The make-up’s reorganization of punk rhetoric

Pow! to the people: the make-up’s reorganization of punk rhetoric

Theodore Matula

The mainstreaming of punk rock in the 1990s was disheartening to artists and fans committed to punk’s radical political ethos. This paper examines the rhetorical response to punk’s popularization in this era, focusing on how the DC-area bank the Make-Up, reorganized the common sense of punk by articulating it to the musical and social elements of gospel and funk. Analysis of the “repertoires for rhetorical living” that result from this juxtaposition of musical discourses leads to the conclusion that the Make-Up offers a transformed understanding of what may count as authentic in punk, reorganizing authenticity, political commitments, and identity around a collectivist subject position. The ethical implications of the Make-Up’s ironic appropriations of black culture also are considered.


For punk rock, the 1990s were a watershed and a nightmare. The mainstream commercial success in that decade of bands like Green Day, Rancid, and Blink 182 was unprecedented for a genre that survived the Reagan-Bush era on $3 concerts, indie labels, and the relatively limited broadcast range of college radio. But this success had a downside: the hyper-commercializing and mainstreaming of punk, fast on the heels of the majors’ “discovery” of grunge and their search for new scenes to exploit (O’Flaherty) exacerbated the crisis of authority already endemic to punk (e.g. Schalit; Grossberg “Is There Rock”). How could one expect to conjure anarchy, political opposition, and cultural resistance simply by making punk sounds when, by the turn of the century, punk had become literally the soundtrack of the Olympics’ “extreme sports” competitions on NBC?

For social critics who saw punk as an always already co-opted form, its assimilation was merely a foregone conclusion: punk’s success in the 1990s was the result of the music industry finally figuring out how to capitalize properly on the genre. But for those invested politically in punk’s revolutionary ethos–those who traced its lineage to the social politics of bands such as the Clash, X, and Crass, rather than to the spectacle of the Sex Pistols or the New Wave 80s–the popularization of punk rock was a serious setback. It diminished and co-opted punk’s political message and, by encouraging self-marginalization as a counter-hegemonic strategy, exacerbated the tensions between community and alienation that have always been lurking just below the surface in punk.

In this essay, I focus on one aspect of punk’s response to its popularization–a reexamination of its own basic assumptions, a process that Mattern calls “deliberative political action” in which “members of a group use musical practices to debate their identity and commitments” (35). Such debates may take place in a variety of arenas–such as online forums, magazines, and personal discussions–but the most compelling is in the music, in the texts and performances of the bands themselves. And one of the most compelling examples of this can be found in the music of the Make-Up, a group that emerged in the mid-1990s as part of the Washington, D.C. scene, where deliberative action over the social meanings of punk identity are not uncommon (J. Middleton). The Make-Up borrows musical and social elements of gospel and other African-American styles (as well as liberation theology, garage rock, French yehyeh music, and the Situationist International) to craft a musical hybrid and an elaborate imaginative narrative that disrupts expectations about punk style and the social meanings normally associated with punk.

My approach is influenced by rhetorical theorist Barry Brummett, who places the construction of social meanings at the core of rhetorical activity. [1] Rhetoric, Brummett argues, “is that part of an act or object that influences how social meanings are created, maintained, or opposed.” Not a literary form, rhetoric is the “function of managing meaning within social arrangements” (Brummett 38). This is an audience-centered approach in that it seeks to understand how audiences make sense of the world by constructing meaning-filled “mosaics” from various texts available to them (69). [2] But Brummett also outlines a strategy for textual analysis, arguing that popular culture texts make certain meanings and subject positions available by providing “rhetorical repertoires” or strategies for making sense of situations (65). In applying Brummett’s approach to the Make-Up, I ask how they use the musical gestures of gospel and funk as “rhetorical repertoires” to manage the social meanings of punk in the context of its popularization, positioning the audience in relation to the rhetorical struggles around identities, commitments, politics, and authenticity. In other words, how do they use the social implications of these genres to transform how punk “sets up the idea of musical ‘truth'” (Frith “Toward” 137)? Further, I consider the ethical implications of their cultural appropriations. I begin with a description of their sound and their imaginative cultural narrative.

The Sound of the Revolution

Members of the Make-Up [3] include Ian Svenonius (vocals), James Canty (guitar, organ), Steve Gamboa (drums), and Michelle Mae (bass). Svenonius, Canty, and Gamboa previously played together in Nation of Ulysses; Mae joined the Make-Up after playing in the Frumpies. Over a period of six years, beginning in 1995, the Make-Up released six albums–Destination: Love; Live, In Mass Mind, Sound Verite, Save Yourself, I Want Some (a collection of previously released singles), and After Dark (a live album of mostly previously released songs). The band was dissolved in 2001 but several of its members have since played together in “spin-off” bands, Weird War and Scene Creamers.

The Make-Up’s musical style blends punk sensibilities with elements adapted from gospel music and funk, which Vincent describes as a “rich structure” that includes “blues, rhythm and blues, soul music, progressive jazz, African percussion, psychedelics, and synthesizers” (19). The use of organ riffs on a number of songs adds a feel of gospel, while funky bass lines and complex syncopation on many songs create a style that puts punk in conversation with funk and other black musical traditions. For example, “Gold Record pt. II” and “Hot Coals” from their Sound Verite album are built on repetitive guitar and bass lines that emphasize rhythm in a way that suggests James Brown. Svenonius’ vocals also evoke Brown’s through “screeches” that interlace many songs. Other influences cited by band members and reviewers include 1960s bands Love and MC5, although the punk-funk outfit Gang of Four also deserves mention as a more recent and closer musical comparison. The term “yehyeh” comes from French “yeh yeh” music, a 1960s pop style that was especially “perky and youthful, and often emphasized singers’ style and sassy attitude rather than smooth technique.” [4] Despite this array of influences, their sound is dominated by punk motifs–fast playing, “dirty” production, and an often sloppy, unrehearsed instrumentation. Additionally, the Make-Up seems deliberately to have crafted a sound that serves as counterpoint to both grunge and the wave of power pop (think Green Day, Blink 182) that broke punk onto American mainstream radio in the 1990s. Their sound features loudly mixed vocals, with guitar and bass-playing that employ distinctive “figures,” as opposed to the bratty vocals and loud, compressed guitar sound that characterize mainstream punk or the power chords, heavy distortion, and long solos that characterize grunge’s “wall of sound.”

