Suggestive Song Facilitated Care of the Self

Palazzo Barbaran Da Porto

Palazzo Barbaran Da Porto by David Nicholls (netNicholls).


In ‘Music and Care of the Self’ last month I wondered whether certain accounts from the Proceedings of the Old Bailey could indicate something of how music was seen to interact with ideas of selfhood and subjectivity. In the stories I selected, it seemed the accused’s response to music was considered to reveal something about their nature: in Mary Raby’s case, frequenting music houses indicated a predilection for sin, while John Swift walked away from inappropriate music-making as an act of self-defence. And I was curious about the potential relationship between these stories and the collection and performance of suggestive strophic songs in sixteenth-century Italian academies.

The strophic song genres I was thinking of are the villotta alla padoana (quasi-peasant song in the Paduan manner) and the canzone villanesche alla napolitana (peasant-like song in Neapolitan style). They’re often written in dialect, although the language can be toned down for publication. The names villotta and villanesca are thought to derive from the Venetian and Italian words for peasant, and for a long time the songs were thought to be songs of the people (the folk, in that German, 19th-century invention). It seems to be a bit more complicated than that–yet to be teased out–but the songs we know of from the middle of the 16th century were printed and often dedicated to minor nobility. They were owned by academies (and others).

One publication that still fascinates me is Filippo Azzaiolo’s first book of villotte from 1557. Azzaiolo dedicated the book anonymously to Pandolfo Rucellai, the nephew of Giovanni della Casa, and the cover of the book bears the device of the Accademia dei Costanti of Vicenza. The Costanti (the Constant Ones) met for about 10 years starting in 1556. Few records have survived, but it seems to have been an opportunity for men from elite Vicentine families to get together to hear and discuss lectures, poetry, literature, and to make music. It was rather like the Accademia Filarmonica of Verona, which was founded in 1543 and is still going today. Montano Barbaran was a member (that’s his palazzo in the picture—the facade is by Andrea Palladio, the famous Vicentine architect); he employed a musician in his household, owned a number of musical instruments, and appears also to have enjoyed Vicentine dialect poetry.

Azzaiolo’s songs draw on an extensive erotic lexicon—there were thousands of Italian words with double meanings—that means they are open to quite subversive readings.  There’s a song asking a girl called ‘Tasty’ (Saporita) to bring her ‘fresh fig’ to her lover, and comparing her to the famously beautiful Princess of Salerno—a compliment for Saporita, and an insult to the Princess of Salerno; other songs allude to erotic acts that were then illegal or considered immoral. And some songs seem entirely innocent. Azzaiolo published three collections of villotte, all with similar content. This first book and the third book open with dedications that make reference to the power of music to spur people to action, or provide respite for afflicted souls. This kind of expression of the importance of music is usually associated with highbrow genres rather than with the lowly strophic song. So, it seems that, if only for Italian academicians (not just in Vicenza but also in Verona, Venice, Siena, Florence, Rome, Naples…), even suggestive song was considered to have potential benefits for the soul.

Justifications of music as a way of caring for the self were nothing new, and were not exclusive to musicians. For example, Baldassare Castiglione’s popular Book of the Courtier contained similar pronouncements in the debate over whether the courtier should play music. (There is a proper time and place for music, and the courtier mustn’t do it too much lest he neglect his duties.) Gioseffo Zarlino, a composer and organist based in San Marco, Venice and author of several music treatises, devoted several chapters to the importance and significance of music study. He says that it is key to combine practical and theoretical study of music, and he also urges temperance—like someone who drinks too much, someone who plays music too much makes a fool of themselves, and overindulges their senses. Zarlino says that music and gymnastics should be studied together so that a certain balance is kept. He is keen to distinguish music from the bodily discipline of gymnastics, and make it instead some other kind of training—I want to say intellectual, but perhaps he saw it more in spiritual terms. (The body-mind-soul division comes later.) In any case, he says that music and gymnastics should be studied together so that a certain balance is kept. Even Zarlino doesn’t really distinguish between kinds of music; he makes a passing comment about indecent/dishonest music, but that comes together with his thoughts on avoiding sensual excess, so it might suggest an occasional lascivious song is ok. It’s worth thinking about Zarlino’s audience, here, too. Zarlino is concerned to establish music as something to do in leisure time, which might suggest he’s not really aiming his thoughts at professional musicians, but at dilettante musicians.

Putting this together with the stories of Mary Raby and John Swift, it seems that there is a time and a place for everything. Music can be an important way to care for the self, providing it doesn’t become an intoxicating over-indulgence. You want to play or listen to music in the right place and hobnob with the right people (develop genteel contacts rather than cutpurse contacts–so avoid Mary Raby’s music house). But music can also function as a way to demonstrate that you know how to respond. This is perhaps especially true of suggestive song. It’s not always a life or death matter as it was for John Swift, but when a young man is sitting around with fellow academicians of an evening, he needs to be able to laugh the right amount at the right things. Academies provided an opportunity to develop a social network, and to foster social cohesion. They do that by providing people with opportunities to demonstrate that they know the social codes, and when it’s ok to bend or break them, and when it’s important to follow them. That kind of training could be important when an acquaintance starts singing dirty songs under a lady’s window.

If you’re interested where this is heading, you may wish to have a look at the summary of my paper for the Oldenburg selfhood conference.


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.