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The Gendered Score: Music in 1940s Melodrama and the Woman's Film

by Heather Laing
(Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2007)

The British Pop Dandy: Masculinity, Popular Music and Culture
by Stan Hawkins
(Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2009)

Reviewer: John Richardson, University of Helsinki


It is easy to forget how barren the research on music and the moving image looked little more than a couple of decades ago, before important interventions by writers like Claudia Gorbman, Carol Flynn and Kathryn Kalinak. With only the prescient if one-sided evaluations of Adorno and Eisler in Composing for the Films and the largely deaf discipline of film studies turn to for guidance, this generation of writers invented new analytical models, drawing influences from “continental” research and cultural studies, just as peers working in musicology were benefitting from a similar influx of outside ideas. Publications by Simon Frith and Philip Tagg set a similar precedent for writing on popular performance and the moving image. Subsequent generations of scholars have sought to advance methodologies by critically engaging their forebears or by turning attention to new topics or methods. Both of the books discussed in this review fall into this category; both are published in Ashgate’s Popular and Folk Music Series; both address gender politics and the audiovisual; and both employ close reading to reveal the social encoding of aesthetic ideas. However, the overriding “tone” of the books could hardly be more different.

Heather Laing’s The Gendered Score: Music in 1940s Melodrama and the Woman’s Film began its life as a doctoral thesis. Indeed, it bears hallmarks of work written with a view to satisfying academic benchmarks. It is admirably thorough, sometimes to the point of pedantry; it makes earnest claims to revise existing theory; it is tightly focused around a subject sufficiently remote to lend authority to the writer’s assertions, yet not so remote as to have been ignored completely by previous writers. In other words, it ticks many of the boxes for exemplary academic writing. Yet, it often fails to take flight as writing. The Gendered Score however does fulfil a need: it is a solid piece of writing that makes some advances in an important area of historical inquiry. This is achieved through close readings of genre films from the 1940s (melodrama and the woman’s film) that are viewed to have had a foundational impact on conventions of gender representation in film: the “classical” approach to underscoring. The choice of films, including Now, Voyager (1942), Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), Love Story (1944), and Dangerous Moonlight (1941), is well covered in the existing literature in film studies, so their inclusion in this study is undoubtedly justified. With no shortage of empathy towards her material and the female (and male) protagonists of the films, Laing highlights the mechanics of audiovisual communication and the production of affectivity in contexts through which musical expression is seldom divorced from narratively explicit intentions. She makes the case convincingly, however, that narrative film music is never “redundant”, as Adorno and others have claimed, but contributes uniquely to audiovisual messages even when it appears to be fulfilling a purely conventional function. As the book’s blurb rightly proclaims, knowledge of the conventions of classical scoring and its attendant social formations do provide “a benchmark for thinking on more recent and alternative styles of scoring”. In fact this is a matter that might have been explored more fully in the book’s conclusion or elsewhere in its chapters. Unfortunately, Laing’s exclusive focus on classical practices and her evident empathy with the characters in the films has the undesired effect of naturalising some of the practices her analytical work elucidates. Some consideration of alternative ways of conceiving of the audiovisual could have served a valuable contextualising function, just as studies of contemporary scoring practices benefit from historical perspective.

As such, the structure of the book is well conceived. Chapter 1 effectively charts the research on “gender, emotion and subjectivity in music and film”, although I do have some misgivings about Laing’s understanding of “emotion” in the earlier literature. Her prominent, because often repeated, critique of Gorbman’s category of “music as a signifier of emotion” and its subcategory “the representation of women” seems particularly misdirected. To say that music can act as a signifier of emotion is not to claim that other functions of music are devoid of emotional content. It does imply a function within film scoring practices that leans towards the hyperbolic encoding of emotion. We do, as Gorbman has observed, instantly recognise when a female actor is present onscreen when listening to classical film soundtracks, even in the absence of corresponding visual imagery. Theorising always implies an element of reduction; in this respect attempts to improve upon existing models are mostly to be welcomed. But to discard the whole idea of heightened emotional coding in reference to classical scoring techniques feels like too great a loss in reference to a repertory that was modelled on late Romantic music. Importantly, the category of signifying emotion refers not only to the representation of women but to two other areas of intensified affect, the irrational and epic feeling, which have been the subject of close scrutiny by writers like Royal Brown, Michel Chion, Kevin Donnelly and Carol Flynn. Certainly, some finer distinctions are needed, but recognition of the fundamental dramatised nature of classical film scoring is in itself significant.