This intriguing mix of music is framed by the production of an elaborate narrative, constructed through liner notes, song lyrics, and even their clothing. Adorned with revolutionary jargon, faux diary entries, and manifestos, liner notes describe the Make-Up as leaders of a religious movement called “gospel yehyeh,” a proclaimed “liberation theology” sweeping across “the former colonies” and “causing a rumpus with parents and others normally concerned with the censorship of ideas.” [5] It is a decidedly “earthly” affair, read the liner notes from Destination: Love; Live, with a revolutionary bent in which members are encouraged to “get theirs” and “off the pigs in all their forms.” The hedonism implied in the phrase “getting theirs” is expressed in other places as an earthly concern for pleasures of the body, in particular, an open and liberatory attitude toward sex, as opposed to spiritual concerns that normally constitute religious expression.

Song lyrics contribute to the narrative, loosely connecting subcultural, gospel, sexual, and liberatory messages. For example, “They Live by Night” celebrates the nocturnal habits of the imagined “gospel yehyeh” subculture (“Where do they go when there is no light? They live by night … they live with me”); “Walking on the Dunes” frames romantic relationships within taste culture-like sensibilities: “we were always wearing the same kind of shoes/always dressed in the same kind of blue.” In other songs, the gospel metaphor is sustained by lyrics and vocal flourishes: in “(I’ve heard about) Saturday Nite,” Svenonius slyly links sex and gospel, adding “but what about Sunday morning?” The sexually suggestive “Gospel 2000” contains no lyrics relating to gospel, but its title connects its sexual vocalizations to religion.

Elements of their stage show also contributed to production of this drama. Like Nation of Ulysses, the members of the Make-Up dressed in uniform in concert, wearing identical suits. Svenonius claimed the purpose of this was to “subsume the individual into the whole,” yet he clearly presented himself as “front man” with a persona that is equal parts preacher and revolutionary. His vocals combined an unrefined punk style with gospel testimony, relying on the punk penchant for untrained, off-key vocals that are spat out as much as they are sung but alternating this with a testimonial style suggesting a cross between gospel preacher and union organizer inflected with the lingo (“baby,” “yeah”) of a hipster.

The Make-Up’s revolutionary “religion” is presented in unavoidably ironic terms: for example, the liner notes of their first release, Destination: Love; Live, call their songs “hymns” and claim that “vibrations of sincerity emanate from this record,” while liner notes generally exhibit mock-seriousness and earnestness through misspellings, cliches, and pretentious directions to reviewers: for example, the liner notes included in Sound Verite demand: “Do not review, if: 1.) U R not prepared to discuss the experience inside … 6.) unless you understand that this is truth on tape.” The ironic underpinnings, however, do not necessarily negate the rhetorical impact. Irony has always had a place in both punk and funk, [6] and its presence complicates but does not eliminate the capacity of musical texts to manage social meanings for audiences. Moreover, if we are to take popular culture seriously as an object of study, we need to consider the potential symbolic influence of any text, including those that seem–at the surface–to be working against the production of seriousness and deeper meanings. As Brummett argues, “the apparently innocent enjoyment of popular culture is also participation in rhetorical struggles over how society will be ordered and what kind of people we will be” (xii).

Brummett’s work contributes to an understanding of music as rhetorical, as capable of influencing and producing social meanings. Leaning heavily on Kenneth Burke’s notion [7] of literature as symbolic “equipment for living,” Brummett explains that cultural texts like popular music “metonymize complex issues into understandable form” (112), ritually enacting social dramas and positioning audience members in relation to the regimes of meaning and power that flame these dramas. Texts provide a means for the audience to think through the struggles implicit in these dramas by serving as “repertoires for rhetorical living” (65). Popular culture texts are rhetorical, then, to the extent that they provide audiences with models–or strategies–for managing the meaning of ongoing everyday social struggles. Brummett describes the human “as an essentially social organism, moving through the world and ordering experience in socially shared and socially sanctioned ways” (70), and popular culture texts are a significant source of ways to order and organize experience. Further, he says, we are all textualized subjects, as humans order themselves into repertoires: “texts and subjects are created together, through socially shared forms” (81).

In the realm of popular music, texts and performances gain much of their power to organize social meanings from their participation in genres, “sites where seemingly stable discourses temporarily organize the exchange of meanings” (Walser 33). Genres, Walser says, are ways of organizing both musical form and social formations; they provide formal characteristics–time signatures, bass lines, rhythm, etc.–as well as a “range of understandings shared among musicians and fans concerning the interpretation of those characteristics” (28). They also provide rules for what counts as a unit of music, what value can be ascribed to various musical elements, and what meanings are possible for given musical gestures. So when a band that otherwise seems to be operating out of a punk tradition utilizes gestures that derive from funk and gospel, they are doing more than just creating an interesting musical hybrid; they are also creating a new repertoire for making sense of struggles over social meanings, rearticulating “social truths” by introducing new “musical truths.” In other words, they reposition subjects in relation to what may count as authentic in a given genre.

Now authenticity is a much-maligned concept in contemporary critical discourse, dismissed as “sentimentalist social realism” or as nothing more than a marketing strategy in an age dominated by nefarious “culture industries.” [8] But I think the value of authenticity as a social concept is too easily overlooked because of its irrelevance as a critical concept. As a social concept, authenticity can be thought of as a perception of listeners as to how “true” a particular piece of music seems to them. This means not only whether music sounds “right” to fans (for example, does it make sense as punk?), but also whether it seems to articulate relevant and believable social truths.

My language here comes from Simon Frith, who criticizes the usual formulation of authenticity: “[w]hat we should be examining is not how true a piece of music is to something else, but how it sets up the idea of ‘truth’ in the first place” (“Toward” 137). To focus on how music “sets up the idea of truth,” as opposed to how it reflects truth (i.e. how it represents the values of a social group or the “real” emotions of a musical artist) encourages a shift in critical focus, away from the suspect practice of making judgments about what is and is not authentic and toward study of how music positions audiences to accept one version of “truth” or another, and, consequently, to be one kind of subject or another (“how it creates our understanding of what popularity is,” says Frith (“Toward” 137)). This move enables critics to explore how social subjectivities are formed, in part, though music rather than trying to map out “fits” between social groups and the music presumed to represent them.

