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Ethnomusicology’s queer silences

An audible silence lingers in the field and fieldwork of ethnomusicology. Queer subjects and topics have made few appearances in the literature to date. Such paucity isn’t owed to an absence of LGBTQ-identified members and allies; by and large, ethnomusicologists are as fabulous and open-minded as scholars come. So why has queer ethnomusicology arrived late to the party? Queer theory has been around for over two decades. Some might even say that it’s already over, passé, dead. For ethnomusicologists to jump on the wagon now might seem akin to wandering into a club at last call, just as the DJ packs up and everyone else hails taxis home.

So why queer the field of ethnomusicology at this moment?

It’s important to contemplate the lack of queer inquiry in ethnomusicology relative to numerous productive efforts in its sister disciplines (anthropology, history, sociology, and musicology). As Deborah Wong remarks,

Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology (Brett, Wood, and Thomas 1994) represents an important juncture in musicology but there are no ethnomusicologists in that collection, and in many ways…most ethnomusicologists have still not engaged deeply with sexuality studies or queer theory despite the fact that music is often a key performative means for defining the terms for pleasure and desire.”

Ethnomusicologists have likewise been underrepresented in subsequent collections such as Out in the Field: Reflections of Lesbian and Gay Anthropologists (1996), Out in Theory (2002), and with only a limited presence in Queering the Popular Pitch (2006).

In the early 1990s, queer pursuits in musicology encountered predictable resistance and, in some cases, explicit homophobia. Ethnomusicologists mostly stayed out of the brawl. Maybe it’s because ethnomusicology was in a sense already queer (a disciplinary outsider relative to music history and music theory), and as such, scholars saw little need for explicit articulations of queerness. Maybe ethnomusicologists have harbored anxieties precisely about their queered status in the academy, and have therefore disavowed direct address of queerness in their work for fear of further marginalization. Or maybe the varying challenges, affordances, and pressures of scholars’ disparate field sites have impeded harmonious and ethically sound dialogues about queerness (out of concerns about culturally relative currencies of gender and sexuality).

So what does it mean to queer the field of ethnomusicology?

For starters, consider how artists and musicians do not typically have a singular code of ethics by which they abide; breaking the rules is an essence of artistry. By contrast, fieldworkers across disciplines often need to answer to the codes of institutions, whether it’s the Society of Ethnomusicology, the IRBs of home institutions, or local research clearance. How have such codes bounded ethnographic practice? Could we argue that it’s unethical to normalize fieldwork, something that, by its very nature, may demand spontaneity, improvisation, and possible intervention? How are such codes affecting fieldworkers’ expressions of normalized or non-normative identities? How do we address the boundaries between marked and unmarked deviance (of researchers and informants alike), as well as issues of (dis)ability, aptitude, and value?

Addressing these difficult questions requires collaborative and compassionate efforts. With enough voices chiming in across field sites and disciplinary boundaries, perhaps ethnomusicology’s queer hush will soon give way to a lively chorus of critical debate.

Image credit: Thessaloniki, Greece – June 21, 2014: Participants of the Gay Pride playing drums during the parade in the city of Thessaloniki. Around 10,000 people are estimated to have participated in the parade of the 3rd Gay Pride Thessaloniki. Members of the LGBT protested for their right to diversity in Thessaloniki, Greece. © verve231 via iStock.

Recent Comments

  1. Jonathan Stock

    For what it is worth, I’d suggest part of the answer lies in the habitual focus on groups/societies (as opposed to individuals).

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