Manliness In Music: The XY Hits The Hi-Fi

Sep 5, 2014
Originally published on September 6, 2014 1:29 am

There is certainly no shortage of men singing songs about being men.

But what makes some music sound manly? What attracts men to play and listen to certain genres of music? The answers, it seems, are changing.

Let's start with the metal band Mastodon. There may be nothing that says "manly music" quite like loud, snarling heavy metal.

"There are all these big, hairy, lumbering riffs, and like really sludgy, slow tar-pit kind of sounds. This big, heavy, hairy beast that we've just created," says Bill Kelliher, Mastodon's lead guitarist. It's sort of just like Kelliher himself. He's got a spectacular mustache that wraps around the sides of his mouth, and two arms full of tattoos — including one that inspired the band's name. After 14 years and six albums together, Mastodon has "lumbered" its way from the clubs of Atlanta to the top tier of the metal touring circuit.

"Sometimes we're playing in front of close to 80,000 people at one concert," Kelliher says.

A lot of those fans are men. "We kinda call it the sausage party," he says. "I'd say 78 percent are men, or boys. Males."

As for why so many men and boys are drawn to metal, Kelliher doesn't have an easy answer. He suspects it has something to do with adolescent rebellion. But he does have a theory about why men are drawn to play electric guitar.

"Statistics show that women are more attracted to men with a guitar in their hands than like, say, a tuba," he says.

"Rock 'n' roll has definitely seized the high — or if you wish, low — ground of manliness in contemporary music," says John Rockwell, a former music critic and editor at The New York Times. "It's mostly men. It's mostly shouting. It's bare-chested guys. It's flashy guitar and drum solos. It's skinny leather pants."

But there have always been exceptions. Long before skinny leather pants, women were wielding the guitar in rock and its predecessors.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe and her trademark arm windmills were an inspiration to guitarist Pete Townsend of The Who. Even at the height of arena rock, there were women who played their way into the spotlight.

"A lot of people were surprised. Like, hey, that little gal can sure play that great big guitar. People were like, not bad for a girl," says Nancy Wilson, who co-founded the band Heart with her sister Ann in the early 1970s.

Nancy says she picked up the guitar when she was growing up in the Seattle area.

"I learned how to play forcefully and dynamically, and not at all like a girl," she says with a laugh. "Just had the energy and the passion in it that still to this day I think really surprises a lot of people."

The Wilson sisters helped open the door for more women to join the boys club of rock 'n' roll.

But rock doesn't have a lock on masculine posturing. Even the seemingly refined world of classical music has seen its share of machismo.

Consider the midcentury American composers, led by Milton Babbitt, who championed the use of serial or 12-tone music. Rockwell used to refer to them as "tough guys."

"I meant extreme polemicists in the mid-20th century for what I call American academic serial music — meaning extreme abstraction, aggressive, overtly intense," he says.

But Rockwell says the era of the "tough guy" composers is long gone. Twelve-tone music has given way to more audience-friendly styles. Rock, too, has gotten softer and more introspective with age. And ideas about manliness may also be changing in the realm of hip-hop and R&B.

"There's no one prototype of black masculinity that really dominates our sense of popular music at this point in time," says Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African-American studies at Duke University who writes frequently about masculinity and pop culture. (Also, his initials happen to spell MAN.) Neal says things have changed a lot since the '90s, when much of hip-hop culture celebrated the hypermasculinity of the gangster — and rejected just about any other definition of manliness.

Now, according to Neal, superstars Kanye West and Jay-Z represent a more tolerant version of masculinity in hip-hop. And there's been a corresponding shift in R&B, where one of the genre's biggest stars is openly gay.

"Think about Frank Ocean — you start to see how some artists are kind of pushing against those boundaries of what masculinity should look like, at least in terms of black popular music," Neal says.

These shifts may have something to do with changes in how music is made and marketed. With record sales in decline, labels have less control over artists' careers and their images than they used to. And Neal says younger artists are able to make more of their own decisions.

"YouTube has allowed them to be able to craft their own images in ways that they don't need record companies involved," Neal says. "I think that's opened up the space for how we can think about masculinity and gender in general, in terms of popular music."

And that applies both on and off stage. Kelliher — the guy with the tattoos and the mustache — lives a quiet domestic life in Atlanta when he's not on tour.

"I get up early, make the pancakes, get my kids dressed, drive them to soccer, sign them up," he says. "Now I'm a soccer dad."

Kelliher says that's just as manly as waving a guitar around in front of 80,000 dudes.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Today in our series exploring masculinity, you could say the XY is about to hit the hi-fi.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S A MAN'S WORLD")

JAMES BROWN: (Singing) This is a man's world.

TOM PETTY: (Singing) I feel like a forgotten man.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MACHO MAN")

VILLAGE PEOPLE: (Singing) Got to be a macho, macho man.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNDERSTAND YOUR MAN")

CEE-LO GREEN: (Singing) Darling, please understand that I'm a man.

JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) Understand your man. Meditate on it. Understand your man.

BLOCK: From Johnny Cash to Cee-Lo Green, the Village People to Tom Petty and James Brown, there is no shortage of men singing songs about being men. Well, we wondered what attracts men to listen to certain genres of music. Are some considered more manly than others? NPR's Joel Rose found that the answers to those questions are changing.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: There may be nothing that says manly music quite like a loud, snarling heavy-metal band like Mastodon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MASTODON SONG)

BILL KELLIHER: There are all these big, hairy, lumbering riffs and, like, really sludgy, slow tar-pit kind of sounds - this big, heavy, hairy beast that we've just created.

