Sunday, September 12, 2010

20th century boy: glam rock's agenda to push gender boundaries

As an open-minded fan of rock music - especially unconventional rock - "glam rock" holds a special place for me, in part because of the genre's role in pushing conventional gender boundaries in pop culture. Wikipedia characterizes glam rock as music "which was performed by singers and musicians who wore outrageous clothes, makeup and hairstyles, particularly platform-soled boots and glitter." According to Allmusic, the actual music was straightforward and catchy, but its "innocent-sounding influences were belied by the delivery, which was all campy, glitzy showmanship and sexuality."

Allmusic argues that one of the primary reasons why glam rock remained a British phenomenon and never caught on in the United States is because "glam artists intentionally played around with gender conventions, dressing themselves up in outlandish, androgynous costumes and makeup." Most, if not all, of the early icons of glam rock flirted with this "gender-bending" imagery. Not only has this particular aspect of glam influenced the imagery of subsequent rock sub-genres, but it also illustrates the progressive capacity of pop culture.

One can likely trace the roots of glam rock to the 1960s experimental rock band the Velvet Underground (“VU”). Although VU predated the glam rock movement, their lyrics often dealt with sexually-provocative themes, thus setting the stage for glam rock's sexually-provocative visuals. The VU song "Sister Ray" concerns a "transvestite smack dealer” and a group of drag queens who shoot up heroin and have an orgy with a group of sailors when the police arrive.

According to Allmusic and Wikipedia, glam rock effectively started in 1971 with the band T. Rex, after founder Marc Bolan added two spots of glitter under his eyes for a performance on the U.K. show Tops of the Pops. Though VU and Bolan opened the door for experimentation with gender conventions, other glam rock icons would push that door wide open. For example, the cover art for David Bowie's album, The Man Who Sold the World, features Bowie in a "man's dress." He used this dress for his first tour of the United States, as well as for interviews. As his Martian alter-ego Ziggy Stardust, Bowie presented his sexual identity quite literally outside of human convention.

Vincent Damon Furnier toyed with androgyny on a very fundamental level through the name of his onstage persona - Alice Cooper. He also experimented with gender identity issues musically, especially on the song "Is It My Body?", "a witty and clever send of macho insecurity," in which the narrator inquires whether a suitor's interest is based solely on physical attraction. One band, the New York Dolls, had trouble securing a record label, in part, because of their cross-dressing habits. More so than any of the aforementioned musicians, the Dolls’ image was inextricably linked to their garish onstage outfits.

So what is the actual significance of glam rockers' experimentation with gender norms? On the one hand, one could view these actions as simply provocation in the name of rock. Alice Cooper and the New York Dolls in particular adhered to a “shock rock” philosophy – music calculated for maximum shock value. The underlying premise for this theory is that seeing adult men (most all of the early glam icons were men) transgressing gender roles and stereotypes would shock the average person. From the musician’s perspective, notoriety can prove just as useful as musical ability.

On the other hand, regardless of their actual intentions, glam rockers undeniably pushed the boundaries of rock music and left an indelible stamp on pop culture. First, they eschewed gender conventions and helped usher a new paradigm for the male rock star – the drug addled, sleazy, androgynous sex symbol. Second, glam rock helped legitimize androgynous imagery for subsequent rock sub-genres - including goth and punk - as well as for other musicians as diverse as Prince and Lady Gaga. Glam rock’s influence is also apparent in the world of cinema (the Rocky Horror Picture Show) and the world of theater (Hedwig and the Angry Inch).

In the end, the early glam icons probably were not looking for meaningful social change. However, the legacy of glam rock undeniably stems, in part, from its audacity to confront pop culture with basic gender conventions.

Below are a few videos that demonstrate the sonic range of glam rock, as well as how glam artists toyed with gender conventions.

The New York Dolls - Personality Crisis

David Bowie - Ziggy Stardust

Alice Cooper - Is It My Body?

1 comment:

Yazzyjazzy said...

Another area that is attempting to push gender boundaries is the fashion world. I recently saw skirts and dresses for men on the website for a popular clothing company called H&M ( I'm not sure if this will catch on right now, but like you say in this piece, the door is cracked open. I think the door will soon be burst open by bold and fashionable celebrities embracing this fashion trend.