SOFT MATTER

By Antonia Sellbach

When writing this piece I was listening hard to the voice in my head giving me a million reasons to not write this piece. It didn’t take me long to realise this barrage of worries and counter fears were the same reasons I needed to write it.

I can see where this negative voice comes from. It comes from what I think others expect of me, from the media and from deeply-wired, binary readings of sexuality embedded in our society, like masculine equals hard and feminine equals soft. Gender roles are fed to us in ways that are ridiculous, overt and shocking but also in more subliminal, insidious ways that can seep in less noticeably.

Something that really bugs me in the music world is when hard, loud or ‘tough’ music is identified as masculine.

Regardless of how good I feel within myself, no matter how supported or respected within my community, there are times when I am performing where I feel like an object rather than a person. The more I listen to the abhorrent voice that makes me compare myself to others or to question my own validity, the more I am able to understand both where it comes from and why it is so important to note its existence. That rather than pushing it down or pretending it isn’t there, the voice requires a sort of open ‘listening without following’.

Something that really bugs me in the music world is when hard, loud or ‘tough’ music is identified as masculine. I am drawn to qualities such as fast, hard, loud, powerful, angular, discordant too. I don’t see this as some sort of longing to be male or to compete or to gain approval (“she’s not bad- for a girl”). Rather, I love and respect these dynamic qualities in a pure and abstract sense.

To me, there is tenacity and grit in showing your wounds and revealing your weaknesses, as hardness and softness are not mutually exclusive; rather, they are involved in an intricate, reciprocal relationship of push and pull.

When women make music that is not overtly feminine there can be a sense we are giving ourselves over to a male sensibility within our practice.

This perspective is lazy and immediate negates the tremendous amount of difference within the qualities of all performers regardless of their gender.

To me, there is tenacity and grit in showing your wounds and revealing your weaknesses, as hardness and softness are not mutually exclusive; rather, they are involved in an intricate, reciprocal relationship of push and pull. Facing the complexities inherent in weakness, emotion, personal and communal suffering and experience might be a way to begin dissolving the binary divisions often at play.

Whenever people describe music as sounding inherently masculine or feminine it bothers me – aren’t we all just soft matter? Hunks of flesh, organs, nerves and synapses? Aren’t we all vulnerable at times? Perhaps the toughest exteriors are tough because of what they hold inside. Are the softest really weak or are they strong for showing us their soft matter?

***

Throughout the nineties I lived in Hobart. I was a teenager and my idols were the comic character Tank Girl, musicians like P J Harvey, Corin Tucker (Heavens to Betsy), Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill) and artists like Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman and Jenny Holzer. These women offered a pretty empowering and honest ‘strength in weakness’ message. This message was that if something negative happens you don’t feel ashamed or shy; you speak out, write a song about it or wear it on your sleeve. It was a liberating and infectious message: I grew up with excellent idols. Yet despite this schooling, during my teens I was hurtled into the ‘adult world’ sometimes behaving in ways that defied the notions I found so inspiring. Despite idolising confident, forward women who seemed to not take any shit from anyone, I had some difficulty assuming these roles myself.

I grew up with the assumption – the kind that seeps in subliminally and you only notice in hindsight – that I should please people and not make ‘a fuss’. But I didn’t realise these cues were more of a surface form of social etiquette and didn’t need to extend to other more intense, personal relationships and situations. If a comment was hurtful, but delivered frivolously as a joke and a light-hearted response was ‘expected’, I would unconsciously feel obliged to provide it. Several times in my mid teens I found myself in positions where I wasn’t at all comfortable, spoke up about it and was shut down. This was the era of ‘no means no’ but in a few situations my ‘no’ still fell on deaf ears and I was left with the consequence.