This way of thinking about authenticity is useful for understanding how the Make-Up draws from the musical gestures of gospel and funk to reorganize the “musical truth” or “common sense” of punk, in the process providing one possible means of circumventing the cul-de-sac of negation and alienation that seem to be necessary byproducts of the ways popularization is resisted. Note that it is irrelevant to my approach whether or not the Make-Up should be considered authentic, and it is also beyond the point whether they intend to be authentic or not (in fact, their ironic stance may derive from an attempt deliberately to resist claims to authenticity). Rather, I am interested in how their reading of punk (already a particular reading of pop, rock and roll, and classic rock) in relation to funk (already a particular reading of soul, gospel, and rock) transforms what is supposed to count as authentic in punk and how that standard is likely to be experienced by someone listening from within a general familiarity with the punk tradition.

Authenticity and the Punk Tradition

The history of punk has been well documented (see, for example, Hebdige; Laing; Marcus), so I will not rehearse it again here, but I will consider two overlapping historical ideas that hold relevance for how the Make-Up “set up” the idea of musical truth. First, punk style gains much of its efficacy through creation of a “shock effect” which disrupts the flow of meaning and pleasure normally available in pop music. Second, punk claims to authenticity revolve around its capacity to articulate this shock effect into opposition of mainstream values, both musical and social. Frith provides a neat summary of these processes in Sound Effects:

It was defined through its aural opposition to the “unrealism” of

mainstream pop and rock. The real/unreal distinction depended on a

series of musical connotations–ugly versus pretty, harsh versus

soothing, energy versus art, the “raw” (lyrics constructed around

simple syllables, a three-chord lack of technique, a “primitive”

beat, spontaneous performance) versus the “cooked” (rock poetry,

virtuosity, technical complexity, big-studio production). (Frith

Sound Effects 158)

The shocking, disruptive patterns positioned punk in opposition to what Lester Bangs at the time called “boring and bloated” establishment pop and rock, with authenticity being a product of the perception of “realness” manifest in the alternative noise of punk rock. These features underline the Make-Up’s construction of authenticity in relation to punk.

The Make-Up cultivates a “raw” sound, which they articulate as “authentic” through assertion of oppositional politics. Their first album, Destination: Love; Live, provides a good example of how the Make-Up uses punk gestures to position their audience toward privileging the “raw” in the “raw v. cooked” metaphor. [9] It was recorded live, an unusual practice for an album full of never-before released original songs by a new band. (However, the MC5, whose similarities to the Make-Up are discussed below, did the same thing.) The result is an album that sounds “sloppy” in various places–crowd noises drown out instruments and moments of silence, the volume of vocals and instruments seems arbitrarily mixed, microphones are often turned up too high, resulting in feedback. The authenticity claim represented by the decision to release a live album full of new material is explicitly laid out in the liner notes: “none of the technical achievements used in the recording industry to bring out the best has been observed, which would alter the authenticity of the album. Its weaknesses, therefore, are obvious … [but] are the bases for its value.” The point is not whether the Make-Up really have not used any technical advancements (obviously they have) or whether such decisions authenticate their music in any sort of conclusive way; the point is that their attempt to craft an “authentic” style draws on this particular formulation of authenticity, based on the “fury” and immediacy of the live show, with celebration of the weaknesses that result from poor production and recording technique. This approach is familiar to punk and “lo-fi” rock, both of which see value in a move away from slick “big studio” overproduction, and it helps to fit their narrative within the authenticity constraints of punk, articulating the raw sound to an oppositional energy.

Oppositional space can be conjured through musical production, then, but it can also be articulated through ideological constructions of the narrative. The Make-Up’s ideology is located in the language and motifs of the working class, the poor, transients, or anyone who exists outside the domains of power and privilege. Their use of language like “revolutionary,” for example, and their claims to create a “liberation theology for the untouchables” describe a political framework in which they align themselves with the disempowered and the oppressed. Other examples include the song “Born on the Floor,” a roaring punk single that was later included on I Want Some, in which Svenonius’ narrator claims an identity as a symbol of the oppressed by repeated reference to his inauspicious place of birth–“I was born, I was born on the floor”–and scattered references to times and places that evoke political and social struggle (e.g. “I was born in 1917 … I was packing things for Angola, she said ‘no, you’re just an embryo'”). The lack of privilege metonymized in the slogan “born on the floor” is accompanied by an eagerness to engage in political struggle (“I wanted to be premature. I said ‘Mama, I wanna come out soon.’ I kicked against the womb”), making the narrator of this anthem appear to be the spirit of revolution itself, as a driving force that inspires the narrator’s very conception and birth (“I put that look in my Daddy’s eye…. I said ‘mama, you must create the terrible baby they all fear who’ll destroy the state'”). The idea of the narrator as a primal force, coupled with the international and historical references, contributes to the creation of rhetorical solidarity with the downtrodden, conjuring an oppositional space by aligning the narrator with oppressed and marginalized people.

In the self-reflective post-punk and indie scenes, aural opposition is a source of subcultural capital, with music coming to metonymize a social struggle between marginal and dominant positions, and authenticity being formed therefore around an outsider mentality. Authenticity is constructed in post-punk scenes through production of sounds that are clearly differentiated from whatever happens to be the mainstream, as music symbolically constructs a space that opposes the rules and order imposed by a straight, uptight, oppressive society. To maintain an edge, however, in an ever-changing musical environment where center and margins (mainstream and alternative) keep shifting, new strategies for aural opposition must constantly be cultivated. After all, what was shocking and oppositional last year may be part of the mainstream this year, particularly given punk’s recent popularization.

In this context, strategic employment of musical appropriations provides a significant means of maintaining aural opposition. If shock effect is no longer relevant in a musical soundscape that includes Marilyn Manson, the Insane Clown Posse, and legions of gangsta rappers, then appropriating from more obscure sources may help to maintain an outsider image. The Make-Up’s employment of gospel, funk, and yeh yeh is a kind of ironic borrowing, then, not quite as trendy or hip in the 1990s as, say, hip hop. Being so unhip seems to suggest a move away from any claim to authenticity, yet this kind of unhip borrowing is not unfamiliar to punk; in fact, Dick Hebdige describes this in his 1979 classic treatment of punk, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, calling it “punk (un)fashion” (107).

