Music & Gender

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One of the things I’ve always been interested in is pop music. Well, that should be obvious, don’t you think? I mean, really — it’s probably less an interest than an obsession. But that’s all right, too. However, one of the other things I’ve been interested in is the use of language and social constructs, like how society views gender and all that kind of happy stuff. The cultural aspects of that kind of thing. And, well, since I’m an American Pop Music Consumer, when I’m talking or thinking about “culture”, I’m typically thinking of what Fancy-Pants Guys The World Over term “low” culture. Which us non-Fancy-Pants Guys The World Over call “pop culture” or “awesome stuff like movies or records and, like, stuff”.

To be more direct, what I’ve been especially thinking about is songs where there aren’t any explicit lyrical clues as to the gender/sexuality of the characters involved, but where we assign it — and wondering whether or not we assign it based on other lyrical clues and the use of typically “feminine” or “masculine” language, or if, rather, it’s all tied up in the popular idea that the singer is singing not as a narrator, but as Themselves (sort of that whole thing The Residents tried to avoid with the whole anonymity thing). Basically — even though there might not be anything lyrically that would need to be changed, would it be odd if I, a straight male, sang, say, “Divorce Song” by Liz Phair?

When I was thinking about this one, three songs particularly came to mind — partially because they’re three of my favorites, but they also fit this idea pretty well: The aforementioned “Divorce Song”, “Identity” by X-Ray Spex, and “You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk” by Pet Shop Boys (though, really, basically any of their songs would do).

Since I’m a slave to arbitrary orderings, I’ll start with “Divorce Song”. If’n you’d like, here’s a page with all the lyrics to Exile In Guyville; “Divorce Song” is about, halfway down and change. If you’ve got Firefox or Safari (or, well, basically any other good browser), you might want to open that up in a tab. But then, I’m kind of a tab junkie, so I would say that. Anyway, maddening digressions aside, let’s take a look at the lyrics. There’s nothing in there to suggest that the narrator is a soon-to-be-ex-wife and the other character is a soon-to-be-ex-husband (aside from the relatively common knowledge that Liz Phair herself wrote this song about her own actual real-life divorce, but I’m talking about just the song cut out from outside context and all), yet that’s how it sounds. But what about it seems more “feminine” — or does it?

Looking at the text, there seem to be a few cultural clues; the other character is driving on a road trip with the narrator, and in popular culture, the male in the relationship is typically depicted as being the main driver — look at, well, just about anything. In National Lampoon’s Vacation, Chevy Chase/Clark Griswold is ALWAYS driving — I haven’t seen it in a while, but I don’t think there is a single scene in which Beverly D’Angelo/Ellen Griswold is behind the wheel (if she is, however, it’s not an Iconic Image of the film, which tends to be a harried Chevy/Clark driving his bored/frustrated family to WallyWorld. Or, in The Simpsons, Marge is often shown driving — but only if Homer isn’t in the car as well.

Of course, this alone doesn‘t mean that the gender roles of the song have to be defined that way; I can think of other examples in popular culture where the woman is the driver (perhaps most notably, eels‘ “Woman Driving, Man Sleeping”; though it could be argued there that perhaps the hook of the title is that it’s a flip of standard expectations) — but there are other cultural clues in this song. The first lines, “And when I asked for a separate room/It was late at night/And we’d been driving since noon” — it’s another situation where in films and television, it’s typically the woman who wants a separate room (or if the man asks, it’s out of a sense of chivalry — the whole “Oh, you are a woman and I am a man, and we are so entirely different that we must both have privacy, otherwise you will think that I’m trying to jump your bones, since, after all, a man and a woman alone can only lead to sex!” thing). I don’t even know if I can think of an example off the top of my head where a man and woman are at a motel and they want separate rooms just because.

Also, in this song, there’s the lines “And the license said you had to stick around until I was dead/But if you’re tired of looking at my face, I guess I already am”; the lines here clearly refer to the crushing realization that someone you love and who once loved you back no longer does. The phrasing here, however, adds a bit of a dimension of outward attractiveness — it’s not just the sense of love, but also the sense of boredom, or a loss of interest in the narrator’s beauty, which is, a traditionally “feminine” idea.

Along the same lines as that line in “Divorce Song” is the whole of “Identity”; the song is also about attractiveness (again, scroll down about halfway and change), but in a more universal sense. Where “Divorce Song” is about the micro (one half of a couple no longer finding the other desirable), “Identity” is about the macro (comparing yourself to images in the media and finding yourself lacking). “Do you see yourself/On the TV screen/Do you see yourself in the magazine/When you see yourself/Does it make you scream”. This idea of media and body image is traditionally thought of a mostly feminine problem, and that’s typically how it’s presented in the media (including Daft Punk‘s recent music video for “Prime Time Of Your Life” — not recommended for younger audiences, but it’s pretty good), though there have been many studies and articles presenting it as just as much a problem for the male part of the species as well. Yet, I think “Identity” would be another song that would sound “odd” coming from the voice of a man, rather than a woman — after all, a lot of the blame for body image disorders is place on males (even by males — Thomas Dolby‘s song “Airhead” ends with “And it was men made her that way”? and yet it was still controversial as people accused Dolby of perpetuating those stereotypes as something to be strived for!), so one wonders if a song like “Identity” coming from a male voice would be seen as “hypocritical” or not “genuine”. Or perhaps the hypothetical male singer of “Identity” would be seen as someone speaking out against a problem (the way “Airhead” was intended, rather than how it was received)?

Still, though, I think “Identity” has a much less chance of sounding “weird” by a male vocalist as “Divorce Song”. But wrapped up in these ideas of gender is also that of sexuality; as gay men have higher rates of body image disorder than straight men (though it is a problem for both), perhaps the song would be better received if sung by an openly gay musician? And speaking about homosexuality, is there a similar barrier between a straight singer and a gay singer? I don’t think so, but I do think there is one that exists, at least on that gut-level; for example, “You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk”, despite having the only gender-specific pronouns be directed at the narrator has struck me as a “gay” song that would be strange-sounding if presented as a song by an “openly straight” male performer/narrator. I think in this case, the narrator in the song is the one who is being treated poorly, which is one of those cultural things where relationship dynamics are typically thought of where the aggressor is “masculine” and the more submissive one is “feminine” — although, I think this is about tied with “Identity” as being the less awkward if performed by a straight male.

Things like this are always interesting to think about — one of my pet projects that I’d love to work on and complete at some point is an album of “various artists” taken as an artifact from a culture where homosexuality is the dominant paradigm, and heterosexuality has ebbed and flowed as an “underground” culture, taking slices of pop music from different times; songs from the complete Above-Culture where they’re straight homosexual love songs, also Above-Culture songs written by closet heterosexuals that can have double-meanings read into them, popular culture songs with a “kitsch”/”camp” type aspect that would be popular in Straight Bars, indie-pop where it’s people who are openly straight singing about such, gimmick bands where they’d be Above-Culture but Straight for Shock Value (i.e. t.A.T.u., whom I adore, by the way; really excellent pop music, if I do say so myself), and, finally, above-culture songs that are neither apologetic nor “shocking” that are “out”, but without being “niche”. (I’m not quite sure we’re there yet in our non-mirror-universe culture, but hopefully soon.)

I’ve probably rambled on way too long about this, so I might as well stop. It’s just something I like to think (too much) about. Such are the pitfalls of being a complete culture junkie like myself.


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