Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Teaching Music & Difference—Let’s Get It On: Pedagogy, Sexuality, and Music

By Amber R. Clifford-Napoleone

Note: This essay is the final installment in Musicology Now's "Teaching Music & Difference" series, which features additional essays by Jesus Ramos-KittrellRebekah Moore, and Angela Glaros

Music scholars do not do well with sex.

Musicology, ethnomusicology, popular music studies, anthropology of music. . . . whatever field or discipline we claim, the truth is that as a field of study we need to do better with sex. And I mean that word in every way: sexuality in terms of sexual behavior, sexual identity, sexual orientation and gender expression, and changing definitions of sex as a biocultural marker.  As scholars, we notice and critique colleagues who ignore race, indigeneity, and/or ethnicity. We might not always get those critiques correct or present them nearly often enough, but we see those faultlines.  We attempt to speak to the inclusion of women, again not well enough or often enough, or with nearly enough force inside our own organizations and institutions, but we are at least aware. About sexuality, however, there is still a broad field of lack. Lack of knowledge, to be sure, but also a lack of engagement, interest, and effort. The ignorance looks ignorant.

Have you ever tried to research “sexuality and music?” What you will find is two things: scholarship about music and gender, and mainstream material about music and sexual behavior. I recently did some research at the Kinsey Institute, focusing on music and its inclusion in the famous archive.  I ended up with files filled with news clippings of LGBTQ+ musicians and performers, two folders of Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, and one article titled “Sex Differences in Sexual Imagery Aroused by Musical Stimulation.”  The 1958 article by Beardslee and Fogelsong suggested that women were more likely to have a sexual response to music because the rhythm was pseudosexual, arguing that women “listen more closely to learn” sexual technique from music. I’ve found a similar dearth of resources at archives and repositories all over the world, from the British Library to the Lesbian Herstory Archives.  If the subject is not a famous queer performance, or someone famous for being a queer performer, then it is not in the archives as “sexuality.” Unless the article is about how music makes the brain want to listen to Barry White, it is not archived as “sex.”

I teach an ethnomusicology course that focuses on globalization and popular music. I examine the ways in which music has traveled, been appropriated, been covered and sampled and impersonated, as a way of understanding global flow.  As a lesbian female professor, I am assumed by some of my students to embody their ideas about gender and sexuality- even if they are not sure what the difference really is. For my students who identify as non-normative in terms of gender and/or sexual identity, I’m somewhere between a signal of queerness that they identify with, and they are hoping to see some bit of themselves in what I teach.   That is a constant challenge in a discipline where sexuality is still largely silenced.

This is not to say that there is no literature about the music of the world and sexuality. The problem is that such works are used as add-ins, optional texts, the readings that get assigned for the one day you’re “doing gender.” Garcia’s work on sexuality and club culture, MacLachlan’s essay on GALA choruses, and Taylor’s recent monograph on LGBTQ+ folx in popular music, are all important contributions. There is also a long history of work in this field that we all know: Brett and Wood’s all-important work building a history of gay and lesbian musicology, Munoz’ work on worldmaking, important work in jazz studies by Tucker, my own work on heavy metal, and West’s amazing work on hip-hop.  These are all works, both germinal and current, that seek to describe and explain the complications of gender and sexuality. The problem is that we, as teachers and scholars, are complicit in marginalizing these works by treating them as sidebars to a grander narrative. We miss an opportunity to teach the cultural constructions of gender and sexuality with/in/through music. I propose that not only is the study of music the place to talk about sexuality, it may be the most productive place to do precisely that. To welcome that opportunity, however, scholars must avoid three things: exoticizing, eroticizing, and failing to admit biases.

As scholars of music, we should all be at least familiar with the dangers of exoticism. In ethnomusicology and anthropology, especially, avoiding the exoticization of our interlocutors is paramount.  When it comes to sexuality, however, exoticizing difference happens in classrooms every day. If sexuality and sexual identity are included in our curriculum, how are they represented? As opera divas? Disco queens? How often has sexual identity been reduced to whether Tchaikovsky was gay, or how Billy Strayhorn passed?  Even a cursory examination of common texts will shed further light on this issue.  Sheila Whiteley’s classic Sexing The Groove, an essential collection on gender and popular music, has two essays specifically about sexual identity: “Mannish Girl” about singer k.d. lang, and “Missing Links” about lesbian culture in the 1990s riotgrrl movement. It is simply not enough to include in our pedagogy lesbian folksingers, 1970s disco divas, Aaron Copeland, and the nan dan of Peking opera.  The result is two-fold: making sexual diversity exotic and sensational, and positioning sexual diversity in music is an exception, an exotic rarity that exists only in coffee shops and drag culture.

