THE SEX REVOLTS: GENDER, REBELLION AND ROCK'N' ROLL by Simon Reynolds and Joy Press; Harvard University Press, 1995
The combination of music criticism and cultural studies rarely produces anything of relevance to the meaning of music. Even when the combination succeeds, the outcome is usually about as artistic a statement as demonstrating the ability to swallow one's own tail. Cultural studies is about consumption, art is about creation. The Sex Revolts is an example of over-consumption. Simon Reynolds and Joy Press have created a monster of a book but one that reaches for tall buildings and ends up grasping at straws.
'Tis a pity because Reynolds and Press are smart and fanatical in their love for good music, and most of the hundreds of artists they discuss are inspiring and have "something to say." Regardless, I think I'd be happier listening to records with the authors than discussing politics.
The Sex Revolts is comprised of three lengthy theses. The opening salvo is a dissection of male rebels including the likes of The Sex Pistols, The Clash, U2, Stones, Iggy and so on. The second thesis discusses what Reynolds and Press call the "soft boys," mystics like Van Morrison, Can, Pink Floyd, Eno, etc. Third, and finally, is a discussion of women's participation in rock music for the last twenty-five years. Unfortunately, the authors tie the three together in with a tired psycho-analytical method. The first two chapters are about the conflict between the male impulse to break the umbilical cord and his desire to return to the womb. Woman is represented, but only as an object to run to or from. (Those are the authors' words, not mine, mind you.) There are only two choices for men, domesticity or living a life of isolated rebellion. Anyone who wishes to get more out of life than landing a nine-to-five job and a wife with an ironing board therefore, is avoiding all responsibility. Somehow Press and Reynolds attribute quest for passionate experience with a male sense of invulnerability. Psychological claptrap litters the first chapter, from statements equating shopping and femininity to a statement that the "appetite for destruction" found in punk has much to do with the dark recesses of the male psyche.
The artists referenced in the second portion of Sex Revolts are primarily male but are players of "feminine music" (as defined by traits usually associated with the female gender). But the playing field still isn't level. Even though artists can transcend gender this is problematic for women because the admirable traits of passivity, grace and childlike dreaminess are not liberating enough for women, according to the authors.
Which leads us to Part Three which addresses the changing role of women in rock music. This tired theme has been hashed and rehashed for the last twenty years but Reynolds and Press are at their best. Unlike the previously defined precepts of male rebellion, Press and Reynolds consider female disdain for domesticity to be an heroic trait. Tomboys, angry grrls and folk singers are given commendatory attention and "flux" artists such as Patti Smith, The Raincoats and Throwing Muses are canonized. The last twenty pages (minus the obnoxious afterward) are a perfect example of what can happen when political agendas are thrust aside and the cultural study of art can actually inspire someone to do more than increase their record collection. (Be a "masculine" creator rather than a "feminine" shopper, nyuk nyuk.)
Is this book worth picking up? High theory abounds (Barthes, Bataille, Kristeva, etc), feminist theory is limited to a few quotes from Suzanne Moore, Camille Paglia and Susan Faludi, and most of the musical references are relatively obscure. Anyone who reads The Sex Revolts looking for answers will find themselves being led down some dangerous back alleys but don't hesitate to thumb through a copy if you're the kind of person who gets a charge out of what high-falutin' scholars call discourse.
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