9 Aug 2011

Bedroom Music #2: Sexy White Boys/Sexy Black Boys

Two riffs on race and hetero male sexuality in this year’s music, with especial reference to of Montreal, Wild Beasts and The Weeknd...

So I like to keep abreast of my own prejudices, and I was recently made to reflect on my differing reactions to similar gestures made in different, 'racialised' genres (a discrepancy which, I think, is pretty common). The gestures have to do with the sexualisation of a hetero male subject - the singer themselves, or their performed persona.  It basically runs that I make a comparable ‘double-take’ when:

  • a male R&B or hip hop artist (‘black’ genres) suggests any kind of sexual self-doubt, impotence, or even averageness, and...
  • a male indie rock or indie pop vocalist (‘white’ genres) makes any kind of claim to particular sexual prowess or potency.

In both cases, there is an innate discomfort with roles being explored that not only fall outside the expectations of the genre, but also fall outside of commonly performed racial/social profiles. It might seem obvious that the generic personae in each case have arisen from racially-influenced cultural standpoints: the young successful black men projecting great strength and social clout in the face of a historically (and residually) oppressive society, and the politically alienated white boys, self-deprecating, self-loathing and apologetic as the heirs to a culture of arrogant and violent oppressors.

However, as racialised genre conventions that have been accepted as essential by the Western world (and most of these conventions become more and more reductive and streamlined as the big labels reduce them to market strategies), they are also too redolent of the kind of views that the colonialists had about sex and race. There is the suggestion of a binary between a more 'spiritual' Romantic/puritan-moralist attitude, which is very much the inheritance of white male indie music, and a more physical (and traditionally ‘uncivilised’) approach, which is the domain of a lot of the most mainstream ‘black’ genres. It could reasonably be argued that the difference now is we don’t place one over the other, but celebrate both equally, and yet that doesn’t account for the discomfort inherent in the ‘double-take’ reaction as described above. In reality, such race-related genre expectations not only perpetuate some quite pernicious racial stereotypes, but they can also be very restrictive on artist creativity and expression. I want to talk a bit about some straight male artists who are mixing up these genre conventions and thereby exploring some more interesting and creative ways in relating sex with music and performance, especially with respect to expectations of race in Western society.

Freaks and Beasts

   'Be careful how you touch me,
   My body is an earthquake,
   Ready to receive you.'
   Fabergé Falls For Shuggie - of Montreal

So what am I even talking about when I say sexualisation of a hetero male subject? ‘Male’ because the sexual politics of female pop artists constitute a whole (huge and well-discussed) other kettle of fish. ‘Hetero’ because, similarly, sex has been used in quite extensive and specific ways to construct gay male identity through pop music. Male heterosexuality is a trickier topic to pin-down. This is partly because straight males represent the dominant group - both as producers and consumers - but also because, as the dominating sexual perspective, it runs deep enough to survive sublimation into other more ‘noble’ discourses - primarily that of romantic love. The sexualised hetero man is rarely explored, because he is taken to represent the default perspective, and - especially since the ‘80s, when the sexual revolution had run its course and could no longer shock (and only women, racial minorities and gays still felt the need to liberate their sexualities) - white straight males have concentrated their sexualisation upon the objects of their musical gaze, the women, while very rarely enacting sexiness within their own performing personae. Indie music in particularly can practically be defined by its puritanical, ascetic qualities - very much the product of a post-punk attitude.

One of the current indie bands who have bucked this trend most comprehensively is of Montreal. Since at least 2007's Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?, sex has been not only a prevailing subject within their music, but overt and outrageous sexiness has become intrinsic to their aesthetic, aspects of which carry through onto this year’s thecontrollersphere EP (listen to 'L'Age d'Or'). The band’s process in constructing this sexy aesthetic (or ‘sexthetic’?) has very much been one of borrowing and recreating hetero male sexiness from other areas of music; in fact, a list of their audible influence might come close to presenting a good overview of this tendency through recent musical history. The key genres that they borrow from have their origins in black culture - funk, soul and disco (with frequent, explicit invocations of Prince) - but they also heavily reference David Bowie, glam acts like T-Rex, and more recent glam acolytes like Franz Ferdinand.

