information about The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion and Rock 'n 'Roll by Simon Reynolds and Joy Press
published 1995 by Serpent's Tail in the UK, and by Harvard University Press in America
When the word gender is mentioned in connection with music, it's usually assumed to refer to that old chestnut 'women in rock', as if men were somehow exempt from the very category of gender. The Sex Revolts looks at both male and female artists through the lens of gender. When we first started our research, we were struck by an apparent paradox--that the most exhilarating rock'n'roll seemed to be fuelled by misogyny. We were fascinated by the way that what sounds and feels like liberation--the music of The Rolling Stones, The Stooges, Nick Cave--often conceals the seeds of domination.
In The Sex Revolts, we argue that, underlying any form of rebellion--whatever its ostensible context -- is a fundamental psychosexual syndrome of cutting loose, a breaking away from mother and domesticity, or from women who threaten to smother, chain down and emasculate. A classic example from the '60s is The Who song "A Legal Matter," where the hero feels his willpower enfeebled by the "household fog" of furnishings, baby's clothes, matrimony, etc. Throughout the '60s, male wildness is dramatized against female domestication.
Sometimes rebellion expresses itself as a more abstract dread of engulfment and enclosure. Throughout the history of rock, conformity, stasis and confinement register as feminine and emasculating; rebellion, speed, movement and open space are masculine and virile. It's striking that two of the greatest rebel rockers in history--Johnny Rotten and Kurt Cobain--both wrote disturbing love-hate songs about being smothered by a woman. In the Sex Pistols' "Submission," Rotten sets out on a submarine mission into the murky depths of mysterious, literally unfathomable femininity: "can't figure out your watery love". By the end of the journey he's screaming a dread-ful affirmation of love: "wanna drown, drown, under the sea." In Nirvana's "Heart Shaped Box," Kurt Cobain oscillates between a nostalgia for the womb and a sort of castration-anxiety: one minute he's begging a woman to let down her "umbilical noose" so he can climb back inside, the next he's recoiling from her "magnet tar-pit." The female figure in "Heart-Shaped Box" seems to be a conflation of Cobain's mother, his wife Courtney Love, and heroin. This phantasmic woman signifies both sanctuary and death; in fact, on another song on the intriguingly titled In Utero album, he wails "I'm married, buried."
Other rock bands have resisted the dangerous lure of domestic comfort and emotional intimacy, by rallying together to form a sort of brotherhood-in-arms. From combat rockers like The Clash to rap ideologues like Public Enemy and missionary crusaders like U2, these bands have created an imaginary universe where women barely figure, either as subjects or as subject matter in song. The Clash's manager Bernie Rhodes instructed Joe Strummer and Mick Jones to write about "an issue, an issue, don't write about love, write about what's affecting you, what's important". Causes and crusades provide a glorious pretext for male bonding, doubtless one that seems a lot more noble and less pointless than, say, the homosocial tribalism of football fandom.
Of course, there's another strain in rock, one that doesn't shun the feminine but worships it--that engages in a mystical identification with the feminine, a homesickness for a lost paradise. This is the psychedelic tradition, which The Sex Revolts defines in the broadest sense to include everything from Van Morrison, Pink Floyd, and Can, to Brian Eno, My Bloody Valentine and today's ambient techno. Where the rebel severs himself from the mother and home in his quest to become his own man, these psychedelic mystics are mother's boys looking for a way back to the lost bliss of infancy. This longing to be enfolded and subsumed often expresses itself lyrically in the form of oceanic and cosmic imagery, or in pastoral hymns to Mother Nature; musically, the driving 'phallic' beats and distinct hard-edged riffs of classic rebel rock are replaced by amorphous waves of texture and undulating grooves. Jimi Hendrix was torn between these two aesthetics, these two impulses -- for every hard rocking number like "Crosstown Traffic" (in which he's running from a clinging lover so frantically he runs her over, leaving tire tracks on her back) there's a song like "Belly Button Window" in which he imagines himself an unborn child nestled in his mum's comfy womb, or his oceanic classic "1983, A Merman I Should Turn To Be," in which he imagines fleeing from a war-torn world and finding refuge in a subaquatic utopia.
So the history of rock has oscillated violently between the quest for absolute separation and the longing for absolute fusion, or to put another way, between the punk urge and the psychedelic impulse. In this psychosexual scheme, woman is always the object, never the subject--she's either what's being run away from or run away to, either trap or shelter. So it's understandable that women have found it hard to find a place for themselves within this dynamic. What makes the music of female performers like Patti Smith, Kate Bush, Courtney Love, Siouxsie, and PJ Harvey so compelling is precisely their struggle to remake rock in their own image, to re-incorporate what's been written out of the rock'n'roll script: namely, female experience.