The problem is that irony produces an amount of distance that belies the sense that punk is somehow “real” as opposed to less-marginalized musics. Thus, Grossberg argues that the ideology of authenticity in rock has devolved into what he calls “authentic inauthenticity,” which he describes as “an ironic nihilism in which distance is offered as the only reasonable relation to a reality which is no longer reasonable” (We Gotta 225). Herman and Sloop expand on this idea: “differences between forms of rock as cultural practice are understood and embraced as nothing more than differences in artifice, style, and pose” (3) rather than as representing tangible differences in the cultural beliefs and practices of actual social groups. In the end, outsider authenticity constitutes a subject that is alienated and individualized, signaling the death of punk as an agent of political change, as it articulates a “constantly marginalized” subject position. The resultant “subject devaluation,” as Wicke calls it (144), places nihilism at the core of punk identity, something antithetical to political action or community-building. Further, self-imposed marginalization makes punk more easily corrupted by commercial forces by inventing new possibilities for more consumption, which, Coyle and Dolan argue, makes it the perfect capitalist form.

For the Make-Up to maintain punk’s political viability, it must retain a sense of its oppositional politics while imagining a space for connection and community. They accomplish this in a manner that is not unusual for a rock band, by finding inspiration in Afro-American culture, borrowing musical gestures from funk and gospel to reorganize the common sense of punk and reposition the punk subject. [10] In the next section, I examine how the gestures and symbolic resources of gospel are employed by the Make-Up to transform what counts as authentic in punk–1) by reorganization of the “punk subject” around connection to others rather than an alienated and marginalized position and 2) by re-articulation of oppositional energy into a revolutionary politics extending from the liberatory thread of gospel. Further, the Make-Up “read” gospel through the musical gestures of funk, which offers a more playful, sexually charged and rock-centered musical attitude that is likely not only to make the gospel elements more palatable to punk audiences, but also to frame their ironic tendencies in ways that avert the easy drift into ironic distance and nihilism.

Punk and the Gospel Influence

Werner’s characterization of what he calls the “gospel impulse” provides a good starting point for discussing how the Make-Up employs gospel gestures to offer a new formulation for constructing authenticity. In language remarkably similar to Brummett’s, Werner explains how gospel provides a way of “thinking through the most fundamental of human problems” (xiii). That is, “[i] f we’re going to survive to bear witness and move on up, we’re going to have to connect. The music shows us how” (Werner 31). In contrast to punk’s production of an authentic subject position based on being a disconnected outsider, gospel musical practices reposition the audience to see itself as a collective (and not merely as a collection of individuals). Even though its subjects are marginalized, gospel “makes human separateness … bearable” by enabling audiences to “experience themselves in relation to [others] rather than on their own” (28).

This emphasis on social relations that characterizes the gospel impulse extends through funk, whose influences on the Make-Up’s sound are more readily apparent than the gospel ones. In essence, then they wind up “reading” gospel through the gestures of funk, which open up an enormous set of connotations and social meanings. [11] Vincent summarizes some of these:

Funkiness for our purposes is an aesthetic of deliberate confusion,

of uninhibited, soulful behavior that remains viable because of a

faith in instinct, a joy of self, and a joy of life, particularly

unassimilated black American life … spiritual oneness with the

cosmos, and a comfort zone with sex and aspects of the body …

deliberate reaction to–and rejection of–the traditional Western

world’s predilection for formality, pretense, and self-repression.

(Vincent 4-5)

In this quote, we see how “funkiness” derives in many ways from the gospel impulse–gospel’s soulfulness, faith, its liberatory nature, and especially its spirit of connection are revisited in funk. Vincent cites “oneness” as a key element of funk, and it is important to note that the slogan “on the ones” is more than just an indicator of which beat to emphasize. Willhardt and Stein discuss “the One” as the organizing principle around which community is based. It symbolizes and constitutes unity of and communication among band members, all playing divergent riffs and instruments “on various meters, but then suddenly [they] all could tighten up and blurt one synchronized note or phrase, and then just as suddenly swing back into rhythmic interplay” (Vincent 19).

But we also see in this quote how funk varies from gospel, how it extends and transforms certain components of gospel. For example, funk tends to downplay religion in favor of a cosmological spirituality and it features a more overt sexuality (“funk” is, in fact, a euphemistic expression for sexual odors). By reading gospel through funk, the Make-Up articulates a liberatory politics that connects religion to a “comfort zone with sex” and “the body.” This liberatory element is connected with the body in a way that escapes the rigors that come with religion. The idea of basing liberation in the freedom of the body from repression and oppression, though, are very much part of gospel. According to Hubbard, “In contrast to the ‘free’ dominant culture, black expression begins and ends with the body. The fight for control of the body is rooted in the political” (2). Funk also carries political connotations that extend gospel’s message of liberation and physical freedom into black nationalism. Willhardt and Stein report that “nationalist overtones” have been present in black music at least since the onset of jazz (165), while Vincent traces this history through soul (“the original music of black unity”) to funk which represents “popular black values–particularly those ideals of social, spiritual, and political redemption” (19).

The Make-Up imagine a collective subject through a number of practices that, taken individually, are not unusual in pop music (e.g. structuring audience response into their music, using terms that construct the audience as an affinity group), but, when taken as a whole and observed in connection with overt gospel references, constitute a more comprehensive repositioning of the subject around Afro-American musical values. The first group of these–call-and-response and sermons–are practices derived from gospel that work by involving the audience in participatory group activity. These practices function not only to deliver content, advancing the collective as an ideal, but actually to entreat the audience into a particular response in which listeners become part of the collective.

Using call-and-response is a considerable shift for punk rock, according to Werner, which he says “viewed supportive dialogue with extreme suspicion” (215). It is not surprising, then, that, when the Make-Up explicitly describe their intentions in live shows to “utilize the audience as a kind of fifth member,” they treat this as a remarkable development that “inject[s] spirituality and communism in to the depressed Pantomime” (I Want Some). But audience involvement, despite Werner’s claims and the Make-Up’s suggestion, is not quite foreign to punk. What is intriguing in the Make-Up is how they employ call-and-response in a way that approximates its use in gospel and how it seems to inspire a range of practices that invite audience participation at some level.

