Friday, 27 September 2019

Popular Music and Automobiles

I am pleased to announce a ground-breaking edited volume
from Bloomsbury, co-edited with Dr Beate Peter...

Particularly since the 1950s, cars and popular music have been constantly associated. As complementary goods and intertwined technologies, their relationship has become part of a widely shared experience-one that connects individuals and society, private worlds and public spheres. Popular Music and Automobiles aims to unpack that relationship in more detail. It explores the ways in which cars and car journeys have shaped society, as well as how we have shaped them. Including both broad synergies and specific case studies, Popular Music and Automobiles explores how attention to an ongoing relationship can reveal insights about the assertion and negotiation of identity. Using methods of enquiry that are as diverse as the topics they tackle, its contributors closely consider specific genders, genres, places and texts.

Here is what the book's reviewers are saying...

Mark Duffett and Beate Peter's Popular Music and Automobiles not only helps remedy the paucity of writings on this subject, but does so in an entertaining and informative fashion. This book sheds new light on two postwar pop culture passions and their relationship to each other. 

–  Timothy D. Taylor, Professor of Ethnomusicology, University of California, Los Angeles, USA.

Literally and figuratively, cars and music move us; they transport us physically and emotionally. The connection between the two, now more than a century old, is the subject of this fascinating, provocative collection. Ranging across decades, genres, and continents, Popular Music and Automobiles is a powerful vehicle for exploring the complexities of culture and identity.

–  Mark Katz, Professor of Music, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA.

Popular Music and Automobiles is a fresh take on a profoundly powerful socio-musicological combination. Not only do chapters cover canonical US examples (e.g. The Beach Boys) from new perspectives, but there are case studies from Wales, England, Germany, and Colombia. Authors cover both the more celebratory aspects of pop and cars as well as more difficult topics such as press coverage of popular musicians in car crashes and the role of music in White supremacist violence against those who are so-called 'driving while black.'

–  Justin A. Williams, Senior Lecturer in Music, University of Bristol, UK.

Buy it from Amazon or find out more.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Fandom, Gender and Heavy Metal: An Interview with Rosemary Lucy Hill

Ten years in the making, Dr Rosemary Lucy Hill’s book Gender, Metal and the Media (Palgrave, 2016) draws on extensive fieldwork with female fans to illuminate their gendered experience of the genre.

The book insightfully pinpoints a series of places where sexism shapes and underwrites heavy metal culture. Mechanisms for maintaining sexism in metal include:

·      Pursuing laddish banter in magazines (and thus maintaining heteronormativity and white masculinity as the assumed norm);
·      Visually objectifying female musicians and fans (and judging them accordingly);
·      Accepting or endorsing gendered, sexually harassing behavior (eg. baring breasts at live gigs);
·      Assuming metal does not involve issues of gender because men are primarily interested in the music;
·      Ignoring women as fans and musicians;
·      Encouraging exscription (the idea that male scene participants have written women out of their culture);
·      Questioning the credibility of women as musicians and music experts;
·      Assuming women have chosen to not become musicians (rather than seeking barriers);
·      Requiring female musicians to be especially good players before being accepted;
·      Assuming that womens’ listening pleasure cannot be both musical and sensual or erotic at the same time;
·      Assuming women are sexually attracted to stars rather than interested in music (and, equally, denying the worth of female lust as a legitimate fannish pleasure);
·      Trivializing any subjects or objects coded feminine (pop music, romance, women’s clothing);
·      Tacitly encouraging women to downplay their femininity;·   
·      Allowing women to sidestep gender only if they accede to male norms;
·      Locating gender difference and femininity as a kind of intrusion;
·      Defining away sexism;
·      Using a defense of the genre to deflect questions of sexism;
·      Using downplaying any experiences of harrassment as 'fun,' and portraying harrassers as jokers who did not pose a threat;
·      Assuming gender equality as a way to silence criticism;
·      Personalizing issues effecting women and deflecting them into individual victimhood;

However, in listening to women's experiences, Gender, Metal and the Media goes beyond critiquing the genre for its sexism. After all, society itself is sexist, so it would be illogical to assume any genre would step outside that (without it being its express purpose, as it was with riot grrrl). Instead the book explains how women find pleasure in the music. It assumes that women love heavy metal to start with, and their experiences differ due to gendered upbringings and sexist representations and experiences.

