Popaganda: What Does Gender Sound Like?

Music interacts with gender in surprising and strange ways: sometimes upholding the binary, sometimes undermining it. In this episode, we’ll talk to three people who’ve thought deeply about that dynamic and come up with their own interpretations of what it all means.

First, we discuss how gender identities are constructed through music with Marcy Nabors, an independent composer. Then we talk to Musicology scholar Emily Masincup about how the musical motifs of the Lord of the Rings trilogy—known sausage fest—helped her enjoy the films on a deeper level. Finally, you’ll hear from Aiden Feltkamp, an opera librettist and producer, about “pants roles” and his fight to make opera more accessible and welcoming for LGBTQIA folks.

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TRANSCRIPT

SOLEIL HO: Automic Gold is a queer woman-owned jewelry brand that makes the most comfortable jewelry you’ll ever wear. While you sleep, shower, or attend a hot yoga class, Automic Gold jewelry can be worn 24/7. Cofounders Alena and Jamie believe that beautiful jewelry can be comfortable, badass, and genderless. In an alternate universe, Automic Gold is NASA’s official jewelry sponsor. Check out their website, AutomicGold.com and their Instagram @AutomicGold. 

Hey, there! You’re listening to Popaganda, which is brought to you by Bitch Media. I’m Soleil Ho, and I’d like to talk to you about the sound of gender. 

We know there are visual aspects to gender expression, like the things you might choose to wear or way your body moves. Photographs or paintings of people can contain hints of the subjects’ gender and sexuality, from the pose to the colors to the setting to the way certain attributes might be accentuated or diminished. But what about sound? 

What makes this [epic, cinematic action film-type music plays] seem more appropriate for conventional masculinity than this? [Minmei’s Theme plays in orchestral style by Robotech] 

Find out some answers to these questions by people who think about this a lot on today’s episode on music, gender, and sexuality. We’re also soliciting reader ideas for topics we could cover on future shows. So, please email your ideas for topics or even people you’d like to hear on the show if you’ve got ‘em! Just reach me at soleil@b-word.org

[theme music] 

As we all know—at least, the “we” who are probably listening to this podcast—gender binaries are an unfortunate and integral part of Western mass culture. We use all kinds of shorthand to represent and reinforce that binary: from clothes to body wash to McDonald’s toys. It follows that the binary also exists in music. But what does that actually sound like? 

Of course, sound in itself doesn’t carry meaning: listeners, performers, and composers create that meaning together. They each bring their own background and context to the work, and social assumptions and archetypes can help speed that process of meaning-making along. We’re primed to interpret certain sounds in specific ways, thanks to how often those motifs are used to signify the same ideas. You’ve got the Middle Eastern musical cliché, as heard in The Mummy. 

[stereotypical Middle Eastern music, horse hooves in the background] 

MAN: Thieves. City of the living. Crown jewel of Pharaoh Set the First. 

SOLEIL: And the huge glut of memes using Never Gonna Give You Up by Rick Astley gave the ‘80s song new life as an internet joke. 

It’s this same process that has us associate specific sounds with particular genders and sexualities. [Tchaikovsky piano music plays] Some composers use those assumptions to make work that’s a bit more subversive. Pyotr Tchaikovsky used the tritone, a two-note combination otherwise known as the “devil’s interval” for its dissonance, to signify homosexual or deviant desire in his compositions. And Joni Mitchell has famously characterized the inconclusiveness of suspended chords as something men just can’t wrap their heads around. 

There’s a lot to unpack here, and today’s guests are going to help us do just that. 

First up, I’ll discuss how gender identities are constructed through music and the voice with Marcy Nabors, an independent composer. Then, I’ll talk to Emily Masincup about how the musical motifs of the Lord of the Rings trilogy—known sausage fest—helped her enjoy the films on a deeper level. Finally, you’ll hear from Aiden Feltkamp, an opera librettist and producer, about his fight to make opera more accessible and welcoming for LGBTQIA folks. 

I hope you enjoy the show! 

[Grand Restore plays, with old-school video game-type bleeping, synthpop, and heavy beat]  

♪ someday i’ll fall in love 

and i’ll be fine once more 

even if my time is gone 

i’ll hit the grand restore 

 

and i won’t hesitate 

to make my dreams come true 

and i will spread the joy 

to them and me and you 

and i will figure out…. ♪ 

The song you just heard is Grand Restore by Jamie Paige, and what’s really interesting about it is its heavy use of autotune and Vocaloid, the Japanese brand of synthetic vocals. While we mainly experience autotune as a pitch-correcting tool, Jamie takes it in a surprising direction in her work, using it to express a more honest sense of herself. I asked composer Marcy Nabors to elaborate on the significance of the voice in music, especially in the realm of gender identity and dysphoria. 

