The Gender Politics of Kickass

In my Analysis of Minimalism seminar – most rewarding course I’ve ever taught at Bard, at least for me – we finished with Michael Gordon’s loud, propulsive Yo Shakespeare in the same class in which we started on Peter Garland’s calm, delicate I Have Had to Learn the Simplest Things Last. The contrast moved me to get into one of my digressions (I live to digress) about the importance of kickass qualities in music of the Downtown scene in the 1980s and ’90s. For several years there, kickass was the highest praise a Downtown composer could recieve on his or her music, and the most sought after. The word was thrown around so relentlessly that in my reviews in the Voice I started parodying it through overuse: we were in the kickass era now, everything had to be kickass, if you weren’t kickass you weren’t really trying! For months I worked it into every review, no matter how gratuitously. I hoped I could shame people out of the sophomoric notion that loud, percussive aggression automatically made a piece of music good, and the lack of it bad. I don’t think I had much conceptual effect, but it did seem to that the word’s omnipresence declined a touch.

And in class I told a story that has sufficiently retired into the mists of history that I think I can safely recycle it: There was a female accordionist who, the first time I heard her on a festival, played a rather gentle piece based on a folk song. In my review, I called her piece “charming.” Soon came a searing hot letter from a friend of hers, accusing me of sexism and chauvinistic condescension, since, surely, I would never apply the effeminite word charming to a man’s music. I wrote back that indeed I had many times referred to the music of male composers as charming, and that I hoped I had written charming music myself. However, to mollify her, in the “Voice choices” I wrote for this performer (those little advance notices in the concert listings), I started escalating the testosterone level. The climax came when I referred to her as “a two-fisted powerhouse of accordion machismo.” The performer loved the phrase enough to make it her lead press quote. That was the atmosphere of the Downtown scene in the late 1980s.

(If you don’t like the word Downtown, and know a more precise word for the south end of Manhattan, consider it inserted.)

I hope it’s obvious that it’s not I who was sexist in using the word charming – but that, somehow, the preponderance of the lower Manhattan scene had become radically sexist by renouncing every possible quality traditionally associated with femininity and treating them as insults. Quiet, gentle, receptive, nurturing, community-oriented: these are clearly not qualities unique to women, but by acculturation (if not biology) they cling to the female side of our mental male-female axis. By rejecting them, by aspiring exclusively to their opposites, both men and women were fleeing their inner feminine. Moreover, rock had become classified as masculine, classical music as feminine, and so composers were made ashamed of their classical trainings, and pressured to efface them. The result was several years of massive and transparent public pretense: composers pretending to be rockers, women pretending to be men, Ivy League-educated musicians turning their baseball caps backwards and pretending to be blue-collar. It was the opposite of identity-politics art: a scene full of artists ashamed of who they were. So publicly did they trumpet their insecurities that I was embarrassed for them.

It was hardly universal: for instance, you might assume Glenn Branca’s 130-decibel guitar symphonies were the epitome of musical macho, but there’s something deeply feminine and receptive (mathematically “natural”) about his formal paradigms, which comes vividly to the surface in the gentle, meandering works he’s written for unamplified instruments. In that sense, he was more attuned to the earlier minimalists, whose music was despised as soft, lily-livered, and too pretty by the free-improv scene that arose in the early ’80s, and whose macho attitudes I always associated with Reagan era neo-John-Wayne masculinity. The rock-worshipping totalists (John Luther Adams notably excepted) extended the kickass mandate into the ’90s. Whether these sexual politics still exist in New York music I’m not around enough to say, though clearly the bad conscience that many composers carry about their classical training remains evident in the blogosphere.

As a sports-phobic male who grew up as a classical musician in Texas during the heyday of John Wayne worship, I certainly have my own gender-identification issues. They presumably account for the bulky silver jewelry, leather jackets, and biker-chic hats I wear to counter the total absence of male-identified interests that I refused to absorb from the alleged peers I grew up among. (I was even named after the 1950s star quarterback Kyle Rote – how’s that for inserting a real zinger into a musician’s psyche?) But it would never occur to me to force my music to compensate publicly for my private sexual insecurities. I’ve written loud music, fast music, occasionally loud and fast and even propulsive and goal-oriented, but more often slow, delicate, sentimental, empty, flat, pretty, even charming. Some of my music embraces chaos, but more of it cultivates a careful logic. Least of all could I imagine so squelching my natural musicianship to the point that I could rate music as bad or good based entirely on crude sexual stereotypes. I am a well-educated, inhibited, middle-class WASP male in touch with my feminine side, and my music is about what you’d expect for the type: neither I nor my recordings will ever be mistaken for Jimi Hendrix, nor would I seek that. I do believe that music can be ruined by too much evidence of one’s education, and perhaps it is my peculiar luck that I have my musicological work to channel my education into, leaving my music to be written more by ear than by brain. I highly recommend that composers acquire an intellectual hobby.

