Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

the missing chapter from Simon Reynolds and Joy Press's The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion and Rock'n'Roll, 1995

This was originally planned to come right after the chapter on Malcolm McLaren and The Stranglers and chauvinism in punk. But we cut it out partly for space reasons and also because we felt in the end it was more like a survey of thinking on the topic than a significant contribution to it. Still as an introduction to the rock vs pop dichotomy as figured in music criticism it has some interest in the light of recent debates about rockism versus popism.

BOYS'S OWN ADVENTURES: Critical Bias

Although The Stranglers were marginalised by the music press's
political-correctness police for their blatant sexism, in a sense
they were only amplifying and exposing what were unspoken assumptions about rock as a boy's own domain. Malcolm McLaren, too, was so deeply entrenched in this thinking he couldn't conceive of a place for women in his masterplan--except as clothes designer (Vivienne Westwood) or clothes mannequin (Jordan).

Although punk opened many opportunities for women, it also had the effect
of broadening and intensifying the long established great divide between rock
(for boys) and pop (for girls). Punk rejected the love song, attacked disco for its
"mindless escapism", and, by expunging the raunchy, syncopated, blues-derived
elements from rock'n'roll, made it anti-sexual, thus eliminating women even
as subject matter. Punk's definition of valid music as loud, aggressive, confrontational, and anti-sentimental, was the latest turn on
a long-standing snobbery that dated back to the Beatles v.Stones
dichotomy. The rock/pop divide went through many evolutions: afficianados
of acid rock and white blues looked down on Motown and bubblegum
pop; connoisseurs of progressive and heavy rock sneered at glitter and early Seventies soul; partisans of punk and New Wave derided disco; indie/college rock despised the 'fake soul' and 'plastic', machine-made dance music of the Eighties. But the underlying, gender-based structure remained a constant: a largely male connoiseurship considered themselves superior to a mass audience seen as essentially female. The rock listener brought a critical awareness to the music,
it was felt, whereas "pop" fans were undiscriminating dupes of capitalism,
suckered by image, hype and sugary melodies. Active participation (in a
counter-culture or a rock critical discourse) was set in opposition to passive
consumption of product; the authenticity of the rock artist was contrasted with
the inauthenticity of the pop artefact. While the rock artist's self-expression
came from the soul, the pop star was little more than a robot manufactured and
manipulated by a manager/producer/puppeteer.

There have, of course, been a number of groups and artists who've straddled
the divide, winning rockcrit kudos and girly fandemonium - The Beatles, The
Stones, The Doors, Prince, Madonna. And there have been attempts to bridge the
gap, or even to collapse the pop/rock distinction altogether: most notably, the
self-consciously arty wing of glam rock (Roxy Music, David Bowie, Marc Bolan)
and its early Eighties ancestor, New Pop (ABC, Culture Club, Scritti Politti, Human
League, Adam and the Ants). More recently there've even been those who've gotten
a camp, postmodern frisson out of crossing the great divide, trespassing into
the forbidden zone of girly-teeny taste, and boasting of a passion for some
previously denigrated artiste or style: the girl groups of the Sixties, disco,
the MOR-shlock of The Carpenters and Abba, the Eighties conveyor-belt starlets
churned out by Stock Aitken Waterman, and even, occasionally, contemporaneous
teen sensations like Aha and Take That.

But the rock/pop, masculine/feminine distinction has endured, and has even enjoyed a new lease on life with the rise of "alternative" music in the Nineties. A gamut of 'hard' sub-genres--funk-metal, industrial, grunge, thrash-metal--have re-established blunt aggression,
belligerent blare, and an aesthetic based around muscular, sweaty live
performance (rather than the studio-concocted idioms like records and videos) as
the benchmarks of validity in a resurgent rock.

* * * *
Surprisingly, there have been few attempts to formulate a coherent theory that
validates the unspoken assumptions about rock and gender that lie behind the
valorisation of "hardness", and the elision between concepts like "hardcore",
"underground" and "youthful rebellion". Only with the gradual weakening of the
left-liberal consensus that has hitherto informed rock criticism have people
emerged who've dared to argued the case for rock'n'roll as intrinsically
masculine. The cultural critic Camille Paglia has extended her general theory
that all great art is male to cover rock'n'roll. In an interview
with Spin magazine in 1991, she cites lack of testosterone as the reason "why women have done [little] in terms of great lead guitar work, because to do great solo guitar work you have this egotistical, aggressive attitude. One of the bitterest disappointments of my life has been the failure of women to contribute
anything important to rock'n'roll. They have done many interesting things in
pop, but not in rock. There is not one great female lead guitar player. When
the femininsts talk about men keeping women back, I say bullshit. And here's an
example in our time, in the last 20 year years; nothing is stopping a woman from
picking up a guitar. I think it has to do with hormones."

