Monday Musings: Riot Grrls, Teddy Boys, Subculture, Music and Gender

Posted on September 12, 2011


The critic's back in action.

I don’t usually narrow my analyses of musical sounds and genres to ‘single-issue’ terms, but looking at what I usually say, there’s only an occasional engagement with gender as an active discourse, so I thought I’d have a think about it. Because the central reason I don’t pay much conscious attention is that I’m a bloke, and gender is largely invisible to blokes, as race is largely invisible to whites, and poverty to the rich.

So what am I on about then? I mean, if I’m interested in music in styles that happen to be classed as ‘popular’, rather than the broader, shallow, tawdry universe that is ‘popular music’, don’t I just listen to the sounds and ignore any issues like race and gender? Isn’t it actually racist or sexist to do otherwise?

Well, the fact is that every social discourse that intersects with the agents and context of a musical utterance’s production play a part in the form the music takes, the way it is distributed, and the way we hear it. We can’t separate these things: aesthetic essentialism is a nice idea, but it doesn’t hold water. Race plays a part in the way we make and hear popular music, because of the huge part race played in its conditions of production historically, and the perceived ‘blackness’ of styles and practices that are components and antecedents of contemporary genres. Similarly, gender (which is, let’s face it, a pretty central part of everyone’s identity) plays a part in our expectations about music, and the way we make it.

I think we need some concrete examples.

    • It is unusual to see a woman playing the drums in a band, in any style.
    • If a band walks into a room, sans instruments, and one of them is a woman, most people will assume they’re the singer.
    • The higher the proportion of women in a band (with many notable exceptions, obviously), the more likely it is that the band will perform ‘softer’, more ‘feminine’ music.
    • If a punk band consists entirely of women, most audiences will pre-judge their sub-genre before they play a note (i.e. they’ll assume they’re a riot grrl band).
    • If a heavy metal band walks onstage, and the singer is a woman, most audiences will similarly expect to hear melodic metal, symphonic metal, or some other related sub-genre.
    • Women in soul or funk bands are usually singers or play wind instruments. Conversely, rhythm sections are usually composed of men, and the rhythm section’s work is thought to be more ‘manly’ or ‘practical’.

Most of these examples are about audience expectations, but musicians are members of audiences too, and an individual’s sense of themselves as gendered will always influence the choices they make in their work as musicians. There are many subtle distinctions made along gender lines, where certain genres are considered to be more masculine or feminine, and the gendering of roles within those genres can be coded in complex ways.

Some order is imposed on these complexities by the history, from the mid 20th century, of youth subcultures associated with particular styles of music. From what I’ve read, there seems to be a predominant academic account of this history in Britain which paints subcultures as working class, and socially conservative in certain important ways, until punk arrives out of nowhere in a moment of unanticipated rupture. This is not entirely true, and conveniently ignores the middle-class hippies, with their very strong musical identifications.

It’s still worth a look at this picture however: Teddy Boys, were, well, boys, and the Mods, while they had a more clearly defined role for girls, were also identified by the activities and behaviours of young men. Although girls had their roles within these subcultures, and their own particular fashion codes that signalled their allegiance, they were ancillary to the main thrust of their tribes, and their role was pretty much the same as for women in mainstream culture (look pretty, perform menial tasks, be sexually available and simultaneously chaste, all the usual bollocks). In the account described by Dick Hebdige et al this pattern was disrupted by punk, when socially self-aware working class kids suddenly exploded into the streets and demanded to be allowed to define their own roles and identities, and women played their stereotyped roles only in order to subvert them (e.g. with latex dresses and exaggerated makeup).

In fact, some degree of youth cultural emancipation had come the way of women in the hippy era, although they were still predominantly expected just to look pretty, perform menial tasks, and be sexually available (the pretense of virtue was less important), and it should be noted that punk was considerably less politically correct in close-up than some sociologists would like to believe. However, in both of these self-consciously counter-cultural subcultures, women were fully a part of the scene: girls could be punks or hippies just as much as the boys could.

Any sense that everything got fixed by punk can be corrected by a brief look at the contemporary music scene, and by asking any woman involved in it whether it’s ever been assumed she doesn’t know how to use her amplifier or set up the PA.

If punk had been so internally egalitarian, it also seems highly unlikely that the riot grrl movement would ever have arisen. This is an identifiable brand of punk music: it is not hardcore, not old school punk (or street punk as it’s often known in the US), and it’s decidedly not pop-punk. It’s not stylistically an outlandish departure, but it has its own sound, and it’s a sound that is definitively gendered, although all of its sonic characteristics might often be classified as ‘masculine’. The fact is that riot grrl is performed by women, and its sounds are therefore clearly ‘women’s sounds’. Not that I’m about to attempt anything as simple-minded as a taxonomy of rock musemes on gender lines, but I feel you’ll be missing some of the aesthetic point of this music if you ignore its gender.

As a music reviewer, it’s my job to turn my theoretical understanding of music into valuations, if not into actual value judgements. So how does all this confusing stuff about gender contribute to that process? The simple answer, as you can probably guess from the tentative incoherence of the above ramblings, is that I don’t know. I do know that it’s important, but it’s important not to confuse gendering with sexism. I’m quite happy to call foul on anything that excludes either gender from participation in certain activities, or from receiving their due respect as participants, but I’m sure only the most hard-core of theoretical feminists would disagree with me when I say that gender difference is actually a positive source of diversity.

Gender is a core distinction, if not the core distinction, that we make when we construct our identities from the huge confusing mass of social signals that come our way. Gender, as a social construct, depends for its existence on the differences between men and women, and although we can debate how social and how biological many of those differences are, those differences are a central source of social meaning. As such, it’s fine in my book that there should be differences in the ways that men and women approach music, and in the kinds of music that they make. I’m usually favourably disposed toward music that avoids reinforcing conventional gender based assumptions, and especially that which undermines them, especially when it involves women making loud ugly guitar noises (since that validates my own liking for them as something more than adolescent male shouting). You’re not likely to hear me characterising anything I review as ‘girly’ or ‘macho’ (unless I’m taking the piss), but I’m going to make an effort to consciously consider gender, and to examine my own assumptions, before I write them into the muscular, manly prose you all love to be dominated by.