Within my community I had quite a few female friends who had also encountered rape. Hobart was a small town so everyone knew everyone and it was hard to avoid people. There was this one guy who worked for a while as a bouncer in a popular venue and quite a few of my friends had really bad encounters with him. Although many times these people’s actions were called out and they were in some ways socially ‘outed’ for their behaviour, it also seemed that talking about it sometimes made people feel really uncomfortable. The topic was often dropped and my impression was that the situation felt hopeless. I don’t think any of the cases I knew of made it to court, despite this option being discussed, but there are a whole bunch of reasons for that.

Some things are inherently uncomfortable, uneasy topics and can be held close to the chest. They become part of personal private memory: painful, hard to talk about and even harder to piece apart. But their difficult nature should make them no less valid as topics of discussion. Maybe it is their complex texture as experiences that makes them so difficult to express, and the fact that communicating these experiences can and does make some people very uncomfortable. It’s something our group of women friends from that time were all super aware of, an issue that affected so many of us, but it has almost bound us in silence. It feels like speaking out about my experience might somehow betray a subculture; a community that in many ways I hold so dear; a community also responsible for providing me with the most amazing, creative schooling in music.

It feels like speaking out about my experience might somehow betray a subculture; a community also responsible for providing me with the most amazing, creative schooling in music.

In many cases of sexual abuse against female friends of mine around this time, a common factor was that the men involved were significantly older than the women. These men had the advantage of being seen as having ‘experience and wisdom’ on their side, whereas we were just ‘naïve teenage girls’ perhaps presumed to have been ‘in the wrong place at the wrong time’.

My experiences surrounding this existed in a grey area where I knew what happened was not acceptable but I was young and still learning about the world and forming opinions. I took cues from the response of others in order to define my experience. I also compared my experiences to some other people’s and deemed theirs ‘way worse than mine’, telling myself I was lucky my experience hadn’t been worse and that I came out of it all ‘relatively unscathed’.

My adult self feels truly appalled and protective of what happened to my 15-year-old self. Over time I’ve gained the clarity to see these experiences as they really happened – and not as they may have been conveniently filed away. I can also see that it wasn’t my fault. I might have struck it up as ‘world experience’ – something that made me seem older, wiser and more ‘adult’ at the time. I think I suspected that if I had only been more dogged and antagonistic that perhaps they might have listened but fear (primal, palpable, true fear) is one of the main reasons I didn’t push things beyond a certain point.

Is an angry or antagonistic (read: hard and masculine) mode of expression the only avenue possible for young, unheard women to safely and openly voice her fears, suffering or concern to a wider audience? Antagonistic approaches might easily be put down to hysteria. These are not easy issues to broach.

After the fact, I remember being told nonchalant stuff like “well you’ve turned out alright”, “you seem fine now” and “perhaps you just need to move on”. All of which missed the fundamental core of the issue: that all humans have rights that need to be respected and this respect begins by allowing all humans to speak and be listened to.

I did find an outlet in making work about it and made some pretty aggressive paintings that year. I was able to shock people with the art and watch their reactions to my paintings as if that gave me a sliver of the kind of reaction I wanted to be given regarding the actual events. Something kicked in for me back then and the main thing I felt was just the need to get through it all. I needed to get through being a teenager. I’d moved out of home at 16 and was living pretty much hand-to-mouth. I was suffering from chronic anxiety that was frustratingly and repeatedly misdiagnosed, leading me down the pharmaceutical garden path. High school felt more like a charade than ever and I dropped out soon after. The good voice, my instinct, said “keep your head down, get through this and things will look up”. I think I knew I’d be better equipped later to deal with a plethora of things that were too much at the time. Luckily, that happened. I did get to a better place and music played a massive role in that.

* * *

I have started with some pretty intense, difficult and somewhat irreconcilable reflections on a community I also hold very dear. But it’s better I started with the negative stuff because I’d hate to end on it. I have really fought the idea of talking about the negative stuff. I didn’t want to grapple with how I defined a ‘grey area’ or feel responsible for portraying things negatively or for mentioning hard personal things that involve more people than just me.

