Relationships, gender, and cacophonous music

Relationships, gender, and cacophonous music August 12, 2011

Helmet? Check. Mouth guard? Check. Boxing gear? Check.

Okay, I think I’m ready to tackle this issue again.

If you’re a blogger and you want to say anything about gender roles, you better prepare yourself for a “whole lot of ugly coming at you from a never-ending train of stupid.”

Anyone who challenges traditional gender roles is going to get sandwiched with opposition. And anyone who defends traditional gender roles is going to find himself/herself in a similar BLT of aversion. Why is this such a “touchy” subject? I have my speculations.

But first! A story!

Yesterday, it being August, and I being a college student with nothing better to do in August, spent quite a bit of time perusing the comments sections of two different blogs who both wrote about gender-related issues (and came to different conclusions). Eventually, I came across this comment from a man who was against feminism and the smashing of gender roles.

“Masculinity and femininity is a dance, not a wrestling match. In a dance, one partner leads, the other follows, but each must give and take. Nobody can do anything without caring about the feelings and the needs of the other.

Another way to say it is that being male and being female is an art, not a science. You’ve got to work it out yourself. But there are general rules and boundaries to observe…Cacophonous music is pointless; it doesn’t mean that there is only one way to make music.”

My first reaction was this- I got angry. I thought, “How ignorant is this person?” Does he even know ANYTHING about cacophonous music?”

That’s right. My music historian instincts kicked in, I forgot all about gender roles, and my brain screamed about, “Cacophonous music is NOT pointless!”

I apologize for my lack of grace toward this poor man. Seriously, I’m sure one of the sins that Jesus had to die for was my music snobbery. But, after I got over my initial frustration, I began to make a connection, and I just wanted to share it with you all!

But first, a brief history of Western art music!

Back in the 1700s, when Mozart, Haydn, and all those other guys in powdered wigs were popping out symphonies left and right, art music had some specific rules. And people followed those rules almost completely (stepping out of line only rarely to liven things up) and made music that sounded like this:


Isn’t that lovely? It’s pleasant, it’s understandable, it’s familiar, it’s paints a pretty picture in one’s mind. That’s because it (usually) follows the rules- the chords stay in their proper place and make everything sound pretty.

But some composers got tired of following the rules. So, little by little, they started getting more rebellious. And as composers like Beethoven and Berlioz and Wagner broke more and more rules, their music began to sound more and more cacophonous (there’s that word again!), meaning that it began to sound more harsh and dissonant.

Because people were so used to music playing by the rules, when composers broke them, it sounded strange and dissonant to listeners. Some listeners didn’t mind because the music still had some structure. But others accused these composers of ruining music. How dare they not follow the rules!

And then, at beginning of the 1900s, in walks Arnold Schoenberg.

Schoenberg is my favorite composer, and historians consider him to be one of the most influential composers of all time. But you’ve probably never heard of him. Not many people like his music.

He wasn’t satisfied with pleasant music, with chords that “knew their place” and followed the rules. No!

He proclaimed an “emancipation of the dissonance” and freed chords from the musical hierarchy. He created a new kind of music where chords were no longer dependent on other chords in order to be musical. Chords could sound for themselves! And this new music sounded a bit like this:


Cacophonous. Dissonant. A first time listener might say, “ugly,” “weird,” or “unnatural” (if you liked this piece the first time hearing it, you have a more tolerable ear than I, my friend).

The harshness, the lack of familiarity scares some listeners even today. It forces them to question everything they thought they knew about music. So most people just dismiss it as “pointless.”

But you know what? I learned that Schoenberg piano piece last year- I practiced it for hours everyday. I got to know it. I saw where it was coming from. And, finally, I experienced it. Now it sends chills down my spine and brings tears to my eyes.

I can’t listen to it and hear anything but overwhelming beauty.

And now, a point to all this!

Somewhere in the history of humankind, someone decided that there’s gonna be some rules ’round here involving gender. Men, take the lead. Women, you be the back-up singers.

And those rules became pleasant, familiar, and they painted a lovely picture:

But some women got tired of staying in their “proper” place. They wanted to stand alone as humans. To be able to make music without being dependent on a man.

They wanted cacophony!

But people didn’t find this picture to be quite as pleasant:

Photo from: Wide World Photos from the Liberated Woman's Songbook 1971

Some people’s ears weren’t ready for all this cacophony. And some people’s ears still aren’t ready. ‘Cause living in a world with out rules about gender? That’s messy, and that’s scary.

It asks women to find new ways to validate themselves- not just as wives or mothers or girlfriends. It forces them to make their own music- songs and stories where they are the main character, not a supporting role.

That’s scary. That’s messy. That’s cacophonous.

But it’s not pointless.

It asks men to refine what masculinity means to them. It asks them to share the spotlight. To give up some of their power and leadership and still somehow find a way to feel like a man.

That’s scary. That’s messy. That’s cacophonous.

But it’s not pointless.

And it asks a long-time patriarchal society and church to change some of the ways that they’ve been functioning for years.

That’s scary. That’s messy. That’s cacophonous.

But, pointless? No.

We need people who are willing to experience the cacophony that results when the genders become equalized. We need people who are willing to accept a new definition of “music” in relationships- one that will sound harsh and dissonant at first, but will eventually introduce us to rich and beautiful harmonies that we never knew were possible.

Who’s with me?

How about you, readers? How do you feel about traditional gender roles (go ahead and disagree! I promise to be nice!)? And if you disagree with me, how do you feel about the anonymous commenter that I quoted above’s flexible and improvisational approach to complementarianism? I don’t agree, but I do think that guy’s got style!

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  • First: you referenced “Hairspray”! (And what a great line!)

