Volume 11, Number 3 (August, 2014)
Author: Dr. Charles Mueller
The phallic nature of rock guitar virtuosity has been well documented by scholars of popular music and gender, from feminist critiques of “cock rock” to Robert Walser’s sympathetic reading of heavy metal guitar playing as an exciting, creative, and healthy display of virility and ingenuity (Walser, 1993) [For feminist readings of the guitar in heavy rock styles see Frith et. al. (2006), and various articles in Whiteley (1997)]. It does not take an academic, however, to sense the discordant relationship that rock virtuosity has often had with the feminine. The cultural reasons for this incompatibility are many and varied ranging from rock’s obsession with authenticity, to the sensational hyperbolic way that antagonistic sexual relations in blues music were ripped out of context and made hyperreal by English groups like the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, to the way that electric guitars and amplifiers are marketed and merchandized to men.
Perhaps one should ask why males continue to guard this area of cultural space. Jean Baudrillard provides a possible answer in his discussions of the postmodern preoccupation with difference. In his view, capitalism has made men and women so similar that a fanatical impulse to keep the other at a distance has been activated, not because women are mysterious or foreign but because they are now merely different (Baudrillard, 2002: 93-94). This marks a significant change from male/female relationships during the Romantic era, a period that Baudrillard refers to as a “hysterical phase” in regard to sex and gender.
Baudrillard believed that during the nineteenth century “the femininity of man was projected onto woman and shaped her as an ideal figure in his image.” The aim of the romantics was not to conquer or seduce the woman but to invent her from the inside as a utopian vision or a femme-fatal star (Baudrillard, 2002: 52). If one follows Baudrillard’s reasoning, men were less guarded about virtuosity during the nineteenth century and celebrated female virtuosos because their veneration of female performers was simply part of the fetishization of their own masculinity. Clara Schumann’s prodigious abilities on the piano were no threat to male performers or the conservatory patriarchs even if her desire to compose was subversive.
If the male guitar hero now uses his skill to signify virility and police gender boundaries it should be recognized that he is bound up with the masculine constructs of power that preceded him. For example, rock guitar virtuosos have served, often simultaneously, as icons of capitalist production, social Darwinism, patriarchy, Cold Warriors, counterculture heroes, and as nostalgic symbols of outmoded power relations. The potential guitar virtuoso is burdened with layers of masculine sign-value before he even plays a note.
II. Jeff Beck vs. Prevailing Norms
In contradiction to the prevailing gender norms and boundaries that players and audiences have constructed for rock virtuosi, Jeff Beck, one of the original British “guitar heroes” of the 1960s, has subsequently made a special province of working with female artists from Dianna Ross and Tina Turner in the 1980s to Beverly Craven and Chrissie Hynde in the 1990s. These recordings reflect Beck’s fascination with pop, and his well-cultivated persona of a free-floating cameo signifier of avant-garde cool who appropriates the sign value of the stars that he works with while imparting some of his own.
One could point to several possible reasons why Beck perhaps was, and is, in a better position to collaborate with women than peers such as Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page or later players like Edward Van Halen. First, for most of his career, Beck consistently presented himself in a way that was, arguably, less misogynistic than other guitarists, favoring an image of arty seriousness, a musician’s musician, than one aggressively phallic in character, at least when compared to the majority of male rockers. Second, Beck’s attitude toward blues, the fount of masculine notions of rock authenticity, has been one of almost total irreverence.1 Third, there are Beck’s sentiments toward the guitar hero phenomenon itself; he dismisses the movement as a mindless product of English conservativism stating “Well that’s the British for you isn’t it? There always has to be a king in the castle” (Carson, 2001: 47). One must also note how vocal Beck has been in expressing his admiration for female artists, as well as his celebration of Les Mystére des Voix Bulgares by the Bulgarian Women’s Choir, which he cites as not only his favorite album, but also the one that most influenced his recent approach to soloing (Sharken, 1999: 52). Finally, perhaps on some level, Beck’s embrace of the feminine intuitively reflects an understanding that the masculine structures of social and political power that the virtuoso once represented are now defunct, empty, or simulated.
Although well-intentioned, Beck’s early collaborations with women did not always yield musically satisfying results. His cameo solos on pop albums by Tina Turner, Beverly Craven, and others have often been tasteless and unmelodious, and the brief cadenzas often appeared in songs that were particularly insipid and artistically bland. Although Beck’s presence on these albums makes commercial sense his solos sound intrusive, typically consisting of grotesque wailing figures that either provide flash and intensity or add another layer to the music’s hyper-sentimentality and superficiality depending on the affect of the song [his playing on Tina Turner’s Steel Claw, and on Beverly Craven’s Love Scenes album are examples].
