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…)