Toward the middle of the 13th century B.C.E., shortly after a granddaughter of the great Hittite king married the Ugaritic ruler, a matrimonial scandal shook the kingdom. The first lady of the city-state of Ugarit was accused of disporting herself with the nobles, of “ceaseless enjoyment” with them: the Akkadian word ṣiāḫum (to laugh joyfully, to flirt) was the discreet description of conjugal infidelity.
“To laugh” had been the euphemism for sexual intercourse and physical love for at least 700 years, as is attested in Paleo-Babylonian love songs. Already in Sumerian songs of the beginning of the second millennium B.C.E., the verbs “to delight” and “to utter joyful cries” were used to describe amorous play.
The language of love in Aššurian songs is one of metaphors and discreet allusions; carnal love is mentioned only indirectly, through stock literary devices stemming from a long tradition. Amorous metaphors include “the scent of cedar is your love”, “she seeks the garden of your opulent love”, and “today my heart is full of play and music”.
This according to “La musique des amoureux” by Brigitte Groneberg (Dossiers d’archéologie 310 [février 2006] pp. 50–54).
Above, a Paleo-Babylonian plaque; below, Peter Pringle performs his recreation of an ancient Egyptian song that uses similar metaphors.
Filed under Antiquity, Asia
For many Indian hijras—a casteless and classless queer minority—badhais (ritualistic music and dance) are the only available means of revenue aside from sex work and bar dance; this has been the practical reality for hijras for nearly two centuries of legal persecution.
While the current reality does not bode well for the continuation of hijra badhais as we once knew them, newly emerging transgender ensembles like Mumbai’s Dancing Queens are introducing new possibilities for hijra performativity and empowerment.
Established within a reconstituted urban Indian context, new adaptive strategies are predicated on the exchange of devalued ways of encoding hijra difference for updated, modern ones based upon the distinctly LGBTIQ discourse of pehchān (acknowledgement of the self, or identity). The Dancing Queens’s staging of pehchān empowers hijras through a global transgender lexicon while simultaneously renewing particular preexisting performance repertoires of homo-sociality.
This according to “The Dancing Queens: Negotiating hijra pehchān from India’s streets onto the global stage” by Jeff Roy (Ethnomusicology review XX  pp. 69–91). This journal, along with many others, is covered in our new RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text collection.
Above and below, the Dancing Queens in action.
BONUS: Ready for more? Here’s a full performance.
The familiar buzz of flying mosquitoes is an important mating signal, with the fundamental frequency of the female’s flight tone signaling her presence. In the yellow fever and dengue vector Aedes aegypti, both sexes interact acoustically by shifting their flight tones to match, resulting in a courtship duet.
Surprisingly, matching is made not at the fundamental frequency of 400 Hz (female) or 600 Hz (male), but at a shared harmonic of 1200 Hz, which exceeds the previously known upper limit of hearing in mosquitoes. Physiological recordings from Johnston’s organ (the mosquito’s “ear”) reveal sensitivity up to 2000 Hz, consistent with observed courtship behavior. These findings revise widely accepted limits of acoustic behavior in mosquitoes.
This according to “Harmonic convergence in the love songs of the dengue vector mosquito” by Lauren J. Cator, et al. (Science 8 January 2009).
Above, the female Aedes aegypti; below, Mosquitos demonstrates another form of harmonic convergence.
Nineteenth-century Italian operas portraying an emphatically virginal heroine—a woman defined by her virginity—were often set in the mountains, most frequently the Alps.
This convention presents an unusual point of view—a theme rather than a composer, a librettist, a singer or a genre—from which to observe Italian opera over a century. The clarity of the sky, the whiteness of the snow and the purity of the air were associated with the innocence of the female protagonist.
This according to Landscape and gender in Italian opera: The Alpine virgin from Bellini to Puccini by Emanuele Senici (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
Below, an excerpt from one of the book’s case studies, Verdi’s Luisa Miller.
Gertrude “Ma” Rainey’s Prove it on me blues affirms her independence from orthodox norms by boldly celebrating her lesbianism.
Rainey’s sexual involvement with women was no secret with both colleagues and audiences. The advertisement for the song (above, click to enlarge) shows her dressed as a man, obviously flirting with two women, while a policeman keeps an eye on her.
The song’s lyrics include:
They said I do it, ain’t nobody caught me / Sure got to prove it on me
Went out last night with a crowd of my friends / They must’ve been women, ‘cause I don’t like no men
It’s true I wear a collar and tie / Make the wind blow all the while
‘Cause they say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me / They sure got to prove it on me
This according to Blues legacies and black feminism: “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday by Angela Y. Davis (New York: Pantheon, 1998 p. 39)
Today is Rainey’s 130th birthday! Below, the 1928 recording.
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.
BONUS: A 21st-century version.
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; RILM Abstracts 2014-15971). 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