While Laing’s critiques of earlier work sometime fail to convince, she excels in her ability to synthesize the findings of such studies when piecing together her own textual readings. She benefits greatly, for example, from Kathryn Kalinak’s writing on “the fallen woman”, and from Susan McClary’s alignment of chromaticism in opera with emotional excess and disruptive power. Mary Ann Doane’s influential work on the same film genre, the 1940s woman’s film, similarly provides firm bedrock for many of her interpretations. Laing’s observation concerning the phenomenon of “feminization by contamination” in male musicians is particularly insightful (p. 73; p. 77). Overall, her handling of “point of view” (to use Gérard Genette’s terminology, focalisation) is exemplary and is perhaps the most impressive contribution of the book. These insights are won through the author’s close attention to categories such as the female listener (chapter 3), the female musician (chapter 4) and the male musician (chapter 5). In each of these chapters attention to the material circumstances of audiovisual articulation has yielded strong results. In this aspect her work has something in common with the writing of Michel Chion, whose influence is evident in the chapter on music and the voice in the woman’s film (Chapter 2). Laing’s typology of muteness according to physical factors, psychological factors or the free choice of female characters opens interesting avenues onto inter-gender relations, both in terms of how these categories bring to the fore structures of social repression and because of what they reveal about women’s coping strategies. It might have been interesting to consider how representations of muteness in 1940s films directed by men differ from those found in recent films directed by women, such as Jane Campion’s Piano (1993), but such comparisons are lacking from Laing’s account. In summary, The Gendered Score: Music in 1940s Melodrama and the Woman’s Film represents a logical extension of the existing research more than it does an indispensible revisiting of debates around gender and the moving image.

Stan Hawkins’ The British Pop Dandy: Masculinity, Popular Music and Culture is more modest in its aspirations yet bolder in its realisation. The book demonstrates the value of extended exposure to a given area of research. Because of its emphasis on current popular music, gender issues and spectatorship, The British Pop Dandy could be seen as extending a project this writer began in Settling the Pop Score (Ashgate 2002). The new book zooms in on a distinctive mode of flamboyant behaviour frequently associated with British male performers, spanning from Mick Jagger to Peter Doherty. As Simon Frith states eloquently in his back-jacket endorsement, The British Pop Dandy is concerned with tracking what it is about British pop that makes it “so, well, British!” A mark of the book’s success is the extent to which it encourages readers to reassess assumptions about the core terrain of British pop, with seemingly eccentric examples seeming to drift closer to centre-stage as the writer stakes out his position. British pop has always been arty and self-conscious, a point that writers like Frith and Horne, Jon Savage, Greil Marcus, and Kari Kallioniemi have all asserted. Hawkins’ book brings home the extent to which the British pop dandy not only produces art but himself becomes a living artwork though his actions and affectations, thereby fulfilling a Baudelairean agenda. The artists in question carry the banner of the dandy with varying degrees of self-reflection. Bowie is among the most reflective considered here, which in large measure can be attributed to the influence of Andy Warhol. Others seem to be more unwitting products of contemporary media culture or a manipulative mentor, such as the Geordie rhythm and blues singer Robert Palmer or the book’s most unlikely inclusion, Sid Vicious (who was egged on by fashion guru and dandy, Malcom McLaren). Hawkins rightly highlights the dandy’s agency as a factor reflecting on his credibility, with those whose assertion of Baudelairean “temperament” is aligned with a project of self-creation that destabilises bourgeois values faring most favourably in the writer’s assessment (p. 34; p. 40).

Highly impressive is the painstaking work conducted in the introduction and first two chapters to historicise the book’s cast of dandies by aligning them with a prominent dandyist tradition in British popular culture that spans several generations, extending back to antecedents like Beau Brummell, Oscar Wilde, W.H. Auden, and Noël Coward. In some cases, the relevance of this tradition is immediately apparent, such as the influence of Coward on Neil Tenant, or the camped-up British music hall tradition on Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust. In many ways, these discretionary and transhistorical identities are more revealing of the eccentric leanings of the British pop star than association solely with the fashions of their time, including punk, new romanticism or Britpop. Hawkins’ conception of Britishness is non-essentialising, which allows him to reflect on figures as historically and geographically remote as the Andy Warhol and the French writer and aesthetician, Charles Baudelaire. Baudelaire’s theory of the aesthetic in everyday life is justifiably the linchpin of many of Hawkins’ arguments. Passed down from the surrealists to the Frankfurt school cultural critic, Walter Benjamin, the notion of the flâneur is especially germane to the dandy’s disposition, which requires an impassive form of observation native to the depersonalised contexts of urban contemporary life, which relativises the dominant modernising impulses of consumer society. “Temperament”, it would seem, permits the dandy to rise above the crowd and to assert a mode of resistance through the dynamic assertion of the self.

