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Elizabeth Newton

Elizabeth Newton is a writer and Ph.D. candidate in musicology at the CUNY Graduate Center, and she teaches music history at the City College of New York. She has written for Leonardo Music Journal, Real Life Magazine, The New Inquiry, the Quietus, Repeater Books, and Sounding Out. Her interests include musico-poetics, fidelity and reproduction, and affective histories of musical media. Her in-progress dissertation is a microhistory of lo-fi sound.

"Lo-fi Sound and Feminist Theory in the 1990s"
“You just can’t separate it out,” claimed Kathleen Hanna in the inaugural issue of the zine Bikini Kill (1991), challenging the possibility of distinguishing between content and technique on audio recordings. Hanna helped to valorize amateur recordings—seemingly lacking technique—as part of a broad aesthetic shift toward “lo-fi” musical practices. Importantly, Hanna elsewhere compares this false boundary to that of the two-gender system. My presentation will connect her line of thought to post-punk politics of mediation in the 1990s, by which lo-fi not only elevated the raw sounds of bedrooms, but also deconstructed the slick production of professional studios. By situating zine writing by Johanna Fateman and Molly Zuckerman within debates among theorists such as Andrea Dworkin and Shulamith Firestone, I show the extent to which lo-fi practices mirrored feminist deconstructions of binarism, especially feminists’ analyses of “public” and “private” spaces.

Scholars of alternative music have gendered these practices simplistically, characterizing lo-fi as a masculine canon including Beck, Guided by Voices, Sebadoh, and Pavement. Tony Grajeda highlights the era’s “feminization of rock,” but he examines mostly male artists. Relatedly, musicologists tend to consider audio fidelity as “gendered” only when mentioning femininity or femme artists. I intervene in these histories by emphasizing continuities among hardcore, grunge, anti-folk, and riot grrrl, given their common lo-fi mediation and distribution. As Alice Echols argued in 1993, the goal of earlier feminists was not to concentrate femininity within the private spaces of women, but to “rediffuse” feminine principles of nurturance into public life. I argue that defining aspects of lo-fi practices and artifacts—e.g., the rise of the bedroom studio, the infusion of economic transactions with sincerity and care, and the politicization of confessional expression—were legitimized by feminist reimaginings of labor and creativity.