MARCY NABORS: It’s a pretty cool way to mitigate the dysphoria that one might feel from putting their voice out there, especially if you’re not quite as confident about it. 

SOLEIL: In an interview with Bandcamp, Jamie went into depth about that sense of dysphoria, and how she used prepackaged Vocaloid sounds to deal with it. She said it, “started feeling like a persona that I could adopt on the days when my voice filled me with dysphoria, or I needed escapism in darker moments—not to mention that the voice was decidedly more feminine-sounding than I felt like my voice could be at the time.” 

MARCY: Well, for instance, with people who experience gender dysphoria, music and creativity in general can be a way to express what we feel we can’t express through our physical selves, you know, through the things that we’ve been sort of given as what ends up with being our first impressions when we meet new people. 

SOLEIL: Mmhmm. 

MARCY: Our identities can sort of be expressed the way that we want them to a lot of the time through just abstract things that we make, the feelings that we’re able to impart to people. And I think there’s often a hope that we can convey something about how we want ourselves to be perceived through the emotions that our works provide. 

SOLEIL: There was a line in that article from your friend Jamie Paige that really struck me. And she says that, “There’s an impulse among queer people to find ways to overcome, amplify, or change their own state of being.” That made a lot of sense to me because if you, especially if you don’t have control over your body or your presentation for any reason, if you dig into doing the kind of work that is sort of outside of the body—like music or writing or art in general—that’s a way to kind of scratch the itch in a productive vehicle, you know? 

MARCY: Absolutely. Yeah, it’s a way that we can put more of ourselves out into the world than what we can often do just socially. And sometimes it can even be a way to sort of separate ourselves from the trappings of how people see us. And it’s something tangible that we can give to people and say, “This is part of me.” 

SOLEIL: Yeah. So, I was thinking OK, I’m curious about what your take on this is. I haven’t read too much about this, and I wish I could find more. I keep Googling. I’m very frustrated. But there’s a way in which we, as listeners and also as creators, gender sound. I think that is a thing that happens, and I think that is very real, you know. 

MARCY: Yes. 

SOLEIL: On the level of advertising even, or fiction and film and musicals, there are sounds that we associate with the feminine and the masculine and maybe even the in-between. What do you think of that? 

MARCY: Well, definitely coming at this from the perspective of instrumentation and sound design and things like that, I definitely find there’s what we sort of see as stereotypically masculine or feminine music, which often involves more delicate sounds being ascribed to feminine music and more bass-y— It sort of follows the way that masculine and feminine voices often manifest, you know? The bass-y, harder, more aggressive things— Not to say that feminine voices don’t manifest in aggressive ways, but just the way that societal norms have conditioned us to think about masculine and feminine voices sort of seeps into the way that we write music and perceive it. 

Voice is something that certainly, even outside of music, in gender transition, a lot of people have a lot of thoughts, feelings, opinions about. People are always—transgender people are often, I should say—interested in changing their voices to match more with how they want to be perceived. And I think that does come into play as well with the way that we choose voices in our music, if they involve vocals. 

SOLEIL: For all of those reasons and more, actually singing on a track made for public consumption means a lot to Marcy. 

MARCY: You know, I’ve personally gone through times when I am self-conscious about my voice and times when I am, at the very least, at peace with it. And being able to sing, there’s definitely something empowering about it, and especially empowering about being able to say, “This is just how I sound, you know?” 

[pensive, flowing piano music plays] 

SOLEIL: Emily Masincup studies Musicology at Northwestern University. It’s not what you might think: it’s less about music theory and more about critical theory and music history. A large part of that is studying how music relates to its social and historical context, reflecting the values of society and sometimes defying them. 

EMILY MASINCUP: It’s kind of, it even works pretty [chuckles] I don’t know if insidious is too dark of a word— 

SOLEIL: [laughs] 

EMILY: —works in such a way that most people when they’re watching films, unless they’re trying to pay attention to the music, they don’t realize what the music is doing and what effect the music has on them while they view the film. There are certain codes that we get used to hearing and listening for in music, and we associate them with masculinity, femininity, insofar as we associate them with strength or weakness or a variety of qualities. 

