Editor Mark Richardson wrote at Pitchfork a while back about his favorite screams in popular music. This is Pitchfork, mind you, so we’re talking a certain demographic; I’m not sure, for example, whether Katy Perry or One Direction scream a lot (though it sounds like a good idea) but they’re not entirely in the wheelhouse of Richardson’s list. A lot of canonical “indie” figures are, ranging from Kurt Cobain to PJ Harvey, and one noteworthy scream on Richardson’s list is a scream by Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart. The scream Richardson picks as Stewart’s best (and there are plenty to choose from) is a scream early on in Knife Play’s “I Broke Up” where after a tenuous beginning over some queasy electronics Stewart abruptly screams “Don’t fuck with me! Don’t fuck with me!” And it’s a pretty compelling scream; there’s no doubt, once you hear it, that there’s anything less than absolute conviction on Stewart’s part, though if you listen to or even casually follow Xiu Xiu you know already that Stewart is neither shy nor lacking in conviction. And conviction, and by extension authenticity, is partly what’s at stake here.
I’m bringing this up because there’s a different Xiu Xiu scream I want to explore, but first I should explain why I’m interested in pop music’s relationship to unabashed shrieking. Like Richardson, I’m partly interested in the scream as a cathartic moment in the context of often cathartic music and our voyeuristic relationship to that, but I’m also interested in more than that. I’m interested in screaming because screaming is not, ordinarily, a thing we get the chance to do, though (I’m wagering) it’s definitely something plenty of us would like to do from time to time. Songs give us the license to do just that. Tilting back your head while doing the dishes in silence and just full-out screaming until your voice cracks would probably feel weird, possibly a little unhealthy, but if you have screamy music cranked while you’re scrubbing those dishes suddenly you’e fine, you’re not nuts, you’re just really caught up in the music. Your neighbors may be wondering why you’re cranking Xiu Xiu and possibly hoping you will turn it down but you get the opportunity to mimic something that feels wrong to do when it’s more spontaneously authentic coming from you the listener. You’re not screaming; you’re screaming along. You’re joining in. You get permission via the pop song of your choice to scream in a variety of ways at various times as much as you need to, but only under the auspice that you’re borrowing the scream. You might really need to scream, you might be doing a good job of it while the dishwater is getting cold, but it’s a scream you’ve probably learned, a scream the song might even build toward, a moment of permission that makes up in totality what it lacks in authenticity. It’s better than nothing, though, part of the catharsis you’re looking for when you’re looking to get lost in the screamy music of your choice.
The problem with screaming along to Jamie Stewart is that Stewart doesn’t scream on schedule or in a particularly cathartic way. Stewart screams when he screams. It’s ordinary. It just happens. I want to discuss a specific scream, here, not in “I Broke Up” but in the song “I Love the Valley OH!” off of Fabulous Muscles. And if you are a Shearwater fan and have only heard Jonathan Meiburg’s choirboy approximation of it on Fellow Travelers you’re missing out on what I’m arguing is one of the finest screams in recorded music. You can sense maybe that a scream is headed your way in the song’s title but it’s still a surprise, it’s not what you’re rooting for, it happens abruptly mid-song and it’s brief and stops and the song continues and that’s it.
Once you know the song you can sing along but what’s apparent from devoting time to listening to Jamie Stewart shriek is that there is absolutely nothing remotely cathartic about the mastering-level-punching scream in “I Love the Valley OH!” Not only is it not a very musical, climactic exclamation of some powerful emotive state, it’s a high-pitched, unsteady punch to the face of a screech sonically at odds with the rest of the thin, swirling guitar pop. It doesn’t go anywhere. It’s not the door to which the song’s road leads you. Stewart just takes a quick pause for inhalation mid-song and then shrieks as if he’s being flayed. And the scream never repeats, it just happens once, and again, not even in the context of a sonically pushy song. It’s not a scream of catharsis, it’s a scream of frustration, of disgust or rage, of being unable to reach anything as healthy and normative as catharsis-via-pop-music. It’s impotent. It’s not a scream used as a weapon, it’s a scream that comes when a weapon’s getting used on you.
This is noteworthy for two reasons: first, it’s a marker that what’s going on here is real, unmediated, an actual scream, one thought up maybe on the spot or maybe, if pre-panned, still real-sounding. Authentic. Stewart doesn’t have to work hard to convince us that he’s sincere given the song and the scream’s nature and placement. The second reason is that it points toward pop song as something other than catharsis. There’s a lot of “pop” music out there that doesn’t allow you to, as you’ll sometimes get instructed, wave your hands in the air like you just don’t care. In some pop you’re more or less obligated to care, or at least pay close attention. Pop music can be confrontation rather than catharsis, and can point the finger right at you, give you the finger, or seem to ignore that you’re even listening. A good example of you getting confronted (though it might be theatre instead of realness) is the work of Diamanda Galás. You maybe know her: she’s a brilliant pianist and composer and she has an operatic vocal range and absolute mastery over her voice and Galás could lead a masterclass in the scream and how to get it done to connote just about everything ranging from ecstasy to abject horror. It burns slowly at first, but you can hear what I mean starting at about the 2:15 mark in her amazing cover of (natch) Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You.”
