Left: I found this postcard in Ireland in the mid-1990s; though still drôle, it no longer seems quite so fantastical.
Right: Susan McClary—less futuristically.
Since the party for Madonna’s 60th birthday [I know…] has already begun (see e.g. here), it may seem a tad cerebral to celebrate by revisiting the work of the great Susan McClary (notably her classic 1991 book Feminine endings: music, gender, and sexuality). But given that academics are mostly lumbered with writing, she does at least rejoice in the physical.
Of course, many female performers have continued exploring the trail that Madonna blazed, and she no longer has such power to shock. Similarly, while many critics (not least feminist authors) have disputed and refined McClary’s work, the thrust [sic: her own writings are full of such ludic language, matching her theme] of her argument has practically become mainstream—but her thoughts remain most perceptive.
So far I’ve mainly written about Susan McClary in the context of her provocative analysis of the extraordinary harpsichord solo of Bach’s 5th Brandenburg concerto. Her insights also get a mention in my post on Ute Lemper.
It would be quite wrong to reduce her oeuvre to soundbites—but hey, here goes! With her early research based in baroque music, she notes the historical contingency, mutability, of musical signifiers. Inspired by Greenblatt on Shakespeare (“once science discovered that female arousal served no reproductive purpose, cultural forms silenced not only the necessity but even the possibility of sexual desire in the ‘normal’ female”), she revels in the (pre-watershed) erotic friction of the 17th-century trio texture from Monteverdi through Corelli:
in which two equal voices rub up against each other, pressing into dissonances that achingly resolve only into yet other knots, reaching satiety only at conclusions. This interactive texture (and its attendant metaphors) is largely displaced in music after the 17th century by individualistic, narrative monologues.
Aww, shucks. A review goes on:
The narrative structure of 19th-century instrumental music becomes for her
“a prolonged sexual encounter of intense foreplay that results inevitably in a cataclysmic metaphorical ejaculation. Beethoven becomes the supreme perpetrator of sexual violence in music, whose recapitulation of the first movement of the 9th symphony “unleashes one of the most horrifyingly violent episodes in the history of music”.
McClary was a pioneer in broadening our concepts of cross-genre “music” studies, encompassing both WAM from a wide period and notably pop music—all with a focus on gender. Feminine endings also covers Monteverdi, Tchaikovsky, Bizet, and Laurie Anderson—and such breadth is just what makes her so great. She’s a real genre-bender. As she writes in Conventional wisdom: the content of musical form (2000),
If I tend to reread the European past in my own Postmodern image, if I frequently write about Bach and Beethoven in the same ways in which I discuss the Artist Formerly Known as Prince and John Zorn, it is not to denigrate the canon but rather to show the power of music all throughout its history as a signifying practice. For this is how culture always works—always grounded in codes and social contracts, always open to fusions, extensions, transformations. To me, music never seems so trivial as in its “purely musical” readings. If there was at one time a rationale for adopting such an intellectual position, that time has long since past. And if the belief in the 19th-century notion of aesthetic autonomy continues to be an issue when we study cultural history, it can no longer be privileged as somehow true.
In the final chapter of Feminine endings,
- “Living to tell: Madonna’s resurrection of the fleshly”,
McClary notes the conflicting strands of interpretation between viewing Madonna as mere commodified sexuality or as a feminist in control. And even while she rails against the denial of the body, what most reactions share (as she comments) is an automatic dismissal of Madonna’s music as irrelevant. Visual appearance and image seems primary, yet the music in music videos is also powerful. Hilary Mantel’s 1992 review doesn’t even bother with any of these features (and an apt riposte there draws attention to McClary’s work).
Her pieces explore—sometimes playfully, sometimes seriously—various ways of constituting identities that refuse stability, that remain fluid, that resist definition.
Citing the historical demeaning by sexualization of composer–performers Barbara Strozzi (as featured on the wonderful T-shirt) and Clara Schumann, and continuing to unpack the sexual politics of opera, she observes:
One of Madonna’s principal accomplishments is that she brings this hypocrisy to the surface and problematizes it. […]
The fear of female sexuality and anxiety over the body are inscribed in the Western music tradition. […]
Like Carmen or Lulu, she invokes the body and female sexuality; but unlike them, she refuses to be framed by a structure that will push her back into submission or annihilation.
McClary reiterates the historical trivializing of dance by (male) critics. Madonna’s
engagement with traditional signs of childish vulnerability projects her knowledge that this is what the patriarchy expects of her and also her awareness that this fantasy is ludicrous.
No matter what genre she discusses, McClary’s work is always detailed in musical analysis. She repeats her thesis of tonal structures, with the exploration and subduing of “Other” keys—the “desire–dread–purge sequence”, returning to her much-cited portrayal of the violence of Beethoven.
in her analysis of Live to tell McClary shows in detail how such assumptions are subverted:
and she validates the contradictions of Open your heart:
She takes Like a prayer seriously, its ancient virgin–whore cliché mingling with an exploration of religion and race, sexuality and spirituality—
about the possibility of creating musical and visual narratives that celebrate multiple rather than unitary identities, that are concerned with ecstatic continuation rather than with purging and containment.
Her footnotes (endnotes, actually) are always wonderful too. McClary’s, not Madonna’s.
* * *
Whether or not you concur with all of McClary’s conclusions (apart from a host of critiques, do read her thoughtful introduction “Feminine endings in retrospect” to the more recent edition), it’s a throughly stimulating way of reflecting on culture. (For another lead suggested by the book, see here.)
All my own gadding about from century to century, culture to culture, is partly inspired by her work. But that’s not her fault. As ethnomusicology shows, if elites invariably try to prescribe and control the prestige of genres across the world, in studying them a level playing field is essential (for a cross-class analysis of Chinese music, see here).
Among numerous YouTube clips, albeit less physically engaging than those of Madonna, here’s a sample of McClary’s wisdom:
I used to delight in Bach without stopping to think about Leipzig society of his time; flamenco, without noticing gender and social issues; and it took me some time to unpack gendered aspects of Chinese ritual. Such a mindset is basic to ethnomusicology, to which McClary’s work is a major stimulus.
In the 1990s, for what it’s worth (and not for what it’s not worth), on returning from village funerals in Hebei to regroup at Matt’s place in Beijing, I would regularly bask in Holiday:
In their different spheres, Madonna and Susan McClary are both iconic and iconoclasts!