Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Theory of the Rhythmic Class

Music, Gender, and Sexuality
By Susan McClary
University of Minnesota Press

Feminine Endings is a musical version of the feminist deconstructions that have rocked aesthetic ideology since Laura Mulvey took on the gaze in 1975. Susan McClary counts as allies Tania Modleski and Mary Ann Doane in film, Teresa de Lauretis, Sandra M. Gilbert, and Susan Gubar in literature, Judith Lynne Hanna in dance--every one (along with many others) gratefully cited in an eloquent, contentious notes section a third as long as the 166-page text.

But her book should come as a relief even to readers with no special use for multi-culti counteranalysis--criticism fans, pop egalitarians, committed anti-idealists, accountants and English teachers who think Schubert's Trout has something to do with water, or fish. Digging out from under music theory's genteel evasions, nutball positivism, and general delusions of grandeur, she articulates a point of view that often resembles common sense. In music theory, abstruse-to-arcane by linguistic nature, and feminist deconstruction, rooted in Lacanian gobbledygook and sworn to strip away surfaces at any cost, this achievement borders on the miraculous.

We're not accustomed to regarding what McClary calls "so-called serious composition" as a particularly sexist preserve. If anything, classical music ("longhair" music, in pre-Beatle Americanese) has always carried with it a whiff of the feminine, and in this century female musicians and singers proliferated. Female composers, however, have been even rarer than female painters or sculptors, and if anything women have fared even worse in the study of music. Among the 78 key books and essays by 56 authors in the bibliography of Joseph Kerman's 1985 Contemplating Music: Challenges to Musicology--a sanely progressive overview by a scholar-critic praised in McClary's notes and thanked in her acknowledgments--precisely two are by women: one a musicologist who shares authorship with her pianist husband, the other an up-and-coming iconoclast who McClary reports was "severely chastised" for exposing American music departments to the Adorno virus.

McClary suggests that classical music's effeminate reputation is one reason men monopolize its ideology as well as its composition. Male longhairs feel pressured to defend their masculinity, and despite their insistence that the music they love operates on a formal-cum-spiritual plane which towers above mere meaning, their metaphorical habits--epitomized by the common practice of designating such unresolved elements as nontonic keys and "weak" beats "female" and its often "climactic" harmonic and rhythmic closures "male"--leave no doubt that that's what they're doing.

It's typical that this defense is often reflexive and unselfconcious. Even for adepts, McClary makes clear, classical music functions as a sublime escape, providing spiritual and philosophical comfort all the more effective because it's nonverbal and therefore immune to news from the other side. And just because music's formal principles are beyond the ken of most listeners, it's anything but transcendent, abstract, or value-free. In fact, McClary believes, it's the opposite--a powerful and rather insidious socializing agent. Most of us assume that tonality's tension-and-release structures conform to a fundamental pattern of life. McClary says one reason we believe such patterns are natural is that we've been absorbing them musically since before we could talk.

This is common sense? Of course not--this is classic deconstruction. The common-sense part is, first, McClary's insistence that music means anything at all, and second, her belief that there's important music outside as well as inside "so-called serious composition." Like Kerman's Contemplating Music, Feminine Endings is an argument for music criticism, a discipline long out of fashion in academia, where it's been superceded by the supposed objectivity of music history, science, analysis, and theory. Before she can establish that music is male chauvinist (or undertake any "socially grounded criticism"), McClary is compelled to attack the obfuscations that permit musicology to "fastidiously [declare] issues of musical signification to be off-limits to those engaged in legitimate scholarship."

This she does with more evident relish than Kerman (although compared to lit crits she respects her adversaries). And however unorthodox it may be for her to attribute "content" to musical "form," her basic contention--that sonata-allegro procedure, the crowning rationalization of tonality and the basic principle of symphonic construction, is obviously a species of mythic narrative--rings true. In view of the requirement that modulations return to a "home" key, an even more inescapable metaphor than "feminine" cadence, why should anyone think tonality is too good for the quest story that holds the rest of European culture in its thrall? But many believe just that, and feeling isolated in her unorthodoxy, McClary joins forces with other Others. First she observes that Carmen isn't exclusively devoted to the taming of Woman: Bizet seems equally fascinated and terrified by nonwhites, and by popular culture. Shortly thereafter she shifts her attention from Monteverdi, Tchaikovsky, and Donizetti to Diamanda Galas, Laurie Anderson, and Madonna.

Feminine Endings is both convincing and entertaining throughout, and hardly exhausts McClary's arsenal--her dissection of rock musicology with her husband Robert Walser is very nearly the best thing in Simon Frith and Andrew Goodwin's enormous On Record anthology, and I trust her "On the Blasphemy of Talking Politics During Bach Year" will keynote an essay collection soon. But that's not to say this book effects as many closures as one might hope. McClary writes acutely about sex--her comments on the "erotic friction" of Monteverdi's trios are but one example of her point that the dalliance of melodic foreplay often beats the imposed ecstasy of harmonic completion--but never comes out and says just exactly how overrated she thinks orgasms are. Her final positions on both order and tension-and-release also remain cloudy--she does sometimes threaten to fall into the deconstructionist trap of tearing down the house before she's put up the tent. And while I'm impressed by her harmonic analyses of Anderson and Madonna, whose music is almost always ignored in favor of their performances, I'm left wondering how common such patterns might be among less august artists.

McClary remains a creature of her training. She has nothing to say about jazz or any other black music, little to say about rhythm beyond asserting how crucial it is. And she's spent so much of her life with classical music that when she turns to pop icons she's sometimes overimpressed with tricks the media-saturated have learned to take for granted, even deconstruct--the fade, say, or the bare ass. Nevertheless, this is a major book by a writer I would eagerly read on any cultural subject. Not only do I admire her audacity in introducing the independent thought virus to American music departments--I get off on it, too.

Village Voice, June 4, 1991