Tuesday, February 26, 2008

John, I'm Only Dancing

In another forum I was asked: For example, have we ever examined quite what was the attraction of almost exclusively male rock bands in the 1970s to other men? I went and looked.

Heavy rock music, prior to Glam Metal, provided masculine role model for boys who had to go through puberty during a time of significant changes in gender roles. It was important for them to have a space where no girls were allowed – or at least where they believed that no girls were allowed – which rock in general seemed to offer. Led Zeppelin's lyrics and music combined to affirm their fear of women while simultaneously providing a hypermasculine model onto which both feelings of alienation and sexual feelings could both be projected.

The sixties. We've all heard about them. The seventies were worse.

The sixties and seventies – the Sexual Revolution – was a time of significant change for gender roles. It was an unusually difficult time for a male adolescent to grow up, and the extreme image fluctuations of rock bands during this time both mirrored these changes and helped drive them. Jack Burton, in Dude Looks Like a Lady [10] says the fact that Robert Plant "continues to be all man, while simultaneously looking and sounding like a woman, suggests that the straight camp of the rock god provides a more complex function than the questioning of gender roles," and that "this commercialisation of gender ambiguity takes place at a time of extensive social change is no coincidence. After any revolution comes a period of uncertainty, and the sexual revolution of the 1960s was no exception. With the contraceptive pill not only allowing people to engage in seemingly risk free sexual intercourse, but also, more importantly, allowing women to take control of their own reproductive potential, traditional gender relations were suddenly shown to be problematic."

No girls allowed.

Music critics over the years have generally assumed that rock music is a male-only preserve. Simon Frith and Angela McRobbie say of rock, "the general atmosphere is sexually exclusive, its euphoria depends on the absence of women."[1] Sue Wise said, "it is undoubtedly a prospect threatening to men and many women that male rock stars' power and sexuality could be understood, appropriated, or even controlled by a woman."[2] Camille Paglia, quoted in the Washington Post article below says, "Rock is a male form. For an adolescent boy, your guitar speaks for you, it says what you can't say in real life, it's the pain you can't express, it's rage, hormones pumping. Women can be strangers and all of a sudden have an intimate conversation. Boys can't do that. The guitar for a boy speaks to an aggressive sexual impulse and suppressed emotionality, the things that boys can't share, even with other members of the band. It's a combination of rage and reserve and ego."[3] According to Chuck Klosterman, author of "Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota, "metal stops being good when it develops a female audience, in turn, alienating its primary male audience." Frith and McRobbie add, "Cock rock shows are explicitly about male sexual performance, which might explain why so few girls go to them – the musicians are acting out a sexual iconography which in many ways is unfamiliar, frightening and distasteful to girls who are educated into understanding sex as something nice, soft, loving and private."[1]

Clearly, there aren't many female rock stars. In the Washington Post article, David Segal says, "Reasonable people can argue about whether there are any guitar heroines" and "women buy just 7% of all electric guitars in this country…the electric guitar…is considered unladylike". He writes, "Boys learn guitar to meet girls. For a girl, outplaying the boys onstage isn't necessarily a key to the male heart." [4]

Soul of a Woman…something to do with legs…

For young boys in this phase, Led Zeppelin provides a supportative environment backed up with lyrical examples. Critics have noted this tendency in Zeppelin lyrics many times over the years. "…Plant's overt misogyny fused with Page's obsession with the occult… since that combination allows adolescent males to reconcile the alienation of unhinged teenage sexuality with their own inescapable geekiness." [Chuck Klosterman, 7] "On their masterpiece, "Dazed and Confused," for example, Plant made the same old misogyny sound like profound insight, while Page thundered through his orchestral guitar rumble."[Rolling Stone, 8] "Led Zeppelin's music is based almost entirely on misogyny. Their defining lyric is 'soul of a woman was created below'. (Although this is partially contradicted by the line 'a big legged woman ain't got no soul'.) Whenever Robert Plant ran out of something to sing, he fell back on the woman-worshipping-woman-chastising clich├ęs of the blues. And if all else failed there was always, 'Baby-baby-baby... waaaaaagh!'" [Toby Litt, 9]

"When the Levee Breaks" has been read as the singer fearing "feminine engulfment"[5]. Susan Fast (a Zeppelin-friendly female critic) disagrees. She has doubts about Reynolds and Press's description in their take on Levee in which they say "women often loom as a demonic threat in Led Zeppelin's songs". "Reynolds and Press do not tell us, specifically, where or how the "fear of feminine engulfment" occurs in the song." However, I believe Fast is wrong; it can quite easily be read that way. When the levee breaks, it says, it's enough to drive a monkey man from his home. To hammer home the point, the mix turns inside out, washing out the entire band in a flood, and Plant, half afloat, moans "going down, going down" – a double entendre eminently readable as representing a man overwhelmed by female sexuality. And Fast does agree with Reynolds and Press in their gloomy take on Dazed and Confused. "Love is disorientation, debility and paralysis. Dazed and Confused is the definitive take on this scenario". They say of the singer, "his mind is poisoned and befogged by the noxious fumes of her feminine miasma. He's at death's door, flaccid and enfeebled."[5, 6]

Hieros Gamos and suchlike.

