How Has Masculinity in Music Changed Over Time?
David Foster Wallace
There was an article years ago by Katie Roiphe that discussed how masculinity had changed in different ways in literature. I think it was written in the 90s or early 2000s, and I believe in compared someone like Philip Roth to authors like Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace, to begin thinking about how men in literature behaved differently, both in their public personas but also in their representations of men in their fiction and therefore their representations of lust and sex and violence. Roth of course tended to emphasize a kind of animality to men, a howling quality, though he did this in very ironic and mature ways, though the public always misread him, being unable to differentiate between fiction and reality. Eggers and Wallace, I think, in Roiphe's analysis, were less lustful or more conscientious or less wild or even perhaps more enervated. I think she was attempting to honor the best aspects of Roth, while also being appreciative and critical of the representations of men in the work of authors like Eggers and Wallace. And though I'm not sure if she mentioned this, Roth's own relationship to masculinity was of course primarily shaped by his relationship to Kafka, who was the sort of opposite of Roth in many ways, for he was much more repressed and did not seem to sleep with many women.
I think music is similar in some ways, and that we can find similar cultural trends when we look at the work of different singer-songwriters. For example, if we think about Sufjan Stevens, or Beck, or Andrew Bird, they do give us different representations of men that are different from Johnny Cash, or Frank Sinatra, or Muddy Waters, and these representations are less violent. Cash, whose music I love, still is famous for flipping off the camera, say, and I can't imagine for the life of me seeing Stevens or Beck or Bird doing this. Sinatra was known for his temper and Muddy Waters would sometimes sing that song about "she's 19 years old," which today would definitely be considered creepy. These men were geniuses in their own way, and I love their music, but I think it's important to ask questions about how men manage their anger and violence, so this is not meant to sound judgmental but to get us thinking and asking cultural questions. And when we think about figures in the alternative grunge movements of the 90s, like Chris Cornell, Kurt Cobain, and Scott Weiland, who struggled with drug addiction and committed suicide, then we might realize that these are pressing questions, not just for singer-songwriters but for the men they represent in their music, and the women who listen and try to learn about men and what they feel they are comfortable with.
When we talk about suicide, and violence, and drug addiction, and art, we enter into very tricky territory, because generalizations can become dangerous and irresponsible, especially when talking about things that are very painful and that leave lasting wounds. But I think often, men and women turn towards suicide when they feel murderously angry - often because of abusive childhoods - without knowing or figuring out or given the opportunity to turn that anger into something constructive. And so they then turn it upon themselves and become self-destructive, and that's when you see drug addiction, or suicide. In a way, we are talking about individuating, about how we carve out our own identities.
Bird's music, or Beck's, or Stevens, finds different ways of being creative that channel that anger in ways that create original textures for music. Bird incorporates whistling, interesting multi-instrumental layering, and a style that is eccentric while remaining incredibly interesting and sometimes even quite profound. Beck uses enormous amounts of innovations and cross-hybrid experimentation to also push music in new directions, by combining rap with a sort of country feeling, or doing really moving things in alternative folk (I probably know the least about Beck's work, then Bird's, then Stevens, so need to learn more about all three.). Stevens also plays in different modes, in minimalist instrumental styles, in bone-hungry alternative folk reminiscent of Elliot Smith but in a leaner vein, in electricscapes that I know the least about, and more traditional traditions with really interesting and wonderful arrangements. Their music works, but they also give good examples of being men, straight or gay, in the arts, because they seem pretty conscientious about both their audience and their need to create. This seems somewhat unlike Wallace, for example, who was abusive, and struggled with drug addiction and committed suicide. I think it's fair to say that this conscientiousness is a good thing, in any art form, and that kids need good role models, especially the kids who turn to the arts for the same reason their heroes in the arts did - to create out of need based on trauma, and to turn that violence into art.