oh god I could do better than that…

Posters appeared a week or so ago for a talk sponsored by UW-Milwaukee’s postdoctoral research wing, the Center for 21st Century Studies (guess what it was called until six or seven years ago), a center (shouldn’t it be a de-center?) for various postmodern and theoretical hijinx. Anyway, this talk had the intriguing title “Suzi Quatro Wants to Be Your Man: Female Masculinity in Glam Rock.” What’s intriguing about it is…Suzi Quatro? WTF? More peculiarly, the prose on the poster (which, it turns out, comes from Philip Auslander‘s (the speaker) own abstract to a published paper the talk was to have been based upon – it was snowed out*) refers to Quatro in the present tense: “as a woman who performs rock music in an unabashedly ‘masculine’ fashion…” when she’s barely released anything in the last twenty-five years.

*addendum: surprisingly, the talk went on (see the comments) and was apparently the only event on campus that day.

At first I was going to snark up on that blurb’s prose, which is sadly ripe with PoMo cliche: “Focusing particularly on Quatro’s ability to construct multiple subject positions…”; “destabilizes the gender codings from which it is constructed and celebrates the polymorphousness and performativity of identity”… Anyway, cliche aside, I first found myself asking, wait a minute: if you want to examine “the role of the female cock-rocker” or “female masculinity,” aren’t there some more obvious women to look at, one that play a more major role in history…like say, Patti Smith? Chrissie Hynde? Grace Jones, even? Or who are more contemporary: PJ Harvey, Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, or – far more obscurely – No Bra? Or – in a far more subtle fashion (in the background as a drummer) but in some ways to more subversive effect – Moe Tucker, who many early critics didn’t even realize was a woman? Or the for-some-reason oft-overlooked Grace Slick…who wrote, sang, and played, and co-led one of the sixties’ most prominent bands? While certainly Patti Smith refused to play by nearly any rules generally applied to female rockers of her era, what I think I was overlooking was the rest of that subtitle: “Female Masculinity in Glam Rock.”

And at first, that just raised the whole question of relevance and obscurity all over again for me: glam rock fluorished for maybe five years at the most, with periodic resurgences thereafter, and was always more prominent in British music than in American. However…if you think about the ways rock has affected people’s perceptions of gender and roles pertaining thereto, glam acquires an importance far beyond that which its relatively brief fling with fame might suggest. While rockers before glam sometimes seemed to question prevailing gender roles (Jagger and the Stones dressing in drag on the cover to “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadows?”; Ray Davies’ occasional limp-wristed affectations and, of course, “Lola”), glam rock brought alternative gender conceptions flaming out of the closet. Suddenly, David Bowie’s wearing a dress (and pretending to give Mick Ronson head onstage), Brian Eno’s sporting four-foot faux-feather boas, and Lou Reed’s appearing in drag on the back cover of Transformer. It’s as if the years of baiting from construction workers and the like (cue “are you a boy or are you a girl” stereotype) were finally addressed head on, in the wake of Stonewall, with a loud affirmation of “Both. Neither. What’s it matter anyway?”

The catch is, of course, all those flamboyant poseurs (in the positive sense of the word: posing, and fun, were key elements of glam) were, biologically, male. It was as if the boys could only keep swinging if the “actual,” biological girls were kept well away from the clubhouse. And though I’m by no means a glam-rock expert, it’s hard to think of any other female who even plausibly might be called a glam-rocker than…Suzi Quatro.

Still, her image and performances seem pretty weak tea. First (and there’s nothing she could do about this) she was petite and, frankly, cute. All the leather jackets in the world couldn’t disguise that (and tended in practice to emphasize it). And although second-wave feminism wasn’t to peak for a few years yet, Quatro’s music was primarily written by the well-known hired guns of Chinn-Chapman, or her husband, facts which tend to detract from Quatro as agent of her “performances” (in the larger, postmodern sense).

Where it gets interesting is this: right around this time (the early ’70s), the cult of rock authenticity (exemplified by Rolling Stone‘s critical perspective of the era) was at its most prominent. The words “real” and its derivatives, and sanctimonious clucking at the notions of showbiz, selling out, even wearing stage clothes that were markedly different from street clothing (taking into account that rock stars’ street clothing could be pretty out there), were fast becoming orthodoxy. So glam, flaunting its artifice, its manufacturedness (including the use of songwriters-for-hire), and its general air of campy showiness, was in these ways a predecessor of the more self-conscious wing of the punk-rock that would arrive a few years later. Furthermore: glam’s male stars’ overt performances of styles of dress, movement, and even sexuality typically coded as “feminine” had the odd effect of re-styling (or I should say, re-making/re-modeling) women’s dress, movement, and style – the sorts of things Bowie et al. were imitating or exaggerating – themeselves into perceived “performances.” This realization – or perspective – in turn made sense of the dis-ease felt by repressed, boundary-conscious men (like our construction workers) at rockers’ play with convention – even those as mainstream by this point as the Vegas Elvis. In other words, it became possible to see not just Elvis impersonators as drag stars, but Elvis himself as a drag star. (It’s been a few years since I’ve read it, but if I remember her work correctly, Marjorie Garber should get some credit on this idea.) In other words, gender itself is a performance – and the awareness of this changed rock and its approach to gender and sexuality, pretty much in ways that are still perfectly legible in later rock, even today. And not only in clearly glam-influenced acts (like Suede, Shudder to Think, etc.).