How does a rock band provide a substitute for the female companionship it claims you are better off without? Why is the spectacle attractive to young male fans? There is a major analysis in Jack Burton,[10] which is available in its entirety on the web. I'll briefly recap his argument here. Frith and McRobbie, in Rock and Sexuality[1] define Cock Rock thusly: "Cock rock performers are aggressive, dominating, and boastful, and they constantly seek to remind the audience of their prowess, their control. Their stance is obvious in live shows; male bodies on display, plunging shirts and tight trousers, a visual emphasis on chest hair and genitals - Cock rock shows are explicitly about male sexual performance."

At the same time as the performers are acting out the hypermasculinist fantasies of their male audience, they are providing a mixed message of masculinity and femininity to their already dazed and confused devotees. Chuck Klosterman says, "They sound sexy and sexist and sexless." Burton points to the symbolism of the guitar, "Firstly: the obvious phallic symbolism of the guitar. Usually worn at crotch height, the long, straight neck is wielded like a weapon. Drawing focus away from the musician and onto the instrument the guitar serves as phallic symbol of the performer's potent masculinity. Secondly: the mastery of an instrument is an example of the acquisition of technical skill, again often associated with a traditional masculine posture." But to that must be added the femininity of the singer, "Plant's physicality on stage deliberately emphasises this almost feminine sexual allure. He is described by one male reviewer as "breathtakingly beautiful, rather like a choirboy possessed by the spirit of Gene Vincent." Burton quotes Helen Davies as saying, "Singing is generally regarded as natural. Anyone can do it and it is wrongly perceived as not requiring practice and work, and therefore undervalued - I would argue that it is generally assumed that singing is a feminine skill." In The Popular Music Studies Reader, Susan Fast quotes Robert Plant as saying, "My vocal style I haven't tried to copy from anyone. It just developed until it became the girlish whine that it is today." [11] She quotes from various critics who make a point that Plant's vocal style, from the throat and not the chest, is not "bodily" – "It's as if in rock convention… the sexiest male voice is the least bodily" – but she disagrees saying, "it is precisely this straining and the use of distortion that puts the body into the music" and "this high male voice opens another interesting space for the consideration of gender performance…male fans have commented on this [girlish whine] as a desirable attribute." She goes on, "the moaning, screaming, and 'overflowing of channels' characteristic of hard rock signing points very strongly to an emotional landscape that has traditionally (and also essentially) been associated with femininity."

The masculine and feminine elements on the rock stage have often been described as "a marriage". Jack Burton: "That the relationship between the lead singer and the lead guitarist of a rock band is often referred to, in the music press, as a 'marriage,' suggests a level of gender complexity beyond the theatrical camp of Mick Jagger's stage persona. In these 'marriages' the guitarist usually assumes the more masculine role." Burton quotes an interviewer who asked Keith Richards, "How's the wife?" Richards answers, "He's a good bitch." Burton adds, "Page and Plant took the features of the rock marriage familiar to us from our analysis of the similar relationship between Mick and Keith, but amplified the ambiguity as much as they amplified the music."

This marriage ritual serves to supply the masculine and feminine aspects entirely through male figures, thus achieving the exclusion of women that the audience is seeking, while still providing a balanced and satisfying image. Burton again: "Ruth Padel comments on Plant's willingness to express a feminine sexuality in this track, terming Whole Lotta Love: a cock-proud slam. "I'm gonna give you every inch of MAH LURVE," howls Robert Plant, and roars out the woman's orgasm for her. They are his achievement. Here Padel identifies the main purpose of Robert Plant's vocal cross dressing; to express the complete exclusion of women from the world of hard rock."

Burton concludes of Led Zeppelin, ""At the same time as providing a model of masculinity more rampantly sexual than ever before, their music contains this sense of sexuality within the safe fantasy of a homo-social world, an all boys club where even the voice of women is produced and controlled by men."

