Talkin’ Hybrid Moments
by Rosangela Briscese and Joseph Sciorra
Any one with even passing familiarity with Italian culture can not help but consider the similarity of the Italian gestures for and against the evil eye, as well as that signifying cuckoldry, with the universal hand gesture that has come to symbolize metal music, and in turn, has simply become the ubiquitous gesture of the rock-based concert partier.
It comes as no surprise to many that the late Ronnie James Dio of Black Sabbath and other bands—who is credited with popularizing the “metal horns” or the “devil horns,” as the gesture is now referred to—stated that he learned the sign to ward off the malocchio from his grandmother.
The overt connection between popular Italian Catholicism and metal—let’s not forget that Ronald James Padavona took the Italian word for “God” as his stage name—offers an interesting vantage point for considering the varied and nuanced iterations of Italian American in a host of popular music forms—metal, punk, experimental, singer-songwriter—and their associated subcultures.
Ethnic identity—that is, white ethnic identity—has not been the defining feature, per se, of alternative, independent, and underground musicians’ creativity. Various musical styles and their subcultures, especially punk and metal, are cherished, in part, because of their non-ethnic affiliations, a breaking away and erasing of familial and local references considered provincial, restrictive, oppressive. These art forms may well be perfect examples of what sociologist Richard Alba’s has referred to as “the twilight of ethnicity.”
Yet some think not.
Steven Lee Beeber, author of Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s: A Secret History of Jewish Punk, states: “The shpilkes, the nervous energy of punk, is Jewish. Punk reflects the whole Jewish history of oppression and uncertainty, flight and wandering, belonging and not belonging, always being divided, being in and out, good and bad, part and apart.” Who knew?
But at the conference “Loud Fast Jews” held at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research last year, Chris Stein of Blondie stated explicitly, “I’d be hard pressed to think ethnicity has something to do with my music.” And yet.
We and others could not help but notice the propensity of Italian surnames in various types of alternative, independent, and underground music. David Marchese’s 2008 posting, “Italian Rockers? Fuhgeddaboutit!” for the SPIN magazine blog, listed the likes of Frank Zappa, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, producer Steve Albini, Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo, Ween’s Dean Ween aka Michael Melchiondo, Jr., and other Italian-American musicians of various stripes. We would suggest that artists performing in a variety of musical styles, from Ronnie James Dio to Vinnie Stigma of Agnostic Front, from Natalie Merchant to Ani Di Franco, from Joe Jack Talcum to Ted Leo, represent an Italian presence—sometimes veiled, sometimes overt—in the American music scene.
These Italian-American artists’ italianità or Italianness is articulated through surname retention, lyrics, cultivated persona, and/or performance style. They may be likened to the novelists Don DeLillo and Gilbert Sorrentino that literary scholar and Queens College professor Fred Gardaphé writes about in Italian Signs, American Streets: The Evolution of Italian American Narrative:
The symposium’s title, taken from the Misfits song—the Lodi, New Jersey band with members Glenn Anzalone, and the brothers Jerry and Doyle Caiafa—allows us to explore those “hybrid moments” that momentarily reveal the looks hiding behind the scars.
Such a moment emerges in Natalie Merchant’s song performed with 10,000 Maniacs, “My Sister Rose”:
Other times, attention to a musician’s ethnic background is due to ascription. For example, a press release entitled, “So who’s Vic Ruggiero?” about the singer/songwriter’s Netherlands tour, opens with the sentence, “A 34-year Italian New Yorker (what else could you be with such a family name?).”
Or consider the online review of a Bouncing Souls concert which described lead singer Greg Attonito as the “Frank Sinatra of the punk scene,” because of his “calm and effortless” belting out of songs.
And what are we to make of Agnostic Front's first concert in Bologna, Italy, in which Vinnie Stigma—as a friend described in an email—came “on stage in full skinhead attire waving an Italian flag”?
One of the purposes of this type of event is to engender scholarship where none or little exists. This is what we did in 2002 with the Calandra Institute’s conferences on women’s needlework and historic preservation. Today’s symposium consists primarily of roundtable discussions with artists and other participants in the music world.
We envision this event raising more questions than answers. Some ideas we hope will be addressed are:
“Italianità in a Minor Key” panel, (left to right) Vic Ruggiero (The Slackers)
Martín Perna (Antibalas). Photograph: Rosangela Briscese.