Beginning in the late1990s, however, Beck began collaborating with female singers and instrumentalists in a way that was more substantial and inspired. He surrounded himself with a talented cast of young women that included celebrated fusion guitarist Jennifer Batten, electronica composer and vocalist Imogen Heap, and Tal Wilkenfeld a flamboyant bassist who made her reputation in New York jazz clubs. With them, Beck released a string of albums inspired by techno-dance music including Who Else!, You Had It Coming, and Jeff, all recorded between 1999 and 2003. In 2009 Beck released the career retrospective DVD Live at Ronnie Scott’s with Heap, Wilkenfeld, and Grammy-winning soul singer Joss Stone. Beck has continued to favor Stone on his more recent work (Thompson, 2010), and has also recorded a live tribute album to Les Paul with rockabilly revival singer Imelda May (Beck, 2011). All this work with members of the opposite sex suggests that Beck had some artistic goal in mind, that they served some role in his desire to make a statement about virtuosity.
On these albums Beck manipulated gender stereotypes in order to create a new context for his virtuosity, and to enhance the impact of his playing at a time when elaborate guitar solos were not fashionable in popular music. This is evident even in the visual image that Beck cultivated during this period. Playing upon his reputation as a genuine hot rod builder, Beck appears on the album covers dressed as a greasy mechanic with ragged muscle-shirts and denim jeans; a cliché of blue-collar masculinity and a simulation of the freedom and rebellion that car culture represented during his youth. In contrast, Beck’s female bandmates- Heap, Wilkenfeld, and Stone, epitomize chic urban glamour, and the physical beauty associated with conventional ideals of femininity.
Musically, on these records, Beck combines and contrasts masculine, aggressive, blues-based virtuosity with the drum machines and synthetic timbers of techno dance music that have stereotypically been gendered feminine. This juxtaposition in turn activates additional gender stereotypes that throw masculine “authenticity” into relief against feminine “artificiality” (see especially Cohen, 2001: 232-33). For instance, the romantic virtuoso’s trick of contrasting elements of physical strength, harshness, and ugliness with phrasing of refinement and beauty is a component of this gender sign-play, although Beck often employs this technique in a way that confounds the listener’s expectations as we will see. Heap, Stone, Wilkenfeld, and others possess sign-value as major artists in their respective genres, but their gender works to complement Beck’s guitar playing on a more fundamental semiotic level. In traditional conceptions of gender, women are typically characterized as the more sensitive, sensual, empathetic, and emotional of the sexes. A feminine presence in music based on extravagant guitar playing softens the elitist, Darwinist connotations of virtuosity, and helps to negate the way that technical playing, in Anya Peterson Royce’s words, “blunts the senses to the transformative qualities of a great performance” (Royce, 2000: 14). The sensual connotations of the feminine help the virtuoso “awaken the life of the senses and make us feel things physically as well as emotionally and intellectually” (Mitchell, 2004: 42); an effect that is now difficult for guitarists to achieve on their own considering how banal virtuosity has become in postmodernity . There is some irony in a masculine rock virtuoso needing help from women to be effective, and it is ironic that the technical aspects of guitar playing would become so mannered and crass that female stereotypes depicting women as extremely emotional would be called on to assist a male rock artist in maintaining his authenticity. This only underscores the inherent weakness and fragility of the masculine edifice.
Beck also employs stereotypes of women as seductive. Recognizing that seduction is absent from virtuosity in the postmodern he uses women to reclaim some of this mystique artificially through their sign value.2 For Beck this was an intelligent strategy considering how effective he has been in projecting the persona of the most inimitable, reclusive, and enigmatic rock guitarist. Seduction has always been a major component of his shtick even though he himself never became quite as seductive as Jimi Hendrix who, as Baudrillard might have said, seduced other players to the point of death, in that other artists sacrificed all of their identity in order to simulate him. Such was Hendrix’s influence.
If the virtuoso is a symbol and musical metaphor for various forms of political power, the transformative power of human agency, sexual power, and virility, then examining the nature of Beck’s collaborations with women reveals much about gender, sex, and power in postmodernity. To that end, Jean Baudrillard’s ideas concerning gender and identity, and the ways that sex is related to structures of power provide an ideal framework for analyzing Beck’s music. The present study is not an attempt to provide a comprehensive feminist reading of Jeff Beck’s music as such an endeavor would be beyond the scope of a single essay. Baudrillard’s forays into gender criticism are particularly relevant to this repertoire, as they deal with the effect of economics, technology, and the visual media on gender relations- areas that are vital for understanding Beck’s humor, virtuosity, and the nature of his work with women.
