Performance and gender

guitar player on stage, silhouetted in a spotlight with drummer in background

© iStockphoto.com/Simon Podgorsek

Visual and gestural aspects of performance have been connected to expressions of gender and sexuality throughout the history of popular music. Because so much popular music speaks about love, courtship and romance, and is used by its audiences in those contexts, live performance has necessarily had to engage with sexuality and gender. Sometimes this has taken the form of performers conforming to or accentuating traditional notions of femininity or masculinity. In others cases performance has challenged the norms of gender and sexuality through playfulness, irony and out-and-out challenge.

Many blues performers of the 1920s onwards developed an overtly sensuous and sometimes sexually provocative style that provided the model for the performance styles of much Anglo-American popular music that followed. For example, the stage act of blues guitarist T-Bone Walker included the phallic use of the guitar and an emphasis on the "bump-and-grind of the sexual act" (Buckley and Laing, 2003: 664). Many significant and well-known stage acts can be seen to have their routes in such performance styles: from Elvis Presley's hip movements (which were considered highly controversial at the time) to Jimi Hendrix's elaborate and theatrical use of the guitar.

Within particular styles of music, stances and physical gestures have often been interpreted as representing distinct displays of gender and sexuality. For example, within heavy metal and hard rock the splaying of legs, aggressive air punches and hand signals or particular ways of carrying or handling the microphone have all been seen as displays of male strength and power (Frith and McRobbie 1990, Walser 1993). In the context of live performance, these gestures, along with the interaction between (male) musicians on stage, have been seen as acting as a form of male bonding not only for the musicians, but also for the young males in the audience (Weinstein 1991).

Photos of a man in jeans holding a guitar up and Pete Burns singing in tight clothing

Classic guitar-player pose (left image) © iStockphoto.com/Jason Lugo.
Pete Burns of Dead or Alive onstage in Tokyo during the 'Nude' tour, 1989 (right image) © Brian Maher

In other forms of popular music performance, conventions offer a direct contrast with these images of mainstream (heterosexual) masculinity. The early 1980s saw the success of a breed of pop performer who used new technologies such as synthesisers and samplers to create self-consciously modern sounds. These acts (sometimes referred to as 'new pop') often had a playful approach to dominant gender roles, which was reflected in their visual appearance and stage personas. For instance, the Liverpool electronic pop act Dead Or Alive scored one of the biggest hits of the new pop era with 'You Spin Me Round'. Singer Pete Burns' over the top stage outfits deliberately played with gendered identity and dress codes while his overly exaggerated and camp stage routines echoed the celebration of camp and artificiality within the genre.

This, of course, was nothing new. Cross dressing and playing with gendered identities have long been a regular feature in the theatre and were present within the earliest days of popular music in the minstrelsy show, burlesque and music hall. Gender ambiguity and camp were also well established in rock and pop from Little Richard to David Bowie, Marc Bolan and other glam rock performers. Other artists have self-consciously attempted to subvert gender norms. Leonard (2007) cites numerous instances of female musicians who have played with or directly challenged gendered conventions of performance: the punk musician Siouxsie Sioux, for example, who offered a visual challenge to conventions of female stage performance by "adopting a confrontational, overtly sexual stage persona"; and kd laing and Annie Lennox, both of whom have used cross-dressing and androgyny to challenge conventional notions of beauty.