Dr Hill kindly agreed to an interview…

* * *

You spoke to almost twenty white women across a range of age groups who lived in British cities between 2008 and 2011, recruiting them through snowball sampling and conducting in-depth interviews to discuss their experience of metal culture. Can you pass on any advice about fieldwork and methodology that you picked up from that experience, particularly in the context of working on fandom and gender?

That’s a good starter question. I actually found the interviews the most satisfying part of the research. However, this was the first time I’d done interviews and I was very shy about approaching people. I know now (several research projects later) that there is no easy way to find people and to get them to answer your emails or turn up when they say they will! The key is being polite, persistent and accommodating. Keep following up on emails and messages (well, after the third without a reply you should probably leave it). And not to take things personally – people have all sorts of other things going on in their lives and probably think you’ve got tonnes of other people to speak to. I hope that’s helpful advice for novice interviewers.

When it comes to specifically interviewing about things people are really invested in, things they are fans of, you can generally expect people to be really easy to talk to. People love talking about what they love! But if they are part of what I call in the book an ‘imaginary community’ or what some people might call a subculture, then participants might be a bit defensive. Metal is still seen as an inferior form of culture and metal fans do somewhat delight in our outsider status. This is something to be aware of. I made sure my participants knew that I loved metal too, because it is easier to speak more freely with someone who shares the same reference points. But even then, metal is such a vast genre that we weren’t always aware of the same things. The defensiveness thing … that’s not to say that people are lying about their experiences, but that they might use particular discursive techniques to construct their image of the community or the bands they love.

The definition of metal fan also played a part when I was trying to recruit participants. Metal is male dominated and as you’ve outlined there are numerous actions and ideas at play that work to keep it that way. This means that asking to speak to ‘metal fans’ might well have put some women off speaking to me – because they didn’t see themselves as fitting into the definition of a fan. That definition within metal is riven through with a need for a large quantity of subcultural capital (to quote Thornton). So when women are constantly being challenged about their musical knowledge this is to assess whether they are ‘real fans’. To get to speak to more women, I also called for women who loved bands mentioned in Kerrang! magazine (which was my shortcut definition of metal – and not one without questions to be asked of it!). If one therefore sets out to speak to ‘fans’ of band, sports team, film genre or whatever, then, it really pays off to pay attention to the gendered definitions of ‘fan’ that are at play locally within that fannish community.

Your book questions the assumption that “rock is bad for women” (p.120) by suggesting that the genre is more than “an arena for hypermasculine posturing” (p.121). Let’s start with an over-simplification: if heavy metal is often perceived as a repository of sexist attitudes and behaviours, why do so many women enjoy participating in metal culture? Are they trading off their own empowerment, and in effect disempowering themselves?

Let’s start by thinking about the heterogeneity of metal – there are a bazillion subgenres and there are myriad ideas about what metal should be like. This means that there is plenty of room for women to listen to music that does not obviously use misogyny in its aesthetic. I spoke to women who sought out this kind of metal. I also spoke to women who sought out metal that actively resisted sexism, for instance that which was made by feminists and our allies, like My Chemical Romance.

We also need to remember that sexism is the water in which we swim. Misogyny is so prevalent and normalised that we don’t notice it all the time (and believe me it is exhausting when we are paying attention to it). Therefore some women I spoke to just didn’t see it or misrecognised it as something else (like chivalry or natural differences) and were not aware of how it shaped the culture. And then there were others who didn’t listen to lyrics, didn’t go to many gigs and didn’t therefore come face to face with sexism.

But also, when we are surrounded by sexist attitudes and cultural representations, how do we cope with them when we love the cultural artefact? If you love the riffs but hate the lyrics what do you do? Women are expected to take a stand against this - you suggest women are complicit in our own oppression, but are not men who listen to this music also complicit? Should they not also be asking questions of themselves about being complicit in sexist music even if they think of themselves as feminist allies? I would argue that we should all, regardless of gender identity, be asking these questions of ourselves. But then, not all women are feminists so to ask them to engage in feminist thinking around their musical tastes may be going too far.

