Scream Queen: An appreciation of Alicia Bognanno’s voice


The Mill — Saturday, Oct. 10 at 9 p.m.

It isn’t a pretty sound, and it isn’t supposed to be. Prettiness, we ought to know by now, is about pleasing other people. Screaming is about catharsis. Screaming is about the self.

“It’s my favorite part of the set because it feels so good,” Alicia Bognanno, 25, told NY Magazine recently. “It’s just really fun to just be able to scream about something you care about.”

Bognanno is the frontwoman (and songwriter and audio engineer) for Bully, who have launched into their fall tour with aplomb after playing Lollapalooza this past August, and will play The Mill on Oct. 10. She is also probably a banshee.

Granted, that’s a gendered thing to call someone, but screaming in rock and metal is a highly gendered affair. Nevermind the shortage of female vocalists in hard music, the dearth of Women Who Scream is a card that lazy critics pull regularly when they want to argue that female musicians literally don’t have the chops to create a certain kind of filthy, awesome sound. As arguments go, it’s more fragile than most. It’s also obliterated by every ferocious note out of Bognanno’s skilled voice box.

That her band’s 1990s glam-grunge sound is in full force on Feels Like, their acclaimed 2015 album released on Columbia Records imprint Startime, is no wonder and no mistake. Bognanno and the rest of Bully—drummer Stewart Copeland (yes, like the drummer for The Police, but no, not the same guy), bassist Reece Lazarus and guitarist Clayton Parker—recorded their first full-length album in Chicago’s Electrical Audio studio where Bognanno interned under recording hotshot Steve Albini, producer for Nirvana and The Pixies.

Be apprised: Bognanno is not Courtney Love, and Bully is not Hole. Where Love carried an artful sloppiness, Bognanno, equipped with an audio engineering degree, is startlingly self-aware. But the bands share certain aesthetics, including a kind of seductive selfishness that sounds, in their lead singers’ mouths, like a gift of uncommon generosity.

In Let Me Clear My Throat, Elena Passarello writes:

Though humans are significantly less-attuned to sound than other animals are, we still experience multipronged arousal in the presence of loud noises, especially the noises of our own species. I’m talking about that shot of norepinephrine that drips all over the cerebral cortex, heightening the senses in the presence of a human scream. Elsewhere in the body, it sends a jolt of adrenaline to quicken the heart and tense major muscles, prepping them for a sprint across the veldt away from danger.

Yes, and what happens when you resist that sprint? What happens when you feel the fear and stay, boots rooted to the sticky bar floor? Your norepinephrine-soaked cerebral cortex shocks something deep in your brain’s more lizardy parts and all that fear and panic and rage turn into something really cool. We call it “joy.”

That feeling is the very reason the “Ooh ah ah ah ah!” part of Disturbed’s “Down With the Sickness” makes 16-year-old boys want to punch something in the face and fuck something else. It’s why Freddie Mercury can make you feel like you are dying, and okay with that. It’s a feeling that has everything to do with what I only assume is an as-yet-undiagnosed biological process by which we can swallow other people’s feelings through our ears.

Bully’s lyrics are fantastic—feminist and smart and full of phrases that can turn on a dime. Often, though, their songs are simple and honest. Raw.

“I remember getting too fucked up,” Bognanno sings. “I remember showing up at your house/And I remember hurting you so bad/And I remember the way your sheets smelled.”

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Banshees wail when someone is about to die, and Bognanno sings mostly about the people she used to be, the people she used to love and the people she’d have liked to be if given the chance (listen to “Milkman,” the band’s first single). If those don’t count as ghosts, then I don’t know what does.

Gemma de Choisy is working on a book about religion and reality TV, which play by a lot of the same rules, if you think about it. This article originally appeared in Little Village issue 185.

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