Monday, July 11, 2011
Meat, Wood, Flack
Let’s talk misogyny. Male rock stars have been accused of misogynistic viewpoints and intentions since rock established itself as a musical genre. But how misogynistic is rock music generally? Is male rock star misogyny mostly a myth? It’s undeniable that many rock cultural myths objectify women, or install women merely as sex objects. The Kiss album “Love Gun” went multi-platinum in the mid-to-late 70s; the cover image could either be construed as provocative or misogynistic. It featured the band, in full make-up but sans instruments, on a kind of stage, with besotted, scantily clad women on all fours crawling towards them. Gene Simmons appears to be letting out a cry of joy or frustration. Images like this are de rigueur in rock, especially in subgenres like hard rock and heavy metal (Kiss qualifies as hard rock). But genuine misogyny is usually about enforced norms, especially enforced political norms— whether or not putting an image into the marketplace counts as this kind of enforced aggression is debatable. It is rather droll to note, but on the album sleeve in question the signifying gestures have more to do with wanting to be objectified than with objectifying others. It has an insecure male gaze behind it, rather than the steady hand of an oppressor.
Images come out of corpuses of imagery— to the extent that this is at the extreme end of what makes up the major corpus of rock images, and there is no clear aggression behind it, rock imagery is more innocent than it is generally thought to be. Most of the extreme images are drawn from hard rock and heavy metal contexts— realms where aggression is a core value. When feminists take Mick Jagger to task for “Under My Thumb” (the context being “solid rock,” not a subgenre), the situation gets more contorted. The song is about a reversal of fortune in the context of a single relationship— a woman who had dominated the protagonist is now being dominated by him. We are told explicitly that the violence and abuse on both sides is psychological, and subtle. As such, the song, expressively, is at a tangent to misogynistic impulses on a number of levels— because the protagonist’s attitude is not generalized out towards all women, but towards one woman and a specific situation; because the woman here is self-subjugating (the male is not forcing her to stay in the relationship); and because the protagonist’s obvious satisfaction is owing to a past condition of having been a victim, which implies that he let himself be victimized. Jagger here is not a “solid male oppressor” at all. If the song is often singled out as exemplar of the Stones’ misogyny, it’s not particularly close to the authentic phenomenon.
Feminists also linger on the fact that women in rock and pop are forced by business machinations and commercial interests to be sexually provocative (especially in video contexts), thus creating a media culture (with its attendant fetishism) around certain attractiveness images. “Force” here is ambiguous— no one can be forced into a business they do not allow themselves to be led into. Nor can one performer’s self-imagery change things that much. To the extent that a body of images has been created which set uncomfortable and unrealistic standards for young women to live up to, it is the media, in concord with a large number of performers over a long period of time, which has created and consolidated this body of images. The male rock star gaze has been comparably harmless. When Led Zeppelin recorded a song like “Living Loving Maid (She’s Just a Woman),” they were protected by the oblique nature of the lyrics, and the fact that the media weren’t paying much attention to them. Had they written lyrics with the poet’s precision Jagger had, and leaning towards aggressive misogyny, Zeppelin would have had a big problem. While not all rock can be defended, what I’m getting at is that rock imagery has many culpable characteristics but, where the good stuff is concerned, misogyny is not one of them. Rock has much more to answer for about narcotics— for promoting cognitive dissipation, so that intelligence and general awareness are uncool. Rock imagery promotes in too many ways the idea that degeneracy is elegant. It’s actually ugly as sin.