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Cusick and Her Lesbian Relationship with Music Essay

In the essay “On a Lesbian Relationship with Music: A Serious Effort Not to Think Straight” by Suzanne G. Cusick, she brings up an interesting topic about the connection between her being a lesbian and her being a musician, a musicologist, if there exists any.

I’m especially interested in the “power system” and the link between musicality and lesbianism she mentions in this article. Here, I’ll try to analysis them in detail and relate them with other issues in music and sexuality, exploring them in a more general picture. Cusick redefines the concept of sexuality in her essay, as the way of “expressing and/or enacting relationships of intimacy through physical pleasure shared, accepted, or given.” According to her, this process of expressing and enacting can also be found in our musical activities, where the circulation of physical pleasure can be experienced as well. Thus, she says that our musicalities and our sexualities are “psychically next-door neighbors.” (70) I need to claim that this idea of her amazes me. From my previous musical experience, I’m pretty sure that music is a subject highly intimate for me.

For instance, I usually have reluctance when I’m asked to sing or perform a song written by myself, even if I think it is a brilliant one. And this won’t happen if the song is someone else’s. In my opinion, music, especially my own music which I’m personally attached to, is an expression of my true self, and that identity and personal characteristics contained in it makes it so special that I won’t be willing to share it with others, unless it’s someone really close to me. Another fact that I think will support Cusick’s idea is that different people always have different opinions towards the same piece of music. No matter how the composer perceives it, the listener usually has the tendency to relate it to his/her own personal experiences, which differ from person to person. It is reasonable to think that music is a symbol of someone’s personalities and characteristics, because of the intimacy the music creates.

Therefore, I believe that there exists a connection between the musicality and the sexuality of a certain person, since both of them are revelations of his/her true identity, and we can examine our own behaviors on both of them. In other words, these two factors are connected because of the person who they belong to, and they are contained in the system of his/her perspectives. Cusick also explains in her article what does it mean to be a “lesbian” and how to define sexuality, which are essential questions if we want to relate it to music. From her point of view, the essence of one’s sexuality and the element of all relationships is the power system. An example that can explain this is what musicologists say about the masculinity in Beethoven. In Susan McClary’s opinion, there exist musical constructions of gender and sexuality.

She regards the field of music and musicology as male-dominated, since the masculine norm and the distinction between genders are deeply rooted in music, such as masculine and feminine cadences, rhythms, gendered major and minor triads, etc. (7) She also analyzes Beethoven’s music, which to her contains “pounding”, “thrusting” gestures that represent masculinity. (75) On the contrary, in Sanna Pederson’s article “Beethoven and Masculinity,” she redefines the concept of masculinity and the link between it with Beethoven. She states that we can find an alternative approach, arguing that we regard Beethoven as symbol of masculinity because of the overwhelming idea that viewing woman as “as unchanging, eternal essence, as the opposite of the dynamically striving and achieving man.” (326) Matthew Head also approaches this from another perspective by examining the heroic in Beethoven’s works, finding many cross-dressed heroines. (132) It’s notable that although there is importance put on female characters, women usually need to conceal their sexuality and transgress the gendered norms in order to serve as the epitomes in the aesthetic sphere.

This shows that, no matter what kind of connection there exists between Beethoven and masculinity, there does exist a power system that emphasis on the inequality between men and women, where women as less – worth less, power less – man, in both our society and in music. Whichever argument we believe, we should admit the extensive presence of the power system in our society, and in practice, it can be found both in music and in many relationships between people, especially heterosexual ones. The most significant point of view of her in this essay, I think, is that she believes being a lesbian is an escape from this power system: As a woman, as a non-dominating and non-power woman who loves another woman in her relationship, the flow of power can exist in both directions, as opposed to a heterosexual relationship where a man typically plays the dominating and powerful part.

And Cusick believes that this is the beauty of a lesbian relationship: it’s about “organizing the force field of power, pleasure, and intimacy that refuses the simple binary opposition male and female”. The lack of opposition creates a world that scrambles the usual components of “man” and “woman”, and a world “free of fixed categories.” (73) This reminds me of the documentary “Paris is Burning”, which stunned me with its idea of celebrations of a powerful expression of personalities, without any restriction of boundaries. There, what matters is the personal prides, which are fully showed in the “drag nights” in New York. Cusick further explains the elements in a lesbian relationship as the “power/pleasure/intimacy” triad. (71) From my understanding, this is indeed an appropriate way to observe a relationship.

As I mentioned before, power is an important factor that circulates within the relationship. What’s more, pleasure and intimacy are objectives that we usually want to achieve when we are involved someone we love, and thus they are essential bolsters of a relationship. As Cusick says, this triad can be experienced more freely in lesbian relationships, because without the power flowing only in one direction, the equality and balance between the two lovers can give them more intimacy and pleasure, both physically and psychically, from their relationship. Hence, in Cusick’s article, being a lesbian is not merely a sexual orientation; it is also the way one prefers to behave, to organize the relationship to the world in a “power/pleasure/intimacy” triad. It’s a way of refusing, breaking, and creating, and to cope with the world in a way that she prefers. And these behaviors can also be detected in a person’s musicality, which is also built in his/her identity.

