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ROCK IS MASCULINE

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This July, Elvis Presley’s first single, That’s All Right, turned sixty-three years old. For the youth of the time, Elvis Presley’s arrival marks the cultural shift away from the Bing Crosby and Doris Day mentality of their parents’ generation to one that is centred around youth and adolescence. The repercussions of this seismic shift can still be felt.

Like all cultural phenomena, rock was denounced as a passing fancy at best, and satanic at worst. And like all cultural phenomena, many have failed to grasp its masculine cultural symbology: while there have been some great female rockers (Grace Slick, Suzi Quatro, Joan Jett, Deborah Harry, to name a few), rock has primarily been the manifestation of raw masculine energy and lust.

Rock music owes a lot to the myths and folklore of the past. In his book, the Secret History of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Christopher Knowles postulates that rock music is deeply rooted in the mythological figures of Orpheus, Cybele and Attis, Isis, Mithra, the Druids, and so forth. Knowles writes:

“What did the Mysteries offer that other cults of time did not? Almost exactly what rock ‘n’ roll would, thousands of years later. Drink. Drugs. Sex. Loud music. Wild pyrotechnics. A feeling of transcendence – leaving your mind and your body and entering a different world, filled with mystery and danger. A personal connection to something deep, straight, and impossibly timeless. An opportunity to escape the grinding monotony of daily life and break all the rules of polite society. A place to dress up in wild costumes and dance and drink and trip all night.”

Nowhere is this sentiment better expressed than in heavy metal. A genre whose thematically operatic power is drawn from themes of violence, madness, mythology, and the iconography of horror. Central to heavy metal music are fantasies of masculine virtuosity and control. According to Robert Wasler, author of the book Running with the Devil, “metal songs usually include impressive technical and rhetorical feats on the electric guitar, counter-posed with an experience of power and control that is built up through vocal extremes, guitar power chords, distortion, and sheer volume of bass and drums.”

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Originally, the term ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ was an African American euphemism for sexual intercourse. Blues music, one of the roots of rock, contains a plethora of examples of the raw masculine aggression and lust that later rock music would allude to. Muddy Water’s Hoochie Coochie Man, for example, utilises the theme of masculine self-mythologization:

“The gipsy woman told my mother

Before I was born

I got a boy child comin’

He’s gonna be a son of a gun

He’s gonna make pretty women’s

Jump and shout

Then the world wanna know

What this all about

But you know I’m him

Everybody knows I’m him

Well you know I’m the hoochie coochie man

Everybody knows I’m him.”

In a similar way, Muddy Water’s Mannish Boy, itself a response to Bo Diddley’s I’m a Man, continues the theme of masculine self-mythologization:

“Now when I was a young boy

At the age of five

My mother said I was gonna be

The greatest man alive

But now I’m a man

I made twenty-one

I want you to believe me, baby

I had lots of fun

I’m a man,

Spelt ‘m’, ‘a-child’, n’

The represents ‘man’

No ‘b, o-child, y’

That spells ‘mannish boy’.”

Sex forms another important theme in blues music. Waters’ song Got My Mojo Working features themes of hoodoo – an African American form of folk spiritualism – and seduction. Other songs, such as Screaming Jay Hawkins I Put a Spell on You, focuses on the raw, animalistic qualities of lust:

“I put a spell on you

Because you’re mine

Stop the things you do

Watch out!

I ain’t lying, yeah

No running around

I can’t stand

I can’t stand, no put me down

I put a spell on you

Because you’re mine

Watch out, watch out

I ain’t lying

I love you

I love you

I love you, yeah

I don’t care if you don’t want me

I’m yours right now

I put a spell on you

Because you’re mine.”

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Masculinity and sex have always been themes in rock music. These themes manifest themselves most peculiarly in the quasi-religious experience of rock concerts. No one who has seen footage of Woodstock or its darker equivalent, Altamont, can fail to notice the undercurrents of tribalism present at these events. As one observer noted: “one of the most interesting developments in the United States in 1956 was the behaviour of hundreds of thousands of mostly white, middle-class girls, who screamed, danced, and sobbed to the point of ‘enthralment’, ‘near hysteria’, ‘mass hysteria’, or ‘pandemonium’.”

Rock songs of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s contained a plethora of references equating masculinity with sex. Dion’s the Wanderer is about a cad who roams ‘from town to town.’ Bob Seger’s Night Moves refers to a woman’s breasts – a natural object of male desire – as ‘points all her own sitting way up high, way up firm and high.’ More darkly, the Rolling Stones’ Brown Sugar contains themes of slavery, rape, interracial sex, underage sex, physical abuse, and drug taking. Then there are the music videos, many of which were banned from play on mainstream media. Duran Duran’s Girls On Film features nudity and mud wrestling. Queen’s Fat Bottom Girls features nude women riding bicycles around a sport’s track.

