Movement, Music, Feminism: An Analysis of Movement-Music Interactions and the Articulation of Masculinity in Tyler, the Creator’s ‘Yonkers’ Music Video

By Sterbenz, Maeve | Music Theory Online, June 2017 | Go to article overview

Movement, Music, Feminism: An Analysis of Movement-Music Interactions and the Articulation of Masculinity in Tyler, the Creator’s ‘Yonkers’ Music Video


Sterbenz, Maeve, Music Theory Online


[1] When I hear music, I am very likely to move my body. Listening to a favorite piece of mine, I might draw my chest inwards slowly, sinking into a compelling bass line, or jerk my knee slightly upwards and catch my breath in anticipation of a satisfying musical arrival. I might simply mouth along to a song’s lyrics, taking pleasure in the feeling of the words. I often relate to music as if it were an environment that I can navigate with my body. The environment may present itself to me as an open landscape to freely explore, or an obstacle course to overcome. Each musical moment is a particular kind of situation that affords diverse possibilities for movement. This process of embodied navigation is, for me, one of the most powerfully affecting ways of engaging with sound.

[2] Traditionally, the field of music theory has not considered accounts of the kinds of musical experiences I have just described as integral or even relevant to music-theoretical inquiry. Perhaps because they are considered “imprecise and embarrassingly personal” (Guck 1994, 28) or “profoundly self-absorbed, and decidedly un-shareable” (Kozak 2015, [4.1]), explicit discussion of listeners’ bodies and personal experiences does not frequently appear in the realm of music analytical observations. As Marion A. Guck (1994), Suzanne G. Cusick (1994a and 1994b), and others have argued, one of the reasons for this omission is the masculinist bias that characterized much of the field prior to the 1990s, and that tended to dismiss metaphorical language, overtly subjective musical descriptions, and the role of the body in musical practices all at once. One of the primary goals of feminist music theory for the past two decades has been to combat this bias by acknowledging many different kinds of bodily experiences as vital to music analysis. In this paper, I suggest an analytical approach that examines interactions between human movement and music in detailed terms, in service of a feminist aim to take bodies seriously.

[3] Movement and music are intimately connected activities, and in works that contain both human movement and music, such as choreographed dance and music video, the two media productively interact to create emergent experiences for an observer. It is my view that this interaction warrants close analytical study. Here, I aim to show how music-analytical attention can be productively directed towards the performing bodies that move to music in multimedia pieces by offering a close reading of a music video by the rapper Tyler, The Creator. My analysis focuses on the relationship between Tyler’s movement and the music and on this relationship’s role in informing ways that we might read his self-positioning and identity formation.

[4] Music and movement both serve as media through which various kinds of identities, social relations, politics, and cultural values are articulated. Rather than transcendent, ahistorical art objects, music and the movement it inspires are inextricably linked to their cultural and historical contexts, such that the structural and formal properties of the works reflect their sociopolitical dimensions. Since the advent of New Musicology, many scholars, informed by feminist thought and critical theory, have sought to expand the definition of music analysis to include an explicit focus on these sociopolitical dimensions.(1) Similarly, I contend that sociopolitical meanings can be read into the interaction between movement and music.

[5] Any close reading of movement-music relationships hinges on the situated and embodied perspective of an observer and, as such, is necessarily subjective. Instead of dismissing movement-music analysis on this basis, I, like other feminist music theorists, acknowledge the interpretive nature of my observations, working under the assumption that enough of them might be understood, if not shared or independently reached, by readers to enrich their own engagements with the piece. …

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