As a baby, I had colic. Colic babies never shut up. They cry and cry and cry as their parents scramble to try to fix the problem. My mother and father laid me on my stomach across their forearms and rocked me. They drove me around in the car all night. They dipped their fingers in weird, professionally recommended elixirs and tried to get me to suck on them. Nothing worked. My parents say that they did not sleep until 1987.
I was born a screamer and I’ve been one ever since.
My brother liked Zeppelin. I like Zeppelin as much as the next guy, but Babes in Toyland made me excited. Robert Plant wailed but Kat Bjelland screamed. When she shrieked the word “motherfucker,” I felt it in my whole body. She was intellectualizing her emotions through poetic lyrics and then projecting them with a force triple the size of her tiny body. But when I’d play Babes in Toyland records, my brother would cringe. “I cannot stand her screaming,” he’d say. I think my brother hated it because it made him uncomfortable. Women are not supposed to be lions. We’re supposed to be lambs, and lambs do not scream “motherfucker” while tearing open a Rickenbacker like a beast ripping the feathers off its prey.
When I was 18, I had surgery to remove calluses on my vocal chords. After the surgery, I couldn’t talk for a week. The doctor told me to go to speech therapy to relearn how to speak in a manner that didn’t damage my vocal chords. Apparently, I was too loud. Too aggressive for my own throat. I listened for a while, but then I started a band and let out a real scream for the first time. I fell in love. Whatever that professional told me meant nothing. This is what I knew I could do. This is what felt good. I didn’t care about singing perfectly. I cared about producing noise that made sense with myself.
I remember reading an interview with Elliott Smith in Spin. Smith had quit his fuzzed-out alternative rock band Heatmiser to start his now illustrious solo career based on deathly quiet, sophisticated acoustic songs. The journalist asked him why he’d quit playing loud music and Smith said something like, “When you grow up in a house of yelling and screaming sometimes you just want a little quiet.” We all have our reasons for performing the way we do. Some of us just do not how to do anything else but scream. We can sing, but screaming just feels so right.
But screaming always stays slightly underground. When screamers start to go mainstream, the noise quiets down. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O went from songs like “Art Star,” where she shrieked bloody murder, to later sing-song hits like “Zero.” Courtney Love went from “Teenage Whore” to “Malibu.” I recently read a Pitchfork review of the Men’s latest album New Moon (which is a great album, by the way). The writer commented that noisy bands tend to slowly progress into Crazy Horse territory, ditching the shouting and fuzz. The Replacements did it. The Men did it. Milk Music is on the way. Maybe screaming is juvenile? Maybe screaming is something primal or feral that we should all evolve from? I don’t think so. I think once a screamer always a screamer. It stays in you and eventually, the controlled beauty of a held note is not enough and you just have to fucking yell.
For me, it’s not a hysterical thing. It’s about assertion. The stage is the one place where I feel completely powerful and my instrument, my voice, naturally wants to reflect that. New York noise artist Pharmakon does this perfectly. She’s all confrontation. She toys at the edge of the stage, kneels down into one person’s face and screams like an alien monster ready to feast or give birth or fuck you up. It’s prodigious. It’s threatening. It’s exciting. When I perform, I don’t shriek as though I’ve been frightened — because I’m not scared. I’m in control. I project to create a space around myself. I want to reveal all the tension in the room.
Shrieking comes from the roof of your mouth, and it releases from the cracks between your teeth. But a violent, commanding scream is born in the pit of your stomach. And truthfully, I have a butch voice. I can’t shriek like a little girl. I’ve just never been able to hit that feminine squeal. I’m not a soprano. I’m not sweet-throated. I could never do what Grimes does. (She has her purpose and I have mine.) I do two types of screaming. The first one is an angry growl and less commanding: I use all the energy in my gut and just push it out. I let the spit roll in the back of my mouth, take a deep breath and clench my teeth like I’m biting down on a piece of leather as I release so that my throat feels like it’s curdling with handfuls of gravel. Sometimes when I do this, the physical act of it makes me so frustrated and violent. My whole body gets tense, clenched and ready to explode. The second type again comes from the stomach, but instead of clenching, I detach my jaw, project from the top of my range and tilt my head up to get it all out. It’s assertive. This is how I choose to express myself. I don’t even realize it’s happening. It’s just what comes out of me.
Screaming is not the most popular thing. I run a risk doing it because I know, as well as you do, that not everyone likes to hear a person scream, especially a woman. It’s different when a woman screams. I wish it weren’t, but it is. I’ve been told my whole life to sit down, shut up, be quiet, stop being a whore, whatever. There comes a time in your adult life when you realize you do not have to listen those ridiculous demands. You can reject the archaic stereotypes of your gender.
You see, there’s a fleet of women out there who prefer to publicly confront our own anger, our passion, our sexuality and our power. We showcase it. We throw it in your face in the form of a guttural howl. It’s like, “I’m going to give you every single emotional inside of me and you are going to challenge it right back.” I want you to feel something. That’s what screaming is about. I don’t have an instrument to throw around, to pound and smash. My voice is all I have.
When my band White Lung is on tour, my voice gets stronger every night. I rarely lose it. The times I do lose my voice are when we haven’t played a show in months. Trust me, I’ll shut up when it starts to feels wrong. But screaming just feels right. It has since I was little. It’s the colic in me.