Eroticizing Ethnomusicology

“Most ethnomusicologists write about a bleak world devoid of desire and empty of erotics.” So began Deborah Wong’s intervention in the field of ethnomusicology to address the dearth of critical investigations of gender and sexuality in music.

Wong visited UC Davis on January 8, 2015, as part of the Valente Lecture Series in Ethnomusicology in the Department of Music to deliver a talk titled, “Ethnomusicology without Sex.” Wong specializes in the musics of Thailand and Asian America and is a professor in the Department of Music at UC Riverside and author of Sounding the Center: History and Aesthetics in Thai Buddhist Ritual (2001) and Speak It Louder: Asian Americans Making Music (2004).

Wong explained that ethnomusicologists have trouble “living up to the intersectional work that the field needs” to correct the “standard practice” of neglecting sexuality in their research. There are few scholars who have written about sexuality in ethnomusicology, Wong continued. The notable exceptions include UC Davis’ Henry Spiller, professor and chair of the Department of Music.

Wong prepared her essay for a forthcoming special issue of Women & Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture that will celebrate the life and critical work of Suzanne Cusick, the journal’s former editor and professor in the Department of Music at New York University.

Wong projected her paper onto a screen as she read and intentionally jumped between the main text and extensive footnotes that “speak simultaneously” with the text in order to bring attention to her practice of feminist citation. Drawing from Cusick, as well as Robyn Wiegman, Sara Ahmed, and bell hooks, Wong called for ethnomusicology to think “beyond cultural relativism” and examine the “culturally specific and globally circulated” experience of colonialism that produced “internalized colonial categories of gender and desire.”

To better hear this “erotics of empire,” Wong advocated the need to “listen differently” to the “non-logocentric understandings of desire” that can be heard in all types of music. In particular, Wong reminded the audience that attention to gender is not only about women and that work on sexuality is not only about queerness; rather, ethnomusicologists should explore how heteronormative desire infuses even the most unlikely musical expressions.

As an example, Wong described a song composed by Prayut Chan-o-cha, former Commander in Chief of the Royal Thai Army, which calls for Thai reconciliation after his military coup. The lyrics and affective singing of “Returning Happiness to Thailand” are “straight out of Thai pop songs about lovers,” Wong explained, but in this case, the pleading singer is a dictator who draws from the “deeply erotic and heterosexist desires of love songs” to legitimate his rule.

Wong ended her talk with a “manifesto for ethnomusicological erotics” that lays out five paths of action for ethnomusicologists interested in addressing the critical lapse in the erotics of world music that include “Listen, Teach, Liberate, Abolish, and Transect.” For those encouraged to take up Wong’s challenge, her manifesto will be published in the next volume of Women & Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture.

– Stephanie Maroney, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral candidate in Cultural Studies