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Xiu Xiu – Finding Queer Catharsis in Noise

This past Pride month, I got caught up in a sentimental spiral of sorts. I came to think about my own queerness, my relation to it, and how it expresses itself in my life. It was not a particularly saccharine affair but just a compulsion to look back and try to recontextualize the self-identity and expression of the person I am today in comparison to the little shit that was my 13–14-year-old self. I think it was also, in some ways, an effort to figure out whether I am truly presenting or living what I am feeling and how much of what I am living is merely a front or some form of normative acquiescence. An attempt to listen to my own feelings, a thing I rarely find the time to do. I came to several different conclusions, some of which I might prefer to keep private, and an important one was about the significance of music in my life. Since adolescence, I have always been “the music guy”, not so much playing and creating, although I do play recreationally, but rather listening. During high school, I would usually never be seen without headphones around my neck or on my head, to the point that people would comment if I was without them. For me, music was and still is a form of escapism in situations where I feel anxious or exposed, and a vital resource of recognition and validation, aiding me during some less than mentally healthy years of my life. Noise music was an especially huge part of my palette. The chaotic overload of Lightning Bolt’s “Wonderful Rainbow”, the trippy idiosyncrasies of Animal Collective’s “Spirit They’re Gone”, the total mania of Old Time Relijun’s “Witchcraft Rebellion”, the masochistic despair of Puce Mary’s “The Drought”, and so on. All these albums and artists are worth a listen, and I could go on for pages upon pages, but one artist stood above the rest in being a truly formative part of my adolescence: Xiu Xiu. 

I first started listening to Xiu Xiu in 2016 with the release of their “Plays the Music of Twin

Peaks” album, a reinterpretation of Angelo Badalamenti’s original score for the show and twisting its wistful romance into seediness, murk, and derangement, exposing the devilish underbelly of the original. I was hooked and went through their musical catalog within the span of a week. What I quickly found is that there are no “fun” Xiu Xiu songs, although “Rumpus Room” does come pretty close. Their 2003 album “A Promise” dwells heavily on the topic of suicide, with the titular promise being one lead singer Jamie Stewart made to his mother, assuring her that he would not kill himself after his father’s own suicide. Their 2017 album “Forget” has heavy themes of child sex trafficking laced throughout it, and “Girl with Basket of Fruit” from 2019, their most chaotic and mentally taxing album to date, is a meditation on the exploitation, abuse, and loathing of women at the hands of men throughout the history of patriarchal western society, on which the song “Mary Turner Mary Turner” is one of the most distressing and impactful pieces of music I have ever heard in my life. 

Xiu Xiu is no stranger to queer narratives either, usually highlighting the hurt and isolation of LGBTQ+ individuals in wider society as a voice for the voiceless. For instance, the song “Dr. Troll” from their 2002 debut “Knife Play” deals with the gender dysphoria of a trans woman. Her distress is embodied by this horribly beautiful high-pitched synth, more akin to a human scream than anything traditionally musical, that engages in a call and response with lyrics like “Thinking about her dream makes her feel like it’s stupid”. All of this is delivered with Stewart’s ghostly quivering voice, which, at a moment’s notice, can evolve into harrowing screams like on the track “I Broke Up”. His voice is fragile, emotionally bare, and completely uninterested in the fetishistic aestheticisms of usual vocal performance.

Now, going through their entire discography again, mirroring my journey 7 years ago while knowing the music’s intricacies and oddities, I tried listening in a completely different way. Looking beyond the aesthetics, lyrical themes, and emotions that the compositions convey – the parts with which I am already deeply familiar and love – and rather listening to the feelings that the music was eliciting from me. As depressive, harrowing, and abrasive as Xiu Xiu’s music is, I felt neither depressed, harrowed, nor abrased. I felt comforted. There is something clearly gender-euphoric and self-affirming about Xiu Xiu’s discography to me now, an element that I think I subconsciously latched onto when I first started listening to them. Without having the proper insight or concepts to form my feelings into anything tangible, however, I simply latched onto the disconsolateness of the music. Now I find that the pure nature of the music – its atonality, its dissonance, its “noise” – is inherently queer.

Atonality is a queer presence at the music venue. Like heterosexuality, traditional tonality, twelve-tone tonality, and atonality are all constructed concepts existing on a spectrum. Schenkerian analysis, a cornerstone of modern tonal analysis that was created in response to the post-tonality of the likes of Stravinsky, can even be equated to the back-formation of our modern understanding of the term heterosexuality. This concept, like Schenkerian analysis, was formed in response to the perceived deviancy and abnormality of its others – anything other than binary, cisgendered identity. The presumption of natural order – inherently correct and inherently incorrect elements – in music is, like with gender, an attempt at creating a historical construct. It does not describe, but rather confines any real natural element of the composition or person in question to ignorant boundaries. And so, an obstruction of this historical construct in the form of atonal elements or pure pieces of ambient and harsh noise rings ultimately queer and affirming, not necessarily through any intent on the artist’s part but through the sheer nature of the music and the structures that its existence opposes.

The piece “Nature is Queer”, released as a stand-alone on Xiu Xiu’s Bandcamp page in 2021, is a haunting neo-classical composition complete with glitchy vocal snippets drenched in effects, discordant piano, sparse percussion, and some beautiful and stark string arrangements. Throughout, Jamie Stewart performs a poem written by actress Susanne Sachsse. In it, “nature” is equated to queerness, expressing the fact that being queer is natural in essence. “Poor melancholic nature/Nature is queer”. The melancholy enters the picture when we consider the conservative and ignorant abuse of nature as a misleading argument to hurt when “There’s so much screaming/And no one listening”. It’s a personification of nature attempting to express the natural multidimensional spectrums it encompasses, only to fall on deaf ears as the cymbals clatter and the pianos rattle. The symbiosis between music and lyrics in the personification of the piece’s queer messaging is exemplary of this unique quality of “noise music” that I am trying to highlight. I do, however, want to acknowledge that my perception of this art is completely beholden to my own experiences, perspective, and self, as is any piece of art. I’m not trying to explain the “immense political potential” of “noise music” like it’s some great vehicle for propaganda. This is a reexamination of my own personal appreciation of this art and why Xiu Xiu still uniquely affects me, and maybe an attempt to share that with others if they feel inclined to listen.