Figuring out the role of sex in music is a complicated and weird balance that we see throughout the whole thing. There is a strange balance to music as a whole, and while gender roles are important, as we discussed in a previous article, I want to talk more about the politics of gender in song. That is to say music is largely driven by the human desire for sex – or so many theories about the origins of music would suggest. So why is it that songs like “Take It Off” by the Donnas become massive well loved hits and a track like “Peacock” from Katy Perry is cast aside as a silly pointless piece of schlock? I know I don’t normally chime in on songwriting in this blog but it will allow us to make some larger points about branding and figuring out the best way to market your music with inversions of expectations and thus finding something fundamental within the ungodly power of rock and roll.
The reason that bands like The Donnas or Pat Benatar has such universal acclaim is their mastery of their own sexualization. Why though? Because they inverted norms. It’s the same reason we see the enduring appeal of an artist like Joan Jett. She legitimately doesn’t give a damn about her bad reputation and doesn’t want to improve her station. So we find ourselves digging in. These womens ability to show that they want to take what they want rather than hope for it to come to them. The demure crap that defines a lot of the female archetype in music was destroyed by these women. They had a sort of Freudian appeal that resonates with young people of all ages, genders and creeds. They gave power to women and created something that was quite frankly – incredibly erotic. The appeal though came from their ability to take apart the traditional ideas that make so much of pop music schlocky. Throughout history it was inversions like these that fueled new ideas and which makes these artists so endlessly appealing.
I think that the role of women in music, especially rock and hard rock is perhaps the best way to pick apart the role of inversions in music. In many ways, and not to beat a dead horse, but this circles back to my passion for Kesha – her entire musical approach is based on inverting gender norms. She is the powerful dominant woman in an industry where a lot of girls, despite what they might lead you to believe, don’t have that kind of clout. You need to be able to take these predicted norms and evolve them into something different and unique. While playing up to tropes can be fun it’s hard to truly justify their usage in an increasingly competitive market. As much fun as tropey and silly music can be we, as fans, rapidly lose interest. You don’t want to be a part of a movement of ‘cool’ that makes the music industry come off as pointless. You need to continue building on inversions to build regular successes.
Ultimately – there are few groups in music as oppressed as women so when they are able to stand up and stick it totally to the man. The ones who are able to totally stick it to the man and tear gender norms apart are the ones who are going to dominate. It’s the same reason that you see people like Florida Georgia Line blowing up with their new record – an album that uses ballads and retrospective love songs about family and country living. Being able to take apart these ideas that have defined so many of our lives has made these artists great and given them enduring power. It has taken apart a lot of the heart rending torment that makes a lot of music so decadent and disgusting. I’m someone who has to listen to new music every day and I am sick and tired of so much of the common crap that makes us suffer and leaves me frustrated and tired.
This is not to say that truly good music can’t become huge and enduring. A lot of Led Zeppelin for example plays into traditional 70s rock tropes but it kicks ass and they remain one of the most important bands of all time. Yet even they blew peoples minds when they brought in elements of classical music to their sound. It simply was a step beyond a lot of what other people were doing at the time. The idea of classical music and folk ballads had already been introduced to rock and roll. Even today we see bands that play into a lot of traditional ideas but just do it really well and thus find success. That’s why the Foo Fighters are simultaneously one of the most popular and most reviled bands going right now. Same with Nickelback. They play into common tropes – but I don’t know if that’s actually going to give you the sort of long term success that makes music as exciting and eternally interesting.
I hope I’ve made my point without rambling too much or seeming to silly. The universal idea that I keep circling back to is that music is supposed to be built on destroying expectations. Expectations create rules and the best music from history is the music that destroyed a lot of the passion that made us get into it. It’s impossible to progress beyond the limitations that have come to define our industry without being willing to break them and it’s the people that fail to break them who end up in the same circle jerk that has led me to booking cover bands to make a dime. Everyone is uncomfortable when limitations are broken apart – that’s why The Donnas have the endring appeal. They forced you to accept the power that women can have and rode it into TV spots and thousands of sales. It’s also why some labels become butts of jokes. So come out – destroy the norms and change the world