A few explicit examples of call-and-response can be found in Make-Up songs–for example, “Pow! to the People” (discussed in length below) includes a call-and-response chorus and “Could I hear you say ‘yeah’?” and a few other songs on their concert CD, After Dark, demonstrate what call-and-response is like in their concerts. In other places, call-and-response is less a musical practice than an inspiration for audience inclusion, which is accomplished in a variety of ways–first, through numerous songs that seem especially crafted to evoke response when performed in concert, through spoken questions, commands, and direct address aimed at materially present listeners, and, thus, especially likely to induce the audience into occupying a space as part of a collective. “Don’t lead me on, come up to the microphone,” sings Svenonius, in the title line from a song (“Come up to the Microphone”) clearly geared to elicit audience participation at concerts in a way that imitates gospel testimony. Another example of this type of song, from the same album, is “Do you like gospel music?” in which Svenonius asks, “Do you like gospel music? Do you like the way we do it? Well, I could tell when you walked into the room.” Later in the song, he provocatively commands them “don’t just stand there staring at me … get on your knees, please.” Such an utterance is a direct request to a material audience, and it is used to create involvement with the audience, including them in a collective psychological space. (The sexual connotations of this example, and how they figure in the Make-Up’s collectivist ideology, are discussed below.)

Sermonizing is another practice borrowed from gospel, and it creates participation and inclusion through frequent call-and-response and positioning of the audience as a congregation. As with call-and-response, though, the sermon’s impact on the Make-Up is broad, influencing Svenonius’ singing and his language in general ways, and providing few instances–on record anyway–where it even approximates the features of a sermon in an actual gospel mass. After Dark is one of few sources where Svenonius’ attempts at sermonizing are available on record, and a good example of this practice is included on a live version of the song, “We Can’t Be Contained”:

All right, children, everybody looks so good tonight. Everybody

looks so good tonight. And, yet, what’s this moment worth, baby,

because some evil people would have us believe, baby, that the worth

of the moment is based on its worth monetarily. Can you dig that?

Hold on. I know that’s not … I know that’s a little bit passe.

That sentiment’s a little passe, baby, but baby my heart was

bursting and it’s something I felt I had to say. Yeah, that’s right.

This example demonstrates some of the most prominent influences of gospel sermonizing on Svenonius’ “front man” persona and lyrics–providing a space for him to share an “emotion-packed blend of sacred and secular concerns” (Smitherman 87). More than just recitations of bible verse and dogma, sermons enable the preacher to interpret the Gospel in a way that instructs the congregation’s response to daily struggles. A minister might use them to “deal with problems and realities confronting his people as they cope with demands and stresses of daily living” (87). Through sermons, the identity of the group as congregation is asserted and re-affirmed and given value: “Taking their cue from the preacher, black people used their great critical and creative powers to bring into being a new worldview in which they could readily participate in freedom” (Hubbard 4). These influences of sermonizing can be identified throughout the Make-Up’s lyrics, but their most identifiable influence is in how they are used to promote the idea of shared socio-psychological space through charged language and other manifestations of a collective ideology.

One of the more explicit forms of this are various exhortations peppering the Make-Up’s lyrics and liner notes that promote group membership. Songs and liner notes invoke the idea of a “people,” “an army,” a “tribe,” a “congregation,” and a social movement, and encourage audiences to view themselves through these appellations. The song, “Live in the Rhythm Hive,” conjures the imagery of a beehive (through both musical and lyrical means), with connotations of frenetic activity and collective effort toward sustenance of the hive, as well as group consciousness: “I wanna feel the mass mind,” sings Svenonius at one point, echoing the CD’s title, In Mass Mind. Similarly, liner notes on I Want Some employ the same metaphor to describe the band’s efforts “to play a music instructive to the congregate’s [sic] repressed hival instinct.” Those liner notes also announce their intent to “galvanize this discontent into a tight fist, to discipline these ragtag bands so that they can properly be named an army.” This quote suggests an organization of the audience into a shared psychological space, referring to them as “ragtag bands,” an “army” and claiming to be working to “galvanize discontent.” Also important is that this quote illustrates the charged language with which the subject is hailed, suggesting that a revolutionary politics can be organized around the idea of a collectivist subject. This is indicative of the gospel sermon’s “theology of anger,” which Hubbard describes as in tension with a “theology of love,” explored below (21).

This kind of charged language is emphasized in the use of the provocative phrase “the people” in several places, particularly the song “Pow! to the People,” whose title echoes both the “power to the people” movement and a John Lennon song. The use of people in this song reflects what Brummett would call an appropriational manifestation of rhetoric, in which slogans and phrases already familiar to audiences are employed to manage “long-term” crises instead of currently exigent ones. The song’s use of people seems to support the idea that the remedy to the situation of lack of power is being part of a people with a heightened awareness of their bodies and how power derives from them.

The song’s key refrain is a call-and-response (responses are in parentheses): “let me hear you say ‘bif’ (‘bif’), let me hear you say ‘bang’ … let me hear you say ‘pow’ … all together now (‘bif, bang, pow’).” The idiosyncratic use of “Pow” rather than “power” is not explained in the lyrics, though it certainly seems intended as a metonymy of “power.” The repeated phrase “bif, bang, pow” is cartoonish, the sort of quasi-language used in fight scenes on the 1960s Batman television program. But its oddness can be contextualized by looking at it within the discourse of funk, where “Pow” replaces “power” because it is so much oriented on the body, so removed from the world of thought and reason (a reaction, perhaps, to “uptight Western” thinking, if Vincent’s explanation of funk holds). To say that “Pow” is a source of power is to appeal to the power that can be gained by freeing the body from repressive constraints. It’s as if it’s a reversal of the Parliament slogan (and album title): “free your mind and your ass will follow.” Funk calls up the power of the uninhibited body so that the connection of the liberation of the body to a revolutionary impulse provides a way to think through political power. It is no surprise then, that power itself can be metonymized as “pow,” the raw action of a pre-verbal body. The positive and empowering use of such a term contributes to the creation of psychological space in which such connections can be made. As a way of dealing with “long-term crises,” references like “the people” invoke a psychic landscape that describe humans as gaining worth and power from their connections with others. The message: the (re)connection of human bodies is itself a source of political power: free your ass and your mind will follow.