And the pop song ignoring you is something of an overstatement but more aptly I’m aiming at moments in pop music where the performer forgets about you, the listener and gets absorbed in the song, or else is doing something to the song that’s altogether more sophisticated than just performing it (re: this, think Nina Simone). The pop song as text is getting read back to you in an odd or unfamiliar voice. Galás is an expert in that, and you should in particular track down Galás’ The Singer for a good example of her taking blues songs and standards and bending them over a table and beating them with a baseball bat, but what gets dicey is when you’re trying to shove authenticity, theatre and catharsis into the same song, maybe even the same scream, so leaving Galás for a moment let’s jump over to a different and nearly canonical indie scream, in Refused’s “New Noise” from The Shape of Punk to Come, a song that skirts the perimeters with some ominous electronics, skitter-guitar and stop-start drums and bass for almost two minutes before Dennis Lyxzén juices the song into fury with a flush-faced throat-rip request: “Can I scream?!”
The answer to that, of course, is yes, but in the context of Refused hitting punk at an odd angle what’s key is the nature of Lyxzén’s request: he’s not asking you if he’s capable, he’s doing a sly move of “Look at me refute any theoretical permission I might get from you by screaming the actual query itself,” a kind of sonic middle finger aimed not so much at the listener as at late capitalism, but a specific door the song-as-road does lead to. Here we don’t get unadorned and thereby authentic rage, and we don’t get pure theatricality either, we get a sort of blend where you know both that Lyxzén’s fury is probably legit given the screaming but that you as listener have been carefully ushered toward it as a pivot point where Lyxzén screams and the song bursts open. And what’s notable about this yell is that Lyxzén doesn’t really just scream for screaming’s sake for the rest of the song until the yelled build to the climax, where Lyxzén screams on for a while after the rest of the music sputters out; the initial request is even followed by what sounds like a celebratory “Woo!”, another type of vocal exclamation mark I don’t have room for here, but joy can be just as real a cause for screaming as rage or frustration, or maybe in the song’s theatre you’re getting some of both; the song plays coy even though you’re not left with much doubt about Lyxzén’s sincerity.
What’s also notable about the song is that Lyxzén and the rest of the band are fully in the pilot’s seat of the song’s melodrama; Lyxzén never gets lost the way Galás indicates she might or that Stewart does when a mental twig snaps while he’s in the middle of singing a song. (And you could make a strong case for theatricality on Stewart’s part but I’m zooming in on just the screaming vs. the whole picture.) All of these vocalists are at various points along the “how lost in the song are they” continuum, but instead of backtracking there’s another much more familiar “getting lost” I want to end with. First, though, what does that mean––to get lost, to get caught up in a performance? It sounds soulful and easy and air-conditioned and glossy: pop singer loses her or himself in the song either because of the song being performed or because the singer’s intensity burns out anything other than mainlined emoting. I’m not saying that this kind of letting go is de facto artificial but that very often it gets sold to us as a means by which we can validate a pop artist because we’re getting something authentic, because whatever we’re hearing, whether it’s Coldplay or Einstürzende Neubauten, the band/singer really means it. If we’re supposed to invest our entertainment dollars in recorded music, part of what’s driving us to hand over those dollars is how highly we regard the artist’s authenticity, a willingness to aurally let his or her guard down.
This is (at least theoretically) pop music, though. It can confront you, but mainly it wants you to purchase it prior to doing so. (And now in an age of YouTube and Spotify younger readers here might knit their eyebrows at invest, as in: purchase an album? But I’m old enough that during my formative years album sales were still the primary method of delivery and marker of success. Radio-friendly units shifted. People still buy music, of course, we just don’t financially (and maybe in other ways) invest as much in it as we used to. So what do we need to convince us? Originality helps, and so does basic tunefulness, plus pure force of will, though mainly pink-eared earnestness gets marketed to us as worth our attention, but that earnestness can still be actually true, or if not just plain then complex in ways other than Lyxzén’s. By complex I don’t mean ironic, I don’t mean distance from the screams of Stewart or (maybe) Galás, what I mean is that what sometimes both weds us to and divorces us from the catharsis we feel when we sing along is knowing that yes, the singer really does mean it, and what he or she means remains partly unknown to us. And if you’re over a certain age you know Nirvana more as a musical sea-change than a cultural touchstone, so I’m maybe dating myself here but I want to end with an old scream, a Kurt Cobain scream, a scream that might be real even if Cobain isn’t sure whether it is. I could pick from plenty of screams, too, but instead I want to close with another blues cover (and there’s an essay about race and appropriation in pop performers’ investment in blues music too long and tricky to get into here but worth thinking through). It comes at the end of Nirvana’s Unplugged session, when they close with a cover of Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” This is a complicated scream.
It sounds like catharsis, and maybe it is, but it also sounds as if Cobain’s getting swallowed whole by the song rather than displaying his mastery of its performance. When Cobain begins to yell at the end of the song, leading up to an extended “shiver” where the song holds its breath, you’re maybe not really left with the sense that this is something okay to scream along to. It feels cathartic, but it also sounds private, it sounds as if Cobain is packing a lot of complicated and probably extremely grim stuff in that final shiver, but we’re only left with the results, not the internal context, not the reason for the scream. And maybe, besides confronting us or comforting us or pushing us away what a good scream can do in a good song is let us know some simple things that often get lost in pop performance and consumption, regarding both the artist and you: I am here, I mean this, this is real.