Theme in Focus: Gender and Sexuality in Popular Music Studies

By Lori Burns, Professor of Music, University of Ottawa

As an artistic form with a rich history of performance and recording practices, popular music displays a vast range of gendered and sexualized subjectivities, communicating powerful stories about the ever-shifting dynamics of human agency in society. Never standing as fixed positions, identity categories of gender and sexuality take shape within the contexts of social, cultural, historical, political, economic, and technological forces, as these contexts continue to change and intersect in new ways.

During the 1980s and 90s, popular music scholars began to examine the nuances of gendered expression in popular music, especially in response to the rise of the music video through televised platforms (MTV, MuchMusic, Kerrang!, Channel V, etc.). Media scholars such as E. Ann Kaplan, Lisa Lewis, and Andrew Goodwin opened a dialogue about gender address in music video, while popular musicologists such as Sheila Whiteley, Barbara Bradby, Marion Leonard, and Stan Hawkins developed new approaches to the analysis of gender performativity in popular music. Since the new millennium, we have witnessed the burgeoning of critical inquiries about gender and sexuality in popular music, with many significant avenues emerging from this literature.

Below we delve into content on Bloomsbury Popular Music to explore gender ideologies and norms, as well as topics as varied as the sexualisation of women’s bodies in Hip Hop, fair access and equality in the music industry, and gender subversion in the music of Joni Mitchell. You can also view our dedicated subject guide on Gender and Sexuality by visiting the Research and Learning Tools page.

The encyclopedia article and each of the five chapters referenced below are free to view until autumn 2021. You can explore a range of other topics, artists, and countries previously in focus on the Bloomsbury Popular Music platform on our featured content archive page.

Studio photo of Marc Bolan from the bank T-Rex, taken in 1970
Studio photo of Marc Bolan, 1970 (Photo by Estate Of Keith Morris/Redferns)

Gender and Sexuality: defining powerful terms

Sarah Cohen and Marion Leonard’s article on “Gender and Sexuality” in the Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World is a productive place to explore clear definitions of these two powerful terms, as well as a framework for their consideration in popular music contexts. That framework includes the gendered and sexualized connotations for specific genres and historical moments in popular music; the links between performance practice and gender norms; the association of gender with specific musical instruments and technologies; the promotion of gendered ideologies through media cultures; the constructions of gender and sexuality that emerge through genre expression; and the messages and themes that take shape in the lyrics of popular music. In addition to laying out this framework, Cohen and Leonard also open up significant critical space for the concept of resistant expression, allowing for challenges to norms and conventions.

Taylor Swift poses with the Best Solo Act In The World Award in the winner room at the NME Awards 2020 at O2 Academy Brixton on February 12, 2020 in London, England.
Taylor Swift poses with the Best Solo Act In The World Award at the NME Awards 2020 (Photo by Dave J Hogan/Getty Images)

Are female artists taken as seriously as male artists?

The norms and conventions of popular music, as they are associated with gender roles and constraints are taken as a point of concern by Alison Stone in her chapter on 'Feminism, Gender and Popular Music' in The Bloomsbury Handbook of Religion and Popular Music. Are female artists taken as seriously as male artists? Stone examines the critical remarks about artists like Katy Perry and Taylor Swift, revealing the biases that emerges when women are described in terms that trivialize their work and assess it as superficial and artificial. These tendencies rise to the surface when a female artist is directly compared to a male artist, as in the case of Ryan Adams’ version of Taylor Swift’s album 1989. The value proposition of re-recording a female artist’s work raises numerous issues around the assumptions of genre superiority and expressivity. Stone sets out some important binary oppositions that circulate in the reception of female artists—authenticity/superficiality; agency/objectification; technology/nature—and cautions feminist musicologists from falling into these interpretive traps.

