The Intersectionality of Disability and Rock Music
by Jessica Kramer
Imagine being in a rock band touring the world, selling out shows with thousands of screaming fans and beautiful women throwing themselves at you. You feel like you are on top of the world, and then one bad decision costs you your sex appeal, your confidence, your arm. Literature, movies, even news stories often depict disability as something to be feared and banished: scarred from fires, amputee from car accidents, villains in movies and literature. The lack of positive representation of disability damages the self-image of those with disabilities. Music contributes to the devaluing of those with disabilities through a lack of representation of musicians with disabilities, and songs that promote a perfect, sexy body. The exception is the genre of rock, where disability is better represented because of the powerful and sexual atmosphere it projects. The masculinity and over sexualized genre of rock negates the asexual notions of disability found in other art forms, allowing for visibly disabled rock musicians and disregarding social views about disability and sexuality by focusing on the power rock exerts over people.
Society views disability as something to be fixed. The most common practice of viewing disability is through the medical model, a theory that sees disability as the problem of the individual, and as an impairment that needs to be cured. Tom Shakespeare, a disability studies sociologist, in his essay “The Social Model of Disability,” explains the medical model as trying “to reduce…disabled people to medical prevention, cure or rehabilitation” (216). Disability is associated with medicine, hospitals, and sickness. In other words, disability is seen as unhealthy and unwanted—the opposite of desirable.
People desire able-bodiedness and American culture supports this norm through the sexualized representation of those nondisabled. The lack of representation of those with disabilities furthers society’s able-ist views of disability being unwanted. Ronald Berger, author of the book Introducing Disabilities, outlines the role disability has played in society. Because ableism “assumes that some people (and bodies) are normal and superior while other people (and bodies) are abnormal and inferior” (14), certain bodies are deemed abnormal and thus hidden from mainstream culture. Ableism contributes to Shakespeare’s definition of the medical model because medicalizing an individual distances the able from the disabled. Medicine is for those who are weaker than the healthy. The assumption of able-bodiedness transfers over to music. Playing an instrument requires control over bodily movements, for example. Playing a guitar or drums while missing an arm is impossible without some adaptation of the equipment, and adaptive equipment puts a spotlight on the impairment, making it the only aspect people can see. The musician is no longer a part of the music culture because his equipment stigmatizes him into being disabled first. The musician is now subject to ableism, thus making this musician an inferior to his able-bodied peers.
Sexuality is an ablest ideal. People who are seen as being sexy are those with all their limbs, who are ambulatory and require no adaptive equipment. Sexiness is able-bodiedness. Those with disabilities are not represented as sexy. Sexuality is expressed through the body, and that body needs to fit the social norm of beauty. Disabilities studies scholar Rosemary Garland-Thomson in her article “Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory” sees “disability as a pervasive cultural system that stigmatizes certain kinds of bodily variations” (5). The more visible the impairment, the less normal and sexy the individual becomes. Those with visible disabilities, like paraplegia, scarring, or deformed limbs, do not have bodies that represent the norm of sexuality. This is a problem for those with disabilities that are also performers. Being a musician, for example, requires the individual to be in the spotlight. It is this attention and popularity that gives them their sex appeal. The media sexualizes performers, and performers need to represent the socially accepted notion of sexuality. Sexuality comes from those that represent the social norms of beauty, intelligence, and normalcy. Disability serves as a way to further sexuality through asexuality. Garland-Thomson further notes that “[T]he disability system functions to preserve and validate such privileged designations as beautiful, healthy, normal, fit, competent…” (5). Societal views about the asexuality of disability counteract the sex appeal that musicians usually represent.