Permeating the book is a combination of historical awareness tethered to writerly savvyness. In this respect The British Pop Dandy itself attests to an irrepressible dandyist predisposition, which finds theoretical support in the writings of Baudelaire just as it does in those of Roland Barthes. How this surfaces in Hawkins’ prose is through an exuberant display of writerly flair, which can play havoc with the reader’s linear expectations. When this works it is an effective vehicle for the kind of aesthetics the writer espouses: what better way to write about dandyism than to DO dandyism. When it doesn’t, there is a sense of being lead on intellectual paper chase across difficult terrain. Fortunately, there are enough strong ideas in the book to carry its core messages, which are primed and buffered to a satisfying shine in the book’s opening chapters and its conclusion.

It is a matter of taste whether the writer’s frequent returns to a small cache of relevant artists is the most effective way of dividing up the materials. In terms of continuity, there is something to be said for discussing artists individually while addressing relevant theoretical points as they arise. Hawkins has opted for a different approach, which might be a more effective way of concentrating on theoretical matters. Some of these are handled with particular verve. In the chapter “Jack-A-Dandy: Masking, Virtuosity and Mannerism” (Chapter 6), the concept of “masking” emerges as a powerful tool. Most obviously applicable to the act of physical self-display, it is how the concept translates into sound in the work of the record producer and the dandy’s inflections of linguistic accent in vocal performances that provides some of the book’s most revelatory moments. Hawkins’ attention to the craft of the producer demystifies musical production by showing how it can be used to modulate the artist’s “temperament”. Examples are Toni Visconti’s painstaking attention to vocal multilayering and experimental mic-ing techniques in his work with David Bowie (on the album Scary Monsters; p. 158); and Steven Hague’s revealing observation that British artists “don’t want to sound like somebody else” (p. 169). Accent is a further area where masking is implicated in dandified performance, whether one considers Bowie’s and Damon Albarn’s mockney affectations, the Gallagher brothers’ northern drawl, Neil Tennant’s understated and aloof RP, or the Americanized crooning of Robbie Williams and Rod Stewart. Common to all of the above is an element of affectation through masking that betrays a desire to conceal while reflecting back on early practices mimetically.

Nowhere is Hawkins’ grasp of his subject more apparent than in his numerous excursions into gender theory in Chapter 4. Discussions of men’s studies, theories of bisexuality and writing on camp all find the writer in his comfort zone. Descriptions of Britishness as well are among the most acutely registered in the literature, which comes out most vividly in the writing on Britpop and the writer’s deft dissection of the Pulp song ‘Common People’. The question remains open, how much relevance do these cases hold for studies of the dandy in non-Anglophone cultures? In many respects the dandy in the UK is a mainstream figure drawing sap from local materials and traditions. Elsewhere the cultivation of a (British) dandified image can be inflected in ways that are not necessarily recognised by the broader music-consuming public. If anything, this can invest the non-native dandy with more of a subversive aura than his British counterpart – if, indeed, the (Anglophile) European dandy is deemed to have any relevance to the local culture. In other words the construction of the dandy in such cases might well speak to a more restricted demographic. This is likely to annoy locals more than is the case with British dandies, who tend to be well tolerated in the pop mainstream. As its name suggests The British Pop Dandy is concerned with charting a sensibility distinct to performers from Britain. However, the fact that dandified figures are found elsewhere points to the cross-cultural appeal of the phenomenon while drawing attention the constraints that come into play when the dandy attempts to cross national boundaries. Indeed, some of the passages where the author strays momentarily from his remit are among the most illuminating in the book, as in the brief discussion of Jimi Hendrix, a black American dandy; the female equivalent of the dandy, the pop diva; and the difficulties encountered by British dandies like Robbie Williams and Peter Doherty in establishing themselves in the US. Such diversions are of value precisely because of their boundary-delineating function.

The writer’s attention to camp aesthetic reveals the extent to which the identity of the dandy is interwoven with codes originating in homosexual subcultures. As Hawkins argues in Chapter 4 (“With a Twist of the Straight: Dandyism and Gender Revolt”), while pop artists from Pete Doherty to Robbie Williams might be thought to keep audiences guessing with their provocative displays of “queer chic”, they do this in such a way that they often fail to challenge cultural norms. As Hawkins notes, “gender-bending tactics have become mainstream in popular music” (p. 119). This allows heterosexual artists to profile themselves as daring and transgressive without a second thought for the real cultural battles that underlie the rhetoric of their actions. The writer’s ambivalence on this key question is understandable, since the social ramifications of straight culture’s appropriations of queering is only beginning to be understood. Presumably, there is a cost to be paid for the migration of these codes outside of their original restricted contexts; at what point do they stop being transgressive in a way that encourages critical reflection and start being merely conventional?

In sum, The British Pop Dandy is a compelling and eye-opening introduction to the subject, making it essential reading for any student of British popular music, gender and performance. It is a mature and probing investigation into an area of study whose value is often underestimated. It deserves a prominent place in any bibliography on British popular music.