Yelling as Sublime

-by Steve Wright

Recently I’ve been thinking about yelling in music.  I’ve been listening to more “hardcore” music in the past few years:  bands and genres that grew out of punk and metal that usually feature raw or otherwise extreme, affected vocals that intentionally avoid the pretty, mellifluous singing of traditional popular music.  And while I’ve spent a good amount of my life as a devoted indie rocker, to me indie rock of late sounds flaccid, mellow and otherwise dull, with the rock itself increasingly absent.  Following rock into the darker crevasses of the underground, musicians and fans disaffected with indie and attracted to the flourishing genres and stylistic innovations of contemporary metal and hardcore are flooding the scenes, pushing the boundaries, and perhaps quickening the demises of these formerly niche subcultures.  Now is a great time to be seeing and making this kind of music.  However, as a person who also encounters and employs yelling as a negative frustration while wrangling my ebullient kids throughout the day, I wonder how yelling can seem so positive and affirming in one social context and so scary and potentially harmful in another.  In “normal” Western social settings where art and music are not the focus, yelling is considered an unacceptable, disruptive behavior indicative of excessive anger and other out-of-control emotions in the yeller.  Yelling is an attempt to gain attention and control in a social situation that feels to be beyond the yelling subject’s control, in willful disarray, or in willful disavowal of the subject, where others appear to not hear or heed the wishes of the subject.  Thinking about yelling in the context of a subject in a group reacting to and trying to influence the group has been an interesting way to think about the musical subcultures that feature yelling.  What do the increasing popularity and sophistication of musics that feature vocalizations usually indicative of anger, anguish and fear say about today’s listeners, their social situations, and society at large?  As a believer in the underlying positivity of these restless musics, I’d rather turn the question on its head, avoid the implied conclusions of social rot and disempowerment, and instead consider how and what benefits are achieved through the adaptation and reprocessing of these ostensibly negative sonics and emotions.

While the terms for characterizing the vocals of rock’s more aggressive forms may appear interchangeable at first – yelling vs. screaming vs. growling, say – if we think about each as an act of a subject in a social setting other than a musical performance or recording, then each term carries a significantly different implication and emotional weight.  Similarly, the characterizations of these vocal styles inside music must be also parsed and understood as they are used to specific effects.  Outside of music, yelling (or interchangeably, shouting) is most often employed to convey an imperative statement or set of statements, usually in anger and voiced by a subject toward an other or group in the attempt to direct or change the social situation.  Yelling is often a tactic of the disenfranchised and rarely a method employed by the powerful.  On a purely sonic level we may consider screaming to be a higher-pitched and stronger form of yelling, but as a method of social address it is less an expression of thought than a primal howl of anguish or fear not necessarily directed at an other or group. Nor is screaming necessarily composed of words, born of forethought, or even the vocalization of a human being (here we can also equate wailing and shrieking with screaming).  Further removed from yelling, growling is arguably not an innate human expression at all, but a wordless and animal signal of a broad malice directed at an other or group that does not always signal the core emotion (e.g., is the dog growling due to anger, fear, or injury?).  As these three methods of address differ significantly in social settings, so too are they recognized by critics and practitioners of the musical styles that incorporate them as quite different modes of singing, used more often in one kind of genre than another.

To make some broad generalizations, yelling or shouting is the main vocal style of hardcore, screamo, metalcore, and other genres primarily rooted in punk rock, while screaming and growling are the choice vocal modes in black-, death- and other branches of heavy metal.   Distinctions blur when thinking of screaming as simply higher-pitched or more intense yelling, but in considering screaming as an object or affect less communicative of verbalized thoughts and more evocative of dark moods and emotions, we can certainly recognize screaming as not only a signature musical method of contemporary metal, but also as a narrative theme as common as death, demons, apocalypses and the rest.  While a number of other vocal styles appear in metal, punk and hardcore, and have spread outside of these original scenes to help define more particular subgenres – the dirgey singing of doom and stoner metal, the roar of grindcore, the talky enunciations of post-punk, the spoken-word in passages of post-hardcore, the “earnest” singing of popular emo, the presentation of rap in nu-metal – the differences between the social meanings and intentions of yelling in punk / hardcore and of screaming in metal reveal the former as political aspiration or theater and the later as dystopic epic or escapism.