L'age D'or by user4450866

All of these influences largely defined themselves through their sexualisation of the artist-subject, and as tropes they react brilliantly with of Montreal’s psychedelically sensual lyrics. However, all these influences, except perhaps for soul, also share key approaches to how they sexualise their straight male subjects: primarily through a performance and language of androgyny/’feminisation’ and general ‘freakiness’. Of Montreal join a tradition of straight male acts who subvert conventional masculinity in order to sexualise their music. Falsetto vocals are ubiquitous amongst such acts, while the very definition of ‘glam’ would seem to be a male rock music which is sexualised through performed androgyny. Funk, when it took off, was deeply ‘freaky’ - not just through the dress and gestures of the male performers, but also through its exaggerated musical features. Of Montreal, and particularly their vocalist Kevin Barnes with his cross-dressing, nude live appearances and exotic alter-egos, re-enact this approach to sexualisation on all the most immediate levels. (The use of alter-egos by these artists is particularly interesting, since it can be seen as an attempt to derail any potential accusations of arrogance, narcissism or chauvinism on the part of the artist themselves.) But the most interesting aspect of the band’s recent work come from exploring just how deeply this ‘freakiness’ has been instilled into the music itself.

Of Montreal have always been musically experimental, flicking between psychedelic tableaux with often infuriating restlessness on their early albums, and revisiting this approach on their recent Skeletal Lamping. In the hyper-paced world of pop music though, genre languages like those of funk and disco quickly lose their initial ‘freakiness’ and, these styles have long since become ‘classic’ in their own ways. By integrating their own musical experimentalism - and surreal poetry - within the clear stylistic boundaries of these genres, of Montreal have been able to re-inject some of that freak-factor into some quite old and familiar musical topics. Leaky harmonic swilling, labyrinthine structures and carnivalesque production processes combine with the rhythmic and vocal weirdness inherited from these genres, and the result is a kind of reformulation of what must have been funk's initial impact. And, better still, they have been able to elicit a genuine reaction. The bright-feathered boys of early soul, funk and disco used an outré sense of sexuality to freak out the straight-laced white establishment. Of Montreal might not be positioned to offend the sexual mores of society’s mainstream, but within the earnest, ascetic, Romantic world of alternative music, they are still actually quite freakish.

9 - Faberge Falls for Shuggie by apreslerainbows

   'My top's off - I'm a goose-pimpled god!
   Upon my girth rests the earth,
   Gonna give it what I've got.'
   Assembly - Wild Beasts

While of Montreal are a fine example of a white straight male indie act who come on with a deeply confident sexual swagger, they don’t really challenge what seems to be an overriding trend across ‘white’ musical genres that - in order to present yourself as a sexual subject - you need to perform against ‘masculine’ type, adopt a feminised or androgynous attitude, or just generally gay it up a bit. The kind of narcissistic macho posturing which is so common in hip hop and R&B is pretty much anathema in this musical world. Wild Beasts are a band whose sexiness cannot be denied, and listening back to 2008's Limbo Panto, it would appear that they too have used a campy freakiness to construct a sexualised persona. The falsetto is there of course, and glam influences are very present. But moving on to their more recent albums, cultimating in this year's Smother, the band seem to have taken a less well-trodden approach to cultivating a more unique but no less potent sexiness.

