Delighted to share a guest paper from Lily O’Donnell. She wrote it for a class; I thought it was so good I wanted to share.
Space, Genre, Body and Audience in the delivery of Aggressive Punk Performances: An Analysis of Jay Reatard and Kitten Forever
Maggie Werner argues in her piece, “Deploying Delivery as a Critical Method: Neo- Burlesque’s Embodied Rhetoric” that delivery can be applied as an effective analytical framework for embodied rhetorical performances. She shows this by evaluating the interplay of the delivery elements of space, body/persona, audience and genre on the performances of neo- burlesque. Through her analysis, she proves that delivery can be used to provide a full contextual perspective of the purposes of the performances of neo-burlesque often overlooked in other evaluations of the embodied performance. I will be using her argument for the genre, space, body/persona and audience in the delivery of embodied performances to compare the purposes and context for punk performances with a focus on the early 2000s aggressive performances of the late Jay Reatard compared with the 2015 performances of the feminist all girl punk trio, Kitten Forever.
Through my analysis, I will also further Werner’s conclusions on why delivery works as an effective critical method in the study of embodied performances particularly performances that are somewhat counter culture, or not quite mainstream. I will also be using Naomi Griffin’s article “Gendered Performance: Performing Gender in the DIY Punk and Hardcore Music Scene” and her conclusions on the DIY punk music scene as being a male dominated space to argue how Jay Reatard’s often aggressive and antagonistic performances worked because he was performing in male dominated spaces and represented a masculine delivery style often celebrated within the genre of punk. I will be discussing how his performances compare next to Kitten Forever, whose presence in the male dominated genre and spaces of punk are inherently political. Through this comparison I will be illuminating the conclusions made by Griffin on how gender affects delivery.
Overview of Jay Reatard and Kitten Forever
Jay Reatard was an Indie Punk/Garage Rock superstar in the early 2000s. He was described as an “Elvis type figure but angrier” (Hammond 2011). His real name was Jimmy Lee Lindsey Jr. but he was known mostly by his stage name “Jay Reatard” (Sisario 2010). He was a driving force in the music scene of his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee for years before breaking out in the national scene in 2006 with his critically acclaimed solo album, “Blood Visions” (Phillips 2010). He passed away on January 13th, 2010 from “cocaine toxicity”. Alcohol was also a contributing factor in his death at the age of 29 (Sisario, 2010).
Jay Reatard was a prolific songwriter, by the end of his life his massive discography was comprised of hundreds of home recordings and 22 full length albums (Sisario 2010). He played with many bands beginning at 17, with his first band The Reatards, as well as starting bands like The Lost Sounds, The Bad Times and Angry Angels before launching his solo career (Sisario 2010). Jay had a reputation for his tornado-esque creative process as well as his belligerent stage manner. He sometimes smashed equipment on the audience mid set, or on a band member; he was known to randomly storm off stage, scream at audience members and provoke fights with band members while performing. He often put the entire microphone into his mouth, plugging it into the amp and simply screaming his lyrics, deafening the audience. The stage represented the release of internalized angst and an outpouring of dreary emotions as well as a purpose for staying alive.
Kitten Forever is a staunchly different group. Kitten Forever is a Minneapolis, Minnesota based band comprised of three women: Corrie Harrigan, Liz Elton and Laura Larson (Harris 2018). The group is unique in terms of their delivery style as well as musical dynamic as they don’t follow the typical formula for bands; they are made up of a bass player, a drummer and then a singer. They use a telephone microphone not a typical microphone so their singing sounds more distorted and like the chants from a phone left off the hook (The Lowertown Line 2015). The group also rotates instruments mid set without stopping the noise (Harris 2018). Their music is often a mockinging Christine De Pisan-esque chanting of exaggerated rules for women or femininity in mainstream society. For example their song “Temple” repeats: “Trust no one, eat your tears, swallow your pride, kill your fears (“Kitten Forever- Temple”).”
The group is proudly feminist and use their platform to sing about their politics as well as infuse some self deprecating humor into their lyrics (Harris 2018). In an interview with the Lowertown Line in 2015, they said they wanted their shows to have “a community feel” and connect the performer with the audience. Their performances are very energetic and often celebrate feminism and intersectionality in the terms of their lyrics as well as the representation their existence adds to the music scene. Harrigan discussed the struggles of being a woman in a male punk dominated scene and how she adopted her own delivery style: “You’ve got to be tough and you’ve got to be screaming into the mic and you’ve got to be… you know, a dude. Now that it’s like, well, it doesn’t have to look that way, it doesn’t have to sound that way either (Harris 2018).” The band worked to create and celebrate more diversity and inclusivity in the Minneapolis punk scene as well as adopting their own unique delivery style that would create a fun and exciting environment.
