What is partnered social dance but a ritualized embodiment of the battle of the sexes? The inevitable symbolism of women and men moving and touching, from 18th-century cotillions and reels, to 19th-century European style waltzes, to the ragtime dances of the early 20th century, has repeatedly ignited accompanying public discourses rife with vexed questions about sexuality, gender roles, class, race, morality, and modernity.
The dramatic metaphoric possibilities of social dance reached one extreme in the danse apache of the early 20th century, which was a stylized imagining of the violent lifestyle of Parisian pimps and prostitutes. Here a male and female dancer participated in a dummy display of violence and sexual attraction, combining one-step dancing with gymnastics and theater.
This dance was appropriated by professionals, often as a cabaret act, and was interpolated into several films—sometimes mistaken for real violence by other characters that try to intervene to comic effect. Pretense or not, the footage of this dance displays an alarming level of violence that makes us fear for the dancers’ well-being.
This according to “Dancing with a vengeance: Ritualized sexual aggression in social dance of the ragtime era and beyond” by Eden E. Kainer, an essay included in Dance and the social city (Birmingham: Society of Dance History Scholars, 2012, pp. 141–148).
Above, souvenirs of a reconstructed danse apache from the early 1950s; below, a film from 1934.
In new video media there is a possibility for a profound change in the representation of sex, eroticism, gender, and sexuality. Freud’s concept of primary narcissism provides important insights into digital imagery, not least in the construction of female spectatorship.
For example, David Fincher’s video for Madonna’s Vogue enacts a sense of femininity as masquerade; the act of masquerade allows women to merely play a role rather than actually becoming it, thus simultaneously fulfilling and parodying expectations.
This according to “Rolling and tumbling: Digital erotics and the culture of narcissism” by Sean Cubitt, an essay included in Sexing the groove: Popular music and gender (London: Routledge, 1997, pp. 295–316).
Above and below, the video in question.
What is most striking about the nudie musicals that ran in New York in the 1970s—aside from the many naked, jiggling bodies, of course—was just how conventional they were.
Even the raunchiest of the bunch espoused the same basic messages: Human bodies are beautiful! Sex, regardless of with whom, is natural and fun! The seismic cultural shift that is taking place right outside this theater is not threatening or confusing or scary at all!
In marked contrast with XXX theaters, peepshows, and sex clubs like Plato’s Retreat, the sex that nudie musicals featured was simulated—never real—and was almost always packaged in a familiar, age-old format: the musical revue.
This according to “Nudie musicals in 1970s New York City” by Elizabeth L. Wollman (Sound matters 16 June 2014). Wollman’s monograph on this topic is Hard times: The adult musical in 1970s New York City (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
Above, one Kenn Duncan’s photographs of the members of the original Broadway cast of Hair, now part of the New York Public Library’s Kenn Duncan Photograph Archive. Below, the finale of Oh! Calcutta!
An experiment tested the assumption that music plays a role in sexual selection.
Three hundred young women were solicited in the street for their phone number by a young male confederate who held either a guitar case or a sports bag in his hands or had no bag at all.
Results showed that holding a guitar case was associated with greater compliance to the request, thus suggesting that musical practice is associated with sexual selection.
This according to “Men’s music ability and attractiveness to women in a real-life courtship context” by Nicolas Guéguen, Sébastien Meineri, and Jacques Fischer-Lokou (Psychology of music XLII/4 [July 2014] pp. 545–49).
Below, a study of men’s reactions to a man with a guitar case.
Related article: Sexual attraction by genre
Prince’s moves to elicit female desire in the song When doves cry can be traced according to three codes found in the lyrics: the “normal” code of male sexuality common in rock music, an unusually explicit “Oedipal” code, and an “uncanny” code.
The uncanny code constitutes a counter-code to the usual male-oriented sexuality of rock music and represents an attempt to elicit a non-stereotypical female sexuality—female desire outside of the male sexual economy.
This according to “Purple passion: Images of female desire in When doves cry” by Nancy J. Holland (Cultural critique X [fall 1988] pp. 89–98).
