Book Review: LJ Muller with Manu Reyes, Hearing Sexism: Gender in the Sound of Popular Music

Does the analysis of sound also reveal sexism? Does it just validate masculine identity and experience? Can the author, LJ Muller, peel an orange successfully in their pocket?

Yes. Yes. Probably.

This book won the IASPM prize in 2019, just published in the UK. Its aim is to:

 “…question and expose the widespread underlying aesthetic paradigms and listening habits that take part in the constructions of sexism in sound.”

(p.17)

The concept of hearing sound in sexism is a complicated challenge.

In 1996 Simon Reynolds advocated for the case of rock music being most thrilling when it’s misogynist and macho, (The Sex Revolts, Joy Press); fodder for “sounds like” assumptions based on gender conventions (boys loud/girls quiet).

Is Hearing Sexism about identifying the gender behind a sound? And is that gender framework based on either/or female/male heteronormative conventions? And is that sexism directed against both women and men or with a focus on being anti-female?

The book’s quest is to explore “a musical-aesthetic field outside of the real voice”; a concept that has been highlighted as an ideological assumption by a string of feminist theorists and musicologists.

“…the real voice… suggest authenticity by seemingly establishing an immediate connection to the somatic interior of the singer.”

(p.44)

Muller, uses this concept as a benchmark to identify difference. They do not advocate the male voice as the ‘real voice’ only digging deep as to the why, which reflects a realistic understanding of its presence in the public domain, feminist Wendy Griswold’s Social World.  

“If the ‘real’ voice is seen as normative expression of an emotional self-image of the audience, the four examples (Bush, Minogue, Bjork and Birdy) discussed here can be interpreted as different forms of ‘others’.”

(p. 176)

The male case studies are examples of the ‘real voice’ – Kurt Cobain, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and ‘Feel’ by Robbie Williams. The female case studies are Kate Bush, Kylie Minogue, Bjork and Birdy.

All the choices for research are white heterosexuals, and cisgender. To that end the book starts with her detailed reasoning behind the content, and acknowledges the research’s limitations.

It’s a topic that could lead you astray onto a slippery slope of binary assumptions about gender. The French feminists took me up there and left me stranded back in the 90s. It’s a cold and windy place, Hegemony Heights.

Like the French feminists, psychoanalysis plays its part. The concepts of the Sonical Body and the Vocalic Body make for an interesting on-page dialogue that talks through the nature of various theories, including French feminist Julie Kristeva’s semiotic Chora (I’ve been trying to get to grips with La Revolution Langage Poetique since 1996). Hearing Sexism has introduced me to the work of Tia De-Nora music sociologist, and psychoanalyst Martin Silverman, and has reminded me about Peter Wicke’s observations, a specialist in culture and sociology and music.

The analysis of the self-destructive vocals of Cobain in ‘Teen Spirit’ is uncanny for those of us that were there at the time (working for the main stream music press).

“… Cobain’s vocalic body thus seems to downright injure itself with this singing.”

(p. 112)

The finale is the discussion that focuses on the research results of the four female subjects in comparison to Cobain and William’s, and then each other but some of the most interesting moments in this book is not the research but the build-up, citing multiple texts that have already been written on the subject, weaving their dialogue and discussion so tightly it’s bullet proof.

I will still go to Deborah Withers, Adventures in Kate Bush and Theory for intellectual inspiration, published 2010 (HammerOn Press). 

If you are new to this topic the book is best read in linear fashion; it’s presented in sensible steps, Introduction (background feminist music studies and ideas and methodology), Tools of Analysis (the concepts that are their toolbox for analysis). What is also useful throughout are visual frameworks of the research results which help the non-musicologist understand the interpretations, but Muller emphasises the analysis of examples should not be viewed as a grid for classifying music.

Overall this is not an easy read or one that seeks to engage its reader. I will add it to the collection of books by the sofa, ear marked for glass of wine in hand, under a blanket Christmas holiday reading because I’m always thinking about building my metaphorical armour for when the revolution comes.