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Hi-Tech And Masculinity

Hi-tech and masculinity: Patrick Dailly wonders why more boys get involved with hi-tech music than girls.

I guess that few fans of Hi-Tech would be numbered amongst the readers of Spare Rib or any other magazine which represents women's interests. And I bet that the small private presses in Islington and Camden feature few articles on SysEx data handling or the intricacies of MIDI protocols. These observations are unsurprising, but not so easily explained.

In my job as a music lecturer, I have some responsibility for Hi-tech in Higher Education, and teach male and female students side by side. For most of them, digital sound is a totally new departure in their musical studies: boys and girls alike share the benefit of fathomless ignorance. Before their musicianship can take over, they have to battle with difficult and alien concepts which do not always follow the analogous logic of everyday life. All of us know what it's like, because we've all been intimidated by the thought of coming to terms with a new piece of hardware or software.

What differentiates the sexes is not the skill with which the new concepts are manipulated, but the relish in doing it. Put another way, boys and girls alike seem to experience the same rate of success and failure in coming to terms with Hi-tech, only the boys come back for more. And more and more. The girls tend not to. Some girls seem interested in the image of Hi-tech, rather like the Harley Davidson in the fashion ads, but this has no technical depth or real musical substance.

Let me offer you some thoughts about this. I'll begin with a red herring...

Let us suppose that the mythical 'feminine intuition' actually exists. The term describes a kind of sixth sense about human characteristics, and those who possess it might be accordingly unsympathetic to the ruthless logic of the computer. It would not be useful when decoding a new piece of software. We've all been in the situation where our progress is blocked because we lack one vital piece of procedural knowledge: a double-click here or an Alt+Tab there. This sort of hiccup is only solved by knowing what to do, and seems remarkably resilient to inspired or intuitive guesswork. Quite simply, you've got to know what to do.

We've all come across seven stone weaklings who fantasise about being Superman. A survey of the images of men in your local video rental shop will be immediately instructive about how the concept of masculinity in the western world has developed. The fantasy is all about control of one thing or another.

Hi-tech music offers men a whole self-contained world in which control promises to be absolute. The niggling uncertainties of everyday life can be beaten with the right System message: even emotional expression (a very messy area indeed) can be neatly tied up in a stream of digits and replayed at the masterly stroke of the mouse. The Digital Kingdom offers men who need it a principality in which they have ultimate authority. And the secret of the authority is in The Book...

'The Book' - the Handbook, in which is written the secret code which ensures access to the power. I believe that the impenetrable jargon of Hi-tech is actually welcomed by some users, because it ensures that communication only takes place between those 'in the know'. Such people guard the secret of language like any ruling elite. And they are Great Bores.

The sheer number and complexity of Chinese characters helped the ruling bureaucracy to maintain power in classical China, since only they could read. Until the Reformation, the Roman Catholic church restricted access to scripture to those who could read Latin. Classical music education is still dependent on fluent music reading, etc. The very complexity and strangeness of digi-speak is thus an important factor in maintaining the fantasy of power.

Hi-tech music can function potently in many traditional male fantasies. It can be used competitively, just in the way that sports cars and Gucci shoes can be. These days, it is so darned expensive to keep up with technological progress that, almost inevitably, it becomes a status symbol in capitalist culture. (Oh dear. I thought it was all about Art.) It can be used combatively. When you've just mastered some arcane and difficult process, you can fill your mates with despair by flaunting your newly acquired knowledge. It's a useful tool in establishing your place in the old male pecking order.

I'm very interested in women's politics, and generally welcome the change in masculine self-image that it demands. Unfortunately, I'm also interested in Hi-tech music, and the two seem mutually incompatible.

Is there a case to answer? Should we be more aware of the human dimensions of musical expression? Should we be ever-conscious of the tendency of small egos to bolster themselves up with the secure liturgy of digi-speak? Is there a general willingness to discard the designer-style image of the recording world with all its subliminal statements about traditional male politics?

History teaches that social changes are inevitable. It would be nice if Hi-tech music could be a part of that social progress rather than reinforcing all the old attitudes, as it does at present.

Dell-Boys of the world unite: you have nothing to lose but your image!

Patrick Dailly is a lecturer in Music at Bretton Hall College, West Yorkshire.

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Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.


Sound On Sound - May 1990

Donated by: Bert Jansch / Adam Jansch

Opinion by Patrick Dailly

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