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  • It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll?
  • Jeff Schwartz
Simon Reynolds and Joy Press. The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion, and Rock ‘n’ Roll. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1995.

The Sex Revolts, which appeared this past spring from Harvard University Press, is unquestionably a major publication in the field of popular music studies. But it is also a deeply troubling one, one which points to significant problems concerning the status of popular music within the academy, and particularly within cultural studies.

Reynolds and Press offer a typology of cultural narratives of gender which dominate rock, mainly the rebel, who must escape the smothering femininity of mother, home, family, committed relationships, etc. for the freedom of the open road, the all-male world of adventure, and the possibility of machine-like autonomy, and the mystic, who seeks reunion with the lost maternal through mysticism, psychedelic drugs, and the embrace of nature (xiv). They conclude by surveying attempts by female artists to negotiate with these dominant narratives. The book is organized in these three sections: Rebel Misogynies, Into the Mystic, and Lift up your Skirt and Speak, and each section proceeds through an exhaustive survey of artists both well-known (The Rolling Sto nes, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Pink Floyd) and obscure (John’s Children, Radio Birdman, Can).

As the first book devoted entirely to how gender is treated in rock, The Sex Revolts deserves our attention and even our praise. Yet it also calls out for some serious criticism, since it is in some important respects a deeply flawed piece of work. It is my hope that in beginning to excavate these flaws, I will be embarking on the kind of critical engagement with the book that will assure not its undoing but rather the productive unfolding of some of its unrealized potentialities in the coming years.

Essentially the book suffers from three glaring weaknesses. First, although the dust jacket features a Warhol portrait of Mick Jagger with pink lipstick and green eye shadow, promising a decadent, cynical, knowing attitude towards gender performance, Reynolds and Press present a version of rock which is completely heterosexualized. Their examples are chosen to support their theory, not to complicate it. Queer musicians are not featured (a scan of the index reveals no entries for David Bowie, Lou Reed, Tom Robinson, Melissa Etheridge, or Elton John, to pick some prominent names at random), and those male artists who do appear who have made sexual ambiguity part of their persona, such as Jagger, Iggy Pop, Brian Eno, and Kurt Cobain, are treated only with regard to the putatively heterosexual content of their lyrics. Likewise, female artists’ use of sexual ambiguity is read as negotiation with the maculinist dominant narratives of rock, without any possible queer connotations. Such a blindness to the complex performativity of gender and sexuality within rock ‘n’ roll is astonishing, and constitutes a real obstacle to understanding.

The second serious flaw in the book is the authors’ almost exclusive emphasis on lyrics. Reynolds and Press seldom discuss the non-lyrical dimensions of the music, and when they do they resort to vague and highly impressionistic language. Thus, for example, the music of Trobbing Gristle is said to have “mirrored a world of unremitting ugliness, dehumanization, and brutalism. They degraded and mutilated sound, reaching nether-limits that even now have yet to be under-passed” (91). These are perhaps valid things to say about Throbbing Gristle, but they don’t go very far toward explaining what the music actually sounds like or how the sounds can be understood as mirroring such social conditions as “dehumanization.” It is unlikely that a book on film, painting, fiction, or any art form other than popular music could be published by a major academic press if it contained no formal, technical, or semiotic analysis of the medium and texts in question. This is not to say that only musicologists should write about popular music. Given the culturally conservative character of contemporary musicology, this would be a poor idea. But those of us in cultural studies who write about music have an obligation to acquire some familiarity with its mechanics, just as film scholars learn the conventions of camerawork and editing...

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