Performing Countercultural Masculinity: Mick, Music and Masquerade in Gimme Shelter

By Howell, Amanda | Genders, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Performing Countercultural Masculinity: Mick, Music and Masquerade in Gimme Shelter


Howell, Amanda, Genders


[1] Years before MTV, baby boomer audiences consumed images of themselves in widely popular rockumentaries that have since become key documents in our understanding of youth and music cultures of the past. In particular, the 1970 film Gimme Shelter, directed by Albert and David Maysles with Charlotte Zwerin, has been central to popular understanding of the rise and, especially, the fall of the hippie movement at the end of the 1960s. A film that has influenced popular periodization of the youth movement in the U.S. with its depiction of the Rolling Stones' 1969 tour and its tragic conclusion at Altamont, Gimme Shelter is likewise noteworthy for its portrait of the Stones'--especially Mick Jagger's--staging of rock masculinity in the context of the youth counterculture. Culminating in the harrowing final sequence of the film, where Jagger's performance falls apart before our eyes, his control of the stage yielding to a welter of confused, frightened, and angry youth, Jagger's countercultural rock masculinity--like the free rock festival at Altamont itself--appears as a failed experiment in the transformative power of youth and music cultures.

[2] Responding to Pauline Kael's accusation that they had incited "'violent acts on camera'," Zwerin and the Maysles insisted that "'the structure of the film ... tries to render in its maximum complexity the very problems of Jagger's double self, of his insolent appeal and the fury it can and in fact does provoke, and even the pathos of his final powerlessness'"(qtd. in MacDonald and Cousins 278, 394). By rendering Jagger's "double self" as a part of the film's effort to make sense of the events of Altamont, Gimme Shelter offers a historically-specific representation of rock masculinity in the late 1960s and the relation of its gendered performances to the values and ideals of the youth movement. Utilizing a self-reflexive structure somewhat at odds with the precepts of direct cinema, the film on the one hand records--even appears fascinated by--Jagger's efforts to transform white masculinity, to liberate it from the constraints of "straight" culture, to make it speak to and about the counterculture in terms set by rock music. But it also offers a critical account of how Jagger endeavors to maintain power over the terms of his own representation in a range of media, a will to power that imbricates this transformational performance of gender in the social and cultural workings of hegemonic masculinity. Considered with benefit of hindsight, the Stones as they appear in Gimme Shelter thus typify what Will Straw has observed to be "the contradictions of rock stardom: art vs. commerce, rebellion vs. conformity, artifice vs. authenticity" (83).

[3].In its account of rock masculinity, rock stardom, and countercultural youth, Gimme Shelter situates its audience both as fans and as critics: as participants in the heady, seductive experience of the Stones' music and likewise as critical viewers of the means by which rock stars, rock music, and rock masculinity are made, managed, and mediated. The film testifies to Jagger's complex gendered identity, refuting any sense of a monolithic white masculinity as it offers a close look at a performance style that, as Sheila Whiteley has observed, "laid the foundations for self-invention and sexual plasticity which are now an integral part of contemporary youth culture" (67). We see in the film how Jagger expanded the representational vocabulary of contemporary masculinity--eroticizing it, broadening its scope in stage displays and vocal performances. We are also shown the ways that this gender performance is routed through various iterations of racial and class difference in an effort to transform middle-class, white masculinity in terms set by the beliefs and desires, the social and aesthetic priorities of the counterculture. Likewise, the film makes clear how this self-invention of the rock persona is mediated in various ways by the business of rock. …

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