ROSE: Sort of like Bill Kelliher himself. Kelliher is Mastodon's lead guitarist. He's got a spectacular mustache that wraps around the sides of his mouth and two arms full of tattoos, including one that inspired the band's name. After 14 years and six albums together, Mastodon has lumbered its way from the clubs of Atlanta to the top tier of the metal touring circuit.

KELLIHER: Sometimes we're playing in front of, you know, close to 80,000 people at one concert.

ROSE: A lot of those fans are men, right? I mean, if I look out in the crowd I'm going to see a lot of men?

KELLIHER: Yeah, we kind of call it the sausage party.

(LAUGHTER)

ROSE: Put a percent on it. What's your guess?

KELLIHER: I would say 78 percent are men or boys - males.

ROSE: As for why so many men and boys are drawn to metal, Kelliher doesn't have an easy answer. He suspects it has something to do with adolescent rebellion. But he does have a theory about why men are drawn to play electric guitar.

KELLIHER: Statistics show that, you know, women are more attracted to men with a guitar in their hands than, like, say, a tuba.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "METAL STORM")

LED ZEPPELIN: (Singing) In the days of my youth, I was told what it means to be a man.

JOHN ROCKWELL: Rock 'n roll has definitely seized the high - or if you wish, low - ground of manliness in contemporary music.

ROSE: John Rockwell is a former music critic and editor at the New York Times.

ROCKWELL: It's mostly men. It's mostly shouting. It's bare-chested guys. It's flashy guitar and drum solos. It's skinny leather pants.

ROSE: But there have always been exceptions. Long before skinny leather pants, women were wielding the guitar in rock and its predecessors. Sister Rosetta Tharpe and her trademark arm windmills were an inspiration to guitarist Pete Townsend of The Who.

(SOUNDBITE OF SISTER ROSETTA THARPE SONG)

ROSE: Even at the height of arena rock, there were women who played their way into the spotlight.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEART SONG)

NANCY WILSON: A lot of people were surprised, you know, like hey, that little gal can sure play that great, big guitar, you know. People were like, not bad for a girl.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVEN IT UP")

ANN WILSON: (Singing) I am the one who can please you, ain't that what you said?

ROSE: Nancy Wilson co-founded the band Heart with her sister, Ann, in the early-1970s.

A. WILSON: (Singing) Well, a good man pays his debt, but you ain't paid yours yet. Come on and even it. It's time you even it, even it out.

ROSE: Nancy says she picked up the guitar when she was growing up in the Seattle area.

N. WILSON: I learned how to play forcefully and dynamically and not at all like a girl. You know, just had the energy and the passion in it that still, to this day, I think really surprises a lot of people.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVEN IT UP")

ROSE: The Wilson sisters helped open the door for more women to join the boy's club of rock 'n roll. But rock doesn't have a lock on masculine posturing. Even the seemingly refined world of classical music has seen its share of machismo. Consider the mid-20th century American composers led by Milton Babbitt who championed the use of serial or 12-tone music. Critic John Rockwell used to refer to them as tough guys.

ROCKWELL: I met extreme polemicists in the mid-20th century for what I call American academic serial music, meaning extreme abstraction, aggressive, overtly intense.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABBITT SONG, "ALL SET")

ROSE: Rockwell says the era of the tough guy composers is long gone. 12-tone music has given way to more audience-friendly styles. Rock, too, has gotten softer and more introspective with age. And ideas about manliness may also be changing in the realm of hip-hop and R&B.

MARK ANTHONY NEAL: There's no one prototype of black masculinity that really dominates our sense of popular music at this in point time.

ROSE: Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African-American studies at Duke University who writes frequently about masculinity and pop culture. Also, his initials happen to spell MAN. Neal says things have changed a lot since the '90s, when much of hip-hop culture celebrated the hypermasculinity of the gangster and rejected just about any other definition of manliness.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YA STRUGGLIN")

KRS-ONE: (Singing) Where oh where are all real men? The feminine look seems to be the trend. You got eyeliner on, chilling and maxing. See you're a man with a spine extraction. So what I'm asking is plain to see. Are there any straight singers in R&B?

ROSE: Now, according to Neal, superstars Kanye West and Jay-Z represent a more tolerant version of masculinity and hip-hop. And there's been a corresponding shift in R&B where one of the genre's biggest stars is openly gay.

NEAL: Think about Frank Ocean. You start to see how some artists are kind of pushing against those boundaries about what masculinity should look like, at least in terms of black popular music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THINKING 'BOUT YOU")

FRANK OCEAN: (Singing) Thinking about you - you know, know, know. I've been thinking about you - you know, know, know. I've been thinking about you. Do you think about us still? Do you? Do you? Or do you not think so far ahead?

ROSE: These shifts may have something to do with changes in how music is made and marketed. With record sales in decline, labels have less control over artists' careers and their images than they used to. And Neal says younger artists are able to make more of their own decisions.

NEAL: YouTube has allowed them to be able to craft their own images, you know, in ways that they don't need record companies involved. I think that's opened up the space for how we can think about masculinity and gender, in general, in terms of popular music.

ROSE: On and off-stage. Bill Kelliher from Mastodon - the guy with the tattoos and the mustache - he lives a quiet, domestic life in Atlanta when he's not on tour.

KELLIHER: I get up early and make pancakes. I get my kids dressed and drive them to soccer and sign them up, and now I'm a soccer dad.

ROSE: Kelliher says that's just as manly as waving a guitar around in front of 80,000 dudes. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIGH ROAD")

MASTODON: (Singing) You take the high road down. I take the ground below you. You take the high road down. I take the ground below. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.