Sexing The Groove: Popular Music And Gender, edited by Sheila Whiteley

I think I did this same thing several times while reading this essay collection . . .

I really enjoyed this book. The essays range from close readings of music videos to an examination of record collector psychology. The level of discourse is very high, but I also didn’t feel like any of it was too opaque for someone who was less familiar with the subject. This book really offered me something different in the genre of gender/music theory by having such varied subject matter. – Jane Vincent,5 Star Review for Sexing the Groove: Popular Music and Gender, Amazon.com

When a reader buys a dated academic book, usually that reader understands that at least some of the issues raised will not have worn well, while others that have since come to the fore lie beyond the horizon of that work. Billed as an important, even foundational, work introducing not only feminist musicology, but larger issues of feminist cultural criticism, the creation of gendered identity and sexualities, centering on popular music, I found Sexing the Groove to be . . . ahem . . . uneven. One essay, on the construction of maleness and femaleness in the work of Bruce Springsteen reads like the kind of undergraduate essay written by someone who has just discovered the notion of the social construction of gender and sexual identity and sees something profound in deconstructing the characters in the lyrics of mid-period Springsteen. I would have returned the paper, asking for a bit more research (there are only one or two endnotes to this particular essay). Another, a kind of Kantian reading of k. d. lang’s image before and after her coming out in 1992, would be far more interesting if there were even more focus on lang’s changing musical sensibilities from contentious Country Western singer to pop chanteuse. Finally, perhaps the worst of the lot, is a very short essay, “Female Identity And The Woman Songwriter”, end abruptly just at the point where I thought the author was going to keep digging deeper. Again, this essay had a single endnote. I would have sent it back as incomplete.

There are bright spots, here, however: An essay on the Pet Shop Boys – an essay that includes a focus on the musical text itself! – and their playfulness with sexual imagery; an essay on Sinead O’Connor’s evolving presentation of herself; the second of two essays on the 1990’s riot grrrl scene; an analysis of the construction of a variety of masculinities in the videos of 1990’s British boy band Take That. These essays offer real insight, not least including some textual analysis of The Pet Shop Boys that’s important for understanding their larger project, musically as well as musically.

That essay, however – except for a very brief inclusion of the musical text of Madonna’s “Justify My Love” – is like an oasis in a desert. For a book that is supposed to be focusing on Popular Music and Gender, there is a paucity of musical analysis, with much of the matter on the construction of gender highlighting (corporately constructed) images (in the case of Madonna, Take That), lyric conventions (Springsteen), or even completely non-musical arenas such as ‘zines and the popular press (essays on riot grrl). These last, two essays on riot grrrl, seem to understand the music itself as a surd, an irrelevance in the construction of a scene. While the first essay certainly tries to trace a genealogy of riot grrrl through punk back to the Womyn’s Music scene of the early to mid-1970’s, both the method and purpose of the examination is ideological without any grounding in the sounds themselves. If you, as an author are going to say to that Bikini Kill turns punk conventions on their ears but don’t have the ability to talk about that other than discussing how the women dress or the fact they say “fuck” a lot, then perhaps you should be very careful how you make your arguments. Neither essay addresses what, it seems to me, is an important question: Why is it music, in particular this style or genre of music that was attractive to girls and young women in the early and mid-1990’s, getting them to move through the music to social and political activism? One gets the sense, reading these essays, that the music isn’t nearly as important as the larger scene that emerged around the bands that formed riot grrrl consciousness.

The last essay, “Digital Erotics and the Culture of Narcissism”, was already dated when it was included in this volume. With only cursory looks at music videos from ZZ Top, The Talking Heads, and Seal, the author waxes far more about a video art project from the early 1990’s that, while certainly interesting, has nothing at all to do wither with music or gender. Trying desperately to be all Frankfurt School/Marxist-Freudian (Adorno is cited without criticism in this essay), the whole thing ends up a muddle, leaving this reader wondering why the hell it took so long to say nothing at all.

And yet . . .

The really good essays almost – almost – make the book worth purchasing.

And yet . . .

Other than an overview of the Womyn’s Music movement as part of a larger genealogy of riot grrrl, there is no separate treatment on what is surely an important part of the role of popular music and our understanding of gender. Robert Walser is noted several times but there are no essays, say, on the ambiguous hyper-masculinity of heavy metal. Culture Club is mentioned without any discussion of Boy George’s early androgyny and identity as a gay man as opening up popular culture to amorphous polysexualities. The Indigo Girls aren’t mentioned at all. Nor are Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart, Barbara Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Rob Halford. These are all important touchstones in any real in-depth analysis of popular music and gender/sexuality. Their absence is deeply felt.

I was disappointed in what could have been. I was offended by some of the worst. I was brightened by the occasionally really good essays. I came away, however, with the feeling of finally being done with a chore.

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