So even though Patti Smith and many of the other female rockers I mentioned earlier are clearly more important in themselves in rock history, I can sort of see an argument that would position Suzi Quatro – as one of the few female glam-rockers – as a key influence and inspiration for young women. (And in fact, asking around on some of the music mailing lists I’m on, a friend of mine mentioned that a female friend of his played in LA punk bands in the early ’80s…and among her cohort, a lot of female musicians had, in fact, been inspired by Quatro’s example.) And that’s because once glam manufactured a sort of masculine femininity in rock, the notion of “female masculinity” (to borrow Auslander’s term) could follow. So one reason it’s maybe a bit harder to see contemporary female musicians as “female cock-rockers” or as somehow questioning given gender roles, that’s in part because the field of available female gender roles has broadened considerably since the era of glam rock.

(It turns out an earlier version of the presentation Auslander gave is online as a PDF file linked from his website (itself linked above). I suppose I should read it to see whether I’ve totally gotten him wrong…)

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “oh god I could do better than that…

  1. Phil Auslander

    A couple of quick comments. First of all, the lecture was not snowed out. It was the only event to actually take place on the UWM campus that day, was well attended, and went quite well (from my perspective).

    The reason I refer to Quatro in the present tense is because she’s still actively touring, recording, acting, doing radio programs, etc. And she put out a new album in February of this year that’s not half bad. Check it out,

    Aside from that, I like what you posted and I think you arrived at much the same conclusion about why Quatro is important as I have. I hope you’ll read the essay, though I would actually rather you read the chapter on her in my book PERFORMING GLAM ROCK: GENDER AND THEATRICALITY IN POPULAR MUSIC (U. of MIchigan Press, 2006) becausae it’s the fuller and more recent version of that material.

  2. Joe

    What about The Runaways?

  3. 2fs

    Auslander mentions Joan Jett in his article (which, as I said, I hadn’t read until after I posted), but the Runaways (and therefore Jett) came along a few years after Quatro. And of course, they’re only dubiously glam.

    Even expanding the question (which I think is a good idea) to rock generally, the usual question with the Runaways is the extent to which they were doing their own thing vs. the extent to which they were Kim Fowley’s way of making money from yr sleazy jailbait fantasy. And this is the place where “cultural studies” generally often stalls out: if you argue from the perspective of the intentions of the creator(s) of the music (and, let’s say, assume that Fowley was pulling all the strings), you totally ignore the way actual fans received the music (fans who may not have had the first idea who Kim Fowley was), particularly female fans (see my example of the young woman who just thought it was totally cool that a woman like Suzi Quatro was playing in a rock’n’roll band, and was inspired to do the same). But if you flip that around and focus entirely on the fans’ reception (which is, of course, variable), you can make just about anything into a wonderful, “revolutionary,” “subversive,” “counterhegemonic” (choose your dialect) act, no matter how obviously the act seems merely to reproduce exactly what everyone already wants to see. This leads to academic papers on the homoerotic, antiphallogocentric discourse of the body and its embodiment of the post-gendered subaltern in the prop comedy of Carrot-Top. Which, no matter how cleverly and strenuously argued, founder on the obvious fact that, sure, someone somewhere might read Carrot-Top that way (even disregarding the academic jargon and translating into everyday life: a closeted young gay kid who could just swear that Carrot-Top is constantly using props to simulate queer sexuality and who thinks his goofy, antimachismo also undercuts the gibes of the bullying jocks at his middle school, say) – but the more obvious, common take (and therefore, the one that has the most prevalent influence and effect, if there is any) is just that he’s an obnoxious goofball who plays with toys. Is there a man in the moon? If you look for it…

  4. 2fs

    Crap – I should edit these things before I post them. Just eliminate the occasional redundant adjective or adverb, m’kay?

  5. Phil Auslander

    In the book, as opposed to the article, I say a bit more about the Runaways and Joan Jett, as I see them as the immediate carriers of the Quatro legacy.

    Sure, it’s easy to make fun of academic discourse. But I don’t see why the options for talking about popular music are limited to considering the intentions of its creators or the projections of its fans. What gets lost, and this is my basic problem with both cultural studies and musciology, is the actual behavior of the performers qua performers. As someone who comes to this from performance studies, that is my central concern: close analysis of what the performers actually do on their recordings and in their physical performances.

    As far as the audience goes, I have long taken the position that while I can’t assume that anyone else perceives a given performance in exactly the way I do, there’s also no reason to assume that no one else perceives it that way. I assume that if certain meanings are available to me through my examination of performances, they are available to others as well.

  6. 2fs

    Something similar – looking at music as music, not as product of industry nor as object of fandom – was more or less the focus of my abandoned dissertation, as it happens. Anyway: the problem is that to analyze “what the performers actually do on their recordings,” it seems your options are limited to a quasi-objective approach derived from some sort of musicology, or a subjective response (as in most music criticism) – which has the tendencies I described (even though I agree, ultimately, that it’s unreasonable to assume your response is utterly idiosyncratic: someone out there either shares it or can respond to or learn from it. Incidentally, I say “quasi-objective…musicology” because the tools of Western musicology were developed to analyze a specific kind of music, and rock’n’roll isn’t that kind of music. It’s useful to have that vocabulary – and an insightful musicological listener (such as Alan W. Pollack, whose Beatles analyses are linked from my site) can use it effectively to get more readily at some aspects of the music – but functional harmony, for instance, is rarely relevant to rock chord sequences.)

    Ultimately, though, I read about music because I hope what I read gives me some greater understanding of my reaction to that music. And the best music criticism – academic and otherwise – does that, very successfully, on occasion to the extent of giving me an in to music I’d previously dismissed or disliked.

    So I’m less cynical than I might seem – about your project, about academic work generally. If I weren’t, I wouldn’t bother writing about music here – and on occasion I’ve dived headfirst into things like the way Bob Pollard’s fragmentary songs affect the listener’s perception of song structure, or going meta-evil on Nick Hornby’s ass for a wrongheaded, weirdly consumerist view on Radiohead’s Kid A.

    Oh – and actually, I think the Carrot-Top thing is perfectly plausible…

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