to intentionally mark (racial) difference.”
In comparison, the book addresses the socioeconomic status and class privilege of many of the other D.C. hardcore bands, pointing out how they differed from the working-class statuses of most punk bands that had formed on the other side of the Atlantic. There are also sections on Ian MacKaye’s Dischord Records and D.C. hardcore fanzines, which tie together themes that emerge across the book.
I really wish this book were a bit less academic in nature. Let me say first that I know personally how much work goes into putting together an academic book of this type, and that the publish-or-perish motto in academia encourages written work that is often designed only for other scholars in specific fields, as opposed to public audiences with an interest in the subject matter. At moments throughout the book, I found myself wondering how a reader without academic training but with a deep interest in the D.C. hardcore scene could possibly find an entry point to the text.
On that note, it seemed to me that portions of the analysis had overlaid an academic lens onto a music scene that never really intended that kind of attention (and, as a result, left me wondering what that ultimately means for the future of scholarly writing—shouldn’t public readers interested in D.C. hardcore be able to find a book like this accessible?). For example, Maskell includes a section on “aggression as/and masculinity” where she looks at lyrics from a variety of the bands she centers in the text. The section discusses the “obfuscation of many, if not most, of the words from S.O.A.’s, GI’s, and Faith’s songs as a result of their vocal delivery style, tempo, and volume,” and Maskell writes:
“Much like instrumentation and vocals, verbalized language performs an emotional and political function in their sonic interpretation. For instance, plosives (/b/ /p/ /t/ /d/ /k/ /g/) have a harsh, abrupt, and sharp sound, sibilants (/s/ /sh/) create a more sinister, hissing, or sometimes soft sound, and fricatives (/f/ /v/ /th/) can produce a light, buoyant sound.”
That quote contains a footnote, which reads: “This is not to argue that any of the band members were aware of the linguistic implications of their word choices; nor do I mean to contend that a strict phonological analysis of their lyrics is a productive or meaningful way to understand their resonance. However, this argument is meant to discuss the unconscious, socially constructed sonic meanings spoken language has.” I find myself more interested in learning about the actual sociopolitical impact the music and lyrics may have had, as opposed to a retrospective analysis of linguistic elements that were unlikely to have entered into the minds of the musicians themselves.
I’d ultimately love to see a companion to this book designed for public readership, illuminating the critical themes that Maskell draws out for readers across disciplines and perspectives. I’ll end, though, by saying that I really enjoyed Maskell’s narrative description of Marc Alberstadt’s percussion on Government Issue’s EP Legless Bull from 1981, “a crashing, deafening dénouement, scattering sound in a higher-pitched frenzy.”