III. Baudrillard and the Economy of Sex and Gender
Baudrillard postulates that contemporary systems of representation that establish meaning and identity reflect the ideologies of capitalist production. The way that the linguistic subject in particular comes into being mirrors the way that the value of objects are established economically. In Baudrillard’s view economic value in our society is determined in an artificial manner. Theoretically the exchange value of an object is supposed to be derived from its use value. In actuality the use value and exchange value of an object are split into a dichotomous relationship that requires an artificial scale to establish a system of value and equivalence (Baudrillard 1981, 70-75). This sets the stage for virtually all aspects of language and culture to be dominated by a similar binary logic and the political system of economic value. The way that Saussure describes the relationship between signifiers and signifieds is one example; a binary identity/difference division is established and then given an arbitrary scheme of equivalence. Since postmodern society has largely done away with symbolic meanings and can only view objects in terms of their utility and economic value, the linguistic subject comes to be defined only by perpetual, ceaseless “needs” that must be fulfilled by objects, and the individual’s entire sense of self becomes dominated by want and desire. The subject’s worth, on the other hand, is determined only by their ability to produce. In this way humans are swallowed up into a world of consumer objects. Naturally this has serious consequences for women since binary thinking naturally comes to privilege one form over another establishing a presence/ absence, identity/difference dialectic that invariably comes to favor men who are granted subjecthood exclusively. The root cause of contemporary misogyny and sexism is therefore located deep within the economic structure of society. Since, in Baudrillard’s view, subjecthood is defined by ceaseless needs and the fulfillment of desire, and the subject’s faculty for pleasure only functions as a productive force, the politics of female sexual pleasure, the body, and jouissance assumes its full meaning.
Baudrillard argues that in our current age of simulation subjects and objects are divorced almost entirely from use-value, exchange-value, or any real world referent and circulate as signs that are defined only in terms of their difference from others. All signs and commodities carry positive connotations because negatives cannot be permitted in a consumer society (Baudrillard, 1975: 35-45). People too are released into this system of objects and acquire this same positive charge. Men and women become increasingly similar in this system because they both become subjects defined by needs. Naturally, in such an environment, accumulation signifies power. It should be noted that Baudrillard did not see the effect of late capitalism on gender relations as positive. He thought that human relationships should be unique between two individuals, fully reciprocal, and ambivalent – meaning that they are not about accumulating power and forced to abide by artificial scales that determine value.
It is within this social framework of gender relations that Beck and his female collaborators have been composing and performing. Subjects are defined only in terms of sexual and consumer needs, power results from accumulation, and women struggle for genuine subjecthood but are drawn into a masculine social order that can only conceive of sex in terms of economics and production. Since all values become positive and masculine, the world is emptied of objects of desire as everyone is now a desiring subject (Grace, 2000: 39-44). An analysis of representative works that Beck created with women lends musical credence and materiality to Baudrillard’s observations.
IV. Musical Analysis
In many cases Beck uses his virtuosity to poke fun at postmodern sexual relations and gender essentialism. This gives his guitar playing a measure of individuality since rock virtuosity rarely employs humor; such an approach being more common to virtuoso practices of the past. For instance, a number of songs from the early 2000s feature female voices that are employed for texture and sound effects satirizing the idea of people (and women in particular) being defined by their use-value and productive capabilities, and becoming objects of accumulation. “Seasons” (Jeff 2003) is a particularly comic example, a study in extreme contrasts and intensity of affect. Here a female voice with an exaggerated Brooklyn accent continuously recites the alliteration “play me in the winter, play me in the summer, play me in the autumn” etc. over a heavy driving groove before abruptly dropping out as the mood changes to one of minor-keyed contemplation; particularly well-suited to Beck’s expressive guitar soloing.3 Here the feminine presence is robotic, grotesque, inorganic, and mundane while Beck’s masculine virtuosity provides the music’s tenderness, vulnerability, and beauty; all characteristics that are commonly stereotyped as feminine.
On another track from the same album, “Hot Rod Honeymoon,” whimsical dialogue spoken by women in old hot rod movies is accompanied by the musical simulacrum of a Beach Boys tribute band and Beck’s gritty slide-guitar playing (itself a deliberately shallow simulation of the Mississippi-Delta style).4 Beck juxtaposes musical signifiers of conventional masculinity (kustom kulture, and Delta blues) with a presentation of women as generic celluloid icons. The atmosphere of cinematic artificiality binds women to mechanical production and the system of consumer objects.