ANALYSIS OF DELIVERY
Genre. Werner describes genre in delivery as “comprised [of ] bodies that perform, the spaces in which they perform, and the audiences to whom they perform (291).” Genre works based on the interplay of all the other elements of delivery. In the performances of Jay Reatard, genre can explain the rowdiness of the audience, the body/persona of Jay and the spaces where he performed. The genre of punk has always been more open to all genders as performances were based mostly on extreme self expression (O’Meara, 300). As well as that, the tradition of punk rock has always been based on a staunchly DIY attitude as well as a complete ideological opposition to mainstream music (O’Meara, 300). These standards within the genre of punk music are the defining connections between Jay Reatard’s brash and offensive performances and the loud chantings of Kitten Forever. Aggression in one way or another has always been a pillar of punk rock. For Jay Reatard, this is manifested in an aggression towards himself, life and the audience. For Kitten Forever, this aggression is taken out more on the oppressive nature of society, it’s targeted towards sexism, racism, homophobia and other systems of hate within society. Therefore, the crowd in a Kitten Forever is working in unity to celebrate a sense of anger against the exclusionary systems of oppression that affect their everyday. The anger or aggression promoted at a Kitten Forever is empowering.
Aggression has always been an essential part of punk performers, in the identification of punk as a genre, the separation of real punks and non-punks within audiences and as a way to redefine the traditional power structures within commercial rock performances. Punk performances became, in a way, a celebration of violence and antagonism. Some other results of the aggression in early punk performances was it worked to create punk as a genre and alienate the other, or the non-punk from audiences (Laing 106). From the audience-performer aggression came an equalized relationship and a new power dynamic within punk rock performances that was completely different than the commercial rock performer speaking to audience dynamic that had been traditionally seen (Laing 106). That was one of the key parts of the movement, to drastically change mainstream music, and this shift in dynamics led to the formed identity of punk- the performer was just as much a part of the movement as the rowdy audience throwing chairs (Laing 106). From this unity came a sense of community that inspired audience members to become more active participants by starting bands themselves. From this we can see the beginnings of the DIY attitudes and desire to radically change conventional performance styles in rock music that led to the formation of Kitten Forever. We can see how punk as a genre provides some context for all other elements of the delivery of Jay Reatard and Kitten Forever. Both artists are dependent on punk as a context and point of exploration for their style.
Body/Persona. Body in delivery for Werner is both physical, as in the voice, clothes and movements of a performer as well as political as the race, gender and ethnicity of the performer is put into consideration (Werner 292). Body in the performances of punk had physically been used traditionally to reinstate dominance and express masculinity. Performers would stand or posture in a macho way, displaying their violent or sexual fantasies on the guitar, thrusting it against themselves while playing it and smashing it with the instrument often dubbed the “cock of rock” (Laing 109-110). Punk rock had traditionally been an obvious display for blatant machismo (O’Meara 303).
We can see by watching the performances of Jay Reatard, that his performance style was heavily cemented by the tradition of masculinity within punk music. In his 2007 Memphis, Tennessee Goner record store performance, we see his stance is slightly slouched over his guitar, he’s heavily sweating over the microphone and rocking back and forth while performing and completely avoiding eye contact with the audience while he hollers out his lyrics (Goner records). Jay Reatard seems to exemplify the traditional representations of masculinity within punk performances, with an added touch of humiliation and self deprecation. His aggression towards the audience can also be seen as fueling an energy of aggregation and internalized masculinity that becomes almost a rtualistical sort of release during his performances.
Another aspect of the body to consider for Jay Reatard is that he is a white male, and as the study of DIY Punk and Hardcore spaces by Naomi Griffin tells us, punk spaces are usually dominated by white men. White men usually organize the shows, dominate the dancefloor and are most likely the performers (Griffin 70). As Griffin theorizes, this means men have a monopoly over the local music scenes, they can decide who is given literally a voice (71). From this, we can see how the literal body identity of Jay Reatard in a male dominated and male created space and genre is less politicized as it represents the hegemonic culture of punk/DIY punk as a scene as well as representing mainstream hegemonic culture.
The body/persona for Kitten Forever is much different. Fashion and clothes have been theorized often for their rhetorical impact (Griffin 69). The fashion and bodies of women within the punk scene have become “sites of resistance (Preston et al, 220)”, meaning sites to portray displays of nonconformity through dress, tattoos and body modifications (Preston et al, 220). This can be seen in the fashion choices of Kitten Forever in their performances: the women are seen sometimes with brightly dyed green hair, piercings, tattoos, unconventional makeup and colorful, unconventional clothing. Kitten Forever continues the punk rock tradition of using body as a place to state one’s rejection of society’s norms. They also physically perform in a style similar to Jay Reatard, in that they often rock with the guitar and seem to often avoid direct eye contact with the audience. They also hop around the stage and shake their hips – they are more obviously dancing to the rhythm than anything Jay Reatard might do in a performance. They dance and move around the stage constantly, whereas Jay Reatard simply stands in one place for most of his set, maybe moving around slightly and violently banging his head to the music while he aggressively forces the strings on his guitar.