There is a circular logic here, much the same as that which sees great art
as consisting of huge canvases or gigantic sculptures, as grand statements, thus
excluding from consideration the more modestly scaled, intimate work that women
have excelled at. If great guitar work is defined as over-arching feats of
phallocratic pyrotechnics, as the solo (rather than the more co-operative,
mutual guitar interplay of a mostly female group like Throwing Muses, which by
no means lacks aggression or visceral impact) then certainly, it's true that
women haven't contributed that much. If what is valorized is a masculine aesthetic
of self-aggrandisement, the musical equivalent of the tragic soliloquy, then females will necessarily be at a disadvantage. If Luce Irigray is right, and women don't have subjectivity in the male sense, then the equivalent of the solo in female rock is the gaps, fragments and breakages.

Over the decades, a critical lexicon has congealed in which music is
celebrated for its punishing properties, its hardness, heaviness and
abrasiveness. The mass success of "grunge" in the early Nineties was, in some
sense, the final washing up in the mainstream of an ethos and aesthetic
originally trailblazed by gonzo writers like Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer and Nick Tosches, the so-called Noise Boys. This masochistic, masculinist sensibility has evolved through the Seventies and Eighties, marginalised but hugely popular in the form of heavy metal, and marginalised and not very popular in the lineage that includes proto-punk, US hardcore and noise-rock. Then it triumphed in the early Nineties with grunge - a style which re-integrated punk and metal as nouveau hard rock, complete with sado-masochistic forms of audience participation like moshing and stage-diving (which are gender divisive in the extreme).

In the interim, the Bangsian discourse was honed into a fine, if myopic, art by fanzines like Forced Exposure, where music was appraised in terms of ability to induce a kind of pleasurable agony (contributors to the zine included Big Black's Steve Albini). The subtext of a lot of this writing is "are you man enough to withstand" a ferocious dose of "ear-gouging agresso-hoot without surcease" or "squirrel-blasting entertainment" (to quote Forced Exposure's Byron Coley). For the most part, the terms of this sensibility are never probed or unpacked, but are taken for granted, as the Way, the Light, and the Truth (in the gospel according to Lester). Not that female artists are entirely excluded, at least so long as they are tomboys, exhibitionistic self-abusers, or scarifying extremists. But a female sensibility, male fragility - get outta here.

The closest anyone has come to a critical formulation of the post-Bangs
aesthetic is Rock and The Pop Narcotic by Joe Carducci. This aggressive but
closely reasoned polemic explicitly defines rock as a male activity. As he writes, "It is no use pretending that if we could just technologically relieve females of the
burden of reproduction and then rear them to be little leaguers, that they would
be as interested in careers in baseball and rock and roll as boys are. Boys are
generally mechanically, physically inclined and if society no longer demands of
them that they hunt for food by age 14 and mate as soon as they hunt well enough
to feed a family, then they are going to have to find something to do with that
energy from that genetic program. Drugs are definitely capable of obliterating
that unusable energy and rock concerts are a conveninent combination of
catharsis and catalyst. Both at the same time are, like, the ultimate (I'm told
)."

Carducci's biologically determinist convictions about rock's essential
masculinity dovetail with his materialist and reductionist definition of rock.
Rock is rock'n'roll "made conscious of itself as small band music". The essence
of rock is rhythmic, based in the interaction of drums, bass, and rhythm guitar,
which interlock to create "multidimensional simulataneity" (the illusion, at
once visceral and spiritual, of three players becoming one). Good songs are a nice
bonus, but worth nothing (in rock terms) without the friction of riff, bassline
and beat. This drummer-centred formalism leads Carducci to dismiss as irrelevant
elements like image, lyrics, attitude, the vocalist's charisma and/or neurosis,
vocal harmony, and arthouse/highbrow conceptual trappings. All of these, he
says,adulterate rock purism with pop appeal or cerebral baggage, and are thus only of interest to male wimps and to girls. Neither group understands rock because
they're alienated from their own physicality (in the case of egghead males) or, argues Carducci, they don't have the hormonal set-up to really feel rock in their guts (girls).