There are, after all, other things that metal offers women that are nothing to do with sexism: the heavy music, the anger and hatred, the horror imagery, the difference of metal femininity from mainstream femininity etc. If we live in a sexist world then making one choice which has some sexism with it as opposed to another choice which has some sexism with it perhaps shows that sexism is something we live with, rather than being empowered in one sphere and disempowered in another. 

After the 1950s, anxiety around female music fans suggested they were breaking a taboo by sexually desiring male music makers and – more importantly – publically expressing that desire. (A reason, in part, I think, for anxieties about fandom itself.) In metal, there is a second breaking of taboo, because one of the emotions expressed by music in the genre is, arguably, anger… Is there a role for politicalization of anger in relation to the concerns you discuss in the book?


In the book you cite examples of people who believe metal and feminism were antithetical, yet you identify as a metal fan and a feminist, citing, for example, when you went across Europe to see The Darkness. Can you say a bit more about whether those two things really are so separate and how they come together for you as a fan?

Ellen Willis writes of how timid music made her feel timid, whilst punk felt to her like a challenge to confront her own oppression as a woman and provided her with tools to express her anger.

This is really about how our political anger can find expression in music, even if that music isn't directly about the thing we are angry about. Music that accompanies our rage can give us the strength to express ourselves more freely, by making anger okay. And this is especially important for women since we are taught that anger does not become us. This is why women making metal and feminist metal is so valuable, because it provides a cultural representation of angry women that can help to shift our ideas about what kinds of emotion are acceptable for women. After all, lots of us are angry about lots of things!

One thing I struggled a bit with as I read the book was the question of performance. I agreed with you that metal has frequently been a place where sexism – often the sort that permeates the wider culture – has shaped experience. What I was struggling with was that rather than simply being a place where “the rules are written by straight, white men,” to me, metal culture in the last few decades – vast and varied as it is – actually seems to allow white males to pantomime and parody a very traditional, macho form of masculinity: to take it to absurd lengths. In that sense, I think that metal might mark a certain kind of nostalgia for the end of traditional masculinity: theatrical warriors wielding axes in a context of the decline of secondary industry, the rise of the tertiary economy, the ‘feminization’ of male work roles, and the rise of female liberation, feminism and post-feminism. Through its “perceived hypermasculinity” (118) the genre might then be seen as asserting a kind of rebelliousness, indirectly reflecting anxiety about masculinity, encapsulating both residual and progressive elements.

Evidently, as your book demonstrates, there is still plenty of obvious and less obvious sexism in there, but doesn’t the gendered performativity of metal also open spaces where gender can be expressed and negotiated in less sexist ways?

There is a lot of playing with gender going on in metal – it’s one of the reasons that makes it so much fun. Rammstein spraying an audience with white foam from a massive fake penis is hilarious and certainly says something satirical about the hypermasculinised performance of masculinity. We can definitely think about the performative masculinity of metal – and Amber Clifford-Napoleone does a really excellent job of this. However, to see metal as a nostalgia for a pre-feminist time I don’t find particularly convincing. Walser talks about metal as seeking fantasy worlds without women and I think there is a lot to be said for that argument (although it’s a big genre so, you wouldn’t want to make it universally). I think it’s more useful to think about how gender and age work together. Metal can be read for young male fans as a youthful rebellion about parental authority and a playing at being a man, drawing on particular conceptions of what masculinity is (and those traits will be the most salient in the particular genre that the young male metal fan loves). What is also happening (and this is an area desperately in need of more research, but see Paula Rowe’s most excellent book on growing up metal in Australia ‘Heavy Metal Youth Identities’) is that these boys who fall in love with metal are often those who feel themselves marginalised at school or in the family. Their own masculinity may be challenged by other boys around them: thus metal presents a new version of masculinity alongside collective identity. Metal can be an ‘armour’ in the face of marginalisation.