Audiences. Audience participation is a crucial part of the performances of Jay Reatard and Kitten Forever. The energy from the crowd is an essentialist part of the genre of punk (Griffin 71). For Jay Reatard in particular, aggression was a huge part of his audience interactions. David Laing discusses in his novel, “One Chord Wonders: Power and Meaning in Punk Rock”, how punk bands were aggressive and provocative towards audiences from the beginning. Bands had the power in performances because of the literal stage spatial placement as well as having the electrical power, meaning they had the microphones and the ability to be louder (Laing 105). Audience members responded physically with “gobbing” or spitting on performers, throwing cans and chairs at the stage and invading the stage (Laing 105). These actions became in a way ritualistic for the audience, and an essential part of the band’s identity (Laing 106). For example, The Damned always got all the furniture in the room thrown at them by audiences (Laing 106). However, these dramatic responses were out of appreciation or admiration for the band, a bored or disinterested audience would symbolize a boring band. That was one of the results of the aggressive relationship between punk performer and audience; it inverted cultural norms of aggression to become expressions of appreciation (Laing 106).
The punk antagonism is very present in the performances of Jay Reatard. In his 2007 New York City performance at a venue called, Cake Shop, Jay Reatard begins screaming at an audience member, “You motherfucker, get the fuck off my shit!” and continues yelling at him throughout in between songs (Pitchfork, 2016). We can see that punk was the ideal genre for Jay Reatard’s provocative performance style and outlandish antics as a way of self expression and an outpouring of internalized aggression. We can also see in his 2007 Cake Shop performance that the crowd is very rowdy, they are seen “moshing” which is a style of dancing where people congregate near the front of the stage and jump up and down, toss people on the ground and violently collide into each other. This passionate and violent dancing style can be seen as a performance of masculinity (Griffin 71).
For Kitten Forever, their audiences are not as actively rowdy as Jay Reatard’s audiences. We can see the audience in their May 2018 Kansas City performance in a venue called Kum n Go. The audience is not as violent or aggressive. Kitten Forever doesn’t yell at them or insult them and the crowd is not violently moshing against each other (Rhoades). Kitten Forever does not display the same kind of aggressive masculine performance style seen traditionally in punk music and in Jay Reatard’s performances. Kitten Forever creates their own unique performance style that celebrates their femininity while upholding a sense of aggression that is a pillar of punk rock. Therefore, the audiences don’t respond by performing in the typical masculine impassioned ways, but instead they mirror Kitten Forever’s delivery style. They shake their hips and dance along. The audience-performer relationship is one more rooted in unity and an us versus the oppressive powers outside this space. Due to this, the audience doesn’t have a violent or aggressive performance but more of a happy and celebratory positive performance that they emulate in their dancing.
Spaces. According to the piece “Gendered Performance Performing Gender in the
DIY Punk and Hardcore Music Scene” by Naomi Griffin, the spaces where DIY punk and hardcore music are performed are monopolized by men. Masculine performance styles are more celebrated, men usually dominate the spaces, whether that be in the crowd, on stage and in organizing the shows (Griffin 70). Griffin discusses how in patriarchal societies, men are seen as the reference point and women are seen as the other (Griffin 70). Therefore, masculine displays of passion and power are celebrated and normalized (Griffin 70). In Griffin’s analysis of Hardcore and DIY punk shows, she concluded that women aren’t very often involved in these performances. This shows how the performances of Jay Reatard as representing the attitude and values of the spaces he mostly performed. His masculine performance style was more obviously celebrated as it expressed the values, perhaps subconsciously, as the venues he played at and the audiences who showed up. However, this makes the performances of Kitten Forever more politicized as they express their own unique feminine delivery style.
An example of how the male dominated spaces affect the performances of Kitten Forever is in the way they almost create their own feminized space on stage within a more masculine space. It is also very reflective of the DIY nature of punk . In their Lowertown Line performance, Kitten Forever has the stage covered in balloons, with chains of fake flowers covering all their equipment (The Lowertown Line, 2015). They use eccentric self expression to create an almost ironically feminine, innocent or imaginative oasis on stage that contrasts starkly with their brass vocals and heavy bass and drum beats. This can symbolize how Kitten Forever creates their own unique feminine delivery stye within a male dominated space that celebrates intersectionality and feminism within a scene that often ignores the topic or doesn’t practice what it preaches.
Based on the analysis of Jay Reatard and Kitten Forever and their delivery styles we can see that masculinity and femininity are expressed in different ways within punk performances. Jay Reatard expresses the more normalized, hegemonic expression of masculinity and aggression, whereas Kitten Forever has created their own unique delivery style based on unifying an audience and simple dancing. For both performers, the traditions of punk as a genre are important for their deliveries as they provide a context for their audiences and provide a framework of DIY ethics, anti-conformity and aggression to create and perform their music within. The genre of punk may unite Jay Reatard and Kitten Forever, however their delivery styles are expressed completely differently in terms of how their audiences react, their bodies and the rhetoric that comes from their physical presence on stage and the spaces where they perform and how they create, change or express themselves within those spaces. This analysis also expands the argument made by Wener for delivery as an analytical framework as through the study of delivery we are illuminated to the power structures within the genre and the spaces they are performing. Delivery provides a fuller perspective for the artists and their purposes for performing.
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