The subject position imagined here–“the people”–is a collective one, but the song also features a significant personal component, articulating the collective to a romantic coupling as Svenonius uses second-person address, sounding very much like he’s talking to a lover: “Pow is when you see me, you know that I’m for you” and “Something is happening, baby don’t you know.” The idea of romantic love (almost always expressed as heterosexual coupling) is a dominant theme in their lyrics, and it is frequently employed in a way that it metonymizes collective organization and politics, suggesting collusion and interdependence and surviving together in a dangerous world. For example, in “You and I vs. the World,” Svenonius speaks in the song’s intro–“there’s an anvil up in the night sky. It hammered out you and I, and against all the sadness and the misery, it gave one little pearl, and that was you, girl, and in this war that we fight, you and I unite against the world”–and then he begins singing, “I want you by my side.” In “Walking on the Dunes,” Svenonius speaks to his “intended” in a way that seems to imagine identification simultaneously as if with a lover, a sibling, and a member of a shared taste culture–“we are always licking the same spoon … we are always wearing the same clothes … we are always wearing the same kind of blue … you are my intended.” In “How Pretty Can You Get,” the narrator frames his relationship within a revolutionary context: “when I was in prison, you brought me cigarettes every day. When I busted out of that place, you gave me someplace to stay.” The effect in these songs is one in which being in love is a political thing–lovers in a dangerous time. Romantic love helps to confirm the ideology of the collective. This point is stated especially clearly in the manifesto included in Destination: Love; Live: “The lack of dogma can in no way deprive ‘gospel yeh-yeh’ of its religious syncretism, this powerful bind in which boy and girl find the notion of their mission of affection, and their destination of love.” So, just as the “theology of anger” shapes aspects of the Make-Up’s revolution, so too does a “theology of love” play a role in the Make-Up’s rhetoric.

The nexus of romantic love, the freedom of the pre-verbal body, and liberation are given a sense of wider purpose not by political organization, but by religion. The Make-Up’s version of “gospel” is most idiosyncratic when it is used to offer an underlying connection of these other components, particularly when religious practices are read through funk to expand gospel’s liberatory message beyond mere freedom from oppression. The self-described “liberation theology” of the Make-Up links sexual liberation to freedom from oppression, imagining sexual and interpersonal connection as religious practices and animating them with a hopeful tone. We can see this in a number of songs, but nowhere is it more explicit than in “Do You Like Gospel Music?” and “Gospel 2000.” In the former, double entendres in lyrics like “Do you come every week?” and “Get on your knees please,” coupled with a slinky bass line and orgasmic shrieking (“Do you like it? Do you like it? Oh, Yeah”) from Svenonius, sexualize gospel in a sly, yet powerful way. The implication of funk gestures in articulating religion to sex is especially apparent in “Gospel 2000” from the album Sound Verite.

A short song (under two-and-a-half minutes in length) with limited lyrical content, “Gospel 2000” nevertheless manages to metonymize the Make-Up’s religious sentiments and idea of sexual freedom and articulate them to each other. Musically, the song’s pacing is mid-tempo; it employs a simple, prominent bass line which is overlaid with a catchy descending guitar line. The lyrical content is minimal and not clearly articulated, with the verses referring to “a hundred singers, baby … singing to themselves … a hundred drummers, yeah, playing on the floor with their shoes.” The vocals are a powerful means of producing meaning, though, with Svenonius ad libbing falsetto screeches throughout the musical interludes between the verses and then, along with back-up singer, Michelle Mae, using them to simulate sex. Midway through the song, all but the drumming stops, and Svenonius delivers a barely audible utterance (which seems to include the phrase “now show me what you can do”); Mae then repeats the phrasing, “ooh ahh,” four times, backed only by drums. With tension building, the rollicking guitar line returns to resolve it, as Mae continues to moan and Svenonius, away from the microphone now, screeches in the background, his voice one part James Brown, one part rutting cat. This “duet” continues for another 20 seconds or so as the guitar line runs its course through eight more measures.

These vocal gestures, accompanied with the danceable, joyous musical elements of the song, represent one of the Make-Up’s best examples of the funk style of playing “on the ones,” as divergent elements–vocals, guitar, bass line–are syncopated and converge at a few key points in the song. It also provides a good example of how funk gestures combine with the title to manage the social meanings related to the familiar themes of sex and religion. That the song was released in advance of 2000 provides a note of optimism for the new millennium; the articulation of gospel to the explicit sexual content reaffirms the commitment to a “liberation theology,” a gospel without “dogma” advanced elsewhere by the Make-Up. Liberation and sexual uninhibitedness is the prime characteristic of this gospel, then, providing a counter to the alienated sex of punk: consider how it differs from Johnny Rotten’s reputed quote that sex is nothing but “2 minutes and 52 seconds of squelching noises” or the teen sexual angst epitomized by bands like Green Day (“When masturbation’s lost its fun, you’re fucking breaking”). For the Make-Up, the ability to be free depends on a restructuring of attitudes toward sex and the body as sources of connection, sources of spiritual power. “Gospel 2000” brings these elements together and places them in the context of a funky love song, directed at a group rather than an individual. So the interpretative frameworks of funk and gospel provide a means for thinking through and making sense of a song that, at the level of conceptual content, is obscure. Interestingly, these sorts of appeal to bodily pleasure also reposition punk in relation to straightedge, a legendary component of the DC scene that shaped (and was shaped by) the Make-Up’s previous incarnation, Nation of Ulysses. Minor Threat’s song, “Out of Step,” perfectly summarizes the attitude of straightedge, a movement against bodily lust, proclaiming, “I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I don’t fuck. At least I can fucking think.” Punks have often preached to each other, and this seems to be a way to create boundaries around identities and commitments. Ironically, the Make-Up’s explicit appropriation of gospel works in opposition to some of punk’s most explicit efforts at preaching to one another, and their reading of gospel through funk is key to this. It helps them maintain the anti-authoritarian political message of straightedge, while repositioning its authoritative preaching in a way that reads bodily pleasures back into punk without the baggage of drugs and alcohol.

