Archive for August, 2008


Taking the False out of Falsetto

23 August 2008

How, pray tell, did falsetto become cool again? 

Male vocalists have employed the vocal technique over the past hundred years in lots of interesting ways.  Think of barbershop quartets, doo-wap, surf music, soul, and glam rock.  And who can forget the Bee Gees’ relentless whinnying over interminable disco beats?  More recently bands like The White Stripes and MGMT have cranked up the volume knob on their garage-band amps, and cranked up the irony in their vocal register to match.  Some of these altitudinous notes sound like they are coming from well-trained lungs, others as if from a Monty Python sketch.  But it misses the point to scrutinize too carefully the quality of the voice.  Falsetto toys with social meanings in a way that the normal register doesn’t.

A first point to make here is that falsetto crosses over gender expectations.  A man otherwise deemed “manly” can cross over from his normal, deep vocal range to something reserved for women.  It comes as no surprise that bands like 80’s bands Stryper and Poison used to wear tight clothes and make-up in conjunction with their high-pitched singing and screaming.  They garnered attention by transcending the bounds of normalcy and civilized behavior.  Philip Auslander points out in Performing Glam Rock (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Press, 2006) that falsetto suggests a kind of liberation from social constraints by exhibiting the power of both sexes.  Hence he dares to call Brian Ferry from Roxy Music “a male version of the Sapphonic voice” (p.167), meaning one, who like the lesbian poet Sappho, had become supra-sexed and who thus achieved something like angelic powers. 

In a similar vein, Auslander points out that falsetto intimates a kind of sexual deviancy, manifested especially from the 1970s on.  I find this interesting, because it means that male vocalists appropriated a feminine mode within a masculine expectation, namely, they made “singing like a girl” into an expression of sexual aggressiveness proper to a man.  Think about the MTV videos from the late 80s/early 90s depicting feminine-looking men luring (clean, dolled up) groupies into their back rooms for sexual escapades.  These men had become “dangerous” by their ability to traverse the gender divide and so could lead women into unknown realms of pleasure and power.

Maybe the most important thing to observe is that falsetto unites authenticity with play.  That is, for all its pomp it comes across as “spontaneous,” the broadly accepted criterion of good rock music.  Because it violates civic norms (especially when combined with other gender bending performance techniques), falsetto suggests that a vocalist doesn’t give a damn about the world, and therefore must simply have integrity, i.e., be at home with himself.  But singing glass-shattering notes obviously exudes a real playfulness.  As showboating, it would seem to be entirely the voice of an imposter were it not for the fact that it also has self-consciousness built into it.  No one actually thinks that this is the lead vocalist’s actual voice.  He very obviously employs it because he can, not because he is limited to it.  (This is the heart of all “popular” gender bending, is it not?)  He is utterly authentic because he knows how to play the game so well.  And so, mutatis mutandis, there is nothing false in falsetto.


AMSA 2009 Conference: “Beyond Borders: Masculinities and Margins”

16 August 2008

The American Men’s Studies Association has announced their theme for their 3-5 April 2009 conference: “Beyond Borders: Masculinities and Margins.” 

From their site: “Presentations should reflect on the construction, reconstruction, and effects of borders of all types as well as the men and the practices of masculinities that fashion, feel, respond to, and seek to cross from the margins over these divides. Other academic papers on masculinities are also welcome. Submissions are due by November 21, 2008. Events will be held at McGill and Concordia Universities.”


Initiating Men: ManKind Project

3 August 2008


In the mythopoetic wing of the men’s movement liminal spaces were intentionally constructed.  My favorite account is of a Robert Bly gathering of men in Los Angeles in which the men were asked to line up around the back of the building and funnel through dark corridors.  They walked slowly through the inky blackness, hearing throbbing drums in the distance, then, with the beat louder and louder as the men progress, an opening is reached, and someone tells each of the men to crawl through the folds of a thick curtain and “come out the other side dancing.”  They get pushed through the door to find themselves on a stage with dozens of men drumming and dancing, chanting, “Go back back back, go back back back.”  If that doesn’t change your frame of mind, I don’t know what will.


The ManKind Project (MKP) has also found ways to brew up heady states of altered consciousness.  I was tremendously impressed with how men of all walks of life could come together for a weekend or a training session and be quickly transitioned into a place in which they might express emotion, honesty, grief and longing.  On one hand, MKP uses ancient methods to accomplish this: smudging, sweats, storytelling, song and dance.  But it ultimately relies on modern psychotherapeutic exercises to draw men into a place of “primal” feeling and reflection.  There is a heavy dose of boot camp in some of their activities, something I’m told comes courtesy of Rich Tosi, a former Marines captain.  Whether old or new in origin, the activities of MKP help men get away from the normal world in order to see their lives clearly, even, in their words, “take part in the initiation weekend.”  The New Warriors Training Adventure Weekend itself struck me as a Christian retreat on amphetamines – which, in my opinion, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. 


Still, the liminal (or liminoid) spaces of MKP deviate somewhat from the traditional idea of initiation in that men are called upon, ultimately, to be self-initiators.  The men have to name their own issues.  They give themselves their own name.  They dance their own dance and talk about their own unique life mission.  Contrary to those who would see MKP as a cult, there is no head-honcho who calls out the shots – indeed, neither are there elders.  After some initial commandeering on the weekend, the group of men is astoundingly equalitarian.  It’s all about you, about your needs, about your quest in the modern world.  And nobody is going to initiate you but yourself. 


Let’s acknowledge that initiation has to (and always has had) an element of self in it.  It pays for any society to have specialized men, after all.  But in the past initiation has meant bringing a male to the next stage of life (usually at pubescence, but there might be later initiations, say, into leadership).  These initiations have been a matter of conforming him to the societal standards, training him in the standard ways of the culture.  The major was on uniformity, the minor on individuality. 


ManKind Project has a different mode of operation.  A man has to find his own way.  His sages, at best, are therapists helping him on his soul journey.  The event in which he participates is an egalitarian initiation, surrounded by brothers, not fathers.  Of course, it still feels like liminal space because it is just that.  Change is in the air.  MKP tones down the sense of authority – and ratchets up the peer pressure.  It actually sounds funny from a distance: “Look, we’re all getting dangerously honest with ourselves.  You should do the same.  Unless you’re a coward, in which case you’ll have to [cue the ominous music] suffer the self-consequences.”  So the game plan is Rogerian more than paleo-Jungian; self-styled gestalt therapy rather than a calling upon the “gods in the blood.”  (Does anyone know if Bill Kauth was drawing off of James Hillman’s acorn theory?)  In the end, it’s an exercise in self-help and self-making. 


Isn’t there a certain irony in calling MKP’s ongoing support teams “I-Groups”?  The jury is still out for me as to what extent men’s events should be “egocentric” events with fraternal initiation.  There are benefits, no doubt.  It can work.  But such an initiationo smacks of the sibling society against which Bly warned so fervently.


I suppose that MKP is internally consistent.  They are new warriors indeed: discontinuity from the old rules the day.  There is a sense in which MKP men never give themselves over to the past, to the archetypal stew, to the legends and wisdom of yore.  They commodify their religion.  But for that reason they are also able to keep things safe – and safely modern.  The old ways have shriveled, and appear hopelessly impotent.   Have not these men been initiated to meet the demand of a complicated, contemporary existence in their own skin?