Next semester I will teaching an MA subject on popular music and masculinity as a sort of sequel to the BA course I taught last year which led to the publication of the collective e-book by the students Songs of Empowerment: Women in 21st Century Popular Music (downloadable for free). I wrote a post presenting the volume in which I wondered whether the e-book on men might be called Songs of Entitlement in the worst case scenario. We’ll see…
In preparation for the subject I have read Sam de Boise’s Men, Masculinity, Music and Emotions (2015) which is, basically, the most complete study on this topic at least as regards music consumption. You might think that there are many volumes on gender and popular music but this is not the case, much less so on masculinity. There is quite a longish list of volumes on women (in the style of Women and Popular Music: Sexuality, Identity and Subjectivity by Sheila Whiteley (2000)), but nothing that systematic on men, and I find Stan Hawkins’s edited volume The Routledge Research Companion to Popular Music and Gender (2017) too miscellaneous for the needs of the subject and my students. Incidentally, I’ve had to buy a copy of de Boise’s book for the library because I can hardly ask my students to pay 135 euros for the hardback, nor 106 for the e-book. But that’s a matter for another post.
De Boise’s thesis is that our understanding of gender is vitiated by the supposition that since emotion is naturally coded feminine and rationality masculine, men who are in touch with their emotions are taking a progressive, pro-feminist path. He makes the point that music is one of the areas of culture in which men have shown and are showing emotion without the intervention of any pro-feminist ideologies and, so, we need to end the fallacy that men are in essence inextricably bounded to rationality. As you can see, de Boise’s thesis is a minefield. On the one hand, he is denying the patriarchal premise by which ‘feminine’ emotion is less valuable than ‘masculine’ rationality and thus assuming an anti-patriarchal stance by which emotion is presented as an integral aspect of masculinity, whether hegemonic men like it or not. On the other hand, by exaggerating the extent to which rationality is coded masculine, he forgets that patriarchy allows men to show emotion in certain areas, such as sports or partying to better control and suppress emotion in other areas of life. De Boise claims that the emotions men feel when listening to music prove that they are certainly emotional individuals in all aspects of life; my view is, rather, that being emotional in one field of life does not mean that a person is emotional in all fields. Hitler loved his German shepherd bitch Blondi but that seems to have been the whole range of his positive emotions.
At any rate, de Boise has plenty to say about masculinity and emotion particularly as regards the consumption of music, and he offers very interesting glimpses into what could be called the musical autobiography of his interviewees (his volume is a sociological study). This set me thinking about my own musical autobiography and the approach I am going to use in the subject, which will begin with the students exploring their own autobiographical relation to music. From what I saw last year among my students, everyone young listens to music but from what my own experience reveals, not everyone older enjoys it. Actually, I taught the course on women and pop hoping to revive my lost pleasure in listening to music but I’m sorry to say it has not returned despite the magnificent effort the students made to take me back onto the right path. This failure has started a reflexion on my side about what has gone wrong and when, considering that I used to tell myself that the day I stopped listening to popular music I would no longer be me.
So, let me trace the basic stages of music consumption along life, what I am calling a musical autobiography, and see where you are in this process. There are a variety of factors to take into account, some of which we tend to neglect (for instance portability, to which I will return). I’d like to note that I am referring here to popular music, which gathers together a variety of styles usually focused on the song. Opera, which we regard as part of classical music but used to be a popular genre (closer to Spanish zarzuela than we assume) also depends on singing, but whereas one may sing any popular song (hence the popularity of karaoke), you need vocal training to be able to sing opera (except in the privacy of your shower). Songs, as we know them in current pop, rock, and other popular styles are enjoyed in three main ways: listening, singing along, and dancing. How, where, and with whom we enjoy these three facets of songs shape our habits of consumption, but also help to undermine them.
In many ways, personal autonomy is defined when a child starts listening to their own music, after passively listening to their parents’ or siblings’ choices. Personal choice depends both on individual taste and peer interaction, or even pressure. For my own demographic, information on popular music used to come from specialized TV shows imitating Top of the Pops, the radio and the print music media; of course, the internet altered all that and now YouTube and Spotify are the platforms that help children to find new music. I will insist that childhood and not adolescence as it is always assumed is where music consumption is defined.
