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The Survival of the Industrial Sonic in a Deindustrialized West

Still from Fragile Machine (2005)

In the '90s, industrial music crossed over into the mainstream with heavy guitar and massive personalities, but blue collar labor itself was disappearing...

In the '80s, manual and industrial labor began to disappear. More accurately, it was “downsized”, reassigned, and shipped overseas. Trickle-down’s massive project was actually a second front of the cold war; a deterritorialization of the anti-business ideology of socialism and communism launched on a cross-cultural guerilla front. It was smart warfare, class warfare done right, wherein the lower castes were delegitimized in such an orderly and custodial fashion that few of unaffected would take much notice.

The current perception of the '80s as an innocent, fun time has been constructed by people who were probably not cognizant of the miner’s strike, postal shootings, the satanic ritual abuse scare/witch hunt, the rise of the National Front, Bernie Goetz, the (lack of) response to the AIDS epidemic (or the “gay plague”), urban decay, the drug war, Bhopal, the arms race, Star Wars, Iran-Contra, the bombing of MOVE, the hole in the ozone layer, privatization, the disempowering of trade unions, the conglomeration of mass media, and the scrubbing of Latin American democracy.

The most exciting Western literary trend of the '80s was cyberpunk, whose menacing view of a corporate control state looked dystopian, but has now casually integrated itself into the landscape of postmodern Capital (except without the channels of resistance). The cineplexes of the '80s were gushing blood as vigilantes and serial killers sublimated the pent-up rage of the disenfranchised by proxy, and both Americana and urbania were presented as flip sides of the same bottom-feeding coin. The cathartic glee of ultraviolence was eventually disseminated through other channels too- Punisher comic books, first-person shooter games, wild west political rhetoric, and songs about cop killing.

In fact, it was a pretty dark time, particularly for the underclasses. No wonder industrial musicians were sporting military garb and gas masks, snorting angel dust, obsessing over Charles Manson and the Baader Meinhof, basing their “sexy” videos off of Joel-Peter Witkin photos, stomping around on stilts and lab coats and throwing meat at their audience to protest animal abuse, courting nihilism and black magick, rewriting popular music in the style of fascism, and generally looking like they were preparing for the end of the world. The years 1984 were 1984 alright, a collective hallucination of a free society crushed and squeezed by the motorized gears of control.

Industrial became the music of outcasts and swept-asides. Like punks, they wore culture’s disregard like a badge of honor, making the music a magnet for all sorts of fringe elements. The tenacious embrace of any kind of transgression within the scene lead to the condoning of all sorts of questionable behavior and ideologies, but it also made the music an easy escape route for kids trapped in the suburbs, surrounded on all sides by yacht rock, preppy privilege, religious dogma, social and sexual intolerance, and parents who were distant, abusive, or overly demanding. With manufacturing jobs being eliminated, many of the kids who didn’t go to college could only look forward to a life in the service industry assisting in the luxury and self-betterment of the control class, a precarious and unstable employ in maintenance of existing hierarchies.

Unlike college rock’s willful middle-class slackerdom, industrial posed itself as a real countercultural threat to be feared, a cause célèbre advocating a reverse-gentrification, a gutter-alterity that sought to infect the suburbs with all of its least wanted elements. For minds who saw only propaganda and puppetry at the heart of yuppie ambition and drive, industrial was music for those who wanted to go nowhere together. This condition is not to be confused with the downwardly-mobile bohemian. Rather, it should be viewed as a state of being so pre-disillusioned that the entire infrastructure of culture seems pitiless and rotten, a place where there’s no room for pretty melodies, only squeals, thunderous blares, the piercing grind of mismatched sprockets, and gastric synth-bass blubbers.

It wasn’t long before a few major players began to exploit this oppositional cultural role. Bands began lining up to become spokesmodels for the throwaways and refugees, those for whom any foreseen role within the capitalist matrix was more obscene than anything De Sade or Burroughs ever imagined.