    I’ve heard the dance comparison before, and I get where it’s coming from. But how does that work in a relationship, and in marriage? I mean, there are defined rules in a dance, and we know what a waltz looks like, so we can describe it. But as long as I’ve been married (28 years), I’ve never heard a consistent definition of the rules, or a clear description of how the roles of leading and following are supposed to look in marriage.

    Does it look like “he makes all the decisions”? Or does it look like “when we’re at an impasse, he’s the tiebreaker”? That implies that marital roles are all about decisions. OK, but which decisions? Big ones, like where to live, or how many kids? Little ones, like red grapes or green? Where do you draw the line? And where is that in scripture?

    Does it look like certain chores are his (lawn mowing, bill paying) and others are hers (cooking, laundry)? And where is that in scripture?

    Does it look like “he’s the spiritual leader”? What does that mean? And where is that in scripture?

    Let’s be honest: this debate is about one thing — power. And those with power are loath to share it. That’s human nature — more specifically, fallen nature.

    But Jesus turned the world’s power structure on its ear. He emptied Himself (Phil 2), and he asks us to do the same.

    And this is why the complementarian mentality seems so out of place in Christianity to me.

    • I think Bible verses (misunderstood and read out of context) also keep that thinking going. I’m egalitarian all the way! But, if you MUST be a complementarian-if you’re really convicted about it at least be flexible about it, I suppose!

      And I agree- people are always talking about rules and guidelines, but what are these rules? Where did they come from? And why shouldn’t we have the right to break them? 🙂

      • I think if people looked closely at the unwritten rules behind things, they’d find those rules are based not in scripture, but in culture. And that would be a hard admission for people who claim to live by scripture.

      • So true! I feel like some get their rules from culture and try to twist scripture to justify it (I guess I do that in some areas to, so I’m not perfect either…but it’s still wrong)

  • Oh the guy has style. He’s kinda slick in defending the status quo the the language of dance and poetry.

    Anyway. I love this post, I really do. I liked the Schoenberg piece too. It is very interesting.

    I am reminded of Schism by Tool. In this song is a bridge or some-such that speaks to relationships:

    The poetry that comes from the squaring off between,
    And the circling is worth it.
    Finding beauty in the dissonance.

    Females and males have very real differences biologically, psychologically (which may reflect the biological more than we would like to think), and emotionally (again this may be a result of biology and in both instances I am thinking brain anatomy and neurochemistry, which result from genetic differences and I am going on and on and this has nothing to do with the point that I think I am going to try to make, but this has taken on a life of its own, but now we’re coming back to the place I can jump out of this loop.) I do reject any notion that any of these differences make one gender better or more privileged than the other. I reject the hierarchy of the gender role issue. An hierarchy that is antiquated and never should have arisen. A hierarchy that seems to have been part of the societal structure since Ur and the very first civilizations. (Although these may have arisen because of the women, if I recall my anthropology correctly, the women began planting and harvesting while the men went into the woods to play hunter and provider, the women developed agriculture to keep from starving.) If I am not mistaken this antiquated hierarchy is more prevalent in Evangelicalism than in Western society as a whole (anecdotal observations).

    So all of the confusion to say that I welcome the dissonance of subverting the hierarchical structures that force people into assigned roles. I feel that such structure are by their very nature oppressive and therefore evil (if I am allowed to use that word in this context, but God has some very strong opinions about oppression.) I think that the Kingdom of Heaven rejects these oppressive structures and the teachings and life and ministry of Jesus subverts them. Jesus kind of brings a cacophonous message. A dance in dissonance, where the beauty doesn’t fit nice neat little rules, just like love defies codification.

    • Like skeptigirl said below, I think the crazy, cacophonous music of Stravinsky is a great example of a dance that subverts the hierarchy! When his ballet, Rite of Spring, was premiered in Paris, it caused a riot! Now, that’s my kind of music!

  • I personally like my music causing riots, I call it added value. That is why I like Igor Stravinsky. I personally enjoyed both pieces you posted. I also like industrial music and old punk and a bit of death and black metal so my taste is a little off. The emotion the Mozart piece shows is all goodness peace and light the other piece shows a glimbse of the worlds messyness and sounds like it sort of stumbles on it and still remains very beatiful and is more complex for it. That is atleast my opinion.

    • I was just thinking of Stravinsky! Get out of my head. haha. Yes, crazy, harsh, dissonant dances (but preferably sans the human sacrifice from Rite of Spring! hah).

  • The former viola performance major in me just totally geeked out over this post. This is definitely a much fuller (and non-cliche) music to gender role analogy I have ever heard, and I’ve heard a few.

    • I’m glad I have so many musical readers!

    • Agreed! I thought the analogy was beautiful!

  • Love the connection you make here. I think a lot of the pushback against egalitarianism is just because it feels unnatural to people who have not practiced it. I know a lot of couples who have always practiced complementarianism, and they love each other and it works for them. I don’t think it’s ideal, but expecting them to change and make their marriage look like ours overnight is silly. And there are things we can learn from them too.

    I am right with you on the gender issues, and more than anything I appreciate your willingness to show grace to those who disagree.

    • I’m with you I don’t think that choosing complimentarian roles is ideal. However, the liberationist in me has to accept that some people will choose the more “traditional” roles and I have to be good with that. To force them to make another choice (which is negating choice) would not be liberating, would not dismantle the hierarchical system, just change who’s on top.

  • funny. I am naturally egalitarian (and so is my wife, luckily), and I do love me some cacophonous music sometimes. Love the posted pieces…

    (I’ve been listening to Godspeed you black emperor and silver mt zion all day, it fits well)

    But it’s a very good music analogy…

    Mozart, 12 bar blues and classical country do get boring after a while because they follow the rules and are predictable… Maybe putting sonic youth on repeat in my teenage years has changed my musical ears…