Reflections on Gender in Songs and Performers

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Back in the early days of this blog I wrote about how some songs are gendered, either implicitly or implicitly. Sometimes it’s just a surface effect of pronouns, and you can readily adapt the song to an ensemble of the other gender either my changing a few words or by abandoning the assumption of heteronormativity. Other times, the persona’s gender is built more deeply into the song’s lyric and/or musical material and is less susceptible to switching.

At the European Barbershop Convention I found myself articulating a couple of thumbprints of implicit gender more consciously than I had before. One was the way some songs lie on the patriarchy-compensated slope: they build giving away power as a token of commitment, the lyric goes down on one knee, so to speak. When sung by a male persona, this mitigates a cultural context of inequality; when sung by a female persona, it exacerbates it. ‘All I possess I surrender,’ is an expression of superlative sacrifice from a man, but for a woman it merely indicates a willingness to return to the oppressive norms of yesteryear when that’s what happened by law when you got married.

Another, which I can’t believe I’d not clocked before, is the use of body parts as metaphors for other body parts. All those songs objectifying one’s beloved’s lovely eyes…. I can even remember, in my youth, hearing men talking about certain TV stars who had been packaged for being leered at: ‘Oh, she’s got lovely …. EYES, nudge nudge wink wink.’ ‘Jeepers creepers where d’you get those peepers?’ is probably code for, ‘Scooters shooters where d’you get those hooters?’

Anyway, one of the reasons I was thinking about implicit gender built into songs was because of the way it plays out when they’re performed by groups that represent multiple genders in their membership. Quite a lot of mixed groups pick material that doesn’t obviously encode gender, allowing both singers and audience to engage at the level of the human and/or experience meaningfully it through their own gender identity without feeling dissonance with the song.

But quite a few also chose songs that had clearly-defined genders and just let our suspension of disbelief do the work. Quartets with female leads might sing from either a female or a male subject position, and both worked just fine. A particular note of fondness for the male singers who stepped into a female persona: women are used to being asked to see the world through the eyes of men and it’s nice to see the favour returned.

What seemed more important for the coherence of the experience than congruence between gender of persona and performers was the continuity of the persona itself. This seemed most at risk where guy songs about a woman were appropriated by a female ensemble. You’d find a weird slippage between the lyrics telling a story about an objectified other, but the performers intermittently identifying with her; the persona’s subject and object became unstable.

As well as single-gender personas being sung by multiple-gender groups, we had single-gender groups representing interpersonal relationships within their performance. Barbershop Blend from Germany were a women’s chorus that chose to costume as women and men in order to present a visual narrative of heterosexual romance. While No Borders Show Chorus, whose singers were also all women, chose to present their romance as between two women dancing together in their party tableau.

Both choices, I have to say, are preferable to the ruse of enlisting an opposite-gendered director into the presentation to create a heteronormative narrative, something I’m glad to say I don’t recall seeing at EBC. I’m okay with a heteronormative narrative in itself (so long as it’s not too rigid and prescriptive, and especially if it’s not the only interpretive framework I meet in any one day), but I can’t be doing with usurping the director’s role for other ends. If you don’t need them to direct the chorus, you don’t need them on stage, and if you do need them to direct the chorus then let them get on with it!

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