In “So What” by Ministry, a frightening anthem to nihilism, lead singer Al Jourgensen framed his audience as a “screaming headache on the brow of the state”, claiming that the youth gets blamed for acknowledging the apocalypse now built up around them. “It’s not our fault that we were born too late”, he says at one point in “So What”. Jourgensen saw the violence of the younger generation as being a kind of legacy, one born of equal parts mimicry and scorn, making them “your problem to learn to live with”. In “So What”, he was able to forecast that the end product of this disenchantment and lack of social utility could only result in the shell shock of explosive rage and murder.

“I only kill to know I’m alive/ So what?” could have been the mantra of the two trench-coat clad industrial-loving lunatics who butchered their classmates at Columbine High School in Colorado. Their arrival seemed as if a timebomb had finally detonated. Like September 11th after it, one of the biggest shocks was not how it was allowed to happen, but how it didn’t happen sooner. After Columbine, the long obsession with the vitality of youth culture, which seemed to have survived since the baby boom, vanished. The youth, it was once thought, were the future, tomorrow’s hope of a better tomorrow-a dream of an overthrow to the existing order. In the youth, crushed adults saw an exit strategy. When kids started shooting their classmates en masse, it signaled that there was “no future”, just as punk promised, and youth were just as powerless as their corporate slave parents to ignite any real change.

It’d be comforting to say that it was Columbine that drove the nail in Industrial’s coffin too, but sonically the music had already retreated by 1999. Industrial got swept up in servicing the appetites of a public eager to crossover, but unwilling to submit to the aural totality of organized noise. So, just as rock had sexed up the working class heroes of labor by making their proud work ethic their defining feature, it too tried to dignify industrial by shoving guitars to the forefront of its dissonant morass. While never entirely absent, guitars were rarely the driving force of early industrial music. When they were used, it was often to supplement a clangorous found sound rhythm or to subtly affect the unusual tonal arrangements of programmed machinery.

By the mid-'90s though, industrial became synonymous with any kind of synth-backed hard rock in the music press. At worst, industrial became host to a barrage of music that was both ugly and self-important. Audiences, for the most part, became bored with all but the biggest superstars of the genre and the scene retreated back to the shadows where it fed off itself for years to come. Meanwhile, the austere machinal sonics of early industrial survived at the edges of electronic music, particularly electronic dance music.

Techno, inspired by the second wave industrial fad EBM, had already fetishized the processes of labor, translating the punch card rhythms of the Detroit assembly lines for the dancefloor. As the progenitors of techno’s dilettante-aesthetic began to produce records that could both slay on the dance floor and incorporate atonal or avant-garde sounds for their rapidly expanding audiences, the torch for the sonic adventurousness once found in bands like Einstürzende Neubaten and Cabaret Voltaire was passed to the anonymous knob-twiddlers of acid house, IDM, hardcore rave, and gabber.

Whereas industrial was narrative and theatrical, the largely instrumental milieu of electronic dance music was expressionistic and abstract, mathematical and architectural. Industrial music told stories through the collision of humans and machines, the competing dialectic between the voice of mankind and the voice of the things he made. This made much industrial seem like a kind of Casey Jones style struggle against technology. Techno, on the other hand, was simply about process, cybernetics. It estimated the sum of mankind as a calculable equation, anything that could be sequestered into a 4/4 beat, and acknowledged social engineering as something that both “weak” and “strong” people fell for (which was ideologically diametric from the Boyd Rice contingency of industrial). For the most part, techno removed the individual from the blueprint altogether. It too was concerned about the barbarism that being passed off as “progress”, but techno sought to be ahead of the curve by making the boldest and most innovative sounds around rather than regressing into luddite grunts and steampunk dins.

The motto was “better living through circuitry”. In programming, techno and rave found the raw materials for community-building, conducting all labor-intensive business in service to the beat. Just as union members had teamed together in fraternity and solidarity, ravers united under the fellowship of the music. The ultimate goal of rave was heterotopia, Focault’s idea of an “other” space free from the restrictions of hegemony, or implied dominance. The religiosity of the system’s core belief (the music), along with the empathetic effects of ecstasy, offered rave’s supporters a common purpose, one that was able to rescind the artifices of alienation. The barriers of race, gender, sexual orientation, class, religion, and ethnicity dwindled under the strobe lights.

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