That is something that, thankfully, we don’t really do much anymore when we’re talking about music. Hopefully, you know, if you read an article written today, you’re not gonna read, “It ends with a masculine cadence.” [chuckles] That was decades, if not longer, ago than that, if not centuries. But that was kind of my starting point for thinking about it. But there’s a lot of scholarship about film music, which has looked into the way that composers have typically tried to score or underscore female characters in films. Heather Laing has this book about women in melodrama films in the ‘40s that basically talks about how often women are scored by just these really lush, full symphonic strings. And that’s something that we’ve inherited decades later. We’re not in the ‘40s anymore, but film music hasn’t changed all that much in the codes that it uses to indicate gender or stereotypes of gender. 

SOLEIL: So, the discourse has kind of outstripped the actual practice, it seems like. 

EMILY: Oh yeah! [laughs] Yeah, I mean part of it is that composers want to write music that people will identify, and they’ll know, “Oh, if I’m hearing this, this guides me into how I should be responding to this scene. This guides my emotional response.” And it’s hard to do that, and there’s a risk for composers to do that if they write music that doesn’t adhere to those codes or guidelines, that language that’s already been set up. So, a lot of times in mainstream cinema, you won’t hear particularly progressive music scoring. It will try to stick to the codes that audiences are familiar with. 

SOLEIL: When I first read the title of Emily’s master’s thesis, I was immediately like, “I NEED TO KNOW MORE!” It’s called, “Rings and Other Gendered Spaces: Musical Representations of Gender in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings Films.” Lord of the Rings is a bit of a problematic fave for me, so I appreciate any and all critical analyses of the work. Emily’s paper aims to use the films’ score to bolster a subversive reading of gender identity in the narrative. 

EMILY: So, I’m talking about the character Éowyn who’s one of three female characters who are in the Lord of the Rings films. And again, it was really hard deciding what to say and what not to say when I wrote this thesis just because if I’m gonna blame the films, am I also going to blame Tolkien, the author, for only including three main women, or really only two. Arwen’s not mentioned that much. Or was that really the goal of his book in the first place? 

But for me, just to focus on the three main women and this idea that the aural, at least in terms of how the female body or female presence is represented, the aural is privileged over the visual a lot of times. 

SOLEIL: Hmm. 

EMILY: But I kind of started with that idea of OK, I don’t see many females in this film, but I hear them. Like in Galadriel’s case, I hear her more than I see her. And translating that idea or that concept to maybe I can hear suggestions of the female, of the feminine, even when I don’t see female presence onscreen. 

SOLEIL: Emily’s analysis follows Éowyn, one of the three women in the trilogy, and the way her musical theme shifts as she goes from frustrated noblewoman to warrior over the course of the films. 

[dramatic orchestral music plays] 

EMILY: So, she starts out in Rohan, and the strings are just really heavy. These strings use, they’re sort of lush and emotional, sort of pathos to score her and also highlight these scenes where she’s very isolated socially from the men around her, and she’s not allowed to fight. Which is a constant source of frustration for her. 

[music swells with emotion and voices] 

But when she goes, when she dresses up as a man, and she goes to fight in the battle in the third film, the music, the instrumentation suddenly changes. 

[battle cries under the music, key changes to minor and suspenseful] 

And she gets this glorious sort of rendition of her theme in the horn. 

ÉOWYN: I am no man. [enormous yell] 

[brass instruments take the lead as battle ensues] 

EMILY: From that point on, at least until she’s done fighting during the part in the third film, brass is used much more with her. And I kind of read that as just being, like as soon as she took on this sort of masculine or this male role as a soldier, all the sudden it’s like she was granted access to this brass orchestration. Which, for centuries, we’ve associated the horns or trumpets with the hunting calls—so, men going out to hunt—or with horn calls for war. So, she kind of enters this sonic domain of masculinity, usually reserved only for men. 

SOLEIL: Where do you see the analysis of sound on that level as far as representation goes? I guess, how do you feel about Lord of the Rings being a very male-dominated series on film, right, but having these very interesting moments on the sound level? 