Adolescence brings an intensification of the need for autonomy, and a new freedom to attend gigs and enjoy dancing in clubs, making music a more collective experience. If you’re lucky, that is. In my own case, I never came across friends with the same musical tastes (I was into indie all the time), which means that I didn’t attend many gigs before I was in my twenties; as for disco dancing (the word ‘club’ was popularized later) I wasn’t that lucky, either. I love dancing, but I hated disco music and by the 1990s when other styles flourished, my life had taken other directions. Interestingly, many of de Boise’s interviewees distinguish between private music listening and music consumption with friends, or housemates, or partners. In this second case, they say, one must be willing to subordinate musical preferences to socializing and to keeping romantic relationships alive. I think I never learned that lesson…
An interesting phenomenon that I have witnessed in my lifetime is the extension to all ages of gigs. It used to be the case that both clubbing and attending gigs were limited to those under twenty-five, or thirty at the most. Clubbing is still very much an ageist affair because it is connected with flirting and/or hooking up. I would not dream of going dancing, alone or with friends, to any of Barcelona’s main clubs for that reason, though I do miss dancing (and I hate clubs for boomers with 1980s music I never liked). Yet, going to gigs is no problem at all, which is great. I would never have gone with a parent to a gig, but I was delighted to discover that people my age are taking their children to gigs when a student told me she had attended with her dad the same Depeche Mode concert I had enjoyed. I think it is wonderful that young people have adapted to enjoying the music of the former generations and that they are not creating barriers for older people to enjoy new music, though now that I am writing this I am wondering how many persons over thirty can be found at a concert by Rosalía (or rather performance since there is no live music in her shows).
Listening to popular music went through a tremendous revolution when artists started selling big quantities of phonographic records, following the launch of the first Gramola in 1924. The gramophone and radio brought music into the homes, and gradually music found its way into the teens’ bedrooms, in the 1960s. There is, of course, a strong link between recorded music, the privacy of the teen’s bedroom, and the autonomous choice of music, which, I’m sure, many scholars have explored. At a personal level, the hours spent listening to songs in English and trying to understand the lyrics were, no doubt, one of the main foundations of my career in English Studies. I’m sure similar experiences have been shared by many of my peers across the globe, for, logically, an interest in songs in English always precedes an interest in books in English, if only because the lyrics and shorter. The inner sleeves of my LPs, where lyrics used to be printed, were awfully crowded with my many misstranslations into Spanish; I absurdly assumed that lyrics would make sense once translated but, of course, as Kurt Cobain always noted, lyrics are supposed to be cool, not meaningful. The next revolution happened in 1979, when Sony launched the Walkman, and, suddenly, you could take your favourite music with you anywhere, beyond what the portable radios played, and take the private mental space of your bedroom into public places. I was nineteen, I think, when I got my first Walkman, and that was a very happy experience. Naturally, children who have grown up with a smartphone in their hands might not realize how amazing it was to be listening to your own music in the middle of a crowd, but that certainly was a turning point.
I have not stopped attending gigs (though I don’t like festivals), but, as I have noted, I have stopped listening to music despite having a bigger choice than ever and advanced technology to enjoy it at home or elsewhere. What happened was that I gradually lost the ability to listen to music as I worked, and I started enjoying silence in my leisure time, when I mostly read. I marvel that until about twelve years ago I could mark exams, prepare lectures, and so on with the music on, and still hear the lyrics. I could not write and listen to songs, but I discovered movie soundtracks and they worked beautifully as musical background (I am totally illiterate regarding classical music). Little my little, though, I realized that I was no longer listening to the music, not even hearing it, as I worked, so I stopped playing it. Working in silence increased my appetite for further silence, and though I am happy enough watching concerts on the streaming platforms or YouTube, I haven’t done in a long time what I used to do as a teen: sit on the sofa, take an album, focus on the lyrics and, yes, sing along. Poor neighbours! An additional problem is that although I tried listening to music on the train as I commute, the machine’s noise requires playing music very loud and my doctor told me I was risking going deaf – as many young people whose music I can hear through their headphones do.
I could spend half an hour, or even one hour, a day listening to music with my tablet, instead of reading the press as I do. I love music videos, so that could be another way of engaging again with music. Yet, the impulse is gone, perhaps because I don’t like the more commercial music and finding indie alternatives, as I did as a teen, feels a little bit like research. Work, not leisure. Or perhaps, following de Boise, because the emotions popular music brought me until about a decade ago are no longer as essential for me as they used to be. If I listen to music I like, they do return, but the impulse to seek them out is just too mild. Reading has colonized all the mental space that music used to occupy, though I still haven’t lost hope. If I had, I would not be getting ready to teach a course again on gender and music, and face the music for having given up on what I used to love so much.