The song that perhaps best symbolizes sex and gender within a masculine economic order, however, is “Dirty Mind” from You Had It Coming (2000), the most witty and humorous of the music discussed here. The track, while primarily instrumental, is based on ostinato looped samples of Imogen Heap breathing and moaning as if experiencing intense sexual pleasure. It is the perfect musical representation of sexuality in a world where people relate more to objects than to each other and imbues the music with a cybernetic, Stepford quality.
In combining musical signifiers of the human and the mechanical, and blurring their distinction, Beck’s music recalls a point made by Jim Samson who states, in Virtuosity and the Musical Work, that “unlike vocal music instrumental music has a material base that must be humanized and socialized to become music. However it can resist this process allowing the mechanical to stand in opposition not just to the material but to the human through the reification of technique (Samson, 2003: 85). Dirty Mind sounds as though it was only partially humanized from a material base.
In the first part of the song Beck aggressively strums a grotesque, funk-influenced b-minor riff that is animated with tremolo-bar bends that make the bass note sound flatulent. When juxtaposed against the female vocal ostinato the guitar figure creates an effect that is both robotic and organic evoking the physical awkwardness of copulation as a biological function (0:06 – 1:00). Here, Beck creates ugliness in a way not unlike that of previous virtuosi like Paganini who recognized that the creation of unattractive instrumental sounds can be novel and dramatic (Rosen, 1998: 492).
In order to intensify the primal sexual energy of the song the music never modulates from b-minor but achieves variety through the use of different syncopated and overbearing funk-based rhythmic patterns (generated by a drum machine), as well as different melodic themes on the guitar. After the first minute of music, for example, “Dirty Mind” is dominated by a motive of a much different character from that of the opening riff but is similarly based on a human/mechanical dichotomy that satirizes sex as economic production (1:01-1:27). Although essentially a straightforward, pentatonic Chicago-blues lick, the lyrical vocal-like quality of blues guitar is exaggerated through the use of blooming dynamics, and an unusually intense but controlled vibrato on the bent notes. Beck’s articulation and phrasing gives the melodic figure a sensual passionate character. Beck also shapes the phrase through excessive use of the wah-wah pedal that deliberately makes the motive sound mannered. He seems to be playing upon sentiments expressed by B.B. King and Muddy Waters that effect pedals are antithetical to the organicism and sincerity of blues expression because they make the guitar sound robotic (King, 1996: 241). As Muddy Waters put it so well: “If you’ve got to have big amplifiers, and wah-wahs, and equipment to make your guitar say different things, well hell, you can’t play no blues” (Molenda, 2007:91).
Beck’s guitar solo is more of a witty, capricious simulation of jouissance than a display of masculine power, strength, and aggression as one typically finds in the heavy metal guitar playing discussed by Walser. Beck’s solo, for example, is not even the song’s climax, which actually comes at the end of the track as the music builds in density with multiple layers of drum patterns and guitar melodies. Beck’s solo functions ostensibly a representation of female pleasure recalling Baudrillard’s comment that “The dream of love would be to become a woman. The profound fantasy of physical and mental love is not one of possession but of metamorphosis, of sexual transfiguration. At the high point of lovemaking we are haunted by the enigma of the opposite sex” (Baudrillard, 1990b: 127). The solo does, however, betray the masculine coding of a sexual economy. Beck’s playing is inventive, flirtatious, challenging the listener to follow the unexpected twists and turns of his phrasing, but it is all about the workings of desire and not passion, neither in the general sense nor in the individual sense, as one finds in blues playing. Instead, Beck links sexual energy with the logic of accumulation. His licks, as Baudrillard would say, are a “stockpiling of language” (Baudrillard  1990a: 46). The solo unfolds as a catalog of accumulated guitar styles and techniques. We listen to Beck’s playing as a series of unfolding musical events rather than a melodic narrative; a manner of soloing that typically distinguishes British rock playing from that of African-American blues styles. For example, Beck begins by enticing the listener with tuneful Delta slide playing followed immediately by Chicago-blues licks of a passionate longing character with exaggerated string bending and intense vibrato (2:22-2:28). Later, startling wah-inflected diminished double-stop bends scream out in a higher register before being punctuated by a descending b-minor pentatonic scale with a sensual quivering vibrato on each note (2:29-2:33). The most intriguing phrase in the solo, however, appears at 2:34 and again at 2:41, a fleeting, disjunct, skipping passage based on an open ‘e’ pedal point. Licks based on rapid slurring between fretted and open pitches were a hallmark of 1950s rockabilly playing, which Beck cites as a primary influence. Here, however, the technique sounds like mechanical noise or computer generated gibberish and adds much to the natural/artificial, sexual/mechanical dichotomy of the song. The solo is a metaphorical orgasm of the power of economic accumulation.
