Listening to the Sirens: Musical Technologies of Queer Identity from Homer to Hedwig

Listening to the Sirens: Musical Technologies of Queer Identity from Homer to Hedwig

Listening to the Sirens: Musical Technologies of Queer Identity from Homer to Hedwig

Listening to the Sirens: Musical Technologies of Queer Identity from Homer to Hedwig


In this fresh and innovative study, Judith A. Peraino investigates how music has been used throughout history to call into question norms of gender and sexuality. Beginning with a close examination of the mythology surrounding the sirens--whose music seduced Ulysses into a state of mind in which he would gladly sacrifice everything for the illicit pleasures promised in their song--Peraino goes on to consider the musical creatures, musical gods and demigods, musical humans, and music-addled listeners who have been associated with behavior that breaches social conventions. She deftly employs a sophisticated reading of Foucault as an organizational principle as well as a philosophical focus to survey seductive and transgressive queerness in music from the Greeks through the Middle Ages and to the contemporary period. Listening to the Sirens analyzes the musical ways in which queer individuals express and discipline their desire, represent themselves, build communities, and subvert heterosexual expectations. It covers a wide range of music including medieval songs, works by Handel, Tchaikovsky and Britten, women's music and disco, performers such as Judy Garland, Melissa Etheridge, Madonna, and Marilyn Manson, and the movies The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Hedwig and the Angry Inch.


Sailing home from war, Odysseus decides to make a brief detour in order to listen to a song sung by creatures called Sirens. Legend tells that listening to this song has dire consequences; it draws the listener to a rocky shore and certain death. But Odysseus plugs the ears of his crew with wax and has himself bound to the mast so that he alone can listen. With his cunning plan, he manages to hear the song and escape its consequences.

Or does he?

This ancient Greek story about the warrior Odysseus, as recounted in Homer’s Odyssey (ca. 700 B.C.E.), has been used through the ages as a starting point for artistic, religious, and philosophical contemplation. In Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno place the Siren episode from the Odyssey at the center of their Marxist critique of the ideological and subjugating tendencies of Enlightenment thinking. They characterize Odysseus as a “prototype of the bourgeois individual,” his crew as “proletarians,” and their encounter with the Sirens as a critical moment in which the rational cunning of the individual conquers the mythical powers of the Sirens’ song. Odysseus becomes enlightened by listening to it, for he is made to struggle with, and overcome, a self-destructive desire to return to the past. But his crew hear nothing; they are left out of enlightenment. For these authors, the separate experiences of Odysseus and his crew signify, on one level, the exploitation of a labor force for the gain of an individual from the ruling class; on another level, Odysseus’s experience itself signifies the triumphant yet impoverishing separation of rationalistic thought from physical practice. The Siren episode is thus the “presentient allegory of the dialectic of enlightenment,” in which intellectual progress is remote from participation in labor.

Adorno and Horkheimer see in this story other costs and rifts besides this . . .

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