Noise in my head - By Evelyn Morris

It really pains me to start an article like this, but here goes anyway: recently I posted something on Facebook that caused a bit of a stir.

It really pains me to start an article like this, but here goes anyway: recently I posted something on Facebook that caused a bit of a stir.

I’m gonna publish a book called tastes of Melbourne women underground. So tired of male back-patting and exclusion of anything vaguely ‘feminine’ in subculture. We get it. You think you’re all awesome and we’re all just kinda average. Unless we sound like you. Ladies of Melbourne… Let’s please reject this culture.

The torrent of comments in response was overwhelming; it got up to 650 or so. (Probably at least 100 of those were mine, though… I got excited.) I wrote that post thinking that people would have a quick eye-roll and move on. Instead, I came to realise that I was not alone in feeling this way. That many of us, up to that point, had felt we needn’t even attempt to talk about it, because it seemed that no one would listen.

Out of this realisation I’ve embarked on the task of putting together an alternative, subjective musical history. The project is called ‘LISTEN’ and it’ll be written by many and varied feminists about the music they love and the musical experiences they’ve had. It’ll be published in book form and also as a website, so that as many voices as possible can be heard. The over-arching narrative of the publication will be formed by piecing together the material we’re presented with. So it’ll be a book written out of the act of listening.

But I’m writing this article to present my subjective opinion of the book that sparked the post, which I wrote having just read James Kritzler’s Noise in My Head. However, the discussion moved very quickly away from the book itself and onto broader discussions about feminism in music.

Although my post was in reference to Noise in My Head, it was intended as an expression of exasperation about something far more insidious and pervasive that has bothered me periodically throughout my ten to fifteen years of involvement in music. I’ve been repeatedly frustrated to see women’s omission from musical history and musical activities. This isn’t an attempt at a numbers game: feminism is a complex landscape; it isn’t just about equal numbers. So with that in mind, rather than simply explaining what it was about NIMH that stirred me up, I’ll spend some time in this article giving some context for the irritation as well.

I believe that subculture is supposed to counter or provide an alternative to the stereotypes and conservative standards of mainstream society. So I am always disappointed when it seems people miss that point and play out the same tropes in subculture—even if it’s done unintentionally or with subtlety.

The history presented in Noise in My Head is one that I am familiar with, having spent my twenties ensconced in the ‘Ugly Australian Underground’. It’s a beautiful book, amazingly bound and stylishly typeset. The book’s weight and aesthetic present it as something historically important, and as such instil a reverence for its content. This reverence isn’t altogether a terrible thing, given that there is some quality content that deserves respect. I applaud Kritzler for putting so much time and effort into documenting some music that no one will likely have much cause to remember in future.

Kritzler’s portrayal of the Ugly Australian Underground is unnecessarily grandiloquent and, at times, quite ugly itself.

In his introduction, Kritzler states that Noise in My Head is a subjective look at a particular music scene. Fair enough: but a book with such an expensive and stylised aesthetic is unlikely to be read as a personal account, no matter how many disclaimers you start with. It will come across as a historical document and—intentionally or otherwise—will take on the role of being canonical, in the event that nobody else documents things further. There is a responsibility that goes along with presenting yourself as the voice of a movement. Acknowledging and investigating biases such as sexism is a necessary part of any documentary process. In fact, some would argue that in producing any work you ought to make every effort to address bias, prejudice, and underlying assumptions: certainly in everyday life, but especially in anything you hope to leave behind.

In this list of Australian milestones, Kritzler has included a band that I was an active member of for ten or so years. True Radical Miracle was my introduction to and long-term vessel of choice for sailing the musical seas of men, and my first cause for irritation while reading Noise in My Head was the choice of words in Kritzler’s introduction to my band. We were referred to as “all self-aggrandising machismo,” which if you’ve ever met any of the members of True Radical Miracle you’d know is ridiculous. Our vocalist Mark Groves has an uncanny ability to cover universal topics: I never felt he was writing from a strictly masculine perspective, and as a woman I have never felt excluded by anything Mark has said. He’s just not that kind of person. None of us are. The members of True Radical Miracle have at times used the band as an investigation into our various difficulties with anxiety, but it’s never been an investigation into gender.

