Saturday, 5 December 2009

Performing Glam Rock: Gender and Theatricality in Popular Music

by Philip Auslander

For Ennis, the performance that epitomizes the pause point in rock was Phil Ochs's appearance at New York's Carnegie Hall in April 1970. Ochs had made a career as an unremittingly political folk protest singer and was considered one of the least compromising practitioners of that idiom. By his own testimony, Ochs was so disturbed by the political developments of the late 1960s that he "went crazy and didn't care anymore" (qtd. in Wilson 44). At Carnegie Hall, he appeared on stage wearing a gold lamé suit modeled after one of Elvis Presley's stage outfits and interspersed rock and roll and country songs from the 1950s with his usual repertoire of folk protest.

Ochs was roundly booed by much of his audience, presumably because they saw his embodiment of Elvis as a retreat from the political engagement of the 1960s back to the conformism of the 1950s against which the counterculture had rebelled. But I shall emphasize a different aspect of Ochs's performance that may also have set him at odds with the counterculture: wearing the gold lamé suit was clearly a theatrical gesture in conflict with a counterculture that was ambivalent, at best, about theatricality, especially in musical performances. Although it has long been conventional to describe the political protests and Yippie manifestations of the 1960s as street theater, I argue that the counterculture's deep investment in the idea of authenticity entailed a necessary antipathy to theatricality. This antipathy derived from three ideological commitments: the emphasis on spontaneity and living in the present moment, the desire for community, and the suspicion that spectacle served the interests of the social and political status quo.

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