More interestingly, Cusick talks about the “lesbian relationship” she has with music. She treats music as a woman, and a woman that can be a lover, and also the beloved – as in a lesbian relationship where the power circulates both ways and cross without boundaries. (78) In the article “Musicality, Essentialism, and the Closet” written by Philip Brett, he also discusses music be perceived as feminine. Brett says that in history, music has often been considered a dangerous substance, “an agent of moral ambiguity always in dander of bestowing deviant status upon its practitioners.” (11) By describing music as a woman that “ravish” our sense or our soul, people from the medieval and early modern times let us see how close music and sexuality can be. This also makes Cusick’s treating music as a female lover more sensible.

Another idea of her that interests me is that she thinks her choice of music can reflects her sexuality. She says that her love for hidden relationships and the tension between the ostensible structure, which represents the tension between a social norm and “a very high degree of eccentricity,” suggests her escape from the power system. Also, she dis-prefers music hat upset this power equilibrium. (77) She explains this by saying that her “lesbian self” let her prefer certain kinds of music and reject some other kinds. This makes me think about in general, how people’s choices of music reflect their sexuality and identity, and to what degree. I agree that the choices of music can reflect that person’s personality to some extent, but I also believe that the music he/she listens can shape that person into the qualities and personalities that the music wants him/her to have. The same as Cusick’s relationship with her music, there is a counter-influence here as well.

Rentfrow and Gosling found in their research that people’s music preferences are related to a wide array of personality dimensions and self-views. If the links between music preferences and personality do exist, we can easily infer that our choices of music reflect our identity, which also links to our sexuality. Besides, we can always see the influences of music on people. It has been shown by Frederick H. Martens that music exerts its collective influence in the course of history. He also says that as an individual influence, music is one of the factors in the life of kings and rulers, which also “has exerted a more or less direct influence on the destinies of countries and peoples.” We can see clearly from his article that music can significantly affect one’s views and thoughts on this world, therefore it is an important element in directing people’s personality and characteristics.

Hence, the relationship between a person and the music he/she listens is a mutual one. People’s preference of music decides the music they choose, and what they choose can reversely change them as well, directing them into the qualities that can be defined through that music. This can also illustrate Cusick’s point that her relationship with music is about the power dynamic that circulates both ways between music and her, and this relationship highly resembles the one between lesbian lovers. Thus, the link between music and sexuality is obvious. Furthermore, I’m wondering about how the connection between identity and sexuality works in other subjects and fields of study. Cusick says in her article that she does not address the texts of music because she thinks that they tend to trick us into staying in a “power-over paradigm that is mighty close to the regime of compulsory heterosexuality.”

Personally, I don’t entirely agree with her on this. In my opinion, other subjects such as literature and art can also illustrate one’s identity, thus they can represent people’s qualities through the ““power/pleasure/intimacy” triad as well, and so does texts in music . The reason why Cusick thinks that focusing on texts can deviates us is that her love and professional interests in music leave her only looking at music as an intimate lover. But for people from other fields and domains, their subjects can be treated as lovers and beloved as well. For example, it is reasonable to imagine a poet feels extreme intimacy in his relationship with poems. Cusick mentioned by herself in the notes that she can also find tremendous joy from cooking, and she loves to peel fruits and vegetables without a knife, because she believes it will create wholly pleasurable experiences. (83)

I would not say Cusick is also in love with vegetables, but what she says can suggest that pleasure and intimacy do not solely exist between people and music. As Pygmalion can fall in love with the statue he carved, why can’t a songwriter build a romantic tie with the texts of music he wrote? In other words, as long as we have passion, the relationship between people and his/her subject of study can be developed in any area, within which we can find its connection with sexuality.

This essay of Cusick is not very long, but the notions it contains, I believe, are really valuable sources of thoughts if we want to explore the relationship between music and sexuality, especially when we want to discover it from a perspective about our own identity and personal characteristics. Cusick has nicely shown that the boundary between music and sex can be a blurred one, where both are means of negotiating power and intimacy through the circulation of pleasure. Here, the most important is the people that involves both with music and with sex, intimately experiencing them and wholly mingling with them. As Cusick says, what really matters is neither music nor sex, but “the transcendent joy of being alive, not dead, and aware of the existence.” (69)

Works Cited:

Brett, Philip, Elizabeth Wood, and Gary Thomas. Queering the Pitch : the New Gay and Lesbian Musicology. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2006.

McClary, Susan. Reading Music : Selected Essays. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2007.

McClary, Susan. Feminine Endings : Music, Gender, and Sexuality. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.

Rentfrow, Peter J, and Samuel D Gosling. “The do re miʼs of everyday life: the structure and personality correlates of music preferences.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84.6 (2003) : 1236-1256.

Frederick H. Martens. The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Apr., 1925), pp. 196-218

Burnham, Scott G, and Michael P Steinberg. Beethoven and His World. Princeton [N.J.]: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Head, Matthew. “Beethoven Heroine: A Female Allegory of Music and Authorship in Egmont.” 19th-Century Music 30 (2006-07), 97-132.


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