And, of course, it is not unusual for rockstars to enjoy favouritism from the opposite sex. Indeed, sexual prowess and adulation from women form an important theme in rock lore. Groupies of heavy metal artists, for instance, are not just female fans but are seen as extensions of the musician’s artistic identity. Women and access to sex are almost gifted to the rock star, much like the harems of the Ottoman Sultan, the mistresses of European monarchs, or the concubines of Chinese Emperors.

Rock music is the modern reincarnation of ancient myths and folklore. It relies on the same motifs and themes and therefore has a similar effect on the human psyche. As a result, rock music and mythology and folklore share many of the same tropes. Rock music glorifies masculine energy and lust through symbols and metaphors. It raises the rockstar to an exalted position and then confers benefits upon him by giving him greater access to women and sex. This, in turn, gives the rockstar an almost deific quality. Feelings of unity and tribalism are expressed through the quasi-religious nature of the rock concert. The long-lasting popularity of rock music arises from its ability to give expression to ancient symbols of masculinity, and in its capacity to provide an outlet for the more repressed aspects of our nature.

MARTIN SCORSESE’S THE AVIATOR AND THE INCREDIBLE LIFE OF HOWARD HUGHES

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For our weekly cultural article, we will be examining Martin Scorsese’s 2004 masterpiece, the Aviator: a biopic of the legendary businessman, aviator, filmmaker, and eccentric, Howard Robard Hughes, Jr. (1905 – 1976).

THE FILM

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The Aviator stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes, Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn (1907 – 2003), and Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner (1922 – 1990). It focuses on Hughes’ glory years and is set between the late 1920s and the late 1940s.

The film essentially follows two competing storylines.  The first storyline depicts Hughes’ struggle with his mental health, his battle with his worsening OCD and paranoia which, by the end of his life, would culminate in utter madness. In this guise, Hughes is depicted as a man whose intense germophobia renders him unable to touch the doorknob of a public toilet (he has to wait for someone else to open the door so he can leave), who washes his hands so ferociously he actually draws blood, who gets stuck repeating the same phrase over and over again (“the way of the future, the way of the future, the way of the future”), and who locks himself in his projection room for months on end.

The second storyline focuses on Hughes’ life as an entrepreneur: his success as a filmmaker, his successful career as an aviation pioneer, and his fight with the Senate War Investigating Committee. In this guise, Hughes is depicted as a man of unbridled ambition spurned on by his incredible early successes and comforted by legions of romantic conquests (which would include Katharine Hepburn and Ava Gardner, among others). The film opens with Hughes directing the Hell’s Angels (1930). An early theme is quickly established, with Hughes’ peers ridiculing him for his boldness and ambition.  By the end of the film, Hughes defies prediction by successfully test flying the H-4 Hercules.

HOWARD HUGHES: THE MAN

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The Aviator ends after Hughes’ after the successful test flight of the Hercules. In real life, Hughes lived another twenty-nine years and died a lunatic and a recluse. If you happened upon the man during the final years of his life you would describe him as an impoverished and gaudy man of six-foot-four. When he died of kidney failure in 1976, he weighed only 40kg, had grotesquely long fingernails, toenails, hair, and beard, and had hypodermic needles embedded in his arms. So unrecognisable was Hughes that the FBI was forced to rely on his fingerprints to identify him.

Howard Hughes ought to be remembered, and admired, as a brilliant businessman and pioneer. He was an eccentric perfectionist who, between the ages of eighteen and seventy, managed to amass a personal wealth of one-and-a-half billion dollars. He was a man who made remarkable, and often groundbreaking, successes in film, aviation, and real estate. Between 1926 and 1957, Hughes produced twenty-six movies, including Scarface (1932) and the Outlaw (1943), and directed the classic World War One air warfare film Hell’s Angels (1930).

As an aviator, Hughes’ not only helped to revolutionise air travel, he also set many aviation records personally. In 1935, Hughes set the overland flying record by travelling nearly 352mph over Santa Ana, California. In 1937, Hughes set the record for transcontinental flight by flying from Burbank California to Newark, New Jersey in seven hours, twenty-eight minutes, and twenty-five seconds. Then in 1938, Hughes, along with a four man team, circumnavigated the globe in a record three days, nineteen hours, and seventeen minutes.

In a re-release trailer for Hell’s Angels, Howard Hughes is introduced as:

“Howard Hughes: millionaire genius, was a pioneer in aviation and motion pictures. He defied convention,  set new patterns for others to follow, made stars of unknowns, and left the world a legacy of film classics.”

Howard Hughes represents a type of man that doesn’t really exist anymore: the bold, dashing, larger-than-life individual. A man who achieved incredible things against what was often overwhelming odds. It is characters like Hughes that build countries and improve the world we all live in. And it is films like the Aviator which presents their stories to us.