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Steven Wilson: A Gender Transcender*?!

November 18, 2010

While reading an interview with Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree, Blackfield) about his project Insurgentes I found something peculiar:

[T]he way I’ve chosen to make music is what you might call quite unconventional or unusual — it’s certainly not the way that you (sic) supposed to conduct your career as a musician if you want to be successful. So, in that respect, I have been quite rebellious in my own natural way – even the fact of moving from style to style, from GENDER TO GENDER you know, it’s quite unusual for musicians to do. It’s not something that people understand very easily — that one many it wants to do (sic, sic, sic?) a death metal album and the next many (sic) it want to do a pop album or the next many he wants (sic!) to do an R ‘n’ B record. (emphasis mine)

The words “gender to gender” practically punched me in the face! Where did that come from!? I read the entire interview over and over to see if there was anything else mentioned about Wilson’s gender, or any supposed gender transcending. Nothing. Just that phrase. Could it have been a mistake? The sentence enveloping this ominous statement seems to be talking about musical styles. And the rest of his response talks about switching musical genres. The interviewer/transcriber doesn’t wield English all so well. Perhaps Wilson wasn’t coming out on the sly, and the interviewer/transcriber clumsily got the two words gender and genre mixed up.

Oh, darn. I got excited for a second there. I thought I found a new connection with one of my favorites artists, and a new understanding of his lyrical themes about troubled youth. How could I be teased so?! Gender and genre are OBVIOUSLY very different words. How can someone mix them up? Look:

GENRE: category of art – music, literature, etc. – based on a loose set of criteria – style, structure, era, etc. – which can be subject to change as the “avant garde” borrows, recreates, and pushes the boundaries of a previous categorization.**

GENDER: category of identity based on a loose set of criteria – biological sex, social role, mannerisms, etc. – which can be subject to change; category of nouns – feminine, masculine – based on a loose set of criteria which can be subject to change.**

See? Genre is art and gender is identity. While identity is about things like style, art is about its social role. Wait, no. Identity is about social role and art is about style. Wait. It makes sense both ways. I have a gender but I don’t have a genre, right? That’s ridiculous! I can’t be categorized into a form of art! Right? But I’m not my gender; it’s just a way I express myself. I guess my performance of gender could be considered a genre in a way. After all, it is an art.

Looking back at the history of both words, it appears genre is a French word meaning type, kind, and “genre sexual.” It comes from a Middle English word “gendre”, which is also the root of the word gender. Coincidentally, gender and genre are the same word in French (and Italian). And, our interviewer/transcriber is French. Unless we get the original recording, I’m not sure we will ever know if Wilson actually said “gender” himself, or if the transcriber subconsciously imposed a French understanding of the conversation. Sigh.

Perhaps Steven Wilson doesn’t express the insurgente inside him by changing genders. Perhaps he does – I can still dream! I think it’s safe to say that from the quote above, Wilson meant that he likes to switch musical styles. However, the history and similarity of both words offers us a delicious idea for dissection and further examination about our obsession with classification in the metal community.

Gender and genre share roots because of their emphasis on organizing difference, particularly in performance – of art and identity. How the two words divorced when they quested toward the English language is uncertain. Perhaps the English were a bit more meticulous in their categorization. However, our attempts to maintain borders seem futile. For example, while we apply genres to music we also apply genders. Like goth metal. It’s pretty much fact that the presence of a woman vocalist is a characteristic of a goth metal band. Gender reinforces genre. In this musical style, women sing beautifully and delicately, expressing what we often call “femininity.” They sing about relationships and love – subjects also categorized as “feminine.” The vocal instrument – which encompasses lyrics and notes – is the focus of the music, which reiterates my point: Femininity is the main musical style of goth metal. If a man vocalist is present, like in Lacuna Coil, he screams or sings with some level of distortion. His masculinity is made apparent in his distorted vocal technique, which is associated with power, anger, and fear.

While the way I just analyzed goth metal seems cut and dry, the way gender and genre express themselves isn’t always. To an outsider, men donning long hair and makeup can be perceived feminine or queer. However, to metalheads, how well a man can wear his long hair and makeup is associated with his power, even his sexual prowess. Being a metalhead can affect one’s performance of gender. Gender and genre may be divorced in the English language as words, but their performances and definitions still overlap significantly, almost defiantly…

All this said though, my questions about the obsession with categorization remain unsolved: What does it mean to distinguish men from women, brutal technical death metal from plain old death metal, or goth metal from power metal? Why do we even have genres or genders? What purpose does their classification serve?

And most importantly, when is Steven Wilson going to show us his ultimate femme drag collection?!

*Inspired by the term “Gender Transcender”  from Kate Bornstein’s book, Gender Outlaw.