Another issue is eroticizing sexuality in world music.  You cannot divorce the sex from sexuality, and at its core sexuality is about our attractions. Sometimes, however, an attempt to discuss sexuality quickly becomes an exercise in eroticizing musicians and performers, both historically and today. When this happens, their identity as a performer of music, or as a composer, is eclipsed by their sex lives.  As a queer person I am often guilty of this myself, merging my identity as a fan with my work as a scholar. While we should not ignore the sexuality of our subjects and their work, that same sexuality should not become the story we tell about music.  Non-normative sexuality is only one facet of people who identify as LGBTQ+, and their work should not be reduced to that point. At the same time, there are thousands of stories we could tell about sexuality and music that we avoid, or do not know.  One excellent example is Genesis Breyer P-Orridge:  a founding member of Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV, they are without question among the most important music performers of the 20th and 21st centuries. P-Orridge gave birth to industrial, acid house, and experimental music, pushed the Moog synth to new heights, and brought music to new boundaries of visual and performance art.  P-Orridge identifies as pandrogynous, a term that “is the conscious embracing of gender roles, sexual orientations, or cultural traditions so as to render the person’s original identity completely indecipherable.”  While P-Orridge’s sexuality is undoubtedly part of their work, it is also not the sum total of their work or their lives.  It is one opportunity, among thousands if not millions, for a pedagogical move to talking about sexuality as a factor in the music.

Finally, as teachers and scholars we must acknowledge our ignorance and identify our biases when it comes to gender and sexuality.  We do not get trained in our doctoral programs to teach about either, and unless you identify as something other than heterosexual and cisgendered, knowledge about gender and sexuality may range from confusing to frightening.  We live in a world where knowledge, conceptions, and presentations of different sexualities are changing rapidly for some, while it feels like a long fought battle for recognition to others. Those of you who teach may indeed be in a time and space where your students seem to know more than you do. Those of you in classrooms may feel that your teachers do not have a complete understanding of gender in your time, your culture, and your life. All of these reactions are fair, and honest.  As professionals, however, it is our job to learn. That is why we all joined the ranks of academia hopefully, due to a thirst for knowledge and the search for it. We must refuse to be so confused, or frightened, or disappointed, that we avoid the opportunity to learn. If you do not feel that you understand gender and sexuality in the 21st century, read, ask, seek help. Learn not just your students’ names, but their pronouns. Get trained through your campus safe zone program, and make sure your students and colleagues understand that you support those living through changes in their identity. Find those scholars who have done the heavy lifting to create a study of genders and sexualities in music, and include them in your curriculum regularly. Assign reading by LGBTQ+ writers. Diverse sexuality exists in every species on earth. It is also culturally constructed and mediated, and received through the eyes, ears, desires, and experiences of one’s life. In this way, it is not unlike music. Using sexuality to study music is an opportunity not only to make our students better thinkers, but also to demonstrate that sexual diversity has always been there, that the study of music is not separate from that diversity but woven within it, and that we as music scholars will refuse to embrace the phobias and oppressions that exist around us. It is not just good pedagogy, it is good humanity.

In a recent article, blogger Ace Ratcliff asked why there are no accessible spaces in science fiction. “In a universe this big,” wrote Ratcliff, “sci-fi could show us a reality where we have evolved beyond neglecting or outright ignoring a significant portion of our population.”  We can bring that reality closer only if we are willing to do the work of truly, intentionally, refusing to use music scholarship as a vessel for marginalization, sensationalism, and ignorance.
Amber R. Clifford-Napoleone (PhD American Studies, U Kansas) is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Director of the McClure Archives and Museum at University of Central Missouri. She is also the author of Queerness In Heavy Metal (Routledge, 2015) and Queering Kansas City Jazz (forthcoming, U Nebraska). She can be reached at Clifford@ucmo.edu.


  1. I don't know where you're searching, but there is plenty of excellent work available on music and sex. The claim that musicology doesn't do sex well erases numerous scholars and their contributions to the field.

  2. I am disappointed that this essay erases or overlooks so much of the valuable scholarship on gender and sexuality by numerous members of the AMS. I don't know of many musicologists who are "so confused, or frightened, or disappointed, that we avoid the opportunity to learn." In fact, the generally wide embrace of scholars of music and sexuality and their work has been one of the more encouraging things I have witnessed in musicology in the last 20 years. The author of this piece might want to consult the Oxford Bibliographies entry on Gender and Sexuality in Music, written by Emily Wilbourne; the outstanding resource page of the AMS's own LGBTQ study group, located at http://ams-lgbtq.org/queer-musicology-bibliography/; and any of the many recent publications that can be found in a basic search on "musicology sexuality."

  3. Amber - I don’t disagree with your conclusions or your call to action, but where do you think the pioneering example of McClary (& Walser, on pop music) fits into this narrative? I think a number of aging musicologists who will, I hope, read your piece sympathetically also remember being strongly influenced by that body of work, which interpretively wove sexuality deep into the tonal fabric of all kinds of canonized and stigmatized music(s). None of us teach or think as we did before it crashed into our field.