“Dirty Mind,” like much of Beck’s work with women, reflects a number of other postmodern ideas concerning sex and gender, most notably Baudrillard’s contention that sex seems to be everywhere except in sex (Baudrillard, 1975: 3). It is just a sign that can be summoned at will and attached to any product, or used freely as a novelty or point of color in any art medium- a contextless signifier that never ceases to attract attention. Baudrillard observed that in our pornographic, media-driven culture women’s sexuality is portrayed as a “devouring, gaping voracity,” a well of desire that never runs dry. This logic inevitably leads to the female sex becoming a metaphor for insatiable consumerism. He writes: “Sexual liberation, like that of the productive forces, is potentially limitless. It demands profusion to come true, a ‘sexually affluent society.’ It can no more tolerate a scarcity of sexual goods than of material goods. Now, this utopian certainty and availability can only be incarnated in the female sex. This is why in this society everything-objects, goods, services, relations of all types will be feminized, sexualized in a feminine fashion” (Baudrillard, 1990b: 26).
Beck’s solo links accumulation with women’s sexuality in this way. It simultaneously represents masculinity defending itself in a sea of feminine musical signifiers (sexual vocal sounds, dance rhythms and synthetic timbers stereotyped as female/pop) while depicting a female orgasm and sex as he imagines it. Beck underscores Baudrillard’s idea that “female jouissance is only the ironic ecstasy of male desire (Baudrillard  1990a: 127).
V. Baudrillard’s Conception of Gender, Signification and Value
Like all virtuosos, today’s rock players possess political sign value, however, the structures of power with which they are bound are both similar to and different from those associated with Paganini, Liszt, and Rubenstein. During the Romantic era interest in virtuoso players was stimulated by optimism, faith that humanity was progressing toward a better future, and emanicpatory social change (Meyer, 1989: 210). It is debatable whether those qualities are present in the postmodern social fabric to a degree high enough for virtuosos to symbolize them. Without hopes and dreams (beyond economics and material goods) the virtuoso loses the basis of their power and political significance. With no faith in the power of human agency there is little left for the virtuoso to signify except the economic- to represent positivity, the productivity of desire, and the productive power of the subject.
Romantic, modern, and postmodern virtuosos were, and continue to be, wrapped up in masculine constructs of power and control. In discussing gender relations, Baudrillard observed that “the masculine has always been but a residual, secondary, and fragile formation, one that must be defended by retrenchments, institutions, and artifices etc. (Baudrillard  1990a: 16). Virtuosity has played a role in defending the masculine fortress with its emphasis on authenticity, revealing emotional truths, and the obsession with greatness.
One may have expected that a “guitar hero” like Beck would treat his work with female artists as a mere novelty, creating music that would throw “feminine” pop artificiality into relief against his “masculine” guitar ingenuity and technical mastery. Instead these recordings reflect more nuanced thinking, and reveal the dynamics of power and gender in the postmodern era.
VI. Virtuosity, Gender, and Power
As previously explained, Baudrillard believed that in late capitalism the form and structure of language (including music, I believe) imposes a form of social control by mirroring the structure of economic value and processes of exchange. It should also be noted that Baudrillard felt that this social and linguistic structure is totalitarian in nature because there is no way to reverse or challenge it, or, at the very least, the system is enshrined in myths that make it seem inevitable and perfect. When power, in the conventional sense, cannot be subverted it disappears because power relations are based on challenges (Grace, 2000: 67-71). Obviously Baudrillard’s theory has enormous implications for gender politics. If there is no way to reverse any aspect of late capitalism then the masculine logic of production has eradicated all feminine sensibilities, and the way that men and women used to challenge, seduce, and transform one another must be simulated as both genders are now part of an economy of sex. The masculine connotations surrounding virtuosity and rock authenticity are a symptom of simulated power.
During the nineteenth century, virtuosity was effective and highly admired, at least in part, because political power was locatable and ruled by relations of violence and force. Paganini and Liszt, for example, achieved incredible success in German and Austrian cities where political, social, and economic freedoms were especially restrained. Now, however, power is harder to locate, a phantom presence that cannot be directly confronted (i.e. how does one challenge a corporation? Petition a vast bureaucracy? Or effect political change?). Masculine power is now a field that neutralizes and appropriates challenges rather than confronting them with force. As power becomes vague and undefined nostalgia demands its simulation (Baudrillard, 1983: 44). Again, the virtuoso is a manifestation of this longing for visible, tangible signs of power, although this is only one small aspect of Beck’s collaborations with female artists.