Of course, I understand that bands can’t expect interpretations of their work to match what they intended to communicate. Still, in places Kritzler’s portrayal of the Ugly Australian Underground is unnecessarily grandiloquent and, at times, quite ugly itself. This style does more than just offend my feminist values; it places a lot of the musicians in question in an uncomfortable position on the dubious end of the moral spectrum:

For ten years TRM created the aural equivalent of human nature at its most telling. Buy a gun and leave it in a busy post office, sell drugs in a rehab clinic, exploit the homeless for their last five dollars and slip the money under the windshield wiper of a Porsche.

I realise Kritzler is attempting to use this confusing set of metaphors to describe our sound rather than our values or intentions. Nonetheless, it made me cringe. I believe in subculture presenting an alternative to mainstream values, but not just for shock value. To me, this preoccupation with shock is a trait that amounts to a Vice Magazine -style interpretation of our subculture, rather than a reflection of the subculture itself: a hangover from the drunken freedom people suddenly seemed to feel when they shed the shackles of some imagined politically correct oppression and started telling those racist, homophobic, and sexist jokes, because, dammit, they’re so edgy they don’t even care. Some people seem to feel indignant about being called-out for being comfortable, socially insensitive westerners.

It’s an unfortunate by-product of this ‘liberated’ standpoint that a large segment of art and music ends up in a neo-conservative territory that I would prefer to have nothing to do with. There’s a self-obsession and apathy to this style of expression that is irresponsible, in that it tends to dehumanise and distance people from the suffering of others, while prizing the freedom to do whatever you want at all costs. Rather than accept responsibility for the impact our current way of life has on the health of the planet and the many people in struggling economies around the world, we’re encouraged to glorify our own wasteful decadence and ignore it all. Having the comfort within which to create art and music is a privilege that I don’t like to take lightly.

It may be about time we admit that the perspective we’re most accustomed to hearing in relation to music—and indeed most things—is reductionist, misogynist, and out-dated. It is restrictive in more ways than just excluding women.

Noise in My Head was only attempting to document music, though… and here I am asking it to heal the world! (Make it a better place. For you and for me, and the entire human race.) There’s only so much one person can do. That’s why we have to take these little bite-sized chunks of unfortunate misunderstandings and ill-advised wordplay and hold them up as microcosms of broader issues.

Although I was briefly mentioned in Noise in My Head once or twice, as a propulsive element of the True Radical Miracle rhythm section, I felt a little disregarded, because my role in the band seemed to be presented as largely peripheral. I’ll happily acknowledge that my ego is partly behind this statement. Having an ego is a necessary part of being an artist, especially a performer. It’s not healthy to bathe in one’s ego, but at the same time, ego is essential to developing your own sense of self and the space you occupy artistically—so you have a solid headspace from which to interact with new ideas, without having to question yourself all the time. It’s a concept that men are taught to embrace from a young age, while—traditionally speaking—women are encouraged to be modest. Consequently, I’m declaring that women performers are allowed to have huge egos as well. Perhaps there’ll be a time in the future when this will be celebrated and accepted as ‘clarity of vision’ or a ‘confident personality,’ as it often is when men are obvious egomaniacs.

So I’m coming out—I have an ego and I’m a woman.

So I’m coming out—I have an ego and I’m a woman. What I wouldn’t give to start seeing more total weirdo female performers. The role of the outsider artist is celebrated in all the male shapes and sizes, but not so much for women.

Kritzler was certainly careful to include a fair number of bands that have women in them. He assured me that he made every effort to avoid being sexist, and I felt pretty awful when he mentioned being upset and feeling his hard work had been disregarded. I do hope that this article goes some way to explain my perspective. This isn’t personal: I’m attempting to say what I actually believe this time around, rather than just being nice like I’ve always felt I’m supposed to.