When doves cry is 30 years old this year, as is the film that showcased it, Purple rain. Click here for the official music video; the lyrics are here.
Joni Mitchell’s early records mapped the sexual terrain of the mid-1960s—the period during which premarital sex lost its taboo status and became a normative part of maturation and development—from a woman’s perspective.
With their strong storytelling component, Mitchell’s songs put into popular circulation narratives of sexual freedom that engaged with emerging social practices, helping to legitimize the new choices available to young women.
This according to “Feeling free and female sexuality: The aesthetics of Joni Mitchell” by Marilyn Adler Papayanis (Popular music and society XXXIII/5 [December 2010] pp. 641–656).
Today is Mitchell’s 70th birthday! Below, a 1970 performance of Cactus tree, one of the songs discussed in the article.
The extraordinary popularity of Hank Williams’s songs in the late 1940s and early 1950s played a crucial role in transforming country music from a regional and class-bound genre to a staple of mass popular culture.
Yet Williams’s narratives exuded a fatalism and despair about personal relationships, resisted romantic optimism, and avoided the kinds of closure and transcendence historically associated with male subjectivity.
His refusal to embrace dominant cultural narratives gave an individual voice to collective fears and hopes about the body, romance, gender roles, and the family.
This according to “‘Everybody’s lonesome for somebody’: Age, the body and experience in the music of Hank Williams” by Richard D. Leppert and George Lipsitz (Popular music IX/3 [October 1990] pp. 259–274).
Today is Williams’s 90th birthday! Below, a live recording of his classic expression of male vulnerability.
When Fanny Elssler (1810–84) left the Paris Opéra to tour the U.S. between 1840 and 1842, adoring critics there were faced—apparently for the first time—with the dilemma of writing approvingly about a woman making herself an object of desire.
Recurring descriptions of her being a divinity or an enchantress evince the process of assuaging guilt over this desire, and assumptions that male dancers were homosexuals enabled the suspension of jealousy over her dancing partners.
This according to “The personification of desire: Fanny Elssler and American audiences” by Maureen Needham Costonis (Dance chronicle XII/1  pp. 47–67).
Above, an image used for her U.S. tour of Elssler performing her signature La cachucha; below, a recreation performed by Carla Fracci.
Related article: The postmodern ballerina
Alternately stiff and pliable, the ballerina demonstrates that which is desired, while her partner embodies the forces that pursue, guide, and manipulate the desired object.
An understanding of the ballerina-as-phallus may allow her to reconfigure her power, so that she can sustain her charisma even as she begins to determine her own fate; it may also reclaim for ballet a sensual and even sexual potency.
This according to “The ballerina’s phallic pointe” by Susan Leigh Foster, an essay included in Corporealities: Dancing knowledge, culture, and power (London: Routledge, 1996 pp. 1–24). You can see her inimitable performance of the paper here.
Below, a day in the life of a ballerina.
Related article: Ballet and sauvagerie
Cyndi Lauper’s signature anthem Girls just want to have fun (1983) was a cover of Robert Hazard’s misogynistic original (1979); her own 1994 re-remake (Hey now) girls just want to have fun exploits and subverts mainstream categories of gender and sexuality.
For her 1994 version Lauper provocatively incorporated a gloss on another song, Redbone’s Come and get your love, and in the updated music video the original “girls” are replaced by men in drag while the singer arguably performs a drag version of herself (or rather, her 1980s persona of a girl who just wants to have fun).
Bringing nuance to the truism of Lauper as a creator of female address on MTV and in popular culture, her versions of the song demonstrate that agency and authority in popular music derive just as much (perhaps more) from interpretation and performance as they do from authorship and songwriting.
This according to “What fun? Whose fun? Cyndi Lauper (re)covers Girls just want to have fun” by Wayne Heisler , Jr. (ECHO: A music-centered journal VI/1 ); the full text is here.
Today is Lauper’s 60th birthday! Above, a still from the music video for her 1983 cover; below, the 1994 version.