Jim Samson notes that virtuosos reflect a natural quest for autonomy in the way that they turn the spotlight away from the musical work while focusing it on themselves (Samson, 2003: 74). The music that Beck has made with women often employed this stratagem. On recordings he will restrain his soloing in order to highlight the women’s interpretative abilities, while in concert performances he foregrounds, not only the musicality of Stone, Heap, and Wilkenfeld, but also their physical attractiveness. This sets the stage for Beck to steal back the limelight in a duel to see who can raise the level of emotional intensity the highest and most captivate the audience (For a visual as well as musical example of the way Beck interacts with women in performance see the DVD Performing This Week Live at Ronnie Scott’s, Eagle Vision 2009). While it may seem like Beck is only setting up his band as bait for the male gaze, the virtuosity and musicality of the performers eclipses their physical beauty in a way reminiscent of Sister Rosetta Tharp. The impression conveyed on the viewer/listener is that of a genuine challenge or duel between equals rather than artists “reasserting the value of domesticated femininity,” which one often finds in popular music (Waksman, 1999: 60). Retaining conventional signifiers of femininity was a way of showing that women do not have to be tomboys in order to be taken seriously; a common criticism of rock well articulated by Norma Coates (1997: 50-65), and in line with feminists who believe that women should not relinquish a traditionally feminine image until they achieve full subject-hood (Braidotti, 1989: 89-99). The impression of these performances as musical/intellectual rather than sexual is reinforced by the way Beck downplays his own sexuality/virility. Although the electric guitar is typically considered a technological phallus (Waksman, 1999: 247), Beck’s handling of the instrument is more functional than chic, with the guitar’s body worn high on his chest and the neck oddly vertical. His right hand technique is also un-sexy; bare fingers rather than a plectrum, with the heel of the hand near the strings more like a Renaissance lutenist than a rock star.
In another, more sophisticated strategy, Beck’s explorations of power and gender are animated by simulations of games between the sexes where the masculine and the feminine each strives to prove its value to the other and to outmatch the other in games of passion beyond sexual desire. An attractive example is Beck’s guitar/vocal duet with Jos Stone on their rendition of “I Put a Spell on You,” Screaming Jay Hawkins’s campy pop blues hit from 1956 (Thompson, 2010). Their interpretation plays upon Baudrillard’s ideas concerning the importance of seduction to gender relations. He wrote: “In the end the greatest singularity is to be found not on the side of orgasm, but in this more extraordinary rapport of seduction. It alone leads to this strange situation: making of the opposite sex a destiny, making it not a final object (of orgasm) but a fatal object (of death and metamorphosis). Because seduction plays on a register incomparable to anatomical or psychological difference. Because it pushes the game of difference to the point of challenge and absolute attraction, to a vertigo where it is no longer a question of who comes nine times more than the other because it is a vertigo from raising the stakes and not from accounting”(Baudrillard  1990a, 127). It is in this way that Beck and Stone engage in musical role-play; the guitar virtuoso is displayed as an irreducible force that cannot be reversed or countered against the feminine as a symbol of seduction and challenge. However, both radiate the same desire, positivity, and productive value of subjects in a sexual economy.5
The setting of this musical play of gender signs is a slow minor blues with scoring (bass, drums, piano) that largely remains faithful to the original song but with a string orchestra added for sentimentality. The strings also invoke nostalgia for the golden age of pop crooners (Sinatra, Crosby etc.). The instrumentation produces a stylized atmosphere that sets a foundation for Beck and Stone to revel in simulation and the production of an artificial authenticity.
Jos Stone’s singing is passionate and dynamic but calculated, authentic in style but inorganic in the sense that one never gets the impression that there is anything at stake for the lyric persona. Seduction and possessiveness, the song’s primary theme, seems largely absent. Her interpretation epitomizes what Baudrillard refers to as the productivity of desire, “physical and emotional desire annexed to production eradicating all seduction and meaning (Grace, 2000: 73).
Stone is unique among white vocalists in her ability to sound indistinguishable from a mature African-American blues or soul diva- from the power and richness of her voice, to her accents, articulations, pronunciations, and her ornamentation. Her approach to performance is a near-perfect simulation of a style to which she has no cultural connection or lived experience.6
Like so many contemporary pop artists, Stone’s strategy is to so overwhelm the listener with equal parts of passion, mannerism, musicality, and simulation so that they forget that the realities that originally inspired the music have disappeared. The original circumstances and context of the music are superfluous to one’s ability to master a style which justifies its simulation. Stone, in other words, is singing as a sign, a product, a hyperreal counterpart to the female singers of yesteryear who functioned as “icons of conspicuous consumption” (Waksman, 1999: 60). Baudrillard was quick to observe that “In this society everything-objects, goods, services, relations of all types will be feminized, sexualized in a feminine fashion (Baudrillard  1990a: 26). This is the principle that runs like a continuous thread through all of Beck’s work with women.
