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The Sounds Of The Future: On Marnie Stern’s Cyborg Potential

Celebrating a decade of the guitar player’s destiny-building wisdom

"Trust your perceptions, they arch!" Marnie Stern sings on "Vibrational Match," the first song off her full-length debut, In Advance of the Broken Arm, which turned 10 years old this week. She sounds like she has her fist raised, like an energized orator, even though both her hands are busy furiously working her electric guitar. Over an intense, beautiful mess of hammered kick drum and cymbals, Stern begins to finger-tap — a move most associated with rock stars like Eddie Van Halen or math-rock acts like Don Caballero. Then she lists a series of potential powers, like some New Age mystic. "Matter, light, energy, speed, gold, and spirit," she sings. "I'm near it! I'm near it!"

Much of In Advance of the Broken Arm carried this kind of fortune-cookie wisdom — fragments of uplifting speech, embedded in Stern's frantic compositions. "You see, it's up to me to drag myself into the ocean," she declares on "Every Single Line Means Something." "Keep on keep at it keep on keep at it," she sings elsewhere, breathlessly, over the restless noodling of "Grapefruit." Her album was named after a Marcel Duchamp piece consisting of a readymade snow shovel, and the music — a noisy collage of punk rock and avant-garde pop — possessed a kind of Dadaist flair. And Stern's searing, indulgent guitar solos and high-pitched shrieks and wails, paired with collaborator Zach Hill's pummeling drums, sounded like nothing else in American indie rock.

The perpetual search for an existence bigger than yourself is a driving force in Stern's music, which has only gotten more personal since her debut. "The future is yours, so fill this part in / I turn this moment into something new, it's truuuuuuue!" she chants, sounding like a cheerleading squad on Red Bull or a seasoned cult leader, in the chorus of "Transformer," from her cheekily titled 2008 follow-up, This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That. On the same album's "Steely" she sings, "Well, what if you had a moment of love with the sounds of the future / Can you imagine it up?" over a wildly ambitious cacophony of her own design. When she calls out, "Don't you want to be somebody? Don't you want to be?" over the bright, twangy rock of 2013's "Noonan," the possible answers to that question actually feel endless.

In 1984, the feminist scholar Donna Haraway published an influential essay called A Cyborg Manifesto. In it, she argues against traditional conceptions of a "woman's experience," particularly in regards to women's supposed connection to nature. Instead of seeing women as inherently defined by the gendered confines of their physical bodies, Haraway proposes a vision of women as cyborgs who are free to reconstruct and define themselves beyond their flesh as they please. "Cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves," Haraway writes. "It is an imagination of a feminist speaking in tongues to strike fear into the circuits of the supersavers of the new right. It means both building and destroying machines, identities, categories, relationships, space stories."

When I listen to Stern's music, I hear cyborg potential. She doesn't just search for power in music — she builds it, calculating note by note, using her voice and guitar as equal forces. She sings about this process in literal terms on "Building a Body," from 2010's Marnie Stern, in which she invites the listener to witness the simplicity of her eyes blinking, her heart beating, as she constructs her existence like a weapon. "If you build it, it will come, yes they say / So I'm building my body for you here today," Stern sings. "I was actually trying to ‘build a body' through sound," she said about the song in an interview. "The idea was to start with arms, eyes etc., and add layers, so by the end of the song there would be a full body moving through the song."

When In Advance of the Broken Arm was released in 2007, Stern didn't look like the rest of the roster at Kill Rock Stars, the Pacific Northwest label whose most famous artists were indie acts from the '90s like Bikini Kill, Elliott Smith, and Sleater-Kinney. "I can't sign you. It makes no sense for me. You're solo. … You're almost 30," she recalled KRS founder Slim Moon saying when they first met. Stern was a late bloomer when it came to making her art professionally: She'd grown up in New York, teaching herself guitar from a young age, and studied journalism at NYU before ditching that career for one in music. In the meantime, she took a day job as a secretary at an ad agency, where she stayed long enough to have one coworker remark, "I used to feel you were a musician working as a secretary. Now I feel like you’re just a secretary." (Stern quit the following week.)

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When her debut came out, it was critically acclaimed. But most of the writing on Stern in those beginning years focused, unsurprisingly, on her existence as a female guitar player. "This maybe sounds really cheesy, [but] the personal relationship I have with the guitar...doesn’t have to do with gender or anything like that," Stern told the New York Times in 2007, as part of an article on female "indie rock virtuosos." "It’s the thing that produces a creative side in me."

The following year, she put it more bluntly: "I don't really think about being a girl in rock," Stern said in an interview with Wired. And why would she? Not just because it's such an age-old cliché, but because Stern seems to be working at something far bigger than being a woman in rock. As Haraway writes in her manifesto, "To be feminized means to be made extremely vulnerable; able to be disassembled, reassembled, exploited as a reserve labour force … leading an existence that always borders on being obscene, out of place, and reducible to sex." But Stern's labor as a musician is not inherently female, and as The New Yorker's Sasha Frere-Jones noted in 2011, she has pushed the boundaries of her instrument in ways that don't just feel refreshing for women, but for music in general.

Stern can often be charmingly self-deprecating when it comes to her playing technique: "Tapping is actually a way of cheating, since you’re using both hands... It makes things a lot easier!" she said in the same New Yorker piece. In fact, there's something admirably greedy about her playing style. She does use both hands, she shreds without abandon, and she fills every inch of her music with layered vocals and hammered drums and bells and more. She's a nerd for complex song structures, and she seems to care a lot about who has or has not earned their indie-rock bona fides. She is a perfectionist herself, one whose songwriting process includes bouts of insomnia. "I am nothing, I am no one," she sings in a subdued, weary tone on 2013's "Proof of Life," a piano-driven departure from her more energetic material. "The work is never done / And that is all I have."

For Haraway, thinking of oneself as a cyborg is an act of liberation: "Intense pleasure in skill, machine skill, ceases to be a sin, but an aspect of embodiment. The machine is not an it to be animated, worshipped, and dominated. The machine is us, our processes, an aspect of our embodiment." It feels silly, then, to hear the sheer expansion of Stern's music, the labor of her work, and think of it merely as a progression for women in rock. The cyborg body of Stern's music rises the moment her fingers meet the machine that is her Fender. By grabbing at everything at her disposal — the wonky workings of her electric guitar, her shrieky vocals, her precious sleep — Stern encourages her audience to dream beyond their prescribed roles. Dream beyond your secretary job. Dream beyond acceptable guitar-playing styles. Dream beyond your body, she sings, because eventually you will lose hope in it.

Ten years after Stern began releasing her radically hopeful music, her messages feel more pertinent than ever. It's hard to be a woman today. Walking in the Women's March last month, among signs bearing phrases as simple as "women are people," I felt both a kinship to identifying as a woman and a strong desire to escape it entirely. There's much tending you have to do to protect your body from violence, particularly from a political administration that would rather see trans women dead, black and brown women abused and pushed out of the country, and anyone with a uterus denied autonomy over their reproductive rights. Wouldn't it be nice to be rid of all this? Or, even better, to build a new body for yourself, beyond gender, beyond flesh — perhaps to come back as a song, one that asks you to write your own future.

"I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess," Haraway's manifesto concludes. I'd like to think that Marnie Stern, an artist who's been saddled with the label of "guitar goddess" often throughout her career, might agree.


VMAs 2017