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  • Listening to the Sirens: Musical Technologies of Queer Identity from Homer to Hedwig
  • Sophie Fuller (bio)
Listening to the Sirens: Musical Technologies of Queer Identity from Homer to Hedwig. By Judith A. Peraino. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. 369 pp.

The year 2006 was a good year for queer musicology. The pioneering 1994 essay collection Queering the Pitch, edited by Philip Brett, Elizabeth Wood, and Gary C. Thomas, has been reissued in a revised second edition, together with a new companion volume, edited by Sheila Whitely and Jennifer Rycenga, entitled Queering the Popular Pitch.1 Recent years have also seen important single-author texts, such as Nadine Hubbs's The Queer Composition of America's Sound, marking an energetic second wave of scholarly thought and enquiry into queerness and music, into the challenges that music and musicians provide to what are all too often considered the norms of gendered and sexual behavior.2

At the center of this second wave is still queer musicology's leading light, Philip Brett (1937–2002). As well as the new edition of Queering the Pitch, 2006 also saw the publication of Music and Sexuality in Britten, an invaluable collection of Brett's ground-breaking writing on Benjamin Britten.3 Judith Peraino, who was one of Brett's students, pays tribute to the influence that his powerful intellect, quiet sense of irony and humor, and insistent questioning have had on this still-young discipline, dedicating her impressive monograph to his memory and acknowledging his "courage, elegance, perseverance, and generosity" (xii).

All the texts mentioned above will doubtless find their way onto the reading lists of university [End Page 86] courses in cultural studies, queer studies, and queer musicology. Some may even be read by a wider audience. But I'm not sure that Listening to the Sirens will reach out beyond academics and graduate students. This is a shame, since Peraino has interesting and important things to say about the way music shapes understandings of queer identities and, of course, the way that queer identities shape music. The title of the book—Listening to the Sirens: Musical Technologies of Queer Identity from Homer to Hedwig—gives, as all good titles do, a useful indication of what is to follow. The effect that the seductive singing voices of the Sirens have on the listener forms the starting point of Peraino's journey—in her words, the Sirens' song functions "to invite an imagining of what things would be like if they were different" (3). The breadth of her journey is suggested by the alliterative "from Homer to Hedwig." Homer's Odyssey tells the story of the Sirens and their most famous listener, the traveler Odysseus, while Hedwig, another traveler, appears some 2,700 years later as the transsexual punk heroine of John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask's musical and film Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

To readers not familiar with the work of Michel Foucault, the idea of musical technologies used here needs further explanation. Foucault's four intertwined technologies are techniques (or systems of techniques) used by human beings to create identities or knowledge about themselves: technologies of the self, of sign systems, of production, and of power. Peraino organizes her musical journey around these techniques, resulting in five chapters following a useful explanatory introduction. The first chapter, "Songs of the Sirens," subtitled "Desire," investigates the disruptive and transgressive powers of music and the musicians who create it, ranging from Pan, Orpheus, and Sappho to the medieval musicians Hildegard of Bingen and Arnaut Daniel. The second chapter, "A Music of One's Own," subtitled "Discipline," looks at music's ability to act as confession by focusing on specific works by the queer composers Tchaikovsky and Britten. These two chapters bounce off Foucault's idea of technologies of the self. The third chapter, "Queer Ears and Icons," subtitled "Sign Systems," examines the power of mainstream icons in shaping queer identities, taking three iconic women as case studies: Judy Garland, Melissa Etheridge, and Madonna. The fourth chapter, "Homomusical Communities," subtitled "Production," looks at music as a commercial product—investigating two very different products from the 1970s that shaped lesbian and gay identities at...