**While I took inspiration, and factual information, from the Wikipedia page, I wrote the definitions myself with the intention of emphasizing the similarities between the two. The fact that I can do this also proves a point: language is easily malleable, just like gender and genre.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 11, 2010 7:12 pm

    Your epiphany about the relationship between “gender” and “gender,” and the flexibility of their parameters, is engaging and good food for thought. However, when looking at etymology, you should use a good dictionary rather than Wikipedia to avoid the lack of context and the errors and half-truths here. Likewise, you should offer some accepted definitions alongside your own to avoid replacing insight with wish fulfillment.

    Some context: “Genre” is certainly a French word, and arose specifically to refer to certain paintings that depicted typical scenes of everyday life in a realistic fashion. “Genre” referred not only to this category of painting, but to the stereotypical subject matter.

    As you note, “gender” and “genre” share the same etymological root, but you don’t go back far enough. The root word is “genus” (which of course is extant in its own meanings, which also overlap “gender” and “genre”). It means, roughly, “birth,” “origin,” or “nation.” So, while you wish to emphasize the vagueness of defining “gender” and “genre,” the roots of both words emphasize undisputed origins. (Thus, “genre paintings” were so-called not because their categories were loose and vague, but because they were stereoyptical–rooted in perceived national, social and/or class states of being.)

    You also fail to identify another important use of “gender”: the linguistics term for the grammatical inflection of words. You say that the French and Italian terms for “gender” and “genre” are identical, and this is true; but originally, it was true only for “gender” in the lingusitic sense. Today, French “genre” and Italian “genere” also can mean sexual gender, in an apparent elaboration from the lingustic term. Both languages retain distinct words for biological sex (“sexe” and “sesso,” respectively), just as English does.

    I think all of this context both reinforces and challenges your assertions about the flexibility of “gender” and “genre.” Certainly we can see the close relationship between “gender” and “genre” and the fluidity of such terms even as we use them in strict classification schemes. On the other hand, by going to their roots, we can easily answer your question, “Why do we even have genres or genders?” Well, because everything starts somewhere and comes from something–which is to say, it has a “genus.” We have to classify to make sense of the world (even if we overdo it), and “genus” is a classic method, most familiar in biological binomial classification of “genus” and “species.” The “genus” tells us about the original similarities, and the “species” tells us about the variation.

    My own food for thought on this subject is that distinction is always a matter of perspective, and that all things are more similar than they are different. “Gender” and “genre,” and even biological sex, are not about exclusivity, but about certain points on a spectrum that includes us all. That distance can seem huge at certain scales and tiny at others. Context is always key. Heavy metal is a striking artform with a distinctive, significant subculture; it is also just a variation on a young artform called rock and roll. Men and women have vastly different socialization and biological functions, most significantly in the distinction between who can become pregnant and who cannot; they also have bodies that are small variations on the same template (e.g., men have non-functional nipples and women have partly functional penises) and have extraordinarily complex behaviors that can outstrip any self-created social boundaries.

  2. AngeliKlaw permalink
    December 15, 2010 2:25 pm

    Thanks for your input, jr. I find your point about distinction being a matter of perspective quite interesting. Much can be said about how perspective can affect our creation of distinctions. And your statement about how things are often more similar than they are different brings me back to my days studying the Hegelian Dialectic. Damn, synthesis is totally delicious.

    But while we’re on the topic of perspective and failing, I really must ask this question:

    Who are you to state information as though it is fact and indisputable? And by this I mean, what gives you the power to trivialize the significance of wikipedia and then state the “truth” with no sources for such knowledge? You use the anonymous title, “jr.” You “fail” to mention who you are, where you received your knowledge, and state your own credibility. So far, Wikipedia has the upper hand in the “wiki vs. jr battle.”

    I’m not trying to start a contest for who has the most valuable knowledge here. After all, you sound like you know your shit. But you assert so much power over language, infusing it with this crazy idea that there is a proper way to use it. All you have is your confidence in your knowledge. Which is cool. At the end of the day that’s all we got. But if you’d prefer I break out my copy of Raymond Williams’ Keywords I can do that. I can also interview one of my past professors and life mentors, Michael Coyle, who is a published critical theorist. Of course, if that is what it will take for you to have faith in my ability to understand the English language and it’s history as I have come to know it.

    Honestly, I question Wikipedia’s credibility too. But the pages I referred to matched the knowledge I gathered during my days studying at Colgate University. And providing a link to an available page is an invitation to my audience to explore for themselves and see what they find. Maybe they’ll find the Absolute Truth….I don’t know.

    But where I’m standing, ahem, I mean, from my perspective, it looks like there is no absolute truth when it comes to language. Words can have multiple, seemingly unconnected, definitions. The same word can have two completely different meanings in two different language. Words are malleable. People bend them to their will all the time.

    In my essay above, I was merely highlighting a curious similarity in two words that we, English speakers, are taught to be distinctly different. Sure, I didn’t directly quote the definitions I cited. I wrote them myself with the intent of proving a point: how similar the two words actually are. The point is not about who should and shouldn’t re-write definitions.

    The point is that anyone can. And anyone will. And I have.

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