- Performing Glam Rock: Gender and Theatricality in Popular Music
Click for larger view
View full resolution
For over seven years, Philip Auslander has argued that because musicians’ performances of their music are indeed performances, they ought to receive the attention of both theatre and performance studies scholars (see for example Auslander 2004, 2006a, 2006b). This may seem to be stating the obvious, but the paucity of music performance scholarship in these fields, when compared to the amount that has emerged from musicology, cultural studies, and sociology, suggests that he is not speaking in vain. Auslander is of course not the only one making this claim, but his outspokenness on the issue and the high quality of work he himself is doing in this area certainly qualify him as one of the most influential and convincing advocates. His book Performing Glam Rock: Gender and Theatricality in Popular Music constitutes the strongest argument to date for the study of music as performance.
Manifestly, Performing Glam Rock is a study of what glam rockers do “as performers” and how these performances generate meanings for their audiences (2). Auslander argues that glam is a subgenre of rock that emerged in contestation of psychedelic rock’s “ideology of authenticity” (40). Central to most any historiography of rock—whether written by practitioners, critics, or scholars—has been the observation that rock claims to combat the alienating effects of Establishment politics and allow rock’s participants to embody their “authentic” selves, but as Auslander and others have correctly observed, rock authenticity is not ontologically essential but constructed through performance. With Performing Glam Rock, Auslander suggests that glam rock recognizes and uses this to destabilize conventional notions of authenticity, identity, and gender.
His analysis—which he declares is “unabashedly performer-centered” (2)—hinges primarily on a semiotic matrix that he claims is at work in all popular music performance. In any moment of musical performance, the musician embodies three levels of identity: “the real person (the performer as human being), the performance persona (the performer’s self-presentation), and the character (a figure portrayed in a song text)” (4).1 Articulating the distinction between psychedelic and glam rock, Auslander explains that whereas psychedelic rockers present the performer-person and the performance-persona as one and the same identity, glam rockers play upon the disjuncture between the two, using it to demonstrate different possibilities for identity formation.
In the four chapters that comprise the case studies of Performing Glam Rock, Auslander puts this matrix to good use. In his discussion of Marc Bolan (chapter 3), he describes how by moving away from the conventions of psychedelic rock, by “theatricalizing” performance with glamorous costuming, makeup, and alternative musical conventions, Bolan widened the gap between Bolanperson and Bolan-performer, to the point that Bolan became the first full-fledged glam rocker.
Switching to David Bowie (chapter 4), Auslander takes this a step further, positing that Bowie’s portrayal of different “characters” demonstrates that all rock performance is simply role-playing, suggesting that rather than reflecting identity, it instead creates identity. Moreover, and perhaps most significantly, Auslander discusses how Bowie’s glam role-playing also exposes the performativity of gender, challenging psychedelic rock and the counterculture’s claim that gender is an essentialist characteristic.
Auslander continues his critique of gender with his engaging chapter (6) on Suzi Quatro. Though Quatro’s physical appearance lacks the glitter typically associated with the genre, her performances’ challenge to psychedelic rock’s “authenticity,” especially as it relates to gender, fits [End Page 201] her comfortably into Auslander’s definition of glam: “By refusing to suppress her ‘tomboy instincts,’ Quatro created something new: a dynamic, masculine female rocker who was not fully understandable either in terms of conventional femininity or as ‘one of the boys’ ” (212).
For those who already think highly of Auslander’s body of work, Performing Glam Rock will not likely disappoint. The meticulousness of the research, the precision of the thinking, and the spruceness of the writing are indeed...