Gender experimentation prominent among rock artists

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Naked woman with a guitar

The undeniable connection between sex and rock music goes back a long way.

Considering how long people have been making music about “making music,” it makes perfect sense to associate sexualized imagery with the music world " and nowhere is this more prevalent than in rock music.

“Rock is supposed to be the site of opposition and a place kind of outside of society,” Norma Coates, professor of popular music and culture at Western, explained.

After all, popular opinion will tell you that when you have drugs and rock music together, all you need is sex to complete the ménage à trois.

The sheer number of songs in the rock music lexicon devoted to sex is staggering and so it would seem only natural for the band members producing the music to gain an overly sexualized aura in the process.

But what is interesting to note over the course of rock’s evolution is the variety of ways different performers have embraced this over-sexed status.

Some, like Bruce Springsteen or Elvis Presley, certainly took on this sexualized role in a distinctly heterosexual manner. Others chose to approach these roles in a much less binary manner " choosing instead to blur their identity and in the process break out of the societal mold of traditional gender roles.

One such case is Mick Jagger, lead singer of the venerable Rolling Stones. Sheila Whiteley, chair of popular music at the University of Salford, pointed out the issue of Jagger’s identity in her book, Sexing the Groove.

“His stage performances implied a sense of otherness which challenged the traditional sense of masculine/feminine dualism,” she wrote. “His ambivalent sexuality opened up definitions of gender which were to dominate much of the early 1970s.”

Jim Grier, a professor at the Don Wright Faculty of Music, further explained the issue by comparing Jagger to David Bowie " another classic figure of gender-blurring in rock.

“You got the sense when Bowie was on stage that he was playing a character,” Grier said. “But with Jagger ... he was trying to be the persona.”

Coates disagreed with that assertion: “I think Jagger is still an act ... but he was masculinized more for the media reports surrounding his personal life.

“[Jagger] did play with gender, but the artist doesn’t always have much control over how the public will view them,” she added.

Focusing more on Bowie, Grier talked about the need for theatricality in rock.

“As rock moved out of the hockey arenas into the football stadiums, [performers] realized there wasn’t much in the way of visual appeal for people an inch tall,” Grier said. “They realized something more could be done.”

Grier explained that with Bowie there was an acknowledgment of the potential for theatrical rock, with his various roles over his career merely a manifestation of this.

“Bowie is a prime example of appropriating not really feminine roles, but rather androgynous characteristics,” he noted. “[Bowie] focused on the gender but not necessarily on the sex.”

As for rock stars who took advantage of their oversexualized reputation, Grier can think of nobody more important than Madonna.

“At the beginning of her career, Madonna was vacillating between Elvis and Marilyn Monroe,” Grier noted. “When a woman starts channeling Elvis and his sexual energies then you start getting into real problems.”

Coates agreed, but saw there were further issues facing women wishing to explore gender identity in rock.

“I think [rock music] is all very gated by gender norms which favour masculinity,” Coates said. “I don’t think the ability to play with gender is very evenly distributed.”

Grier admitted Madonna’s constant changing of stage personae could be seen as more of an ongoing example of guerilla theatre than a true investigation of different gender identities.

“She’s holding up an unflattering mirror to contemporary society,” Grier said, adding the heavy irony of many of her roles only further increases the satire.

“She is constantly challenging stereotypes ... the first being that women should be submissive.”

While Coates agreed with Grier, she did note Madonna’s adaptation of traditional masculine stereotypes was all too common.

“Women almost have to act like men in order to be accepted,” Coates said. “And while Madonna is still performing, she’s critiqued a lot more harshly for it in my opinion.”

Coates explained the close association between masculinity and rock music.

“I think masculinity is naturalized through rock and roll,” Coates said. “Various bands throughout the years have really tried to reinforce the masculinity to take the sting out of men watching other men perform and in doing so masculinize what is typically a very feminine role.”

So while the crossdressing seen in rock music could be seen as being something progressive, Coates explained it was much more to reinforce masculinity.

“Wearing women’s clothing was a symbol of the male rock star’s power,” she noted.

“And then there’s glam metal which takes it even further, to the point where the stars are almost saying, ‘I’m so manly and so hypermasculine that I have to wear women’s clothing.’”

Coates continued: “You look at the 1980s and hair metal bands ... I don’t think those are necessarily progressive representations.

“But I do think glam rock really did play [with gender roles].”

Glam rock, in the style popularized by Bowie, represented a direct progression towards the punk rock of the late 1970s, Coates said.

“All the 14-year-old kids who went to see Bowie became the first punk rockers,” she said. “And what’s really significant about punk music is that it is the first type of rock music where sex isn’t infused with the music.

“So I think glam rock, by introducing androgyny and playing with gender roles in music, provided the opportunity for more women to get involved with the punk music scene and as a result become critical of gender roles in rock.”

While Coates felt rock music was too heavily corporatized and too resistant to change, she admitted small changes are happening.

“I’d look to someone like Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons,” Coates said.

Hegarty identifies himself as transgendered and the band frequently explores aspects of that life, even in terms of selecting art for their album covers.

“I get the impression that he is actually serious about his gender play, whereas the others seem to just be a performance.”

As for historical acts, Coates pointed to Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury and Judas Priest vocalist Rob Halford.

“Halford did the full leather thing and yet it came off as being super hetero " because we see what we want to see,” Coates explained.

She added her perception that when Mercury came out " due to the lack of awareness about homosexual culture " many did not catch on and found their own means to interpret his music and performance.

“The fact that we now sing Queen at sporting events and all these macho sort of rituals ... it was pretty subversive how that came along,” she said, noting the irony.

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