It is not just being sexy that those with disabilities have trouble with; it is the physical act of sex itself that is difficult. For those who are nondisabled, sex itself is easier, better, and socially expected. For those with a disability that impairs mobility and physical function, sex is thought of as difficult or impossible. Those who appear incapable of performing the act of sex become non-sexy because of how intimate a sex act is. Each partner needs to be actively involved through physical contact such as caresses, kisses, and penetration. Robert McRuer and Anna Mollow, in Sex and Disability, outline how society views sexuality in relation to disability, explaining that “…[T]he idea of a sex life is ablest” (39). Both partners are expected to perform the physical act of intercourse. Being physically able to do the act of sex in the way culture deems normal is important. Adaptation is not desirable or prominent in popular forms of media. To show a person as sexy is to show someone who can perform the act of sex in the appropriate way. McRuer and Mollow continue: “One of the chief stereotypes oppressing disabled people is the myth that they do not experience sexual feelings… in short, that they do not have a sexual culture” (39). Those with disabilities have no need to be sexualized; they do not have a culture to support it. People with disabilities are not seen as sexually active, but instead are “one of the largest unrecognized minority populations” (McRuer & Mollow 52), leaving no reason for society to portray disability as sexy. Since disability is unrecognized, and since it goes unseen, disability therefore cannot be sexualized. Most of the time “[w]hen disability is linked to sex, it becomes a clinical matter in which each disability betrays a particular limitation of sexual opportunity, growth, or feeling” (McRuer & Mollow 42). Being physically intimate further illustrates what is different about the person with the disability. The reason few see disability as sexy is because the majority view it as something to be feared and to be avoided.
Music is one tool used to show attraction. Involving disability into this already sexualized medium distracts the listener from the asexuality that disability represents. Rock music, in particular, does this very well. Of all genres, rock has the most visibly successful disabled musicians, making rock the genre that is powerful enough to overshadow the asexual views on disability. Quirky, pop culture publication Mental Floss once featured musicians with disabilities. Rock includes disabled drummers like Rick Allen, who is missing an arm; singers like Ian Curtis, who has epileptic seizures on stage; and guitarists like Tony Iommi from Black Sabbath, who is missing the tips of his fingers (DeMain). These are all visible disabilities, and yet each musician was seen as successful and sexy, but only in relation to the rock they produced. Rock musicians are sexualized and powerful because rock is a sexualized and powerful genre.
Music is clearly an outlet for sexuality. It allows both the makers and listeners to express themselves free from everyday criticism. Rock music even has a reputation of being overly sexual. The main way rock accomplishes this sexuality is through an extremely masculine undertone. Rock is dominated by males. Sheila Whiteley, editor of Sexing the Groove: Popular Music and Gender states, “Women’s absence is entirely social…to enter the domain of rock is a male rite of passage” (4). Society expects men to experience rock, and to see it as a part of growing up. For women to experience rock, they must invade the male space. Essentially, women set aside their feminine gender and become masculine when they become “rockers.” Similarly, those with disabilities need to become masculine and powerful to enter the rock genre; disability is seen as a feminizing condition because the individual can no longer be independent, and it forces them to be physically weaker than their able-bodied peers just like females are viewed as physically weaker than males. The masculinity in rock helps combat this feminization for disability the same way it does for women. Rock’s masculinity also comes from the power and dominant sound the music exerts. Steve Waksman, the author of Instruments of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience, highlights rock’s masculinity. Rock has “that brand of guitar driven music that most clearly articulates a male-oriented regime of power and pleasure” (Waksman 239). Rock music overpowers every other noise. It is loud and demands the attention of all participating either by listening, attending a concert, or performing on stage. Since power is masculine and rock music has power, rock music is masculine. Rock’s power can override the weakness associated with disability by showing the musician with a disability in a powerful setting such as a rock concert.
Along with masculinity, rock music asserts a powerful sexual message. The instruments played and the words used both in song and descriptions of rock music illustrate how important the image of male sexuality is to the music. The type of instruments used and the style by which they are played can assert the gender of the music. Rock uses the electric guitar, an instrument that is seen as a “techno phallus” (Waksman 244). The guitar “accentuate[s] the phallic detentions of the performing male body . . . the volume . . . amplifies the physical presence of the performer” (Waksman 244). The guitar is an extension of the male body, representing the penis, the organ that makes a person biologically male. Also, the sound an electric guitar makes can overpower any other sound on stage. The act of overpowering another, in this case through sound, is a very masculine act, one that highlights the sexual nature of both the male gender and the genre of rock. Having a person with a visible disability play the guitar adds sex appeal to the asexual disabled artist by using the metaphor of the techno phallus and the powering sound an electric guitar produces. A subgenre that shows its masculinity and sexuality in just the name is Cock Rock. The name refers to the sexual organ of the male. This subgenre is defined as “the male centered exhibitionism of hard rock performance” (Waksman 247). Even the term Hard Rock alludes to the penis. Sex is everywhere in rock music and has the power to make those deemed undesirable—persons with disabilities—sexy.
