Writing About Women Musicians

And once women are working as professional musicians, they get written about as if they are only bodies, or only supposed to be bodies. Maura Johnston’s How Not To Write About Female Musicians: A Handy Guide (in Village Voice) is a must read for anyone writing about women musicians.

Update: The coverage of Whitney Houston’s death highlights several myths of women in music (especially women in popular music); Susie Bright pulls some of them apart.

Female Femininity, Female Masculinity, or Beyoncé Gets It Right, Gaga Gets It Wrong

I don’t have a TV so I missed the 2011 MTV VMA awards in Los Angeles the other night, but I was on Twitter and news travels fast there. I heard about Beyoncé’s pregnancy and Lady Gaga’s drag act pretty quickly. What interested me as I read my timeline and followed up with some news items later is the different attitudes to Beyoncé and Gaga’s performances. Everyone is thrilled by Beyoncé’s bump, while there’s been a fair bit of criticism of Jo Calderone. Perhaps that would have happened anyway. One of my fave comic book writers, Brian Michael Bendis, tweeted that he has nothing against cross-dressing, he just doesn’t like bad performance art, but that is not what has exercised the right-wing press. It seems that the side-by-side performances of female femininity and female masculinity prompted pointed remarks about the disavowal of conventional femininity by one of the protagonists. One the one hand, there was Beyoncé, happily performing her reproductive heterosexuality with Jay-Z (and congratulations to them), and on the other, Jo’s kiss being refused by Britney with the phrase, “I’ve done that already”.

What is abundantly clear is that Gaga/Jo’s performance troubled gender categories more than either Britney or Beyoncé’s. There have been grumbles (from the usual quarters) that she went over the top, took it too far. Much has been made of Jo reportedly using the men’s loos, thus crossing a physical gender boundary. I will leave it to other feminist or pop culture bloggers to pull these complaints apart and interrogate them in detail. Here, I just want to look briefly at a couple of quotes .

FoxNews’s report not only gets exercised about the performance extending beyond the stage to off-stage zones (the male restrooms get a mention in the title) but cannot resist mentioning the masturbation reference, and the kiss. It uses the classic strategy of including titillating details in a moral admonition. The piece ends with comments by two men in the music industry.

“Gaga’s shtick wore out its welcome in the first two minutes. In her effort to be original and run away from the cube hat wearing copycats, like Katy Perry, I think she might have pushed the audience too far,” said Los Angeles-based television and music producer, Edward Paige. “People originally embraced Gaga because in all her quirkiness was authentic in that she didn’t fit in. But stepping outside the more comfortable vixen role could hurt her. Does MTV or its throngs of little girls’ fans want a diva that looks like Ralph Macchio doing a Lenny Bruce routine? I doubt it.”

The complaint is apparently that Gaga-as-Joe is inauthentic whereas Gaga-as-Gaga is not. However, Paige immediately contradicts his statement of the authenticity of Gaga’s quirkiness with his observation that Gaga was performing a “vixen role” and thus it was neither authentic or particularly quirky (because it’s a recognisable type). So, Gaga’s performances are all inauthentic, but some are more inauthentic than others. Female performance of highly sexual femininity++ is less inauthentic than female performance of highly sexual masculinity++, presumably because of a perceived alignment between the body and the role (sex & gender). [Plenty of theorists have debunked that distinction; if you’re looking for reading material, I recommend Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter and Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies.] Clearly Paige feels that aligning body and role/costume makes more business sense. (Did he miss the speculation that Gaga was a drag queen, I wonder?) It’s kinda hard to subject the paragraph to much in the way of analysis because bits of it are really quite unclear. Did Paige mean the fans were little girls, or that the performers, the divas, were little girls? The apostrophe could be an error. One thing’s for sure: it really reeks of condescension toward women—performers and fans.

Fox’s second music business response comes from Jed Smith, who opens up a slightly different dimension.

“Gaga’s persistence as ‘Joe Calderone’ degraded an otherwise enjoyable VMAs, and stood in stark contrast to tasteful and classy presentations by the likes of Adele. Gaga’s performance art philosophy may excuse this, but it remains a poor execution of what, at this point, falls squarely into predictably ‘random’ pattern of behavior,” added Jed Smith, head of music composition company, Beta Fish. “If Gaga’s going to be a guy, she should be the biggest bear on the stage, not some sleazy beta karate kid knock off!”

The main complaints here revolve around class. Adele gets the thumbs up for being “tasteful” and “classy”. Gaga’s performance was not well done and in poor taste, apparently in part because it was for the duration of the event; one wonders whether Adele ceased being Adele at some point during the show. ‘Predictably “random”’ evokes the classic figure of the unruly woman who just ruins everything. The complaint here appears to be that Gaga was not classy as a woman. I found the last sentence a little more surprising: Jo Calderone was not classy as a guy, and Gaga’s mistake was to perform the wrong kind of masculinity. I am kinda curious whether Gaga as, say, George Clooney would have made much difference (assuming that his is the right kind of masculinity).

The International Business Times is ahead of Fox News: they did a bit of research. Turns out Jo made his debut in Vogue Hommes Japan in 2010. Jo is a mechanic from New Jersey (his family is Sicilian, from Palermo) with a penchant for muscle cars and an ambition to own his own car shop. One things seems certain: Jo Calderone will be making future appearances.