The most interesting female artists are generally those who feel the pull of double allegiances--although they're intoxicated and inspired by male rock 'n'roll ferocity, they are also aware, at some level, that rock has always either put women down or put them right up on a pedestal, mystified them out of existence. How does a woman take possession of rock'n'roll, retain its primal energies, yet sever it from the anti-woman impetus that so often fuels its force?
Patti Smith managed it: she worshipped male rock icons like Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison, imitating their cool style and mannerisms to a T--but eventually, in songs like "Land" and "Radio Ethiopia," she transcended their influence, creating a fluid, freeform version of garage rock'n'roll. She described the Patti Smith Group, who as it happened were all men, as "a feminine band." She said, "We'll go so far and peak, then we'll start again, and peak, over and over. It's like ocean".
A 90s artist troubled by split allegiances is Courtney Love of Hole; she is someone who can admit to being influenced by American hardcore punk bands while also struggling against the hardcore scene's misogyny, its endless litany of songs about serial killers and dismembered women. On their debut album, Hole took their musical cues from bands like Black Flag. On the albums Damaged and My War, Black Flag singer Henry Rollins wallowed in a mire of humiliation and self-loathing. He turned his body and soul into a battle ground; Rollins talks about how as a teenager "I had no sense of myself. All I was, was a product of the fear and humiliation I suffered." So he turned to weightlifting to keep his weak sense of self in check. "Time spent away from the Iron makes my mind degenerate," he says. "I wallow in a thick depression."
Henry Rollins makes an interesting counterpoint to Courtney Love; where he appears to be excessively control-oriented, she appears to be both out of and beyond control. While his music with Black Flag and the Rollins Band is visceral and armored, battling against the morass, Love and Hole's music is viscous, it approximates the morass. Love takes a voluntary swandive into the heart of female horror and angst, her performance like a striptease that removes too many layers to be titillating.
Black Flag paved the way for grunge's castration blues, the flailing sound of failed masculinity that made Nirvana and Alice in Chains resonate for Generation X. As a female grunge band, Hole were doubly 'castrated', misfits within grunge's subculture of maladjusted male misfits. Another big influence on Courtney Love was Big Black, which might seem odd, given their misogynist streak (and her later dislike for Steve Albini); Love says she responded to a male pathos concealed beneath Big Black's vindictiveness. In a way, Hole reclaim abjection as a terrain of damaged subjectivity of which women have an insider's knowledge. It's as if Hole say: hardcore and grunge boys profess to be outsiders, therefore, women, as ultimate outsiders, are surely the truest punks.
PJ Harvey is probably the most striking example in recent years of a female artist reworking the terms of rock tradition from within. Her avowed role models are all male (from Muddy Waters to Nick Cave to Tom Waits) but her songs betray a deep ambivalence towards masculinity; she seems both to envy machismo, and to find it absurd. On the one hand, she aspire to the neutrality of the male rocker; on the other, she's both envious of and repelled by machismo's swagger . Some of her songs are almost like exercises in drag, male impersonations that mock as much as celebrate. "Mansize" is sung in the guise of a self-aggrandizing thug who treasures his "birthright" of invincible confidence, but Harvey slyly reveals that the guy is engaged in an internal battle "to get girl out of my head/douse hair with gasoline/set it light and set it free". In "50 Foot Queenie" , a song she says was inspired by the grandiose posturing of gangsta rap, Harvey declares herself "king of the world." On To Bring You My Love, Harvey goes even further, taking on the persona of an old black bluesman on the song "I Think I'm A Mother" and singing hoary old catchprases like "is my voodoo working" in the blues-rock track "Long Snake Moan."
Such conflicted and contradiction-riven representations of feminity as offered by Love and Harvey are, for us, far more provocative than the "positive role-modelling" of strong women-in-pop like Annie Lennox or Madonna. After all, ferocity, turmoil and confusion have always been much more rock'n'roll than stability or wisdom. That said, PJ Harvey and Hole's innovations are mainly at the level of content, based around lyrics and the manipulation of their public image; they don't really alter the musical conventions of rock as we know it. There have been some exceptional female artists and bands who have radicalized rock form -- Yoko Ono early on in her career, Patti Smith, the Raincoats & the Slits, and Throwing Muses all stretched and ruptured rock'n'roll in the search for new ways to inscribe their gendered identities into music. Unfortunately, this is a relatively neglected legacy; after all, by unravelling rock, these female artists are exiling themselves even further from the mainstream musical fraternity. So if you have something urgent to say, it's tempting to use a straightforward format that's most likely to get your message across. Which goes some way toward explaining the sonic conservatism of much of the music made under the banner of Riot Grrrl--a movement which nevertheless inspired even more young women to pick up guitars and even out the rock gender gap.
Listening to rock bands today, it seems that the men have little new to say: the same old preoccupations, postures and scenarios are repeated with slight variations and diminishing returns. Having exhausted the psychosexual dynamic of male rebellion, rock culture is confronting the possibility that the only new frontier is female experience.
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