Noise in My Head enters the territory of gender bias by repeatedly referring to positive attributes in a band’s sound or presentation as being ‘masculine’, or some variation that sentiment. This leads to the inevitable assumption that ‘feminine’ is a negative attribute—or perhaps that women are more appealing when they can behave like men, or in a way that men can relate to. It introduces and maintains unnecessary gender stereotyping in the interpretation of sound and music, suddenly simplifying things to the level of:

  • Dark and Angry = Male
  • Pretty and Sad = Female
  • Harsh and sonically challenging = Male
  • Simple and ethereally beautiful = Female

This belief system is exhausted and out-dated. Unfortunately, it’s been integral in shaping (and more often confusing) my musical expression over the years.

The aggression of my performance in True Radical Miracle was always coming from a space of frustration—a sense that I had to prove myself. I felt a deep inadequacy at most stages of my development as a musician, and just generally as a human. I never attributed that exclusively to being female; however, in hindsight I can say with clarity that I’ve been trying to be perceived as ‘worthwhile’ in the eyes of men (and society generally) my whole life. I’ve never been ‘pretty’ or ‘charming’ or ‘sexy’, so I’ve attempted to achieve recognition in my own way. The assumption, then, that the energy TRM presented had anything to do with masculinity is somewhat aggravating to me. It’s clear to me now that every expression of aggression and anger I have presented in my performance has been very much about gender—but not necessarily by choice. It’s been an attempt at breaking out of my own gender, and gaining permission to exist in ‘theirs’.

A lot of women don’t feel like this, and I am not assuming that I have had some kind of universal experience. It goes without saying that different women have totally different perspectives, and different ways of approaching their craft. One reason I think it’s so wonderful that ‘LISTEN’ has grown out of the critique of Noise in My Head is that there areso many interesting voices that haven’t yet been heard. The opportunity to expand contemporary music beyond the somewhat monochromatic standards of rock/pop/experimental music is largely untapped. We’ve been limiting our perspectives without realising it. The way I’ve seen female musicians I admire interact with their craft has always blown my mind.

When I first started writing this article, I thought I should avoid any negative comments about Noise in My Head and focus on this positive outcome. I went into my second and more thorough reading of the book determined to locate nuggets of redemption that would let me avoid being critical of Kritzler’s hard work. It was during this second reading that I came upon the interview with Matt Kennedy from Kitchen’s Floor, a Brisbane band built around Kennedy’s songwriting.

Throughout the interview Kennedy speaks a lot about Kitchen Floor’s original drummer, Julia Norris, and his unrequited crush on her. His comments are spiteful; they disregard her talents as a musician and refer to her sex life as though it’s his business. He states that he ‘pre-emptively fired’ both Julia and then bass player Glen Schenau when the two started dating, to avoid being ‘the guy that sleeps on the couch while I can hear them fucking in the bedroom.’

Now, I understand that overheard sex between buddies can be awkward. However, Kennedy goes on to say:

A lot of the Kitchen’s Floor songs and the depth of that band have to do with my infatuation with Julia (…spending time with her…) and the whole time just being really happy to be with that person, but knowing that at the end of the day she is going to go home and fuck some douchebag. That’s why I had to get rid of the female influence; it mentally destroyed me for two years. It ground me down!

I guess what Matt never considered is that I actually just wanted to play music.

This is all extremely offensive, particularly because it has nothing to do with music. I got in touch with Julia to ask for her response. She hadn’t read the interview, and was understandably quite upset by it once she did. She wrote me an email outlining her thoughts on the matter. I thought, and she agreed, that perhaps this article could be an opportunity for her to respond, and be presented in a more human way:

I think anyone would be irritated to see themselves and the history of a band they’d been involved in for three years presented so inaccurately, in a book that is ostensibly a historical document, and will most likely be read as such in the future. My character and ability to play music is completely assassinated. I think James (Kritzler), knowing me and knowing that I had been playing in bands before, during, and after Kitchen’s Floor, thought the interview was just ridiculously funny because of Matt’s obvious sense of entitlement and resentment (‘deep-down hate’, apparently) of me. I’m partially glad it was published that way, so everyone can see what I had to deal with, but I wish James had done a bit more editing. There are just a lot of inaccuracies and misrepresentations presented as fact, purely because James does nothing to dispute what Matt says.

