Between the Pages: Writer Examines 'Sex and Gender in Pop/Rock Music'
- From Patti Smith and Etta James to Rufus Wainwright and Frank Ocean, musicians have contributed to representations of sexuality. Find out how.
- Lorraine Feather's "The Girl with a Lazy Eye" expresses a girl's struggles and her fantasy of ultimate escape. It's brilliant and a thought-provoking song.
- Patti Smith based a lot of her original performance on Jim Morrison and Mick Jagger. Jagger's own performance was based on Tina Turner.
Since the sexual revolution of the 1960s and '70s, rock music and pop music have reflected society's understanding of sexuality and gender.
Published by Bloomsbury, "Sex and Gender in Pop/Rock Music: The Blues Through the Beatles to Beyoncé" explores how contemporary popular music has maintained that tradition. The book discusses the gendered performances and experiences of numerous notable musicians, from Patti Smith and Etta James to Rufus Wainwright and Frank Ocean, and how they contribute to representations of sexuality.
Author Walter Everett is a professor emeritus of music in music theory at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In the book, he evaluates the lyrics and music of artists and discusses how pop music reflects the diversity of human sex and gender. In this Giddy exclusive, Everett talks about his inspiration for the book and the sexuality of Patti Smith. And he reveals a particularly thought-provoking song he discovered through his research.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell us about your background as a musicologist and how it led you to write 'Sex and Gender in Pop/Rock Music.'
As an undergraduate, I was a piano major. I started playing piano at the age of 7 in 1962. But when I saw The Beatles on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in February '64, I knew music was going to be my life. It was just so impactful. I went on to get two graduate degrees in music theory and had a 33-year career, which just ended, teaching in a conservatory-level university.
I've written lots of publications on rock music, five books and numerous academic journal articles on rock music and other topics. I was well-trained with Mozart, Schubert, and Brahms, so I would write on those topics as well. But rock music was really my favorite niche. As far as this book goes, specifically, in 2015, I saw an announcement that grant money was available to fund a weeklong study at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame archives in Cleveland. I got the grant.
I found dozens of Patti Smith live recordings from the 1970s, and it was just very exciting. I got to see and hear that throughout this period and ever since, her song "Land" has been a focus of her live performances. I gave a talk on that song at the "Women in the Creative Arts" conference in Canberra, Australia, in 2017, along with many other discoveries. I remember being so struck that Janis Joplin's "A Woman Left Lonely" was a masturbatory experience.
I have to say, Ann Powers had this great book out in 2017 called "Good Booty," but I was disappointed it had such a narrow range. She talked a lot about dancing and social issues. But she didn't talk much about the actual music. There wasn't a wide range of repertoire covered.
So that's what I wanted to do, and that's what led me to write "Sex and Gender in Pop/Rock Music."
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What was a particular song you discovered through researching this book that you found interesting?
On the Bloomsbury site for the book, I've listed 3,000 songs, some of which are discussed in the book, but most aren't. Hundreds and hundreds of those I didn't know before. One in particular I would point to is Lorraine Feather's "The Girl with a Lazy Eye."
What Feather does is show the role of Lacan's Mirror Stage, a stage of developmental psychology. How this mirror stage and the young girl's subjectivity formation—how she learns who she is—is explored in the song. She's awkward and a bullied middle-schooler and she sees herself as she lies in the grass. She sees herself mirrored as a caterpillar, who will, of course, one day metamorphose into a beautiful, graceful creature, and that's how she wants to see her future.
That song's music expresses the girl's struggles and her fantasy of ultimate escape, and it's a really brilliant and very thought-provoking song. That was an artist I didn't know until I was doing research for the book. In conversation, a colleague in England mentioned the song to me, and I took a good listen and boy, it just really fit what I was interested in perfectly.
Why did you choose Patti Smith's 'Land'—a track from her classic debut album 'Horses'—as the song to analyze in depth?
I was a fan of Patti's in the '70s. I grew up on the Jersey Shore and worked in a record store. A lot of my buddies would go up to CBGB or Max's Kansas City in New York City to see her perform. Her display of gender ambiguity was pretty unusual for a woman. The guys had been out front with this, but Patti's stage presence was very ambiguous as far as gender goes. She based a lot of her earliest performance on men.
She was really intrigued by Jim Morrison, who placed sex at the center of his performance. And you can say the same about Mick Jagger. Jagger, in turn, had based a lot of his moves on Tina Turner. There was this play of gender ambiguity on top of gender ambiguity throughout Patti's work.
The song "Land" takes influences from William Burroughs, the writer of "Naked Lunch" and "The Wild Boys." "Land" takes a sort of hallucinatory sex with ambiguous gender that is throughout Burroughs' writing. The song sort of sets that tone and the hallucinations to beat poetry that really alternates with garage rock. Songs like "Land of 1000 Dances" are fully quoted in "Land." There are many evocations of sex in the song and fully improvised passages relating to her audience's locale.
If she's playing Australia, she'll sing about the coral reef. If she's in Venice, she'll talk about the canals. She's always trying to bring the audience directly into the sexual nature of her performance. That's what I was trying to get at. I'd written the talk on the song for the "Women in the Creative Arts" conference in Australia. So I had a large bit of the chapter already under my belt when I was writing the book. I thought it was a good way to wrap up a lot of the techniques I talked about in the earlier chapters on sex and on gender. I used "Land" to demonstrate how all those things can work together.
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What type of further research would you like to see done on sex and gender in music?
My work has always led to new avenues of research. I was writing about rock music when that was not a thing music theorists did. I've been very happy to see that field open up. I've developed many analytical techniques in my articles and books, such as "The Foundations of Rock." The online appendix suggests many different possible avenues for any number of scholars who'd like to explore that area for their original research. I not only list the songs but give a thumbnail suggestion of what might be dug into in those thousands of tracks.
I didn't have space in the book to work up much in a comprehensive way on sexual behavior, such as leering or gazing. I touch on masturbation and copulation. I refer to it, but they don't have their own chapters. Things like consent and rape. Issues like impotence, aphrodisiacs, porn, sex work and STDs.
There are many, many topics that are suggested here and there, but not fully developed. So maybe there's room for a volume two, if somebody else wants to write it, that is just fine with me.