For Carducci, rock is strenuous, an art form that is honed by assiduous
gigging and rehearsing. Rock is corrupted (i.e. turned into pop) when it
panders to feminine sensibilities, emphasising the lead vocalist, glossy production,
image, sensitivity, and downgrading rhythmic heat and grit. Effeminate and gay
influences are also inimical (the British art-school and New Pop sensibilities
were deeply pernicious, in Carducci's nativist, anti-Anglophile reading of rock
history). Finally, rock is corrupted when its muscular work ethic is allowed to
go flaccid in the delicate hands of eggheads who think conceptual leaps can
replace the hard slog of paying your dues. The result is ethereal, rarefied
music that appeals to the contemplative brain rather than the viscera.

Against the graduates who have weakened rock (either as performers, or as
critics whouniformly project their irrelevant left-liberal politics onto the
music), Carducci heralds a New Redneck ethos as the salvation of rock. New
Redneckism was trailblazed by SST (a label Carducci had been closely involved with) in the early Eighties with image-less, hardworking neo-punk bands like Black Flag, The Minutemen and Husker Du. New Redneck is a return to rock's origins in the "Born
To Lose" worldview of the American South (as expressed in blues and hillbilly
music); this worldview struck a chord with blue collar and lower middle class
youth throughout white America. The born-to-lose attitude remained a constant as rock evolved through the sludge of Black Sabbath-style metal, the frustration of punk, the toiling catharsis of Eighties hardcore, right up to today's grunge. This music connects, viscerally, with young men's sense of
the world as made up of struggle and impedance: heavy music fits heavy themes.

Of course, heavy metal also has a heroic side, most notably in the
operatic vocals and strutting machismo of the lead singer, and the grandiosity of the lead guitarist. For Carducci, the phallic triumphalism of the guitar solo
"symbolizes masturbation rather than fucking, or power/rape, as the lib-politicos might have it. The teen male metal audience then is celebrating the rock stars ability to dramatise and enculture masturbation ballets so well that they attract females (groupies) and therefore get to proxy fuck for all of their teenage charges".Carducci admits this doesn't seem like a very healthy arrangement, but its
pent-up frustration seems preferable to wimpy non-rock of The Smiths or REM's
ilk.

In fact, he rejects wholesale, as heretical, fraudulent non-rock
off-shoots, "college rock" or "indie" - partly because they are largely rooted
in the non-blues, folk-derived styles of groups like The Byrds and The Velvet
Underground, and partly, one suspects, because they appeal more to girls and
non-macho boys. College/indie, he argues, is a misguided sensibility because
it's overly concerned with songcraft; more perniciously, it is culpably
Anglophile; worst of all, it fetishises incompetence (as Carducci puts it, if
Led Zeppelin had a good rhythm section, these groups don't want one).

Ironically, the college rock milieu whose taste Carducci derides as
emasculated is just as much a boy's own world as the world of hard rock. Here,
male cameraderie is expressed not through sports or motor maintenance but
through collecting music, debating music, curating rock culture. To lapse into
Carducci's thinking, this is a homosocial fraternity of nerds, rather than of
brawny, brawling regular guys. In the UK, this sensibility is generally
known by the shorthand term "trainspotter" (derived from a particularly
anal-retentive, futile pastime of collecting the numbers from locomotives). Its
origins, according to Simon Frith and Howard Horne in Art Into Pop, lie in the jazz clubs of the late Forties and Fifties. These were "rooms above pubs,
people's bedrooms even, where serious young men (and a few young women) gathered
to play and discuss records". The peculiarity of jazz in Britain was that
"something understood as a folk form, live music for dancing and community
entertainment, became a recording cult, music for collectors, for an elite of
jazz students, musicologists and discographers. Solemnity not excitement defined
true jazz fans, who self-consciously distanced themselves from the general
public and were suspicious when anyone like Louis Armstrong became popular." Music was seen in terms of authenticity versus commercialism - an opposition which has
endured to this day, and with the same male v. female subtext. Jazz appealed
because of its propensity for being taking seriously, for being more than mere
fun. As Francis Newton observed in 1959, "the quintessential location of the
fan is not the dance hall, the night club, or even the jazz concert or club, but the
private room in which a group of young men play one another's records, repeating
crucial passages until they are worn out, and then endlessly discussing their
comparative merits".