The Make-Up, in songs like “Pow! to the People” and “Gospel 2000,” are meeting the challenge of delivering punk ideology from the anarchy of the mosh pit to the joy of interpersonal connection and the efficacy of a collective identity. By framing their rhetoric around the construction of a collective subject, they add to the possibilities of aural opposition, retaining its political energy while providing a means to alleviate its nihilistic tendencies. Thus, they establish the possibility for a new social truth set up around a new “musical truth.” Whether or not this would work for punk (especially considering the presence of its ironic underpinnings), and whether or not it is true to its stated liberatory telos (especially considering the way it evokes a history of exploitative cultural appropriation) is uncertain, and I turn next to consideration of these issues.


My conclusion is organized around two issues: first, is the Make-Up’s transformed repertoire viable, especially given their religious underpinnings and how they are presented in such ironic terms? Irony seems to work against the very notion of authenticity, at the very least complicating the way funk and gospel can be used as a repertoire for addressing core issues like identity and political commitments. Second, what are the ethical consequences of the kinds of cultural borrowings described in this paper? To what extent do they merely repeat the process of white rock bands establishing authenticity by revisiting roots music associated with black culture?

Conclusions about the Make-Up’s ironic approach are likely to depend on whether the observer sees the band as master ironists tweaking fans, critics, and social theorists alike or as postmodern punks for whom irony is one tool among many to reposition audiences. Either way, I think it is important not just to presume that their use of irony debases all possibilities for their music to suggest social meanings and identities. As Potter argues, “the fact that identity is ‘complex and contradictory’ does not mean the affective ties and social bonds secured by music (or any other art form) are false” (83). It’s too easy to presume that irony is employed to create “ironic distance” as a barrier to meaning and identification. So, while I think an earnest acceptance of them–a straight reading of their content–is misguided, so too is a reading that sees their ironic underpinnings as strictly a barrier to communication. In fact, irony provides a few important advantages to the ability of the Make-Up to manage meanings for audiences. Most basically, it suggests a playfulness that could be inviting and fun to many audience members (e.g. their clothing, song lyrics, attempts at audience inclusion, and the studied naivet6 of their revolutionary patter). These practices seem to be consistent with funk’s playfulness, and they provide a challenge to the seriousness of so much of the punk and hardcore scene. A great illustration is to compare Svenonius’ comments about how difficult it is to get punks to dance (Maffeo) with Parliament’s Funkentelechy record, which documents the efforts of Sir Nose D’voiddofunk to resist Star Child’s insistence that he dance.

If the Make-Up are serious about their ideology (as Svenonius has claimed in interviews), [12] their message is not necessarily belied by their put-on earnestness, which, at the very least, may increase audience appeal in some ways. More broadly, the playfulness that comes from irony may allow the more serious messages–about community and liberation–to go over more easily (the sugar coating that makes the ideological pill go down). The religious elements, in particular, are likely the most difficult aspect of their music for audiences to swallow, and, as described above, the ironic reading of gospel through funk can only enhance their acceptance.

To treat their use of irony as purely a way to create distance also belies the political ends of irony that relate to the Situationist International influence on the Make-Up. The Situationists’ radical political leanings were advanced largely through the spectacle of what has more recently been referred to as “culture jamming.” Without getting too deeply into the particulars, the Situationists weren’t nihilistic, absurd for the sake of absurdity; they used irony in the service of political ends, ends which were not automatically adopted, of course, but neither were they automatically eliminated. Framed by the practices of the Situationists, irony becomes a tool for capturing attention and putting issues on the table long enough to encourage audiences to begin thinking about them. So there is no army rising up as a result seeing the Make-Up in concert, and no communion of believers awaiting their return, but the temporary illusion of a “gospel yeh yeh” church is enough to engage audiences into re-thinking some of their assumptions–about musical performance as a religious experience, about the idea of religion as being strictly authoritative and boring, about the idea that music is a separate sphere from the rest of life, about the idea that music is capable of constituting community.

The ironic attitude is also something that could allow fans the chance to feel like an insider who can participate in the put-on, but also, somewhat contrarily, to experience the interracial cultural identity articulated by the Make-Up while being able to maintain a safe distance from it. Hybrids of “white music” and “black music” seem especially likely to support a sort of anti-essentialist approach to race relations, which may have appeal to fans of punk who are reflective about (or embarrassed by) the racial homogeneity of punk. Listening to a Make-Up album or attending a concert provides an opportunity for white audience members to “try on” the role of revolutionary or black Congregationalist without actually having to expose themselves to these worlds. In fact, I think this may be a big source of appeal for fans–it gives them exposure to “safe” intercultural experience; listening to black music (even if it is performed by four other kids who aren’t black) may allow them to feel hip and interracial. But this kind of cultural appropriation, whatever positive ends it might have, presents some ethically problematic issues.

George Lipsitz’s examination of the “consequences of cultural collusion and collision” provides some valuable questions and language for thinking about the ethical consequences of the Make-Up’s appropriations. The relevance of one particular passage stands out: “which kinds of cross-cultural identification advance emancipatory ends and which ones reinforce existing structures of power and domination? When does identification with the culture of others serve escapist and irresponsible ends and when does it encourage an enhanced understanding of one’s experience and responsibilities?” (56).

The Make-Up create a safe space for intercultural awareness, something that could be positive for white punk audience members, particularly. But this is analogous to advocating “tolerance” in the face of embedded racist social structures. It offers no real strategy for actually connecting across differences, other than what Lipsitz calls a “strategic anti-essentialism” that presumes race is not an issue given the more comprehensive climate of oppression and disenfranchisement that characterizes American society. It excuses cultural appropriation via a rhetoric of innocence: “We’re not concerned with originality,” says Svenonius. “People think that because we play gospel that we’re ripping off someone else’s culture. Like I’m supposed to only play Irish folk music. Rock exploits the blues, and gospel is the music of exaltation. It’s not about innovation, which is the capitalist obsession” (quoted in Doherty 2).

This sort of anti-essentialist “apologia” (Marty) is likely to have appeal, then, to white punks who see themselves as disenfranchised outsiders, but it ignores particular elements of racism that affect us unequally. In other words, it is all very well and good to say we are really the same, but “It]o think of identities as interchangeable or infinitely open does violence to the historical and social constraints imposed on us by structures of exploitation and privilege” (62). A punk may be able to discard physical symbols of marginal identity (i.e. Mohawks, tattoos, etc.), but such an option is not available to someone marginalized based on the color of their skin. As Lipsitz points out “escapes into postmodern multi-culturalism, however well-motivated, hide the construction of ‘whiteness’ in America–its privileges, evasions, and contradictions” (63).