These are also the reasons this piece needs to be written. I can’t comment on my friends’ experiences, although I am painfully aware I was not alone. Unfortunately experiences like mine are not uncommon.  I chose to write about this because if I am going to write about my experience growing up in the music scene in Hobart, I can’t leave it out. I didn’t want to leave it in either but that’s the thing with ‘uncomfortable’ topics: they don’t always fit. They can be difficult to place; misshapen. I’m also doing this to spite the negative voice in my head. The voice that says: “Don’t seem ungrateful”, “Don’t make a fuss” or “Keep a stiff upper lip”. Screw that voice! This is the voice that makes silent my experiences. Confusingly, it comes from within yet it’s a distilled product of the more fearful, negative elements of the outside world.

I might still hear that voice but I can decide if I want to take any heed. Reminding myself of this throughout my life takes vigilance but, like anything, if done enough it becomes second nature. Honestly this stuff is not the part of growing up in Hobart that I like to remember when there were also so many truly amazing parts.

I had amazing female role models in Hobart – people who inspired me to go out and make music despite the hindrances of mental health issues and chronic shyness. People like Linda Dacio from Little Ugly Girls, Halzska Masash from Surgery, Nickie Coffee from Honey Pet, Emily Swann from These Seven Months, Monika Fikerle from Sea Scouts (who I now play in Love of Diagrams with). There was a real sense within the music community in Hobart that everyone could have a go. I remember a healthy amount of raucous heckling at gigs but I don’t remember women being ridiculed for getting up on stage. I only ever noticed what felt like a deep respect from fellow punters regardless of the performer’s gender.

The first all-ages show I saw was Bikini Kill at Princes Wharf in the mid-nineties. Kathleen Hanna had this bellowing, punk voice that made her larger than life, she wore green underwear and did cartwheels across the stage. Half the warehouse was turned into a skate park so people also skated up and down to the sounds of Bikini Kill. It felt like utopia. That summer I painted a mural on the basketball courts at my high school featuring Tank Girl.  She was the perfect female warrior with her bandaged, crossed arms and empowered stance; her slightly unhinged ugly/cool expression, towering above the courts that were a very male-dominated space in our school. It was perfect.

I don’t know if I would have had the confidence to start playing in Love of Diagrams and Beaches had I not grown up around so many amazing bands that included women.

Looking back, the local music I love from that time is disparate but has a creative energy that unites it. Tasmania’s geographical remoteness and the fact those were pre-internet times made it extra isolated from outside influences. It felt like what we had was extra special – ours and ours alone. It also felt incredibly supportive and inclusive. There’s a great doco called ‘Acting Normal’ that documents some of this era. I always loved the title. It alluded to something I already knew about our scene – that nobody was normal. That normal was extremely weird anyway, so you just sort of made up your own artistic standards and went with them. So in that sense, I came out of a community with a feeling it was totally acceptable to do whatever I wanted to do creatively. The only time I felt out of place at a gig was when I wasn’t dancing. There was maximum emphasis on outward expression … a stark contrast to Melbourne’s more reserved audience vibes.

I don’t know if I would have had the confidence to start playing in Love of Diagrams and Beaches had I not grown up around so many amazing bands that included women. I never noticed any snide comments like “not bad for a chick” at gigs. I don’t remember much of a gender divide with the music I grew up with (though perhaps noticed it more as I got older). As a young person who soaked things up like a sponge, acutely aware of other people’s opinions, I’m pretty thankful for this experience.

LISTEN holds the potential for many to simultaneously connect and be heard. It provides a chance for historical information that might otherwise fall between the cracks to be made visible. It is an incredibly inclusive project and an incredibly important one. LISTEN can be a way to subvert the blanket assumptions often made about gender in music and art and to re-jig the common associations between language and gender, allowing language and qualities to ‘just be’. It might contribute to a countering of binary readings of gender. As a project, it asks us to take notice and to analyse and it definitely requires us to listen.