On November 6, 2009, Camp Kesem, a student organization at UVA that provides a free week of summer camp for children whose parents have cancer, hosted a fundraising concert featuring four of the university’s best a cappella groups. The featured groups were the New Dominions, the Academical Village People (AVP), Hoos in Treble, and Remix (however, for sake of space, I will only address the first three groups). Because each one of the featured groups was so different regarding gender composition and genre preference, the concert provided a unique framework for the study of gender performance in popular music. The gender performance of these very diverse groups is apparent through their body movements, dress, and song choice.
The New Dominions are a co-ed a capella group with varied musical tastes as expressed on their website: “No genre is too wild if you can pull it off.” Although I was not familiar with any of the songs that the group performed, gender was clearly expressed through the group’s body movements and dress. For example, men and women of the New Dominions had differing body movements. While the girls swayed from side to side as they sang, the boys energetically bounced up and down. These differences suggest that gender can be performed through body movements as the movements seemed to coincide with societal norms. For example, because femininity is often associated with gracefulness, swaying would be more gender appropriate for women than bouncing up and down. Similarly, masculinity is often associated with activeness. Thus, bouncing up and down would be considered more appropriate for men in our society. Gender was also performed through the group’s choice of attire. While the girls were all dressed in beautiful black cocktail dresses, many with accents of royal blue; the boys wore dress pants and button down shirts. Perhaps because the group was mixed-sex, they chose to make gender distinctions clearer by sticking to traditional formal attire rather than wearing jeans and tees which would make gender less obvious.
Hoos in Treble is an all female a capella group whose body movements, dress, and song choice reflect the group’s gender composition. Regarding song selection, the four songs the group chose to sing for the Camp Kesem concert were all about love and girl power. The group sang Evanescence’s “Wake Me Up Inside,” Maroon 5’s “Secret,” Taylor Swift’s “You Belong with Me,” and Miranda Lambert’s “Gunpowder and Lead.” While the first three focused on love, a topic with which girls are often obsessed, “Gunpowder and Lead” is an anthem for women who have been abused. The song is about a woman who has been abused by her husband and has decided that she is “gonna show him what little girls are made of/Gunpowder and lead.” The song also attacks aggressive masculinity. For example, the song states: “He slapped my face and he shook me like a rag doll/Don't that sound like a real man?” I enjoyed seeing a group of young women not only address love, but also domestic violence. The group also performed gender through their attire and body movements. While they wore matching tees and jeans, they expressed their femininity by adding accents of hot pink and swaying side to side rather than bouncing up and down.
The Academical Village People (AVP) is an all male a capella group that “combines top-class singing and bumping vocal percussion with rock-star performance technique and endless enthusiasm” as noted on their website. They sang all styles of music ranging from “Sing a Song” to “Never Say Never” to “Tears in Heaven.” However, no matter what song the group sang, their energy was undeniable. The group ran to the stage, jumped consistently throughout the performance, and interacted with both the audience and each other. The group’s energetic performance can be associated with the physical ability of men. However, when singing The Fray’s “Never Say Never,” the group exhibited a more androgynous gender performance. For example, although the lead vocalist exhibited heterosexual masculinity by holding the hand of a female audience member when singing, his male group members suggested a more androgynous gender performance by dancing like ballerinas, grasping for the lead singers hands, and putting their arms over his shoulders during the performance. The lead vocalist also sang very high notes often associated with the feminine range. Thus, AVP was not afraid to perform their gender in various ways and never failed to have fun doing so.
The varied gender compositions of these three groups created a unique opportunity to examine gender performance in popular music. Each group performed gender differently. These differences were most visible through the examination of body movement, dress, and song choice.