EMILY: The sound has been something that has helped me look at these films in a light that’s different for me, and that still helps me look, investigate the story, the themes, the character development without getting hung up on the fact that the female bodily representation is so scant. But for me, I just think utilizing the sound as another mediating level is a huge asset to interpreting film. And it doesn’t matter if the composer or the director intended it, not to me anyway. I think this is something that I can get out rich readings, rich interpretations that I can get out of films even if they’re not immediately available to me through visuals. 

[Éowyn’s theme plays, melancholy chords from the strings and a soulful viola solo] 

SOLEIL: Along a similar vein, opera librettist and producer Aiden Feltkamp has been working to make the world of opera less heteronormative and patriarchal, but it’s an uphill battle. 

AIDEN FELTKAMP: The reason opera started was because some old guys were like, “Let’s revive the Greek myths in the Greek tragedy tradition.” And they thought that involved singing. And so, they kind of started to recreate the Greek myths through, just sung through. No speaking, just singing. And that kind of led to opera, and through opera history, opera has been used to make really progressive political statements and social statements. But it’s always been kind of held back by the fact that the people paying for it—because it’s a very expensive art form—have always been whoever’s in power at the time. And the people that are in power are generally traditionalists, most of the time. And so, there’s this really interesting dichotomy in opera of it being really trying to push forward and also just being held back. 

SOLEIL: But to characterize opera as inherently heterosexist would be inaccurate. There has historically been space for gender exploration in the genre. 

AIDEN: The first opera that I saw was The Marriage of Figaro, and in The Marriage of Figaro, you have this character named Cherubino. And he is a 14 year-old boy who is just discovering puberty and his feelings about, and he’s in love with every single woman in his immediate vicinity. And this character, Cherubino, is played by a woman because in the original play by Beaumarchais, he asks that a woman play this character. Because she would come off more as a teenage boy than a full-grown man would. And then musically, just operatically, we do it because a female voice is like an unchanged male voice. So, that’s kind of the idea behind it. And we have this tradition of “pants roles” or “trouser roles” throughout opera, and so there’s kind of always been this gender-bending element to opera in the same way that we have a lot of that in Shakespeare. You know, you have Portia and Viola; you have a lot of cross-dressing and gender confusion. That’s also an element of opera. 

SOLEIL: As a performer, taking on “pants roles” turned out to be a really important part of Aiden’s life. They actually helped him understand a bit more about himself. 

AIDEN: It always interests me because I started out as a singer, and I’m a female to male trans person. And I always was drawn to these mezzo-soprano roles because they were trouser roles. 

SOLEIL: Mm. 

AIDEN: So, I got to play a male-reading character, a male character, onstage but use my natural voice and my own body and my own artistry completely, but be playing a male character. And everyone in the opera accepts that. Everyone in the audience accepts that. It’s this like, it’s not even suspension of disbelief, it’s just like we’re all consciously accepting that this character is male. And it doesn’t matter the singer that’s performing that role because that character is male, and that’s the way it goes. And I loved that, and it really, for me, helped me begin to codify my own gender because I was like, well, why am I so drawn to these male characters and really not drawn to female characters? Or why do I struggle with these female characters? 

I mean, I had so much trouble ‘cause they were trying to—in undergrad—they were trying to get me into this specific voice type, which is a Rossini mezzo, which you play a lot of these like damsel in distress-type characters. And they are strong characters; they get themselves out of it sometimes. But they’re very feminine female characters. 

SOLEIL: Ah. 

AIDEN: And I always had, I struggled so much. And so, I distinctly avoided that advice and went into Baroque music and Mozart and new music because there, I can play these male roles or these non-binary roles. 

SOLEIL: That’s fascinating. Wow. [chuckles] Is there a space for that in the new operas that you’ve been following? 

AIDEN: So, I do have to say that the tradition of the pants role, it’s weird. ‘Cause for a lot of historical reasons, it was very prominent in Baroque music. And then it was still a thing when Mozart came around, which is the Classical period, which is right after Baroque. And then it kind of died out for a while. And you’ll see a few pants roles here and there, but it doesn’t really come back in force until 1911. Richard Strauss wrote Der Rosenkavalier, and he purposefully wrote one of the lead roles as a pants role. And that was just really, I mean, it caused everyone to freak out. 

SOLEIL: [laughs] 

AIDEN: Because in the first, the opening scene of the opera, you have the pants role and then the female lead role, The Marschallin, in bed together, and they’ve just slept together. And it’s like this whole big monologue about this young man losing his virginity to this older woman. When The Met put it on, they’re like, well, if we do this opera, there can’t be a bed onstage, and everyone has to be fully clothed. And there was all these rules, and I just think it’s hilarious. Because obviously, everyone was just upset over the fact that it was kind of queer, you know? 