I should note here that Kritzler did mention to Norris that this interview was happening, and that it was going to print. Kritzler and Norris had agreed to just go ahead and let Kennedy’s words speak for themselves, but perhaps, in hindsight, Kritzler could have given Norris the actual text to read, along with a chance to respond. In her email, Norris continued:

I’ve always known Matt fired me from Kitchen’s Floor because I refused to have sex with or date him. What I’ve only just realised, though it seems obvious now, is that this is probably the only reason he asked me to play in the band in the first place. At that time it never occurred to me to question what Matt’s motivations were for asking me to play in the band. But reading through the interview with Jimi, I can see that it was probably only because he saw me as a potential girlfriend or sexual object. It’s obvious he never saw me as a three-dimensional, autonomous being with my own motivations, desires and/or agency.

I guess what Matt never considered is that I actually just wanted to play music. It seems he hasn’t been able to move beyond his sense of entitlement and resentment towards me for rejecting him sexually. It’s disappointing that is all James chose to present of me. The whole interview is just full of gossip, and ignores the actual history of the band.

Noise in My Head skews events around Kitchen’s Floor and omits Julia Norris’s voice altogether, overlooking a fair bit of history in the process. When Norris first joined Kitchen’s Floor, she had already been playing in bands, and had released a tape with Hannah Schiefelbein as ‘Gutters’. During and after KF she was playing in Stag, Gerald Keaney & the Gerald Keaneys, Secret Birds and other groups. She created the bands The Harpy Choir and Bent as outlets for her own songwriting, both of which exist to this day. Right now she’s playing in two bands: Centred fold and Stations.

Many female musicians—including Julia and I—have had to work around the musical community’s uncomfortable dance with misogyny. I am happy that my confusion and low self-esteem propelled me into growth and learning as a musician. So I haven’t always felt that angry—just inadequate, unless I was able to prove otherwise. I can’t pinpoint where this belief system came from exactly. I’m sure many gender theorists or psychologists would be far better at assessing these matters than I, but I can say that I’ve spent ten years learning that I have a right to feel as though I own my sound.

Part of the learning process in this struggle with my musical identity was to reject ‘masculinity’ in music altogether. I created Pikelet after becoming rather fed up: it was a rejection of those attempts to fit in with the dude-heavy scene, an expression of my inner world, or at least the internalised simplified version of what it meant to be ‘girly’—the girl who had been hiding ashamedly and wanted to come out and make ‘feminine’ music. Music that was ‘pretty’ and wasn’t trying to be tough anymore, and addressed all the emotional landscapes I felt some men in my life had been incapable of seeing. It sprang from a need to nurture my mum through her health difficulties, and then it felt so free and exciting that I kept running with it, even while surrounded by people who were into tougher-sounding music. Just like my drumming, it started as a reaction to a problem—an act of rejection—and became more about acceptance of the varying shades of colour that there are in being female. It helped me to explore my identity with less fear of the feminine and fewer attempts at gaining the acceptance of men.

I was never capable of writing an honest love song, and likely never will be.

There were several internal boundaries to that freedom, though. For example, I was never capable of writing an honest love song, and likely never will be. I didn’t want to be disregarded as a ‘typical female singer-songwriter’. There were already far too many women doing that, and for me it took things too far into the realm of the ‘feminine’. I didn’t want to be exiled to that world; I might get trapped there, in a place where I’m expected to dissect every romantic relationship I have in front of anyone listening (because that’s what we women care most about). A place where I’m expected to look amazing on stage at all times, while my male counterparts get up wearing torn jeans and stained t-shirts. A place where I end up feeling I have to wear make-up in order to be comfortable. I hatewearing make-up.