Singing is feminizing, but a singer in a rock band can be masculine because of the style. Rock singers often scream at high volumes, musicalizing the act of singing. Also, singers who have high energy and move around on stage force the audience to focus on them, becoming the dominating force on stage. An example of a popular singer with a visible disability is Ian Curtis from Joy Division. Joy Division is a punk rock band, and punk rock is a subgenre of rock that uses powerful sounds to exert masculinity. Curtis had Epilepsy and used it in his performances. The audience expected Curtis to use seizure-like movements while on stage as a form of dance. “While he would sing of losing control, the audience would watch him seemingly [do] it,” says George McKay, author of Shakin’ All Over: Popular Music and Disability (113). Curtis’s seizures were not seen as a representation of a disability, but as dancing. Curtis’s dancing added power to the music because the audience saw his uncontrollable movements as music actually possessing the body. Many of the band’s songs were also about Epilepsy. “She’s Lost Control” is about a girl who has seizures. The song describes her as, “. . . seized up on the floor I’d thought she’d die” (Joy Division). Curtis used his songs to cope with a disability and to understand what it meant to be disabled. Fans loved Curtis’s disability because it added to the Joy Division experience. Disability was accepted as a part of Joy Division because their music was already masculine and powerful; the asexuality and weakness of disability was therefore overshadowed by the genre of punk rock.
Rick Allen, the drummer from Def Leppard, is the another famous disabled rock musician. Allen is evidence that visible disability is accepted in rock because he went from able-bodied to disabled while famous and it did not have a negative impact on his career. Matthew Wilkening’s article “30 Years Ago: Def Leppard Drummer Rick Allen Loses Arm in Car Crash” details the accident that resulted in Allen’s amputation. Allen lost his arm in a car accident on New Year’s Eve in 1984, while he was the drummer for the rock band Def Leppard. The band was in the process of making their second and best selling album Hysteria. After the accident, it took Allen 20 months to recover and rejoin the band (Wilkening). Drums are an instrument requiring the use of both arms, so Allen’s drums were adapted for one-armed use. His drum set had additional foot pedals that allowed for more control over the drums. Because the drums are a very able-bodied instrument due to the physical demands they require when playing, Allen’s amputation was more relevant. The able-bodiedness of the instrument compensated for the disablement of Allen’s body. Def Leppard fans deemed it okay for Allen to be an amputee, so long as he played an instrument that required a lot of physical effort. The physicality of the drums make them masculine, therefore making a visible disability irrelevant to the popularity of Def Leppard.
Most of the American mass media is sexualized, and yet there is one minority group that is left out: those with disabilities. Persons with disabilities are separated, feared, and seen as undesirable by many in society, making it no surprise they are seen as asexual. Music is one area that disability and sexuality interact constantly. It is only through an over sexualized and masculine genre like rock, that the intersection of disability and sexuality can be accepted, so long as the person with the disability is exerting their power and sex appeal through the music.
Berger, Ronald J. “Disability in Society.” Introducing Disability Studies. Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2013. 1-28. Print.
DeMain, Bill. “11 Musicians Who Overcame Disabilities.” Mental Floss. 2016. Web. 15 Mar. 2016.
Garland-Thomson, Rosemary. “Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory.” NWSA Journal, 14.3, Feminist Disability Studies (2002): 1-32. JSTOR. Web. March 2016.
Joy Division. “She’s Lost Control.” Unknown Pleasures. Tony Wilson’s Factory Records, 1979. Lyrics: azlyrics.com. Web.
McKay, George. Shakin’ All Over: Popular Music and Disability. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013. Print.
McRuer, Robert, and Anna Mollow, Eds. Sex and Disability. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012. Print.
Shakespeare, Tom. “The Social Model of Disability.” The Disability Studies Reader. Ed. Lennard J. Davis. 4th ed. New York, NY: Routledge, 2013. 214-221. Print.
Waksman, Steve. Instruments of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999. Print.
Whiteley, Sheila. Sexing the Groove: Popular Music and Gender. London: Routledge, 1997. Print.
Wilkening, Matthew. “30 Years Ago: Def Leppard Drummer Rick Allen Loses Arm in Car Crash.” Ultimate Classic Rock. 31 Dec. 2014. Web. 25 Apr. 2015.
Jessica Kramer is a Colorado native currently attending the University of Wyoming. She is studying Political Science and Disability Studies and is the Vice President of the student organization Abilities, whose mission is to advocate for those on campus with disabilities.
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