Where we come from leaves traces on our music that need not be guiltily effaced. I hope that the very essence of a Post-Classic blog – that coming from a classical-music background is A-OK, neither feminizing nor the opposite, and doesn’t commit you to writing “classical music” – helps other college-trained composers get over any undue discomfort with their speciously sissified background.


  1. mclaren says

    This should not surprise us. Musical modernism has since its inception preferred machismo adjectives as praise:
    “Shattering,” “terrifying,” “astounding,” “stunning,” and “a blast.” All terms associated with violent male assault & battery. The shortest version of musical modernist praise? “Shock and awe,” recently used to describe an air bombardment which murdered somewhere around 600,000 innocent Iraqi women and children.
    Thus, the terms of musical modernist critical praise boil down to the descriptive terminology more commonly applied to newspaper reports about a gang rape. No news there. In America, masculine machismo gets the highest praise, while feminine sensuality gets universally condemned. Losing high school football teams, for example, typically get punished in America with boxes of tampons taped to their lockers by their coaches.
    The irony, however, remains that those composers and music critics who present the most aggressively ultra-macho posture often do so in order to conceal an ooey gooey core of feminine prettiness and sentimentality. Milton Babbitt started out penning gorgeously sentimental and charmingly adorable Broadway musicals. It’s easy to see his testosterone-fueled ueber-mathtastic hypermacho modernism as the same kind of reflexive compensation we find in Republicans like the preacher Ted Haggard who belligerantly condemned gay marriage from his church pulpits in public, while indulging in gay sex romps with male hookers in private. It’s exactly the sort of overcompensation you find in a Texas boy named “Marion Morrison” — you just know that poor kid will grow to become John Wayne, compelled to prove his hypermasculinity at every possible opportunity.
    By contrast, certain terms have fallen completely out of use in contemporary musical criticism: “gorgeous,” “sensual,” “ravishing,” “delightful,” “charming” (as noted), “naive” (once used as a term of praise by the poet Schiller in his famous essay “Naive and Sentimental Poetry,” but now verboten except as a term of modernist critical condemnation) “beautiful,” “adorable,” “lovely,” and, worst and most forbidden of all in modernist criticism (unless used as a term of bitter derision), “pretty.” All adjectives associated with feminine qualities, naturally.
    No surprise: America recoils with fear and hatred from the human body and shrinks with loathing and disgust from pleasure. Americans adore agony and torment, and despise beauty and sensual pleasure — as we would expect from our Calvinist puritan heritage.
    The carryover into the arts in general, and musical criticism in particular, involves the praise of anything brutal or ugly or shocking for its own sake and the castigation of any musical qualities associated with sensually seductive and delightful aural qualities, such as acoustically smooth vertical complexes, catchy rhythms, or ravishing melodies.
    Possibly Western music criticism went wrong when Nietzsche penned his essay “The Birth Of Tragedy,” proposing a schism in Western art twixt the Dionysian and the Apollonian. Alas, this cleaved Western art at the wrong joints, for the Dionysian impulse Nietzsche praised involved solely the violent rather than the sensual aspects of Western art. Contrariwise, the Apollonian impulse Nietzsche identified abstracted emotion from art entirely. Both valid characteristics of Western art, but arguably not the most important ones.
    Nietzsche would have done better to split Western art into a feminine and masculine component, or, as Gore Vidal put it, the schism twixt earth goddesses identified with older religions like the fertility cult of Isis, and the sky gods of more modern ascetic cults like Christianity.
    However, another possible explanation for this peculiar macho-worshiping pathology in contemporary music criticism may stem from the six types of artists Ezra Pound identified in How To Read.
    Pound sorted authors into six basic types, and by implication this applies to composers too:
    [1] Initiators of a style. (Not necessarily innovators. These people, like Monteverdi, often work by stripping away all elements but one from music and starting afresh with that.)
    [2] Encylopedists — people who exhaustively explore the possibilities of a new style.
    [3] Creators of fads.
    [4] Innovators — people who add new elements to an existing style.
    [5] Masters — people who bring a style to its height.
    [6] Mannerists — artists who work in the era of a style’s decline, and whose output is consequently distorted or otherwise rendered peculiar by late-period affectations.
    If Ezra Pound’s categorization applies to contemporary composers, contemporary music critics have gotten stuck on types [3] and [4] as the be-all and end-all of contemporary music, to the neglect of all other more feminine styles of composition.
    One can only imagine the contemporary critical reaction to a modern Bach: “His music is merely pretty, in a naive way,” and “What? Another fugue, Herr Bach? Please! Move on! Shock us with something awesome!”