In the permissive society era, rock developed a mythology that celebrated the sexual encounters between male musicians and their young female fans, in part as a reflection of the seductive aura of the music, and in part as an expression counter-cultural ideal of personal liberation through drugs and sexual excess. Tales of Led Zeppelin’s famous “red snapper” evening offer an archetypal example where the line between coercion and consent was rather ambiguous. To many, the decadent behavior of rock stars appeared seedy at the time, and it was parodied in movies like Performance (Roeg, 1970) and Groupie Girl (Ford, 1970). Looking back, the aura of macho bravura associated with these incidents has given way to an understanding that some of this culture was about sexual predators taking advantage of vulnerable fans. Since you wrote the book, there has been a wave of scandals about the sexual behavior of celebrities, particularly in the 1970s, but very few of those celebrities have come directly from the rock world. In light of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and #MeToo movement, is it time to reconsider those earlier years, or would it be a mistake to read contemporary morality into such historic incidents?

In my view we should be lending a critical eye to such incidents, yes. Not that this would be anything new: feminists have been making this criticism since the 1960s, as you suggest (although maybe you are making reference to more moral critiques of the counterculture?). I’m not sure ‘contemporary morality’ is really the point here. Rather it is about listening to survivors of sexual violence and taking those claims seriously. That is not a moral position, but a political position that is prepared to ask hard questions about masculinity and sexuality.

You spend quite a lot of the book discussing “the myth that all women fans are groupies” (p. 134), the way it effects fans’ lives, and the way they negotiate it. In some ways, it is both sad and surprising that the term still lingers roughly half a century since it became prominent. It is also striking that the nuances and ironies that characterized the ‘groupie’ question in the 1970s seem to have disappeared, in part because society and sexual politics have changed so much. Germain Greer deliberately described herself as ‘a groupie’ precisely because men used the term in a derogatory way. Do you think it can ever be reworked or rescued in ways that might counter assumptions of sexism?

I’m very sympathetic to the attempts at claiming ‘groupie’ as a positive. And yet reclamation does nothing to counter the gender inequality which is prevalent throughout the music industry. In rock and metal this means we hear men’s stories and men’s accounts of love, sex and relationships with women – but only rarely women’s. I’m deeply bothered by this disparity in who gets to tell their own story, who gets to make music, who has access to creative expression.

Reworking ‘groupie’ is only going to be successful, I think, in a culture in which those women also get to be on the stage rocking out.

Dr Hill, thanks for a fascinating interview. 

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Moral Bankruptcy and Fast Footwork: Gaspar Noe's Climax (2018)

On Friday, along with a handful of other people, I piled into my local art cinema to watch Gaspar Noé’s new, darkly absorbing club-related movie, Climax. The plot revolves around a talented, multi-cultural group of dancers who rehearse in an abandoned French school, only to find their after-party turning sour because someone has put LSD in their punch bowl.

What follows is an impressionistic descent into human misery, marginally less jarring than Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! (2017), and less venally depraved than Darko Simić’s notorious A Serbian Film (2010). The grim and grubby panorama that Noe paints, however, has moments which are, at times, equally as shocking and cruel.

To understand such recent descent films, I think we have to look not to cinema, but to society in an era of neoliberal capitalism: a time where the rise and rise of ubiquitous internet, reality television, vacuous talent shows, and always-on entertainment is counterbalanced by an accelerating free fall - one reflected in a crisis economy, disenfranchised citizenry, desperate daily life, failed democracy, managerial politics, dismal predictions of collective suicide, and glimpses of emerging nightmare fascism.

After some last ditch, closing credits, Noé’s film starts (!) with interview footage from the dancer’s auditions, shown on a normal TV set, surrounded by prescient books and video cassettes. 

Evoking a strange kind of nostalgia, the interview footage cues us to the present absence of the internet. It is a lovely touch, and reminded me of directors like Michael Haneke. Soon we are led into sexy and spectacular dance scenes, sequences worthy of judgement by Simon Cowell. Everybody, however – the director, cast, and us spectators - goes careering off once the after-party DJ cranks up the music and the group slowly descends into selfishness, cruelty, and various grim subspecies of animosity. As part of this, we also wander off-stage (ob-scene) into a seedy underworld of dim-lit corridors, dilapidated toilets, neglected cupboards, and grubby dorms - places where it seems more natural to unleash the human monstrosity on display.

