Feminist Perspectives on Music as Performative and Political

Related to my previous post on the philosophy of music, I want to say a few words about feminist perspectives of music, which like Adorno’s and Attali’s accounts are also attuned to the social and political dimensions of music. In particular, feminist musicologists such as Susan McClary and Ruth A. Solie seek to unearth the various ways that patriarchal narratives and practices have shaped our views of music. Keeping with certain shared feminist philosophical and political concerns, feminist theorists promote a diverse, multiple, inclusive view of music and are suspicious of theories limiting what counts as “genuine” music. Highlighting that such narrowly defined accounts have tended to portray Western, male-dominated, European (classical) music as the norm or ideal form of music, feminist theorists show how female composers and performers have been systematically excluded from making significant contributions to this musical “canon.” Rather than stress static, homogeneous, ideal musical forms, feminist musicologists emphasize diverse musical styles and dynamic musical practices—practices arising from particular historical periods and addressing specific socio-political concerns. As with other cultural practices, music too informs our views of “gender.” As a social force, music can help both to solidify and to subvert “gender” stereotypes.

Although unified with respect to their common goal of liberating women from all forms of patriarchal oppression, feminist music theorists employ diverse and, at times, conflicting philosophies and strategies. For example, some feminists appeal to an alleged “feminine essence” rooted in biological differences between the sexes. Consequently, those working in this vein of feminist thought argue for a distinctly female or matriarchal art, characterized by “natural” feminine traits—traits or characteristics often set in opposition to “natural” male traits. Perceiving dangers in the gender essentialism underlying the concept of matriarchal art, other feminist theorists articulate a social constructivist account of “gender,” applying constructivist theoretical principles to their analysis of music. That is, just as “gender” is constructed via socio-political practices, institutions, cultural narratives, and the like, so too our understanding of what “true” music is, who counts as a “master,” and what counts as an ideal musical work or performance is shaped by our views of “gender.” Thus, music, like “gender,” is performative and political, taking shape through embodied practices and emancipatory struggles.