Rah Digga, Da Brat, Rampage, Mariah Carey and Busta Rhymes photographed together at a party in 2003 (Photo by Djamilla Rosa Cochran/WireImage)
Rah Digga, Da Brat, Rampage, Mariah Carey and Busta Rhymes at a party in 2003 (Photo by Djamilla Rosa Cochran/WireImage)

Representations of femininity and masculinity in Hip Hop

In Remix Multilingualism: Hip Hop, Ethnography and Performing Marginalized Voice, Quentin Williams examines extreme representations of femininity and masculinity in Hip Hop performance. The chapters, “Staging Masculinity” and “Precarious Femininity”, expose relevant examples of what gender theorist R. Connell would refer to as hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity. Taking up scholar Tommaso Milani’s suggestion that we ought to scrutinize “the conditions that enable the production of heterosexual masculinities,” Williams discloses the ideologies of tough masculinity that underpin the lyrics of male emcees. Here we see the value of discourse analysis to discover the motivations and ideologies that drive linguistic expression. Taking up these concerns for female representation (as “bitch” and “ho”) in the discourse of Hip Hop, Williams dedicates a chapter to the ways in which the misogynist linguistic elements are connected to the sexualization of female bodies in the genre of Hip Hop. Nowhere is this more evident than in the genre of Body Rap that Williams brings forward.

French singer from indie band Savages, Jehnny Beth (whose real name is Camille Berthomier) performs on stage during the 29th Eurockeennes rock music festival on July 9, 2017 in Belfort, eastern France.
Jehnny Beth (real name Camille Berthomier) from French indie band Savages performs on stage during the 29th Eurockeennes rock music festival in France, 2017 (SEBASTIEN BOZON/AFP via Getty Images)

A spotlight on female artist-creators

In her chapter on gender and music production in Critical Approaches to the Production of Music and Sound, Paula Wolfe shines the spotlight on female artist-creators, studying their creative production processes with the aim of revealing the significance of gender within industry practices. From this lens, Wolfe is able to illuminate aspects of authorial control, intentions, and expressive power in the recording studio. Taking two case studies—1) Molina, female artist and self-producer; and 2) Hostile, male producer of the all-female band Savages—Wolfe’s ethnographic approach teases out a myriad of critical concerns for the production of music as a gendered practice. Ultimately, Wolfe raises points that will lead to interesting future debates about musical conventions and the gendered implications of negotiating such constraints: “When positioning the work of both Hostile and Molina in the framework of a gendered contemporary music industry culture, Hostile’s sonic control as ‘producer’ adheres to ‘patriarchal assumptions’ (Mayhew 2004) inasmuch as Molina’s control over her own sound challenges them.”

Lady Gaga sings the National Anthem during the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Lady Gaga sings the National Anthem during the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden on January 20, 2021 (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Women’s participation in the music industry

With their author-collaborators, editors Sarah Raine and Catherine Strong assemble some hard facts about women’s participation in the music industry in Towards Gender Equality in the Music Industry: Education, Practice and Strategies for Change (click here to read the introduction to this volume), raising many questions about industry and education structures that do or do not lead to fair access and equality. Shining the light on these concerns allows this gathering of authors to reveal gender biases in industry practices and to pave the way forward for more inclusive and diverse approaches. While the scholars do not shy away from calling out some serious examples of misogyny and exclusion, they also offer positive reflections on female and queer voices in music creation, performance, and production. One of the great strengths of this collection is its dedication to robust methodologies and theories that will provide the next generation of scholars with the requisite tools to continue a constructive dialogue about exclusive practices and structural inequalities.

Joni Mitchell pictured backstage at Wembley Arena, London, 23rd April 1983
Joni Mitchell backstage at Wembley Arena, London, 23rd April 1983 (Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images)

Joni Mitchell’s aging voice as a site of queer resistance

Through her contribution to Joni Mitchell: New Critical Readings, Emily Baker mobilizes an intersectional approach to the analysis of embodied musical expression and subjectivity. Focusing on Joni Mitchell’s covers of her own previous recordings (on the 2002 album, Travelogue), Baker exposes the singing voice as the expressive site of converging axes of identity—for instance, gender, sexuality, age, and ability. In the case of an artist such as Joni Mitchell, we have access to the full range of vocal expression over a lengthy recording career as well as a great deal of writing about her life experiences. A female vocalist who has been the object of much critical analysis, debate, and speculation, Baker reveals Mitchell’s original songs to subvert traditions, with her later self-covers developing an intentional commentary on genre and stylistic boundaries. In particular, the song “Borderline” is reframed to present an aging and sensual body that “undoes” the conventions of popular music.

All figures courtesy of Getty Images.