As Frith and Horne note, this milieu is still recognisable as the
readership of the British weekly music papers, New Musical Express and Melody Maker: "the lower-middle-class, young, predominantly male, suburban, self-educated, would-be cultured, self-defined musical connoisseurs". Jazz, like blues, acid rock, punk and indie after it, was a way of imagining yourself as an individual, of marking yourself out as different from the pack with their mass-produced pleasures, as somehow more elevated than a mere consumer. It's
notable, however, that just as they are unlikely to amass sports data or tinker
endlessly under the hoods of cars, women seldom seem to build up huge record
collections or obsess about hi-fi equipment. They tend to have small,
well-played collections and rudimentary music centres or even just a cassette
player and masses of tapes (given by trainspotter male friends). * *

* * *

The idea that popular culture is somehow female, that it is designed for a
female mode of consumption (superficial, distracted, fickle) rather than for the
considered appreciation associated with male high culture, has a long history.
"Escapist", "corny", "manipulative", "sentimental" are all alleged attributes of
mainstream pop culture that carry a taint of the female, whereas modernist,
avant-garde, confrontational or "serious" art tends to evoke a stern sobriety
that definitely possesses a male aura.

We've already seen how Philip Wylie's 1942 tract Generation Of Vipers
railed against the de-virilising effect on American society of a (feminine)
popular culture. Nearly fifty years later, militant rappers Public Enemy made
much the same complaint about black moms in "She Watch Channel Zero", which
criticised women for being TV junkies addicted to soaps and Oprah Winfrey-style
counselling programmes, and thus neglecting their children (black women's
contribution to the struggle being rearing strong warriors) while being
encouraged to have unreal expectations of life/black men.

In rock discourse, the "correct" response to music (considered, critical)
has long been contrasted with the degraded involvement of fandom, seen
simulataneously as blindly loyal, undiscriminating, clouded by emotion, AND
fickle, superficial. Once again, it's the female teenager who's the model of all
that's unseemly, easily manipulated. The 19th century notion of hysteria - as a
specifically female disorder, in which morbid over-excitement of the emotions
was attributed to disturbances of the womb - was revived to describe the outbreaks
of teenybopper fandemonium. Rock has always admired groups for inciting such
excessive, out-of-control responses, while despising those caught up in them. A
good example: Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham would, in their early days of
pop success, start girls screaming in the audience by shrieking and squealing
himself. He would also employ male youths to push violently through the crowd
in order to escalate fandemonium.

Fred and Judy Vermorel have attempted to formulate a revisionist treatment
of fandom in their books Starlust and Fandemonium. Instead of the
traditional view of fans as deluded dupes of capitalism, they celebrate the excess and hysteria of fan worship as an intensity that transcends and trangresses
consumerism. They see fandom as consumer mysticism, an investment of passion and
obsession that is empowering, particularly for young girls. Stars become
vehicles for the exploration of fantasies. The Vermorels emphasise the extent to which pop stars are used (as a spur to imagination and ingenuity), and are used up
voraciously, callously disposed of in an endless turnover of new idols. By a
cunning sleight of thought, they turn girl-fans' fickleness into a mark of
superiority, elevating them beyond the earnest, slavish loyalty of the male band
follower. Camille Paglia has also identified a mystical proto-type for fandom
in the orgiastic religious seizures to which women and effeminate men in Ancient
Greece were prone. She sees a similarly idol-atrous and excessive quality in
teenybopper crazes and the gay worship of icons like Judy Garland.

* *

The ability to go "wild in the streets" (as The Stooges' song has it), to
explore the wilderness or roam the urban jungle, has always been a male
privilege. And manifestations of male wildness, in the form of youth
subcultures, have been privileged as the focus of study. The seminal work in
this field - spawned by Birmingham University's Centre For Contemporary Studies
in the Seventies and including the Resistance Through Rituals collection and Dick Hebdiges' Subculture: The Meaning Of Style - focuses on the ways that tribal youth movements like mods, skinheads, punks, etc, create an oppositional
identity for themselves by taking stylistic elements from the
mainstream culture and subverting their meanings - sometimes in a conscious
process of bricolage, other times more instinctively.