For his part, Beck defies gender stereotypes and the listener’s expectations by positioning the female as the source of physical power and strength rather than his guitar playing. Eschewing large, powerful stack amplifiers in favor of the intimate sound of a small valve recording amp (Thompson, 2010: 68), Beck’s tone is thin, and saturated with reverb to impart an arty elegance, and to create a haunting effect. In his solos and fills Beck continues to role-plays as the submissive sensitive partner. His virtuosity consists of expressive dynamics and sensual articulations rather than speed and strength. Beck’s phrasing, however, is too finely wrought to be ambivalent; it draws attention to the fact that his understated playing is part of a game.
Beck’s contribution to the song’s expression of desire can be heard in his solo from 1:27 to 1:45, which occupies no more than a single pass of the 12-bar blues progression. Of particular note is the way in which Beck creates tension by emphasizing the 7th of the chords he is playing over, and by leaving every phrase open and unresolved. There is a chic sense of emotional restraint to his phrasing that suddenly explodes in a gesture of abandon in the pinning blue-notes and fast legato flourishes at the end of the solo. What makes these gestures of desire seem “produced,” however, is that way that Beck’s phrases are too symmetrical in length and breadth, too evenly measured to evoke the sense of something being at stake. The dramatic ugliness of the sudden and exaggerated diving portamenti on the tonic pitch with the tremolo bar (1:38-1:39) is a rhetorical device of intense longing and crushing melancholy, but in this context it has the air of one going through the motions of pathos; a stock gesture employed in a game of signs.
Just as Stone simulates the singing of classic African-American blues and soul singers, Beck simulates horn phrasing. Although imitating saxophone players has been a hallmark of electric blues playing from T-bone Walker in the 1940s to B.B. King in the 1950s and 1960s, Beck takes this tradition into the hyperreal. The intensity with which the melodic lines are sustained, the guttural growls, his seamless legato, all mimic the saxophone to an unparalleled degree. But what is most horn-like are the short, snappy phrases that imitate the rhythmic patterns of quarrelsome, sassy speech with each short quip of notes ending unresolved, with a choked nasal honk. Beck’s motivation for simulating saxophone phrasing, like that of other electric guitarists, is the desire to make a percussive plucked instrument breathe in a more palpable way, to become more like a human voice. However, with Beck, what one hears is a marvel of technique and not human organicism. Beck’s phrasing and approach is harmonious with the song, but captivates through simulation rather than by creating a sense of inevitability through pure melodic invention. It is noteworthy that Beck chose, in a solo filled with distinct and novel phrasing, to end the solo with an emotional climax based on a British blues cliché; its Anglo origins easily identified by the forceful full-step bend on the 7th scale-degree followed by fast legato melismas. The phrase succeeds in emphasizing the artificiality and stylization of his rendition.
“I Put a Spell on You” appears on an album that reflects Beck’s expressed desire to redefine himself as more than just a rock guitarist, to become a “serious” artist. He claims to have been inspired by a desire to realize fully the sheer melodic beauty of the album’s material, and to express a higher state of consciousness. He speaks of wanting to relinquish the need to be a controlling force and to let the music speak for itself (Thompson, 2010: 65). In other words, a guitar hero driven by the masculine will was trying to transform himself into more of a receptive spiritual seeker. A female presence on this album was meant to signify receptivity, and Beck’s willingness to cross boundaries in search of new experiences. But one must consider whether Beck’s skill at simulation and his commitment to finding new expressive possibilities on the instrument truly achieves such a goal. Does Beck’s more restrained and delicate approach to soloing reflect genuine transformation as a result of interacting with the feminine? His subdued playing on “I Put a Spell on You” seems unfulfilling. The listener is left feeling like Beck missed an opportunity to stretch out on this recording, not for the purpose of tasteless, phallic, showboating, but to demonstrate genuine receptivity in his improvising, and to interact with Stone in a more meaningful way. One wonders why Beck’s collaborations with women always have a semi-serious, tongue-in-cheek quality. Beck’s approach lends credence to Baudrillard’s contention that the masculine and the feminine interact but never fully transform one another. It could be argued that the female artist has no real subjecthood in this music, that their presence comes entirely from their connection to Beck who bestows them with value in an economy of sex. It could be argued, however, that if Beck wished “to tap into the mythology that the electric guitar is a beacon of energy that loosens social constraints” (Waksman 1999, 53) (in the service of feminism in this case) he must use humor, must indulge in witty sign-play with gender or risk being caught up in the conventions and stereotypes that he is satirizing.