  2. says

    Middle-class shame pervades rock culture, and, I’d say, hipster culture in general. I once heard Gary Giddins read; a fan of his jazz criticism, I wasn’t particularly interested in Bing Crosby, but Giddins was on a book tour, and I wanted to hear him. And he said one of the most astonishing things I’ve ever heard anyone say about Crosby: That Crosby had a “blue collar” persona. I had never thought of pipe smoking and cardigans as blue collar accouterments!
    The pop American myth used to entail upward mobility and assimilation. Assimilation has its complexities, but as a progressive, I like to think of upward mobility as a positive trend. The pretense of downward mobility is an exercise in absurdity and a middle-class privilege; the reality of downward mobility is a bummer that the party of Reagan has worked very hard and shrewdly to make real for millions of Americans.
    I can’t remember ever having met somebody from a blue collar background who fetishized it or who disparaged education.

  3. says

    Guy Music
    This post brings to mind an article I read in a composer-oriented publication some years ago, written by a female composer who decided it was time to lambaste composers of “Guy Music”, who were – of course – all Guys. It was (in my opinion) a stupid and embarrassing article, and I could only feel a bit sorry that this woman felt as she did. Even more so, because I considered her sort of a friend, respected her work, and felt she should have known better. A lot of “guys” write music they like, and it kicks ass. So do a lot of Gals. And as many of us write pretty and charming and gentle works, and take as much pride in those.
    The thing that really got to me in that rancid article was that certain composers were singled out, and sometimes only on the basis of the composition’s title. Someone had written a piece called “Drill”, and the author confidently counseled her readers that only a “Guy” would name a piece of music after a power tool. Well, I gotta tell ya, I know some bitches what wields a Skil saw way better than me, but besides that, I never got the idea that “drill” referenced a tool. I thought it meant like in a drill, a group exercise to develop a certain kind of behavior for our mutual benefit, such as getting out of a burning building, or moving all of our rifles (or brooms!) synchronously in the interest of some coordinated possibly pleasing end result (yes, girls do rifle drills. I watched it all the time when I was a kid in Canada).
    Anyway, that whole article kind of bugged me, and especially so because I wasn’t singled out as a “Guy Composer”. So the next piece I wrote I titled “Clean Your Gun”, just because.
    Anyway, a lovely post. Makes me feel all warm inside.

  4. says

    What I find interesting about the whole thing is that adjectives of strength and power are automatically considered masculine. Don’t women have their own strength and powers? I don’t see guys enduring the monthly pain that women go through, that’s for sure. The whole gendering of adjectives is such a tiresome can of worms. Why can’t we just have “kickass” without it having to be masculine, too? Why is it that if I write a rhythmic, loud piece, it’s suddenly a gender transgression? Or if I write something soft and gentle, I’m somehow being true to my God-given private bits, but also, therefore, wimpy and lame? If people are so overcome by beauty, why is that not also considered power? You’re being overcome, aren’t you? I’m not saying there are no differences between men and women; I’m just saying that the adjectives that we use to describe things aren’t the exclusive domain of one gender or another. If we really want to make things fair, we’ll stop gendering things that don’t have a gender. And we’ll stop using words like feminizing or emasculating — gosh darn it, if you do something and you’re a guy, you’re still a guy doing something, so it’s masculine.

  5. peter says

    This is a very interesting post, Kyle. I think the forces in our culture which favour macho music have been active for a couple of centuries. Beethoven’s music, for example, strikes me as the music of someone intent on shouting his opinions into your ear, regardless of your feelings or your interest in what he has to say, and it is macho in the extreme. (His music is also very good, and no one can develop or explore a motif as well as dear Ludwig, but it is being shouted at you, nonetheless.) By contrast, Mendelssohn’s music is that of someone willing to engage in polite conversation WITH you not shouting AT you, to listen as well as speak, music which is subtle, nuanced, intelligent, profound and witty. His music is not by any means macho, and so it is afforded less respect than Beethoven’s by most of critics these last century and a half.
    There’s no question whose music speaks more deeply to me, and nor which person I’d rather spend time with.
    KG replies: Admittedly. Last Beethoven course I taught, the shouting got a little old. But there are also movements, like the slow ones of Opp. 106 and 111, in which Ludwig keeps his mouth shut and just shows you the universe.