This dissertation centers on the role of musical experience in the production and maintenance of intimate, interpersonal relationships. Music acquires meaning in its ability to enable and amplify personal relationships among participants who share musical experience—not only through the semiotic decoding of lyrics and musical sounds that characterizes much music scholarship. Because there is scant language available for describing musical experience without reference to non-sonic elements such as lyrics, communal identity, or performers’ personae, this research relies on textual and ethnographic methods to examine how human experiences of musical sound are understood via racialized and gendered discourses of embodiment, intimacy, pleasure, and danger.
Specifically, this project consists of textual analyses of music censorship discourse and ethnographic analyses of female musicians and listeners who seek out shared musical experiences in explicitly gendered contexts including a feminist punk movement, a girls’ rock music camp, and a long-standing women’s music festival. The introductory chapter offers an overview of the scholarship and theory that has influenced this project and sets up the theoretical framework I have developed through my own research. To establish the stakes of this project, the second chapter focuses on discourses of musical danger to reveal a persistent and anxious fascination with music’s relationship to the body and intimacy in the American imagination. Subsequent chapters explore how music is deployed precisely for its ability to engage the body, incite pleasure, and enable intimacy. The first of these case studies takes as its subject riot grrrl, a 1990s feminist punk movement, in order to explore how musical intimacy was enabled within the movement through its “Girls to the Front” policy, and how efforts to forge relationships through shared, embodied musical experience served as antidotes to young women’s gendered experiences of isolation and violation. The next chapter, which emerges from ethnographic research performed at the Girlz Rhythm `n’ Rock Camp, a week-long overnight summer camp in central Ohio reconsiders the tendency to frame these types of programs as spaces for girls’ agency and empowerment. Drawing from interviews with the campers, I suggest that the girls see their shared musical experiences at camp (and beyond) as moments of reprieve from the compulsion toward individualism that undergirds empowerment discourse. In the final of these case studies, I argue that the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival is imagined as a “safe-space” where gendered communalism is enabled through shared musical engagement, and that experiences had at the festival are more profoundly distinguished by this than by the oft-cited feminist coalition-building and consciousness-raising.
Women and girls are centered for multiple reasons. First, within censorship discourse, girls are constructed as particularly vulnerable to music’s effects on the body. Second, gendered contexts for women’s and girls’ shared musical activity are increasingly prevalent in the United States. Third, these contexts provide sites for pleasurable and interpersonal bodily engagement via music that serve as responses and antidotes to experiences of scrutiny, restriction, and violation of the feminine body. Finally, because of music’s semiotic ambiguity and its properties of resonance, it strikes against the purported firmness of subjective boundaries, against the assumed fixity of linguistic order, and thus against the rationality of gender hierarchy.
By seeking to better understand the specificity of human social experience in the presence of musical sound, this dissertation contributes to several areas of inquiry including ethnomusicology, gender studies, and cultural studies while facilitating an expanded consideration of music as a pervasive and powerful human activity.