When I first read Evelyn’s response to Noise in My Head, it struck a chord with me (no pun intended). That week I had been feeling pretty down on the Melbourne music scene ~ a vague term that encompasses many communities and subcultures, a handful of which I have found myself a part of during the last 10 years of my life. I have always found solace in this world. As a 12 year old discovering punk music and rapidly losing friends at school, a girl from the year above took me to a Frieza battle of the bands at the Camberwell Civic Centre. Not long after, her 16 year old friend successfully convinced the bouncer at the Birmingham Hotel that I was her son to get me into some punk gig. And I am still friends with people I met almost a decade ago at underage Ska-B-Q shows at the Tote.
These days my thirst for innovative, honest and engaging live music is more easily quenched by a new local act than an international one charging half a week’s rent. But I digress. I read Evelyn’s piece a couple of days after a gig at the Northcote Social Club that I had been really looking forward to, as one of the bands has been putting out some of my favourite music of the last couple of years. But when they were playing I couldn’t get into it. There was something about the crowd that made me feel uncomfortable. The vibe was conservative. Despite the innovativeness of the music ~ discordant, jarring, challenging ~ I could smell the masculinity in the room. I am a straight white cisgendered male, but I could still sense the dominance of whiteness and straightness within the crowd. It didn’t feel like a welcoming space even for women, let alone any other marginalised people in our society.
Closed-mindedness in subcultures is nothing new to me. As a pre-pubescent punk, hanging out in the city, I unquestioningly absorbed the conservative and discriminatory ethos of that skewed take on punk culture. I am ashamed to admit to some of the song lyrics from the band I played in as a 14 year old. The language we used was no less misogynistic or homophobic than that of the kids who happily fitted into the ‘mainstream society’ that we thought we were challenging. While many of us wore anti-swastika patches on our denim jackets, there was not a lot of room for people of colour in that world either. We were mostly straight white boys, and I suspect that the girls and queer kids among us felt a pressure to live up to the masculinity of the culture.
I stepped out of the punk scene after a few close calls with physical violence in a short space of time, supposedly provoked by the hairstyles and fashion of me and my friends. Little did I know at the time that these incidents, along with stories of violence and expressions of masculinity, whispered triumphantly by boys whose voices were beginning to break, would leave me scarred. I almost completely stopped leaving the house at night, and when my friends would go out for munchies after a night of smoking pot and playing Xbox to the sounds of Siouxsie Sioux and Morrissey, I would lie and say that I was too tired, which earned me the crown of the laziest person ever. For years I didn’t tell anyone, not even my parents, about the fears that rattled and grew between my mind and chest. I just figured that I was a wimp, a sissy, a pussy. I later learned that I was not the only person I knew that felt like this.
Everything bubbled over in 2010 when, having finished school the year before, I dropped out of my uni degree after a single semester. I had always thought, for some reason, that my fears of violence and overt masculinity would fade away when I turned 18. Perhaps I figured that I would man up when I became an adult. I started working a shitty and stressful job in a supermarket and saw my future as an endless black void stretching out in front of me. I was having panic attacks on a daily basis, accompanied by a general feeling of depression and doom.
I started writing raps about my experiences of trauma and anxiety; my friend Josh conjured up some masterful beats and gave me confidence to write more. We called ourselves Two Square, and recorded songs in the same bedroom at my parents’ house where I would seize up in panic at night when my mind wandered too far from reality. For the first time in my life as a maker of things, I was making something honest. It felt amazing to get this stuff out of me. My therapy was to be honest in song, telling truths that I had kept bottled up for too long. We received a lot of encouragement from friends, some musicians and others not, and our work culminated in a 7-track EP called Grow Slow. My friend Grant was playing in a new project called Brothers Hand Mirror with his friend Oscar, and they asked us to support them at their EP launch at Bar Open in early 2011. Josh and I were really looking forward to playing with them as well as with other pals of mine, Parking Lot Experiments. We were also super excited to adapt our melancholic white boy hip hop to a live setting. We put together a run of 50 CDs to give out at the show, and it felt like the start of something big and exciting.
The show was going great. We played first and were received warmly by the crowd, who quickly devoured our small stack of CDs and gave us heaps of encouraging words. I boogied with my friends to the Parking Lots and was having a great time until Brothers Hand Mirror’s set. I found myself feeling alone and anxious in the crowd, even though Grant was expertly rapping his sincere rhymes over Oscar’s joyous and jagged beats. I had begun eavesdropping on the offhand comments of dudes who would come upstairs to see if there was anything happening that was worth seeing. Their words were casually hateful, and it was clear that they thought these two musicians were offensively un-masculine. Ever since my head-on experiences with macho violence as a 14 year old, these sorts of beliefs have always given me strong pangs of almost-paralysing anxiety. What if these guys, with their muscle shirts and Jager bombs, knew that I like to dance femme, that I love how I look in make-up, and that I prefer Joanna Newsom to Airborne? Or worse, what if they knew what kind of music I make?
Now, most people would have let these drunken comments be like water off a duck’s back, but I have been acutely sensitive to these attitudes, suspecting their omnipresence, and always keen to confirm my suspicions, especially back then. In the moment my fears seemed to have been validated. I was sure that if I made this kind of music for long enough, someone would beat me up for it. Hell, my mind could go to even darker and less rational places than that back then. Again, I kept these anxiety-fuelled thoughts almost completely to myself, and I think I really hurt Josh when I told him that I couldn’t keep going with Two Square. I was so afraid of some kind of persecution for my music that I changed our names on our Bandcamp page so that they were just our initials. I can see now how paranoid my thinking was, and it reminds me that these days I’m doing a lot better.
My experience is not as straightforward as one of suffering discrimination first-hand within the music scene, but nothing is ever that simple. Subcultures have to work hard to challenge the attitudes of the broader society against which they position themselves, especially when they aren’t connected by an idea, but by an interest. The Melbourne music scene is not one well-defined thing, but a huge and disparate group of musicians, bands, venues, promoters, labels, shows, and audience members. Sadly, even when the music is progressive, the people are often not. As a straight, white, able-bodied, middle-class, cisgender male, I am awarded more space than anyone. But people as privileged as myself have the responsibility of helping to make room for everyone else.
I owe so much to the world of local music. It is there that I have met a lot of the best people in my life, and it has welcomed me and given me a sense of community that I haven’t found elsewhere. But I know that it’s not so simple for other, marginalised people. The answer for many of them has been to create new scenes and communities where people with similar experiences can feel at home, and that is so, so awesome. However, those of us not within these communities must still do our best to be intersectional and respectful in our politics. If we wish to be inclusive, as I believe almost all of us do, we must question the prevalence of narrow ideas of masculinity and sexual norms, as well as other forms of privilege and oppression that people in my position are so often blind to, in order to challenge those experiences of violence that cause certain communities to retract from the mainstream.
People like myself do not have the right to keep making up a huge percentage of the people playing on any given bill, to write sexist song lyrics, to make ableist jokes on stage, or to culturally appropriate the dress of other cultures, such as wearing bindis and Native American headdresses to music festivals. Ideally we would eradicate the attitudes that excuse acts such as these from all areas of our lives. The LISTEN project is exciting because it calls on everyone involved in music to care about more than just the new Ariel Pink album. It illuminates the paradoxically conservative nature of many supposedly progressive subcultures, and asks us to make space for people who are understandably feeling claustrophobic in many areas of this world.
Elliot Lamb has recently finished his BA in Spanish and History, and is now focusing on writing and playing music with his band, Two Steps on the Water. He also plays guitar with Alyx Dennison and has tentatively started a little record label called Doom n Pop