By contrasting the politics of yelling with the dystopian epics and escapism manifest in screaming I am not arguing that punk and hardcore are “higher art” than metal.  Dark epics and mythologies that speak deeply of human relations and questions of existence live in the arts of all cultures, and time will no doubt settle which contemporary metal groups have recorded our era’s Paradise Lost or Steppenwolf.  To follow the comparison of music and literature, while political and social issues appear in epic works that are romantic, archetypal, surreal, magical, and otherwise related to fantasy or mythology, categorically these are works of fiction first rather than political treatises.  Metal doesn’t have to be political, but it must be dystopic and dwell on dark, often fantastic themes:  hence a vocal style – screaming – that functions as evocation rather than argument.  Conversely, punk and hardcore’s definitive thematic subject is the political, with dark, dystopic, or other fantastic elements being less- or nonessential.  The political here includes all relations of power:  those of subject and state certainly, but also those of subject and community, subject and family, and all human relationships, no matter how banal.  Indeed, the quotidian discontent expressed in punk and hardcore may make it more difficult for the genre to be high art, or artful, and the short two- or three-minute timeframe of a typical punk song in comparison to metal’s often grand song lengths further suggests the difference between the genres’ real and surreal roots.

Focusing on yelling and the modes of address in punk, hardcore and its variants, we find the vocals are usually delivered in two ways:  (1) the singer may be allegorically or archetypically addressing the listener where “you” and other pronouns are players in a situation or story other than the relationship between the listener and singer, and/or (2) the singer may be directly addressing the listener or audience member (a “you you”).  While the former method is quite common in all genres of music, literature, and other arts, punk and hardcore songs employing the latter mode of address – the directive to the “you you” – are arguably unique in their ability to convey powerfully positive messages of love wrapped in ferocious trappings.  Consider Raised Fist’s Dedication, the title track from their 2002 release:

To have you on my side fills me with pride, stronger than a castle inside.  I cannot throw anger at you, I’m attached to you, you’ve been with us since our debut.  I’m glad that you’re still the same, with the same name.  I love the person you became and I want to be just like you.

Let me dedicate this song to those who never act in frustration.  Let me give this song to those who have respect for all the punkbands in the nation.  Let me pass this song to all the people that dare to disagree.  Let me dedicate this song to those who downloaded this song as a mp3.

Plodding and frankly ineloquent when considered in written form divorced from the musical performance, singer Alexander Hagman’s lyrics celebrate the classic hardcore values of devotion between band and audience, passionate and directed nonviolent action, earnest representation, and the “free” sharing of goods outside of monetary systems.  He is also yelling these positive messages in a vicious snarl of barked spit over top a blaze of grim power chords and mournful leads, so that one unfamiliar with the genre and unwitting of the lyrics would likely mistake Dedication’s emotions and words to be ones of hate due to the aggressive delivery of the music and vocals.  This same ferocious and easily mistaken “positive passion” can be found in a more spiritually proscriptive vein on Soul Craft from Bad Brains’ 1989 Quickness:

Look in the action / Jah Jah is the attraction / Life is all or nothing / Don’t forget to seek and pray / Peaceful direction in this unity / Strap on survival kit / No drugs inside of you
Fly the soul craft / On your own / Don’t miss this soul craft

Straightened out of the Rastafarianisms and manic hardcore delivery, H.R.’s words and their sentiments would be well suited to Christian rock and bible camp singalongs.  Certainly the fervent belief and frantic delivery of the best punk and hardcore singers share much with those of Charismatic Christian preachers and other shamans throughout time.  The concept of the shaman as a specialist – at once a member of a group but also marked as different, at times capable of ecstatically bridging the group and a supernatural world or experience – applied to a band or singer redefines the ferocity and rawness of delivery as manifestations of the negative yang of the sublime, if we understand the sublime to encompass a simultaneous inspiration of fear and attraction.  These aesthetics of sublimity are quite clear in First Light / Last Light, the opening section of Converge’s 2004 album You Fail Me, where the lyrics function as both a hopeful, anguished directive to the audience member in a song often played at a show’s start (the you “you”), and also as a failed prayer to the protagonist of the album’s progressively bleak narrative:  “I need you to be the strength of widows and soul survivors… I need you to be the hope of hearts who lost true love… keep bleeding keep healing keep fading keep shining”.   Played in a quick, straightforward mode of tense anticipation, the music builds as the lyrics end in a crescendo of increasingly agonized shouts “This is for the hearts still beating, beating, beating, BEATING” and the song erupts into a complex arrangement of apoplectic crashing.  Converge has earned wide accolades for artfully meshing broad and personal politics in innovative metallic hardcore that makes full use of sublime dichotomies.

Indeed the word “converge” is a singularity of vectors or differences, and yelling usefully binds the meanings and emotions of punk and hardcore that initially seem at odds:  positivity vs. negativity, caring vs. hate, thoughtful message vs. unhinged ranting, and so on.  Yelling can be a singularity of complex issues, emotions and social strata, electrified to an ineffable and blinding clarity that is undeniable, at least for a moment.  Perhaps the realization in punk and hardcore of yelling as singular and sublime idea is the elusive power for which we futilely grope in our everyday yelling.

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