Do Songs Have Gender?

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The acappella blog has a regular feature of Dos & Don’ts which offers simple practical advice to performing groups. Occasionally, though, what looks on the surface like straightforward common sense turns out to have an interesting underside that is anything but straightforward. Mike Scalise's post on choosing gender-appropriate material for your group has had me thinking about it for the last two weeks.

At a practical level, the advice to choose music that fits the gender of your group is of course sensible. But two things interest me: the list of successful exceptions presented to nuance the argument, and the question of how we assign gender to songs in the first place.

Mike locates the gender of a song in the performer with whom it is most associated, which is fair enough as a starting point. But of course there are plenty of songs that have been sung famously by singers of different genders: Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’ was covered by Madonna, and Michael Bublé takes on Nina Simone’s ‘Feeling Good’. And this makes us notice that a lot of songs actually work just fine on either gender: they either focus on subject matter outside of the song’s protagonist/subject position, or they tell of personal experiences accessible to people of both genders. Many, possibly most songs are gender neutral.

But there are other songs that clearly do have gender, and it’s interesting to note how this is defined. Most obviously, of course, it sits in the lyrics, although the depth to which it is embedded in them varies. Sometimes you can just switch the odd ‘her’ for ‘him’ and the whole thing flips around unproblematically, as in Happy Together. Wishin' and Hopin', however is unremediably a girl song because the protagonist is so clearly defined in terms of a particular model of 1960s femininity.

But it’s not just the words that define a song’s gender, as there are songs that have gender-neutral words but still sit clearly with one gender or the other. Crazy for You is in this category to my mind – there’s nothing in the lyric that would sit uncomfortably in a male voice, but it is hard to imagine a male singer making it work. (Having said that, the phrase ‘every breath I’m deeper into you’ would possibly be distractingly graphic rather than metaphorical!) The orchestration of the original contributes to the feminine feel, with its sparkly, even ditzy sound world and gentle oboe melody. But even if you re-imagine it into timbres such as you’d hear from Bruce Springsteen, only parts of it work for men. In particular, the start of the chorus, with the hook-line ‘Crazy for You’ uses a melodic shape that has long, long associations with femininity in Western music – the 6th degree of the scale as upper neighbour note or appoggiatura appears as a sign of femininity from Der Freischutz (listen from 1.15) to Trumptonshire.

And thinking about the exceptions to the general rule about conforming to one’s own gender in song choice is interesting too. I can’t help noticing that women seem more comfortable singing guy songs than vice versa. Amy Winehouse sings Valerie (as do Greet Street Blues); Noteorious and Capital Connection sing Don't Stop Me Now. Well, we’re happier wearing men’s clothes than men are wearing skirts, too, if you think about it.

And I think this says something about gender politics in wider culture. We’re getting beyond the sexist rules of grammar that said ‘the masculine includes the feminine’ – i.e. assume that people are male unless there is some peculiar reason that you have to specify female. This is a good thing, for all the reasons that the folk who campaigned about this in the 70s and 80s explained.

But this older cultural habit does make it easier for women to appropriate masculine roles than vice versa. If you grow up in a world where your particular identity is invisible, but – you are told – is included in a different one, well, you just get used to taking a masculine subject position. So, if guys find it fun to sing unremittingly phallic music, don’t be surprised if girls enjoy it too.

Does the idea of 'gender-appropriate' songs arise from a heteronormative start point? Liz - I read your book and was encouraged by the short section about the experiences of lesbian and gay barbershoppers. I have sung in three different choruses and have always felt the odd-one-out as everyone else is (or seems to be) straight.
Is there any other interest out there in representing the minority of lesbian/bisexual women within LABBS?

Hi Demeter,
Yes, I think you are absolutely right about the heteronormative assumptions built in to the idea of gender-appropriate material - and they're common to most of the popular song traditions that acappella styles draw on. Within barbershop culture I think there's quite a lot of local variation - individual choruses tend to get into self-perpetuating cultures of either compulsory heterosexuality or more open to LGB folk, depending on the orientations of key people in the club's history. I think that's true of both LABBS and the BHS - I've not spent enough time with Sweet Adelines groups to know how it generalises across to them.

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