Wild Beasts - Plaything by daftdreamy

Obviously, much of the meaning is still couched in the lyrics, which are sometimes coyly sensual, often caddishly erudite, and always steeped in self-confidence. Much of the effect of these albums comes from the combination of this self-confidence with quite understated music - never overblown, never hideously romantic, not really ironic, but idiosyncratic in the way that all sexuality is in reality idiosyncratic. The quiet, natural oddness of their music translates into kinkiness - sincere fetishes enacted with the self-belief that renders them far sexier than any media-prescribed sexiness diluted for a maximised demographic. Wild Beasts come across with a quiet, directed intensity, with specific sexual fantasies described with the purpose of seducing a specific sexual prey. Their quiet, crooned self-confidence, in combination with the occasional dirty whisper, comes across as a process of uncompromising seduction, fully aware that resistance is futile.

Wild Beasts do maintain an element of ‘freakiness’. They’re not quite relying on the kind of sweaty masculinity that might have worked for Barry White or Isaac Hayes. However, they’re approach isn’t really one of gender subversion - I’d put it more down to a kind of ‘beastliness’ (or 'species subversion'?). Hayden Thorpe’s growls and simpers - his ‘hooting and howling’ - are all the more effective because they surface only occasionally, though very organically, from the smoothness of their musical style. The additional presence of Tom Fleming’s smoother-than-smooth voice compliments this overall effect, in which the potential for feral sexuality is felt lurking beneath the surface of an otherwise beguilingly placid manner. The band move between the two fluidly, and the impression throughout is of the utmost control, the musical equivalent of that enduring sexual vampire/werewolf trope: charming yet with the lingering suggestion of real violence.

Under The Glass Table

   'I got everything you want in me
   I do everything he does times three
   And he don't gotta know, I get you on the floor,
   Doing things you never thought you'd do.'
   What You Need - The Weeknd

Wild Beasts and of Montreal are two white male bands who have combined lyrics, performance gestures and musical aesthetics to embody male heterosexuality in quite different ways. However, through their quite considerable departure from some genre expectations of indie music (constructing sexually potent personae), they move even closer to others. The outsider sensibilities, cultivation of musical strangeness, bohemianism and sexual ‘deviancy’, which often accompany such individualised explorations of indie male sexuality, inhabit quite a different world from the sexual rhetoric of the most successful black male artists (especially the American ones). But the genres of hip hop and R&B, in the conventions of which these artists work, are also characterised by a completely different mode of lyrical discourse.

When these artists do present themselves as sexualised subjects, very often it is within a performance of hyperbole. Bragging and extreme posturing is not only totally permitted within the lyrical discourse of mainstream hip hop and R&B, but the lyrics of many of these songs are built from a kind of game of creative peacocking, in which the poetic impetus is in articulating the most outrageous yet succinct exaggeration. In these songs, the performed voice is not one of ‘telling’, or ‘revealing’, which are the starting-points of most indie music, but the acknowledgement of a strong performer-persona is presupposed from the start - a ‘pose’ is ‘struck’, often by the utterance of the artist’s name right at the beginning - and this persona is then loaded up with the most dazzling accoutrements in the form of verbal brags. This mode of discourse is taken as entirely natural, so that it does not seem ridiculous when a song about celebrating the artist’s promiscuity on an epic scale is followed by a heartfelt apology song to a disgruntled girlfriend. We accept the hyperbole as the arena of creativity, and we don’t take it at face value (even if the very fact that these artists are becoming famous by celebrating their sex appeal does actually probably get them laid a lot in real life).

In the same way, artists like The-Dream and Akon take male chauvinism to surreal extremes, spinning off little vortexes of hyperbole which, within the course of one song, can build to the most objectionable of statements. Arguably, this is all part of an over-the-top, culture-sized pantomime of sexual play on a massive scale - an enormous back-and-forth of ridiculous gendered flirting. It is a complex topic, and on one level I believe that we don’t react too strongly to artists’ sexism because its utter ridiculousness (often surmounting satire) makes it less pernicious. It is less subtle and repressive, and cannot be overlooked in the way that the real issues of sexism in society can still be denied or institutionalised. However, the lack (due, I’m sure, to the hegemony within the industry) of a female voice of equal magnitude in answer, as well as the ubiquity of objectified female dancers in promos and live performances of the music of both genders, means that in reality this is still a very one-sided argument.

