by Charity Carney
My husband and I celebrated our second anniversary in San Francisco last week and discovered that Oakland can be awesome. It’s produced one of the most interesting music scenes on the West Coast in my estimation, with Berkeley radio pumping out track after track of whacked-out punk rock (like Hunx and the Punx) as well as some interesting international music. Other stations in the area seem bound to the round-the-clock beach music or CCR, but 90.2 FM is taking risks and putting out sounds that are at once seemingly disjointed but also deeply connected in the sources that they tap.
Two songs (Shannon and the Clams’ “The Cult Song” and a track from Arrington De Dionyso’s “Malaikat Dan Singa”) immediately followed each other on the station and served as the impetus for a new masculinity post. Crazy, but true. Shannon and the Clams are an Oakland-based group that blend Buddy Holly with the Ramones with a girl-group vibe. Their “The Cult Song” can be heard here. The lyrics reference some of the most infamous moments in American cult history (“sick of your Nikes, sick of your Kool-Aid”) and declare a defiance of radical religion. At the same time, the chorus includes a chanting “ooga booga” background that is some sort of cartoonish impression of stereotyped African religious intonations. It’s a mish mash of racism, rejection of religion, and female empowerment, with the female lead vocalist repeating “I Don’t Wanna Be in Your Cult No More!”
Backed up next to this track was Arrington De Dionyso’s throat singing—not an Oakland product but shipped in from Indonesia. “Malaikat Dan Singa” is an example of this rather dark spiritual vocal styling and the video for it (watch it here) includes imagery of an art gallery with the artist drawing figures of women and men that are sexually charged and bizarrely childish and violent. The music is connected to De Dionyso’s past band (aptly titled “Old Time Relijun”) that was rooted in “shapeshifting, shamanic practices, animal possession, and magnetism” (according to this excellent article at Tiny Mix Tapes) and this new record continues to follow these spiritual obsessions, with de Dionyso blaring out the Indonesian words in a deep, masculine, trance-like drone.
What came to mind as I listened to these two tracks was the power of spiritual emoting and the gendered differences that exist in various cultures and religious groups when it comes to evoking religious feelings/power. The Indonesian throat singer has no hesitation in his voice as he forces the notes out of his throat, almost sounding like he’s ripping his vocal chords to shreds. Shannon (and her Clams) give us another sense of spiritual power—they remind us of the male-led cults of the 20th century United States. Even as the song rejects these movements, it also uses them and forces us to collectively remember the pop power of these radical religious groups. I see in both songs and both traditions (if I can use that to describe the American cult tradition) the tendency for masculine control of many spiritual practices and the feminine following of male religious leaders. I also see a disturbing connection that the radio station may or may not have meant to make between cults and Indonesian religious practices. The “ooga boogas” mock “Malaikat Dan Singa” in a way and force a connection where there was not one in the first place.