Scholars who write about whiteness discuss how liberal whites often decry racism while seeming largely unaware of the privileges and benefits they get from being white in a society still dominated by racist power structures. But this lack of real intercultural awareness has further consequences. It doesn’t “allow for reciprocal subjectivities between and among cultures” writes Lipsitz (63). The Make-Up’s use of irony and incorporation of black music into punk belies real efforts to establish any sort of mutual intercultural experience, even as their music seems to create the possibility for breaking down some barriers of interracial understanding and communication. In this way, they seem similar to the MC5, their forebears by some 25 years, who sought out a “revolution [that] is totally committed to driving people out of their separate shells and into each other’s arms” (Waksman 225). Like the Make-Up, MC5 looked to African-American music as a means to reorganize the politics of rock and roll. Unlike the Make-Up, MC5 based this revolution in an explicit sexualization of African-American males, a move that evoked a “[f]ascination with the primitive ‘other'” (Waksman 219). Still, argues Waksman, “To merely dismiss the MC5 as sexist and racist … overlook[s] the legitimately positive elements of their aesthetic and political program” (210). Similarly, the Make-Up’s essentializing and strategic anti-essentialism are mitigated by the way they retain political elements of Afro-American music they borrow rather than simply exploiting it as a sonic resource.

While punk rock’s historical development is tied to an ethic of excorporation–borrowing elements from other musics, mixing them up, and reducing them to mere style–what is interesting about the Make-Up is that they dwell in the rich social meanings of these musics, not purely borrowing sonic elements from them. This is not to say that their readings of funk and gospel should be considered authentic or complete, but it does raise the stakes, in the sense that the Make-Up initiate a serious (if ironic) reconsideration of some basic components of punk discourse and identity. Also, the Make-Up repeat a familiar pattern of cultural appropriation (white music/ culture “borrowing” from black music/culture) that historically has been fraught with exploitation and inequity, yet they employ these elements in ways that foster critique of oppressive power structures.

As Lipsitz observes, “Even when ripped out of context by semi-comprehending or non-comprehending outsiders, Black music has played an important role in the lives of Americans of all colors, just as the prophetic tradition in Black religion and politics helped Americans from every ethnic background to learn how to speak truth to power” (56). The Make-Up incorporate these lessons into their rhetoric, using them to reformulate punk in ways that confirm punk’s abstract underlying connection to gospel–emancipation from oppressive political and social conditions. By linking gospel to punk sonically, the Make-Up articulate an important link, expanding punk subjects’ understanding of their own responsibilities to the emancipation of broader communities. Even if it didn’t work–the Make-Up disbanded long before the revolution took hold–they provide a new repertoire for imagining how it might.


Previous versions of this essay have been presented at the International Association for the Study of Popular Music–U.S. annual conference in 2002 in Cleveland, OH, and at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association conference in Toronto, ON, CANADA in 2001.

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[1] Brummett’s assumptions should be distinguished from those that are perhaps more familiar to readers, including the idea of rhetoric as (1) a source-centered art of persuasion, such as giving a speech or writing an essay in an introductory course, (2) hermeneutic analysis that seeks texts’ hidden meanings or authors’ true intent, or (3) a “rhetoric of suspicion” that seeks to discover how particular texts mean to manipulate audiences.

[2] Historically rhetoric has addressed audiences by examining how texts are arranged to achieve persuasion with them, and rhetorical analysis has a history of looking at how texts make certain interpretations and meanings possible to audiences. This work tends to demonstrate a critical/theoretical, rather than ethnographic, focus, distinguishing it from audience analysis, which seeks out audience members’ actual interpretation and use of texts.

[3] The spelling of the band’s name varies in their own materials; variations include Make Up, (The) Make-Up, and The Make-Up.


[5] Members of the Make-Up had previously played in Nation of Ulysses, a punk band considered legendary in the DC scene, and the Make-Up can be seen as a sequel to NOU. NOU framed its music in an extended drama in which they portrayed themselves as a cross between a political party and a terrorist group.

[6] See, for example, Funkadelic and Parliament’s dramas involving Dr. Funkenstein, The Star Child, Sir Nose D’voidoffunk, etc., on such albums as Parliament’s Funkentelchy vs. the Placebo Syndrome. See Willhardt and Stein for an academic analysis of these ironic dramas.

[7] See Burke’s “Philosophy of Literary Form.”

[8] See O’Flaherty, Frith (Music for Pleasure) and Grossberg (We Gotta Get out of this Place).

[9] Other decisions made by the band suggest a pursuit of rawness: for example, Svenonius claims to have ad libbed all the lyrics on Sound Verite and removed guitarists “because they were just getting too good and the technology was dictating what we were doing” and that members “switched instruments” to keep the sound “tentative” (quoted in “Cracked Machine” 2).

[10] There is a long history of appropriation in which white musicians exploit black musical forms for musical inspiration or the construction of authenticity. One of this article’s reviewers describes it as white culture’s “perceived lack and longing for black authenticity.” In the discussion section, I examine how the Make-Up’s appropriations of gospel and funk raise questions related to exploitation, privilege, and intercultural relations, many of which are not convincingly answered by their claims to strategic anti-essentialism. For now, I merely wish to note that the Make-Up defy the familiar patterns of cultural appropriation in that their ideological commitments lead them to value independence from the corporate music industry over hopes for mainstream success, so that much of the music they appropriate is more successful commercially than they could ever hope to be, and they are unlikely to deprive black artists’ of income. Further, they also seem to eschew a pattern of removing political connotations–of whitewashing–black music.

[11] Though I discuss the social meanings of “funk” and “gospel” as if they are discrete genres, it should be pointed out that distinctions among many Afro-American musical styles should probably be viewed as more a matter of degree and emphasis than a categorical shift. As Vincent points out, “Funk music combines aspects of a wide range of black musical traditions” ranging from gospel to the blues (19). My goal is not so much to map influences that can be traced to particular musical categories as to offer explanations for the effect of these musical traditions on the Make-Up.


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