SOLEIL: [chuckles] 

AIDEN: And that, yeah, it’s not like we can justify it by being like, “Oh, this is from the Baroque period.” It’s like no, this is happening right now. This is a new opera in 1911, and there are two female singers in bed together. Uh-uh. No. 

SOLEIL: Unfortunately, pants roles haven’t made a big comeback, even in modern opera. If you’re looking for something similar, the all-woman Takarazuka Revue might do the trick. The Japanese musical theater troupe has put on extravagant shows since 1914, inverting the traditionally all-male model of kabuki theater. There’s something special about watching that sort of gender transgression live and on stage, engaging in a group exercise of stretching our beliefs about the binary. It’s no wonder that groups like the Takarazuka Revue have such broad appeal, especially among women and nonbinary people. 

AIDEN: But I love it, and I push for it all the time. So, in my most recent opera I’m working on, it’s called Ghost Variations, and it’s about Clara Schumann dealing with the mental illness of her husband, Robert Schumann. And it’s based on real life; these are composers from the Romantic period. And then, their best friend is Brahms, who is again, a famous Romantic composer. And he is 20 at the time of the opera, that the opera’s set in. So, I made Brahms a pants role. I made it a dramatic soprano role. And I think that that’s perfect because Brahms is so emo and boyish. 

SOLEIL: [laughs] 

AIDEN: And I just love it. And also, ‘cause we need to hire more females in opera. There’s so many female singers who need jobs who are amazing. So, I’m like, how can I put as many female singers in this cast as possible, even if historically, this character is male? 

SOLEIL: Hmm. 

AIDEN: And so, I did the same thing with Florestan and Eusebius in that opera. They kind of are the characters that are in Robert Schumann’s head, and they personify his mental illness because he wrote as them when he was a music critic. He made up these two characters who would criticize music for him. And so, I made those characters genderless because they’re not real people. And they’re both sung by female voice types. So, you can have male singers in there, but they’re written for a mezzo and a soprano. 

And so, why not? I don’t understand why this wouldn’t be done more, especially ‘cause it’s a convention. But also, why not? It’s a new piece. You can literally do whatever you want. Yeah. 

SOLEIL: I’d love to talk a bit more about how it is that you write characters without a set gender. I think that is also really interesting because opera—music—is so gendered, and heterosexuality, it’s very much on a level of compulsory, heterosexuality in a lot of our imaginings of romance in music. So, tell me about how do you write around that, or how do you write outside of that? 

AIDEN: Yeah. It’s so funny because to me, a non-binary character is the standard ‘cause I’m non-binary person. And so, I am always seeing the world through this non-binary lens. But I do feel that since it’s not the convention, it’s not the majority, it’s not what we’re used to seeing, there’s always this level of explanation or education that has to come before people are fully grasping what they’re seeing. Because even using they/them pronouns, which are my favorite, people that are not used to the singular they/them pronoun, they get a little confused. And I always feel like I have to kind of explain. And I really am looking forward to a day when none of us have to explain it; it’s just kind of part of society. But we’re moving towards that, and I think that a way to do that is to see more non-binary characters in art. And since opera’s my art, that’s what I’m gonna put them in. 

[Grand Restore plays] 

♪  someday i can succeed 

oooh, la da da da da da 

i’ll drive the tears away 

oooh, la da da da da da 

and hate wont take the lead 

oooh, la da da da…. ♪ 

SOLEIL: Thanks to Marcy Nabors, Emily Masincup, and Aiden Feltkamp for speaking with me. And special thanks to Owen Pallett for nerding out about sexuality in music with me over Twitter. I appreciate you! 

And thanks to you for listening. 

[theme music] 

This episode was produced by Alex Ward. Our jingle is by Mucks & Owen Wuerker. Thanks to Jamie Paige for her song, Grand Restore. If you have thoughts or feelings or feedback on the show, please feel encouraged to send me an email at soleil@b-word.org. Or just review us on iTunes! 

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Soleil Ho
by Soleil Ho
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Soleil cooks for a living and writes sometimes. When she was in kindergarten, she reviewed a book for Reading Rainbow that she didn’t actually read. She cohosts Racist Sandwich, a podcast on food, race, class, and gender.