The complex political issues which are presented by the culture which surrounds this music (and I haven’t even touched on the larger issues of consumerism and capitalist decadence) can often affect my enjoyment of individual songs. So, it is in this context that possibly my favourite record of the year so far has been the Weeknd’s House of Balloons. While maintaining a persona of sexual potency, and not really subverting the conventions of R&B per se, the Weeknd manage to make the shallowness of this rhetoric evident, and use this shallowness as a topic to consciously explore. Through a mixture of lyrical nuance and musical markers, we are made aware of the seediness which might accompany such an extreme mode of experience, manifested in the real world. Abel Tesfaye maintains the rhetoric of the conventional R&B performer-persona, but at the same time he offers up this ‘persona maintenance’ for inspection. Rather than accepting it as a convention, we consider it as an attitude within a more naturalistic reality.

House Of Balloons - Glass Table Girls by musicsuperblog

Importantly, our relation to this 'performer voice' is tempered by lyrics which frequently refer to drug use, as if the persona of sexual prowess being presented is merely a construct of a coked-up sensibility. Drugs permeate the mixtape as a theme throughout, and as a ‘drugs album’, I have to say that I find it rings truer for me than a lot of the more psychedelic approaches to this topic. There is a faintly guilty scuzziness to the whole affair. On the surface, there is still a seductive gloss - Tesfaye’s voice has zero traction and the production has been liberally wiped with Mr Sheen - but beneath this ‘glass table’, there’s all the itch, grit and dirt threatened in sobering to the dregs of a weekend-long house party. The drugs that the Weeknd depict have side-effects and come-downs. They make you testy and callous and cruel, and they are more characterised by the hyper-real (stimulants) rather than the surreal (hallucinogens). This makes for a far more original and interesting record, even though the sense of illness and shame never quite lets the listener relax.

Despite all this, the sex isn’t unsexy. It just has a desperation to it, or a nihilism, which would be implicit in all the big-budget peacocking by the MTV giants, if we actually took any of it seriously. ‘The Morning’ comes on a little like R.Kelly’s ‘Number One’ for example, but Kelly’s narcissism and anti-social attitude is pathologised into the destructive behaviour of the drug-user, taken much further in 'Loft Music'. Senses are heightened, the feeling of skin against skin is intensified, and the result is paradoxically a more realistic exploration of sexuality, tempered with despair.

Loft Music by supremeelite05

While specific expectations of sexualised personae in black and white musics aren’t really surprising, they do perpetuate negative stereotypes which can run quite deep, maintaining an impression of distinct black sexuality as an enduring aspect of the ‘otherness’ of Western black culture. In contrast to the conventional wariness of sex as a subject, and sexiness as an attitude, in indie music, I think a more creative exploration of the topic by white straight male indie musicians might help close what is an unusually large cultural gap. At the other side of things, acts like the Weeknd show that there is also potential for R&B (and also certainly hip hop) artists to play around with sexual representation within the conventions of genre, although it is still very rare for black artists, especially in the mainstream, to confess the kind of impotence and self-doubt that hip-hop-flirting indie acts like WHY?, and even satirists like the Lonely Island, can get away with as white (Jewish) guys. Even Tyler the Creator, self-loathing and suicidal as he proffers to be, can apparently always get it up for whatever act of sexual violence is on the cards.

Different cultures interpret ‘sex’ in different ways, talk about it on different levels, and grant individuals their sexiness on different provisos. Deep down, we all have similar feelings and urges though - biological and psychological - and I really believe that taking a more creative and individualised approach to them, outside of the strictest ‘normalising’ conventions of any particular genre, would do well towards combating a complacent, commercialised, ‘mainstream’ approach to sexuality of any orientation. In this way, we can begin to counteract the reductive tendencies which are, in turn, fuelling the burgeoning argument against the current ‘sexualisation of society’.

(and on that note...)