The controversial director’s work makes few concessions to the mainstream. Part of me was surprized; I was – in the horror fan tradition - expecting people to die in ironic and creative ways. Noé offers that in the plot, but gives little genre-based spectatorial pleasure. Instead, he delivers lingering, absorbing, sensory cinema that slips into an increasingly horrifying whirl of affective moments. Climax touches on many genres – the whodunit, teen film, dance musical, horror flick – yet it answers to none. (I was reminded of the increasing number of academic papers I’ve seen, at all levels, which flatly eschew any critical engagement in favour of pursuing their own elaborate vision. What results is arrogant, audacious, and so much the poorer for it.)

The thing that I found interesting about Climax, however, was how clearly it held me in my seat and tested the sensory boundaries of cinema.

In an age where digital technologies are increasingly attempting to pull us into a fluid, sensory, embodied experience, it seems that cinema can now be understood as a pioneering medium. Students still gravitate towards it perhaps for that reason, as if they know that writing is old hat, an idiom not equipped for the instant immersion of the posthuman era. Yet cinema, even more than TV, remains guardian of the transition.

What Noé deliberately demonstrates is that the cinematic project can only go so far.

The Argentine director regularly chooses immediacy over naturalism. Rather than shot-reverse-shot, for instance, there is a lot of handheld footage. Deprived of cinema’s standard pleasures, I felt I was being overcompensated by deep hues and subtle sound design. The result was engaging: to some extent, I was enveloped into Noe’s nightmare world, and couldn’t escape. Deliberately, though, he refrains from showing inside character’s heads, or if he does, he refuses to announce it by departing from a kind of other focused, dark club realism. As I followed characters into the outer-recesses of the school, I witnessed their suffering, both internally (as the drugs intoxicate them) and externally (as shared madness possesses each)…

I couldn’t help feeling, though, that Noé’s Sartre-eque message (this is a contemporary ‘No Exit,’ after all) starts wearing thin underneath some of his more artful gimmicks.

Gaspar Noé’s club kids are drifters, postcolonial hipsters who have realized that they can achieve something through all the tools offered to them by contemporary youth culture. They’ve got attitude, they’ve got style. They act cool, they dress cool, they dance amazingly well, and they embrace sexual freedom and hedonism with a kind of weary duty. In other words, they both do all that is required, and have an attitude that is also required: a slacker’s distance from it.

From their starting point of being socially marginalized (by youth, by class, by racism, by nationalism, by sexism, by heteronormativity) they have deployed youth culture, and used their illusion to “buy in.” Yet the bargain has failed. The other side has betrayed them. Since their worlds have already been so diminished, Noé implies, their vengeance comes more easily. The LSD in the sangria bowl, in that sense, is a mere nudge rather than a full-on onslaught: beneath the veneer, these are people already simmering with hatred and fear. It is already expressed in the nihilism of their dissociated, party-hard attitude.

In a postcolonial, online era, dancing is “what they’ve got,” but it is also a way to conform to the faux individualism of the X Factor / YouTube world, a place where making a spectacle of oneself is entrepreneurial work for thousands of youngsters: techno-colonized subjects who soon become burned out by high competition, diminishing returns, and the urgent necessity to perform their funky individualism.

Behind the beat-up sofas, the peeling wall paper, and the tressle tables of party treats, lie strewn the nubile, tattooed crumpled, bodies of vloggers, sound cloud rappers, street kids, and ghosts.

“Hey guys, what’s up?... Make sure to leave a comment below this video, and follow us on social media.”

When the line breaks down between work and entertainment, what else can you do except dance the night away?

As the sangria starts to kick in, and you begin to realize the extent of your style drudge work, all your free labour… the conformity and exploitation beneath that mirror ball of flashy, hip, guerilla consumerism…

Is it too late? Is there any possible escape from hedonistic diversion, from infantile thinking, sexual selfishness, mental cruelty, and unjustified violence?

From the enveloping, social media echo chamber?

From hell?