I still feel deep shame about being perceived as ‘too female’ in many ways, and it’s an area that I attempt to address and challenge every day. I’ve never felt truly female, because I’ve never felt like I could dress like a lady with confidence, or feel pretty, or play heart-explodey-dreamy love songs, or wear lipstick and have sex appeal. I’ve had to spend hours and hours redefining what ‘being a woman’ is to me, and addressing the feelings of shame and inadequacy that surround it all.

I know now that I own my own creations, and that my interactions with gender—whether externally imposed, or interpreted and internalised—were part of those investigations into music and the self. I made that drumming style my own. I made being more ‘girly’ in my own way, one acceptable to me. It’s an expression of my reactions to what surrounded me. I continued to play in True Radical Miracle and various other loud bands throughout my time as Pikelet, because that aggressive energy is and will always be a huge part of who I am. It doesn’t exist to prove something—it’s an expression of joy. When I’m drumming, my whole body is involved. I’m free and I feel like I’m sort of hilarious and ugly, and I love it. The older I get, the more I see how my inner workings—in response to the world at large—are largely the same things that have kept me trapped.

I think this is a point often overlooked by people when they react defensively to feminism. As women, we expect a comprehensive inquisition into socially acceptable behaviours because we are always assessing and analysing our own behaviours. The ‘us versus them’ misinterpretations of past movements for equality do not apply to my idea of feminism. We are in this together, and I expect greatness from my fellow humans, because I know they have the potential to be great. I know that it’s possible to be a totally aware feminist white man in Australia, because I’m surrounded by men who have been through the inquiry that brought them to that state—who carry those thoughts with them and bring them to every conversation and interaction.

If you are being asked by a woman to challenge your beliefs, that woman is most likely someone who has already spent a long time grappling with her own.

If you are being asked by a woman to challenge your beliefs, that woman is most likely someone who has already spent a long time grappling with her own. How else would she have the confidence to challenge yours? It can be a truly terrifying prospect to ask someone to dissect their belief systems. If you listen with empathy, you’ll very quickly see that feminism is not for women alone. There are benefits to everyone when we all understand intersectionality.

I’ve been through many confusing stages responding to internalised gender biases and trying to understand what I’m ‘supposed to be’. I feel excitement and trepidation about putting together ‘LISTEN’. Now that my world feels more balanced, there is a part of me that would like to just sit back and feel more confident, without having to challenge anyone or address imbalances any further. It seems selfish, though, to just sit back and enjoy my comfort without making an attempt to diminish these sorts of struggles affecting other people.

It’s unavoidable that people speak from their biases to some extent. Noise in My Head is representative of the outlook of a large proportion of musicians. Kritzler isn’t a bad person: he has achieved something significant by releasing this book, and it is sparking conversation. That’s so great. Who wouldn’t want their hard work to generate meaningful dialogue? Unfortunately, though, he’s unwittingly reinforcing some of the same mechanisms of oppression that have existed for centuries. They’re more subtle now, so it’s fair to say that you can overlook them simply by failing to inquire with sufficient feminist vigour.

Documenting the past and the creation of a ‘history’ is act of fiction in lots of ways; there will always be a degree of subjectivity in what is chosen for inclusion, and how. A lot of the bands in Noise in My Head have very little in common, yet the umbrella title of ‘Ugly Australian Underground’ re-contextualises them and places them in an invented movement. No band exists in a vacuum; every band in this book has reacted to the others in some way, I’m sure. But there is still inevitably an element of fantasy in the way these disparate projects are bound together. People didn’t intend to invent genres like punk, post punk, anti-folk, etc. They were named and categorized after the fact, by writers who decided to document something that they decided were ‘movements’ out of an interest in those particular bands and also, no doubt, with a vested interest in including themselves in something historically important. Kritzler has created a world that looks and sounds fantastic, and I urge everyone to seek it out for themselves. It covers music I’ve loved seeing and hearing while becoming an adult.

It’s an important part of my personal history, and the history of hundreds of folks I’ve been grateful to meet over the last fifteen years. But it’ll be great when our musical history includes the noises in all of our heads.

Evelyn Morris, also known as Pikelet, is a musician from Melbourne.