Toward the end of her Friday night set at The Crown, TRNSGNDR/VHS blew out three candles and walked off the stage with her setup still ringing out crackling, hissing noise. She stalked to the other end of The Crown's Red Room, climbed up on the bar with a devilish smile-stare on her face as the unpleasant-in-a-hurts-so-good way screech punched eardrums and confounded the modest crowd for a few minutes. Then it stopped and she got down off the bar, walked back up to the stage, casually announced she had tapes for sale—the catchy, unkind "Condominium" EP—and well, that was that.
The mostly white music scene here in Baltimore is still smarting from Jana Hunter and Abdu Ali's piece for Pitchfork, "White Privilege and Black Lives in the Baltimore Music Scene," and TRNSGNDR/VHS' performance felt like a continuation of that conversation about who isn't heard and how they aren't heard. What most stuck in the craw of the clueless and privileged about Hunter and Ali's piece is the assessment by Hunter that no matter how good of an ally one might be, one is not absolved from the racism that supports the Baltimore music scene (if only because racism supports everything successful in Baltimore) and the piece's profound sense that there is no way for the oppressor to understand the oppressed ever: "As much as we might abhor the conditions that give us the upper hand, Baltimore's white indie musicians are reflective of a larger, endemic divide. [We] often avoid discussions about our role in racism because we’re afraid of admitting our complicity," Hunter wrote.
And so TRNSGNDR/VHS' compelling noise, made by a queer person of color just out of her teens, exemplifies the rage of not being heard and it forced people to listen. Her music involves industrial loops and digi-fried chaos and a microphone, which she sings into though it's more like she's chewing on the mic itself, a kind of gnawing wordless chanting. There are lyrics to her songs, and you catch little snippets of them through all the noise and mumbling, and they seem deeply personal, diarylike but just out of reach, so you'll never fully understand them—not that most of us would be able to "get it" even if we could. For so long, noise has been primarily a provocative go-to for bros who don't need one more way to inarticulately, publicly vent but insist on being the center of attention anyway. In contrast, TRNSGNDR/VHS' neo-noise mirrors the feeling of resigning oneself to being undermined and not listened to, no matter how hard one tries.
The rest of the bill felt relatively more conventional (and more white), though no less inspiring: Juiceboxxx, a kind of in-quotes nu-metal rap-rocker with a Scientologist-like spiritual bent, and Ed Schrader's Music Beat, the demon-haunted bass and percussion garage-pop group loved by the city. Fortunately, both contort rock 'n' roll style to fit their very specific needs and interests and that makes them worth hearing. Heavily influenced by Joy Division—Juiceboxx, in his whirling stare on stage, and Schrader in the starkness of his songs—and, hey, the two of them even kind of look like Joy Division vocalist Ian Curtis, both also possess a restorative quality, as if they're kicking against the sad-sack, kill-yourself shit Curtis and crew embraced.
Juiceboxxx mines the loneliness of the Midwest (he's from Milwaukee) and suburban boredom in order to transcend it. He constructs rollicking rock songs in the mode of Thin Lizzy or Kiss, with the bratty skate-prick energy of the Beastie Boys, and the soulfulness of Springsteen, and the reptile brain rage of, say, Sick Of It All and Ministry. And he dances like someone miming rock star in front of the mirror in their bedroom. His lyrical imagery, too, all dark highways and energy drinks, is a very specific kind of late capitalist Americana (there is, no joke, a new book all about Juiceboxxx's aesthetic by a Slate reporter, Leon Neyfakh, called "The Next Next Level") devoid of sentimentality. Juiceboxxx even has his own energy drink and, throughout the show, he reminded us of how much money he lost making it. It was great. Juiceboxxx makes songs about not giving up ever.
Ed Schrader pounds out oblique songs about history (he revealed on stage that 'Laughing' is about Emily Dickinson) and makes mini-manifestos about scene and personal politics. His stage banter bounced in all directions, from singing other people's songs (including Prince's 'Darling Nikki') to why Michael Keaton is the best Batman, to just how great local author Kevin Sherry is, and then he and bassist Devlin Rice would dip into another booming, gloomy anthem about why New York sucks compared to Baltimore, his favorite train, or a mini military history lesson. None of these songs are clear exactly, because Schrader often seems to only be talking to himself, constructing a world out of images that makes sense to him with scraps of big ideas he's read about and thought hard about. What does a "skull made of mints" on 'Pink Moon' mean, exactly? It matters because it means something to Mr. Schrader, and it means something to us because it's so specific and odd and you imagine there's more to it, there's just gotta be.
Juiceboxxx and Schrader construct closed-circuit rock. They are more like outsider artists than indie rock stars, though they are accessible eccentrics, which is refreshing. Because this was a rock show "proper" (at least by Baltimore's weirdo standards), there were lots of white dudes in the crowd who still believe in the power of the guitar and the mythos of rock 'n' roll (even if the people on stage are kind of laughing at the shit) and there was even somebody in a Captain Beefheart shirt. I immediately thought of how Juiceboxxx and Schrader counter the tortured white-weirdo gimmick of a "legend" like Beefheart by constructing strange worlds that always remain accessible. Who has time for bigger-than-life white obscurantists trying so hard to be misunderstood when they'll be understood anyway? Especially when there are so many artists like TRNSGNDR/VHS in the city howling and screaming so hard to be heard.