Revolting Cocks

The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion and Rock 'n' Roll by Simon Reynolds and Joy Press

Home is a jail, and Mommy is a monster: Themes like these popped up in many books, films, and records in the 1940s and '50s. Philip Wylie's influential book Generation of Vipers rails against maternal influences in American culture; in Rebel Without a Cause, two shrewish mothers make mincemeat out of James Dean's apron-clad dad. Still, men of the time could break from domesticity: The footloose protagonists in Jack Kerouac's On the Road routinely abandon the women who feed, fund, and sexually satisfy them. Ultimately, Kerouac's rolling stones didn't just galvanize the Beat generation: Their flight from the female became a "seminal" source for generations of male rockers with rebellion on their minds.

So explains the intro to The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion and Rock 'n' Roll by cultural critics Simon Reynolds and Joy Press. Of course, male rock expression is more than simple Oedipal fear; strapping musicians to the analyst's couch, the authors take a complex look at the subject. Boy rockers are divided into two camps: rude boys who reject or mimic the feminine, and soft boys who idealize it. The former do so through fuck-and-run insults (Stones, Stooges), militaristic gangs and clubs (Clash, U2, Public Enemy), hatred and pathology (Sex Pistols, Big Black), kingship fantasies (Elvis, Doors, gangsta rap), or machinelike omnipotence (techno, heavy metal). The latter aim for womblike grace, utilizing radical tone and texture ranging from pastoral psychedelia (Pink Floyd, Byrds) to oceanic/interstellar expanse (Can, Eno, My Bloody Valentine).

But male performers are just part of this story (actually, they take up 227 of 388 pages). Whereas the men are psychoanalyzed, female rockers are critiqued socio-politically in relation to (un)conventional notions of femininity. This practice leads to slippery categories: male-identified tomboys (Joan Jett, L7), confessional artists (Sinead O'Connor, Hole, Babes in Toyland), hysterics and witches (Lydia Lunch, Stevie Nicks, Diamanda Galas), masqueraders (Siouxsie Sioux, Annie Lennox, Madonna), demystifiers (Raincoats, Slits), and songsmiths who revel in flux (Throwing Muses, Patti Smith).

Sure to arouse debate, these classifications are both valid and frustrating. Some artists chafe against definitions; others fit more than one. Overall, The Sex Revolts has a connect-the-dots structure that's provocative and repetitive, enlightening and maddening. If the book's assertions regarding misogyny occasionally seem obvious, it's worth noting that many of them haven't been made before. Reynolds and Press complicate discourse about rock masculinity (usually taken for granted) while highlighting female artists whose original expressions of desire and pain have been ignored by squeamish and/or insensitive male critics. The Sex Revolts exposes rock's unconscious urges; reading it changes how one listens to music.

Alone, Reynolds' writing is sensual while Press' is sensitive. Yet in fusing their ideas together in The Sex Revolts, the duo strives for an androgynous voice, losing some personality in the process (perverse, when one considers the subject). Still, when Reynolds and Press refer to theory, literature, or art, they are out to prove points, not show off, a practice plenty of rock critics could learn from. And unlike most cultural theory, The Sex Revolts should be taught in school: Muddy but interesting ideas from French thinkers like Julia Kristeva, Georges Bataille, and Paul Virilio magically seem lucid when applied to Moby and Morrissey; chaos theory makes sense when applied to Can. And the authors do offer funny soundbites: The Rolling Stones "gather moss" as Jagger declines from dandy to desperado; Henry Rollins is "Black Sabbath's 'Iron Man' "; Janis Joplin is a "cross between Aretha Franklin and a brawling, bawling drunk."

Reynolds and Press conceptualized The Sex Revolts as a look at male rockers' portrayals of women in their art, but a broader approach gradually emerged as the authors began rewriting each other's drafts. Amusingly, conflicts submerged in the editorial process come to the surface when the writers -- who are married -- are interviewed. The couple converses in perfectly accurate turn, but Reynolds makes the occasional dramatic statement only to be upbraided (nicely) by Press. For instance, employing the same psychosexual symbolism he often critiques, Reynolds likens the book's metamorphosis to "mucky matter compressed into something glossy."

"I wouldn't call it glossy," Press responds.
"The Sex Revolts is a contentious rock tome," Reynolds says later, adding that "it's not the sort of book that makes you return to your record collection." "Actually, many people say it's made them return to their collection," Press retorts.

Though opinion is veiled in the writing's accessibly scholarly tone, an underlying tension mounts as the critics get more demonstrative in the female sections, where '60s girl groups and Madonna are dismissed as passive and self-servingly manipulative, respectively. Ironically, these broad statements underscore an earlier assertion that feminine "pop" is frequently denigrated in comparison to masculine "rock." (Siouxsie gets more praise and page space than Madonna.) On the other hand, The Sex Revolts highlights some brilliant, obscure recordings, like the 1988 LP Miss America by Mary Margaret O'Hara, whose vocal tone and style is something like Patsy Cline with Tourette's syndrome.

Better still are the analyses of songs from Throwing Muses' 1986 debut LP. Reynolds and Press explore the songs' uncanny motion ("like thought catching fire") and songwriter Kristin Hersh's visionary, visceral object metaphors; in particular, her conflation of body and home. The reading of "Hate My Way" is particularly strong, demonstrating how Hersh begins by listing off potential twisted personalities (smack freak, rejected lover, neurotic) then turns her hatred and fear inward (like many female rockers, and unlike "explosive" male icons) before identifying briefly and intensely with a long list of broken things and beings: a boy entwined in his crashed bike, a girl missing fingers, TV (a perfect symbol for fractured identity), then mass-murderer Oliver Huberty and his victims. "Hate My Way" is the sound of a self/soul shattering and repeatedly taking on new forms.

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