In his work with female artists Jeff Beck was clearly playing with gender stereotypes in popular music and was not simply inserting virtuosity into pop songs as a spice or flash of color the way that Michael Jackson’s guitarists did or the way that Prince and John Mayer do when they make a show of Hendrix’s influence on their playing. Within this musical setting of rock guitar (coded masculine) techno dance (coded feminine), and female voices, a melding of elements each with connotations of either authenticity or insincerity, Beck found the ideal context to play, not only with the otherness of the feminine, but the ambiguous place women have occupied within the subject/object, human/not human, presence/absence dialectic. By appropriating the feminine, traditionally considered antithetical to rock virtuosity, Beck questions the relevance of this artificial boundary at a time when masculine power structures are residual or diffuse.
In this music Beck demonstrates how virtuosity in postmodernity is governed by a logic of accumulation always in search of new appropriations with which to renew itself and maintain its relevance. A large measure of virtuosity in the postmodern is how skillfully esoteric, novel, or incongruous elements can be combined. Here, the feminine functions as the ultimate test of a guitarist’s skill at appropriation as nothing could be more antithetical to what the rock virtuoso signifies. Bringing diverse elements together in his playing also helps Beck relate to an audience that defines itself only in terms of needs, and their productive potential.
Baudrillard believed that “all the drama of sexual difference is on the man; all the charm of difference is on the woman” (Baudrillard, 1990b: 128). Beck’s collaborations with women make use of this idea in the way that they nostalgically simulate games of challenge and seduction that have long been absent in current gender relations. Although this music often humorously plays against gender stereotypes, Beck employs women to acquire greater connotations of sensitivity and artistry, to ignite more passion, and to create a more vivid sense of emotion in his music. One could view this as a more sophisticated way of “getting a bit of other.” But when one considers that the virtuoso is always striving to achieve the ultimate display of virility, a better explanation for Beck’s work with women is that he was attempting to gain a greater degree of mastery over the “reversibility of sex” (Baudrillard  1990a: 128), that is understanding sex and gender from both a masculine and feminine perspective, which Baudrillard considered the supreme climax.
About the Author
Charles Mueller is a professional guitarist and studio musician in Portland Oregon. He earned his Ph.D. in historical musicology from Florida State University, and holds a Masters Degree in Music Teaching from Portland State University. His dissertation concerned the music of England’s Goth subculture during the 1980s, and his subsequent scholarship has been published in La revue des musiques populaires, Symposium: The Journal of the College Music Society, Gothic Studies, and by Ashgate and Cambridge University Press.
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1 – In most of his interviews with guitar-orientated magazines Beck has discussed his view of blues as a restrictive genre, and his disdain for blues “purists.” Steve Vai recalls Beck publicly making rather extreme and disparaging comments about blues music at the Crossroads charity blues festival in 2005. See Alan Paul’s interview with Vai in Guitar World, April 2005: 96.
2 – When I say that guitar virtuosity is no longer seductive I am referring to the fact that the virtuoso’s bag of tricks is commonplace. On the internet one can find a video explaining in detail any given technique or aspect of music theory imaginable, not to mention the hundreds of books, CDs, DVDs available for purchase promising to unlock the secrets of any player’s tone and style. The instrument is now devoid of any mysteries.
3 – Beck admitted to journalist Barry Cleveland in an interview that his original intention was to use a real Brooklyn phone operator for the vocal parts but ended up using a radio/television voice-over artist instead. See Guitar Player (September 2003: 53-58).
4 – Beck stated in the same issue of Guitar Player [endnote 3] that in order to circumvent obvious copyright restrictions, a voice-over artist also spoke the dialogue that was extracted from “bad hot rod films” for this song. Quite fitting for music based on simulation and parody.
5 – Although Beck may have used Les Paul and Mary Ford as his model in his collaborations with women, the 1950s duo interacted in a much different way. They expressed modern innovation rather than nostalgia for the past, and were not afloat in a sea of hyperreal representations. Their humorous virtuosic duets played on the patriarchy of American society at the time and did not radiate sexual energy.
6 – It could be argued, of course, that the bands of the British invasion, and the British blues scene of the 1960s had no lived connection to black music either. However the majority of these artists tried to interpret black American music in their own way and build upon it to make a sub-style of their own (which is how many African-American scholars, such as Amiri Baraka, view British blues). Stone’s entire approach, however, is to become a hyperreal copy or simulation.