In conclusion then, the attraction of exclusively male bands to men in the seventies was driven by a combination of standard adolescent and post-adolescent fear of women's sexuality sent into overdrive by the rapidly changing gender roles of the 1970s. The love and worship of these bands provided a safe masculine zone complete with a hypersexual model of masculinity.

[1] Frith, Simon and Angela McRobbie. "Rock and Sexuality." On Record: Rock, Pop and the Written Word. Eds. Simon Frith and Andrew Goodman. London: Routledge, 1990
[2] Sue Wise, Sexing Elvis (1990).
[3] Camille Paglia in No Girls Allowed? In the World of Guitar Boasts, Few Women Let Their Fingers Do the Talking By David Segal Washington Post Staff Writer Sunday, August 22, 2004; Page N01 http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A19175-2004Aug20?language=printer
[4] David Segal, Ibid.
[5] Simon Reynolds and Joy Press; The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion and Rock and Roll 1995
[6] In the Houses of the Holy: Led Zeppelin and the Power of Rock Music; Susan Fast 2001
[7] Chuck Klosterman, Killing Yourself to Live.
[8] Rolling Stone, http://www.rollingstone.com/artists/ledzeppelin/albums/album/197643/review/5944431/in_through_the_out_door
[9] Toby Litt, in http://www.hamishhamilton.co.uk/nf/shared/WebDisplay/0,,214511_9_1,00.html
[10] Jack Burton, Dude Looks Like A Lady: Straight Camp and the Homo-social World of Hard Rock. University of Edinburgh. Available in full at http://forum.llc.ed.ac.uk/issue4/burton.html
[11] The Popular Music Studies Reader, Andy Bennett, Barry Shank, Jason Toynbee p 367

Excerpts from the books quoted are available on Google at
In the houses of the holy; http://books.google.com/books?id=lZslRYfLlKEC&pg=PA168&lpg=PA168&dq=%22led+zeppelin%22+%22male+fans%22&source=web&ots=y5u2lUuLUC&sig=WdUc7n5g6vMnu0jDDGXy96xF8mw#PPA167,M1
The Popular Music Studies Reader,http://books.google.com/books?id=QQZ...MH3A#PPA367,M1


Anonymous said...

Does academia really need to waste so much time trying to analyze something beyond their comprehension? As a gay man who always liked Led Zeppelin, but really began to appreciate the music (and Robert Plant who I would do now just as much as when he was 28)recently I have to disagree with every uptight characterization this article offers. The one dimension that every statement dismisses is the MUSIC. The lyrics often fade away when one fully appreciates the music. Hypersexual as the whole synthesis is, its hardly exclusively misogynistic. If Robert Plant were having sex with a man, a monkey or a blowfish it would still be the same moaning groaning s&m experience. Ironically some women really do like that kinda thing, and on some basic level that is what sex is all about, losing control and/or taking it and often times a sharing of both roles by partners. Just because I like to be on top doesn't mean I don't want my partner to order me around! I guess really educated people prefer to analyze what's wrong with other peoples sexuality and their influences than to reflect upon themselves and their own relationships. Its so easy to find some segement of pop culture to blame for cultural malaise when in reality the failures are subjective and generally due to desensitization from other media. Popular entertainment (music, movies, fictional television) usually provides a sensual outlet, a connection to share experiences, not to alienate and isolate.

Peromyscus said...

I agree, pretty much. You sailed in on a specific web search so you may have come straight to this article and not seen the one after it at: http://peromyscus.blogspot.com/2008/02/since-ive-been-loving-you.html

I'm with Susan Fast, in the second article. I don't think the male theorists' understanding of what goes on is anywhere near complete. Fast doesn't have an alternative theory - she knows what she likes when she hears it.

thatdietcokegirl said...

You misquoted Nancy there. She didn't say that. Those were the author's words.
Tho I'm still a little dismayed at everything else she said. But I think that is just her nature.

Peromyscus said...

You're right. Fixed. My apologies.

The Sanity Inspector said...

Another parachute commeter here...

"Here Padel identifies the main purpose of Robert Plant's vocal cross dressing; to express the complete exclusion of women from the world of hard rock."

That would be news to Alison Kraus, the women of Fairport Convention, and that Turkish singer on the Page/Plant Unledded concert--not to mention the groupies.


Blog Widget by LinkWithin
I sometimes mention a product on this blog, and I give a URL to Amazon or similar sites. Just to reassure you, I don't get paid to advertise anything here and I don't get any money from your clicks. Everything I say here is because I feel like saying it.