For the most part, these deviant subcultures are male-dominated, offering
women only the most peripheral roles. In her 1980 essay "Settling Accounts With
Subcultures: A Feminist Critique", Angela McRobbie pointed out subcultural
theory's blindspot when it came to women: its romanticisation of male adventurism and neglect of female forms of pleasure and fantasy. The homosocial cameraderie of the gang is seen,by left-wing sociologists, as a brief blaze of glory before the ignominy of settling down to marriage and responsibility. This brief interim of wildness (before being tamed and socialised) was regarded by the CCS' neo-Marxist
academics as a sort of proto-political protest against the dead ends faced by
working class male youth. But as McRobbie points out, it's much harder for
girls to participate in these symbolic flights than it is for boys, since "girls are
allowed little more than the back seat on a drafty motorbike".

Extreme homosociality has generally been the rule in subcultures (it's a
truism that the mods dressed to impress other boy mods); the male bonding of
deviant subcultures mirrors the homosociality of "respectable" men-only forms of
leisure (sports,working men's clubs etc). Subcultures seize on style - a domain conventionally denigrated as female - and turn it into "a male but never unambiguously masculine prerogative". The narcissism and excess of subcultural style has long managed to trangress conventional notions of proper masculinity, while steadfastly marginalising women. We're back with the effeminate thuggery and androgynous misogny of The Stones.

Overall, McRobbie argues that "the signs and codes subverted and
reassembled in the 'semiotic guerrila warfare' conducted through style don't
really speak to women at all"... "The attractions of a subculture - its
fluidity, the shifts in the minutia of its styles, the details of its combative
bricolage" are off-set by its monolithic and conformist attitude to women. Male
dandyism and effeminacy is privileged as transgressive, while the female
equivalent (tomboyism) is considered unglamorous. Similarly, male drunkeness
and drugginess is cool, while women who get wasted are considered undignified
and unfeminine. It's difficult to imagine how a female equivalent to Lester
Bangs or Jim Morrison - perpetually out of it, reeking because of an aversion to
baths - could be tolerated or conceived of as impressive. Similarly the
rowdiness of the gig or the wildness of the streets carry risks for women
(physical harm, rape) that seriously diminish their allure. At gigs, women are
often unable even to see the band, let alone barge their way into the fray at
the front of the stage.

Boyish irresponsibility is just not an option for that many women, who are
often expected to spend more time at home, helping mother look after younger
children or performing a disproportionate fraction of the household chores. Pete
Townsend spoke in Rolling Stone about how rock was a "force that threatens a lot of the crap which is around at the moment in the middle class... [it's like]
mother has just fallen down the stairs, Dad's lost all his money at the dog
track, the baby's got TB. In comes the kid, man, with his transistor radio,
grooving to Chuck Berry. He doesn't give a shit about mum falling down the
stairs. He's with rock'n'roll."

The site for teenage girls' leisure is interior, the bedroom, rather than
the streets. Here girls explore fantasies, individually or in groups, experiment
with dress and make-up, prepare for their infrequent forays into social spaces like
a dance or nightclub. When it comes to "semiotic guerrila warfare" or
subcultural tribal conflicts, girls are non-combatants; they keep the home fires
burning.

Some female artists have attempted to write about the intensity of interior life
- The Raincoats' "Adventures Close To Home", Throwing Muses' "House Tornado" -
re-imagining domesticity as a site for conflict and self-exploration. But home
life doesn't lend itself to the romantic imagery that is the staple of
rock'n'roll.

Another domain for female cameraderie and self-expression is shopping
(especially in the USA, with the rise of mall culture). Writing about the Pet
Shop Boys' "Shopping", Simon Frith and Howard Horne celebrate the female and gay
sensibility of pick'n'mix self-expression through consumer choice, and suggest
that shopping around is the female equivalent to hanging around, as valid and as
deserving of being romanticised as the delinquent adventures of male gang
roaming wild in the streets. Consumption is "the fantastic site where our most intense experience of ourselves as ourselves (active and special) is lived out". But it's hard to see the gregarious jollity of browsing through the racks as on a
par with the adrenalin buzz and outsider postures of rock'n'roll. In rock'n'roll,
consumerism (no matter how "passionate") is seen as the antithesis of the wild
life, the "life fit for heroes". We need to ask whether shopping is denigrated
because it's associated with women, and whether the appeal of the heroic life,
of combat and crusade, is precisely that it is situated on terrain that's empty of
women.


copyright Simon Reynolds and Joy Press