Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Book Preview: Rethinking Difference in Gender, Sexuality, and Popular Music: Theory and Politics of Ambiguity

By Gavin Lee

How should music research approach different social formations and musical expressions of gender and sexuality—and the very concept of difference? What are the affordances and pitfalls of difference? What else should we consider when working with marginalized communities? The chapters of Rethinking Difference in Gender, Sexuality and Popular Music <1> offer case studies in response to these questions. Below is a taste of some of the authors’ work.

In the music video for “The Eyes of the Poor” by goth band The Cure, the lyrics circulate around a beloved whose cold-heartedness is a metaphor for the impossibility of being truly united in love. This unbridgeable distance gives rise to a permanent condition of emotional pain that shows how central S/M is to goth aesthetics. In goth aesthetics, pain becomes a central dynamic which replaces gender binarism as evidenced in the replacement of the female beloved of the lyrics with cold statues of males in the music video. But along with gender ambiguity in goth aesthetics and goths’ personal styling comes the fierce denial by many practicing goths of any non-normativity in terms of sexuality, a point made by Carol Siegel in her chapter. Goth presents both difference from and adherence to mainstream gender and sexuality norms, which should make those of us who are prone to narratives of minority heroism pause for a second. If, like me, you’ve seen conference audiences nod in fervent admiration for the protagonist in a given presentation, a hero who against all odds, seemingly breaking free of catastrophic social constraints, expresses their social agency through music—if you’ve felt at all concerned that at these presentations privileged professors get to feel better about themselves by hearing about minorities who seem to live up to nothing but the highest standards of heroism, you might understand my reservations. I’m not suggesting that there aren’t any minority heroes, many of whom do exhibit a level of resilience that I know I can never match. I’m suggesting that we need to be critical of an institution that is in danger of becoming what the character Michael from Arrested Development sardonically calls a “feel-goodery” (referring to a new age high school that facilitates student emotional expression while abolishing grades in Season 3, Episode 9). A “feel-goodery” represents the diametric opposite of Sarah Ahmed’s “feminist killjoy” project.<2> For Ahmed, remaining true to feminism requires us to disrupt heteronormativity, thereby spoiling the enjoyment of others who may resent us for it: Whoever said academia should feel good anyway?

My gut feeling is that Ahmed is right. As a scholar of affect theory, Ahmed is well placed to recognize the affective fields that condition contemporary reality: the “feel-good” mantra resonates throughout the mediatized economy of the twenty-first century. Feel bad? Chicken Soup for the Soul! Soothing sounds from the Spotify “Deep Sleep” playlist! Happy endings in Hollywood movies! Because ambiguity gives rise to the unpleasant feeling of anxiety over uncertainty (I argue), we would much prefer to idealize heroes than to figure out the complexity of their human frailty. My edited volume, Rethinking Difference in Gender, Sexuality, and Popular Music, is a corrective to idealizations of heroes who are portrayed as having forged new paths in gender and sexuality through popular music. In addition to recognizing the incredible spirit of music makers and audiences, contributors to the book provide a comprehensive analysis of ambiguous musical contexts, by embracing both positive and negative forces and effects that are inevitable in any political action, thus complicating feel-good heroic narratives premised on idealized constructions of difference. We examine both difference and similarity from mainstream cultures, as well as the possibility that undefined but emergent forms of gender and sexuality may arise.

Of the many other accounts of ambiguity, Gillian Rodger’s chapter in the book contains a subtle assessment of two female cross-dressing (trouser role) impersonators on the nineteenth-century American variety stage, Ella Wesner and Annie Hindle, who were also life partners. While they subverted gender and sexual norms, their success stemmed from their comic musical performance, which affirmed their working class male audience’s view of middle-class men by portraying stereotypes of the latter. Audiences were generally ignorant of same-sex attracted male impersonators’ personal, sexual lives, and received their cross-dressing as a confirmation of conceptions about masculinity. Looking across the Pacific Ocean to China, Wang Qian also examines theatrical cross-dressing through the career of Li Yugang, who specializes in the nan dan (female impersonator) in Peking opera. At the end of his concerts, Li typically appears in his everyday male attire, drops his voice by an octave, and talks about what Wang calls his “mysterious ex-girlfriend.” Li has inspired over 3,000 online video clips of female impersonation in China, even as the online discourse strictly adheres to heterosexuality. All the above chapters tell us that we are prone to misrecognize multiple musical contexts if we are fixated on idealized hero narratives.

Aside from analyzing the ambiguity of musical politics, authors in the book theorize ambiguity as a condition of existence. Kirsten Zemke and Jared Mackley-Crump’s chapter examines the proliferation of terms—“fierceness,” “bitch,” “cunty”—that map out the evolving gender and sexual field of black gay American rappers such as Cakes da Killa, a field which contextualizes those terms in particular ways that intersects ambiguously with heteronormativity. Ellie Hisama examines the multivalent possibilities of walking through the huge panels that comprise Isaac Julien’s art installations such as True North (about the first successful expedition to the north pole in 1909), theorizing that this ambiguity is aligned with Julien’s disruption of masculine polar exploration through the casting of a black woman, Vanessa Myrie, in the role of Matthew Henson, Commander Robert Peary’s black companion who reached the north pole ahead of the Commander. My own chapter argues that the desire of gays can be queered so that it roams away from male bodies in Andrew Christian underwear music videos towards pleasurably aestheticized surfaces in Britney Spears’s music videos. By gesturing towards the real world and inner world complexity of music makers and listeners, we open a register for recognizing the power of difference while making room for the ambiguities that have perhaps always been a point of departure for queer theory.

<1>Routledge press page for the book:

Gavin Lee is Assistant Professor of Music at Soochow University. His research is anchored in queer, globalization, and Deleuzian theory.

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