Why is there no music analysis in feminist theory?

This MTO call for “Feminist Music Theory” got me thinking….


Feminist Theory is a body of theoretical, philosophical work that crosses women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, literature, film and media studies, art history, cultural studies, ethnic studies, theology and religious studies, and philosophy. It offers both theories of what gender and sexuality are, and it offers feminist approaches to other theoretical methods, disciplines, and traditions.

Key figures include people like Judith Butler, bell hooks, Angela Davis, Simone de Beauvoir, Patricia Hill Collins, Gloria Anzaldua, Laura Mulvey, Rey Chow, Jack Halberstam, Jasbir Puar, Elizabeth Grosz, the French Feminists (Cixous, Irigaray, Kristeva), Susan Bordo, Maria Lugones….those are just established, canon figures.

The study of various art works and art forms is central to so so so much of feminist theory’s canon: literature is at the core of most of it (Beauvoir, Halberstam, the French Feminists, Anzaldua), but there’s also tons of canonical Feminist Theory that comes from the close analysis of film (Mulvey, Silverman, Copjec, hooks, Halberstam, Chow…). The close, technical, and rigorous analysis of the construction and formal mechanisms of art works and art practices are at the very core of feminist theory. Like, the theory of patriarchy we get in Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure” article is deeply tied to her close analysis of cinematography–the fragmentation of women’s bodies, the fourth wall as metaphor for liberalism’s epistemology of ignorance, etc. Much of feminist theory’s canon comes from the close, technical, and rigorous analysis of the construction and formal mechanisms of art works but not of music. Even when feminist theorists talk about music (like hooks, Halberstam, Grosz, Davis) they don’t talk about the formal and compositional structure of it–just mostly lyrics. For example, Halberstam uses The Sex Pistols’ “God Save The Queen” as a way to critique Edelaman’s “No Future,” but the analysis never departs from lyrics. Similarly, hooks talks about 90s hip hop, but never engages things like musical form (and this is in a way a template for a lot of hip hop feminism: engaging the culture, the videos and rap lyrics, but rarely the musical aspects of it). Looking at the “canon,” there no music analysis in feminist theory. Why?

Saying there is no music analysis in feminist theory is a bit like saying a book published in 2015 is the first book of rock criticism by a living female author–an overstatement intended to make a political point. On the one hand, I think I’ve been using music analysis to do feminist theory for about fifteen or so years. So, there is some music analysis in feminist theory. On the other hand, there has been TONS of feminist theory in music analysis for the last….30+ years. McClary’s analysis of tonality parallels Mulvey’s analysis of narrative cinema: the formal devices and techniques of the medium (sonata form, tonal harmony) are concrete instances of techniques patriarchy employs more generally. But while Mulvey’s work is pretty foundational to feminist scholarship, McClary’s work is nearly absent from all the top “generalist” Feminist Theory journals. I did a quick search of the back catalogs of Signs, Hypatia, differences, and WSQ. Even though McClary was on the editorial board of Signs for more than a decade, her work was cited only three times, and all in articles specifically about music. In Hypatia, she was cited four times, twice by me. Differences showed one hit, WSQ, two. So that makes me wonder: why didn’t work by McClary, Cook, Cusick, Brett, all the canonical feminist and queer musicologists, why didn’t that get any uptake in feminist theory itself? Why didn’t feminist music analysis break mainstream feminist theory the way feminist literary and film analysis did?

There are a lot of reasons. I think a huge, huge one is notation. Given the general state of the field, in order to take an introductory class or to try to read a journal article, there’s the expectation that you understand either traditional notation (staves and key signatures etc) or, increasingly, computer visualizations. This means that music analysis stays within an expert group. And this ‘language’ expertise is also something that’s not as easy to get in high school (like, I could have studied French in high school and that would have made it easier to get into reading Beauvoir or Wittig in the original), and not as easy to get in college (often there’s a foreign language requirement, so everyone has to take a language, and the institution is designed to support that…). Another is the centrality of the Western art music literature to the undergraduate music theory curriculum. If I’m a gender studies major who wants to write about Beyonce, I am *not* going to sit through several years of voice leading, Schenker, counterpoint, tone rows–because those aren’t going to give me the skills I need to closely listen to and analyze the Flawless remix. There IS plenty of work in pop analysis–but often that seems to be the cool bonus you get after jumping through the art music hoops. I think there are a lot of humanities students, in particular gender studies students, who would be interested in learning some analytical skills *just* for pop music. And there are plenty of other reasons. Those are just the two that seem, right now, the most prominent and most obvious. Another likely reason is the very low proportion of women in music theory programs–it’s often worse than philosophy(!).
So, imagine there’s a gender studies student who wants to write about Beyonce or Grimes. What kinds of analytical skills will be important for them to learn? First and foremost: form, the ability to listen for, diagram, and describe in prose a song’s form. This is the one thing that I think is central to music analysis that I pretty much *never* see in humanities writing by scholars outside music departments. Or more simply, that student needs to be able to identify the main parts of the song, its main functional elements (which aren’t always harmonic!), and how these elements work together to give the song structure, meaning, and aesthetic pleasure. That means they need to develop ways to talk about rhythm, melody, timbre, harmony, and instrumentation. They need to learn about things like compression, ADSR, and other effects put in behind the glass. They’d need to know about pop history (a Beyonce scholar needs to know about UGK, for example, just as someone writing about Rihanna would be well served to recognize “Blue Monday” in “Shut Up and Drive.”) In the end what I’m arguing is that music analysis is a skill that a lot of gender studies scholars could use because they write about pop music, but that the way the academy and music curricula currently work, that instruction isn’t very accessible to people without significant background in either art music or audio technology.