Why Lydia Lunch Matters

I had an excellent time at the Extreme Futurist Festival ( XFF ) this year.  This is a more artistic and counter-cultural event than the Singularity Summit or Humanity+ Conference.  They had onsite body modification (finger magnets, anyone?) and performances by Negativland and Lydia Lunch.

I will write up more of my impressions in the coming weeks, but I wanted to start out with my commentary on Lydia Lunch’s performance.  Now let me start by saying that I hadn’t thought about Lydia Lunch since I was in my early 20’s and people around me were listening to Teenage Jesus and the Jerks or watching her in alternative films.  I actually found her sort of annoying at that time.  I was into new wave and she was too atonal for me.  I was already immersed in post-modern, post-punk without really realizing it, so she didn’t offer much that I couldn’t get from other artists.

But I must say that I was moved by the intensity of her show in the Vortex Immersion Dome.  She performed raw spoken word accompanied by a petulant guitarist and possibly some samples or prerecorded backing tracks.  The guitar was highly processed and basically just desultory noise.  Lunch touched on topics such as: government surveillance, drug addiction, sex, madness, war, psycho-killers, and more violence.  She understands the urge to kill, she said, but she doesn’t act on it.  At one point she turned to a smiling Rachel Haywire and described how she might end up dismembered at the side of a “shit-stained” road and asked why it was always the daughters that had to die at the hands of the fuckers.  I was shocked when one woman told me later that she heard Lunch was “pretty good but she uses the f word a lot.”  Yeah, uh, this is Lydia Lunch we are talking about here, ok?

I heard some kids afterwards describing her presentation as “confident.”  This is an understatement.  Lunch was spewing forth her own truly authentic insanity.  There could be no question in anyone’s mind that she was tortured by the visions of violence that she relayed.  She practically blasted the audience with her disturbing and outrageous vitriol.  I was squirming uncomfortably in my seat during much of the performance.

But in the end, I appreciated the experience.  I viewed her act as representing the tortured screams of the oppressed that are being crushed under the jackboots of the dominant culture.  I couldn’t help but grimace at the irony when Lunch expressed support for Islamic insurgents who would surely throw acid on her or even kill her for acting as she does.  But I don’t take Lunch too literally.  It’s important to listen to the visceral rage of the outsider which she channels.  Her work is important because the range of political discourse in the mainstream media is insanely narrow.  We Americans seem comfortable discussing the range of opinions from the right to the moderate right.  We need to listen to the outsiders because they offer a unique perspective we can’t get from within.

Before I get too puffed up with Pinker’s whiggish visions of progress, Lunch helps me recall that all is not perfect in the world and maybe to hear what it feels like to be suffering.   The people who are getting dismembered cannot be consoled by the reminder that they represent a smaller and smaller fraction of the population as a whole.  So if we listen to Lunch, it will expand the dynamic range of our political perceptions.  And that matters.

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