Agenders — thoughts — Mubert Blog Agenders — thoughts — Mubert Blog

Agenders — thoughts

Compared to painting or literature, academic music knows even fewer female composers in its history. This fact has, on multiple occasions, become the starting point for all kinds of quasi-scientific speculations and generalizations, in particular, the myth that women are supposedly not as “musical” by nature as men.


Compared to painting or literature, academic music knows even fewer female composers in its history. This fact has, on multiple occasions, become the starting point for all kinds of quasi-scientific speculations and generalizations, in particular, the myth that women are supposedly not as “musical” by nature as men. For example, during the panel discussion “Sex, Feminism, and the Curse of Male Approval”, one of the participants who represented the conservative side tried to make a similar assumption: “We can’t now name a single female composer in the history of mankind…”

Surprisingly, none of the feminists taking part in the discussion could name a single woman composer, at least their fellow countrywoman Sofia Gubaidulina. But this forgetfulness is especially notable in light of the fact that the founder of this “male” art is not only a woman but also, presumably, a lesbian. According to those who study the art of Hildegard of Bingen, this medieval nun was not only the first musical celebrity and the foremother of opera, but her works represented female homoerotic religious chants.

As to the proportionally small number of women in music, the obvious explanation for this fact is the limited participation of women due to the lack of institutional access to education, career opportunities, public appearance, etc. And the very structure of classical music performance, despite its collective nature, is hierarchic and oriented towards the romantic vision of the male creator’s genius. Although this domain has, in general, become much more open and inclusive, there are very few female conductors on stage. The selection criteria that guided music scholars – usually men – who wrote the history of music and laid down the canons for its evaluation should also be taken into account.

The art of singing is a different story. This form of art boasts far more women than men. One of the reasons for this is the image of a female performer constructed as an object of visual pleasure for “a man’s eye”. Even today, thanks to producers, stylists and image-makers, the main female representatives of the mainstream music industry conform to popular notions of female attractiveness in a lot of ways, and their whole image is excessively sexualized. Yet, one should be careful with such generalizations as it excludes the desire of the woman herself, as well as many optics, and besides, today’s identity market produces more and more unconventional segments, where the violation of gender stereotypes is welcome, and sexual dissidence sometimes turns out to be more important than the music itself.

However, music is not so much about looks as it is about voice. Its magnetism and seductiveness are a mystery that philosophers and later psychoanalysts have been trying to crack for centuries. Unlike the written or printed text, the live voice goes beyond the language, semantics, and sensemaking, dissolving into pure sound, which is especially evident in song performance. This is probably why the church and governments kept imposing restrictions on the art of singing. According to the psychoanalytic interpretation, the vocal shakes the boundaries of the symbolic order on which our social structure is based and arouses uncontrolled desires. But since patriarchal society is dominated by male heterosexual desire, the dangerous indulging voice is always female.

It’s not only that a certain gender is attributed to the voice, but the voice also attributes a gender to its listener. For example, a love of female vocals may be perceived as overly feminine (as is a liking for high music in general). Present-day gender socialization takes place with the active participation of popular bands and performers. I clearly remember trying to listen to Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park and other “music for boys” on MTV to meet the expectations of my friends, when I was a teenager. When I dared to put on Celine Dion at my own birthday party, they called me a sissy. For the queer community, consciously choosing bad or too sugary popular music, preferring female vocals or worshiping divas is often a form of conscious (or semi-conscious) self-advocacy.

However, the leading role of female vocals does not necessarily imply certain equality in music. Pure singing, as I wrote above, goes from the rationality domain, which is traditionally associated with masculinity, to the “feminine” sphere of emotions. This is how gender roles are often distributed in rap, perhaps one of the most misogynistic genres of popular music. I mean those popular duets where the main semantic content of the song is spoken by a man (recitative) and a woman performs only the melodic verse, which is essentially devoid of any independent meaning. As a rule, its function is ornamental and advertising – to decorate, draw attention, and stick to memory. This might be the reason why rap is the territory of pure meaning in which all kinds of sexual, gender and ethnic minorities are fighting for the right to participate today.

To follow up on the analogy, we can also have a look at the IT-sphere. Being essentially a gender-neutral medium like music, artificial intelligence has found its manifestation among Internet geeks – the image of Roko’s Basilisk, a certain sinister punishing god. Moreover, virtual assistants – and feminist critics have written about that on more than one occasion – are also given a gender dimension. So, Siri, Cortana, Alexa, and Alisa have female voices by default. Thus, the association of a voice with a certain gender reproduces the usual division of labor, where a secretary performs similar back-office work of searching, selecting, and sorting information.

But what about pure sound – without the body, the voice or the text? Music is historically considered to be the most abstract form of art, which is actually hard to argue with. And this is where both its strength and its weakness lie. According to feminist music studies, this very myth has made music so vulnerable to patriarchal interpretation, to which we can add the subsequent neglect of women in its history. With reference to the autonomy of the music, that is, its independence from the outer world, male researchers did not allow the discussion of any social issues for a long time. At the same time, traditional musicology itself was far from any gender neutrality. For example, even such abstract categories as cadences were gendered: they could be “female” or “male”.

Abstraction and non-representation of music make it potentially open to being agender and fluid. It is absolutely neutral by itself, like any other medium, means of expression or technology. Consonance is a pure difference that can be reassembled anew. The association of technology and even musical instruments with a purely “male” occupation has definitely slowed down the blurring of boundaries in this industry. Electronic and synthetic music, which can be created today with minimum equipment (literally with just a phone), can fundamentally change both the gender composition of its production and the attitude to this art.


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