Augenmusik

Jonathan Bellman

Sara, who heard about this from a “women who write about Rock” listserv, forwards a link to a page from playboy.com about the ten hottest classical babes, you should excuse me. I suspect the women themselves didn’t have anything to do with this; Hilary Hahn’s austere portrait and professional demeanor (check her web presence, signature repertoire etc.) make her a rather odd choice for this kind of idiotic whipped-cream piece. One wonders whether any of the women here were consulted. The characterization of Anne-Sophie Mutter as a “MILF” makes me want to flutter my crinoline petticoats in titillation, of course…
Seriously, how abjectly moronic is it possible to get? What kind of a dim bulb would imagine that this is where the crossover will happen, that interest in these women’s music (Hilary Hahn’s Schoenberg, e.g.) will increase if we think about them, y’know, like that? Of course, art music—like all music—has a substantial component of love and lust in it; it’s the product of human beings. That doesn’t mean that a performer’s plunging neckline increases interest or appreciation for it, though. It’s more like the ultimate
I remember reading that one or two of these—or other? can’t recall—young female artists did some semi-nude photo shoots. OK, if you want it that way; we can make all the arguments we want about assertive women being comfortable with their own bodies, with their own sexuality, with their own marketing strategies based on any angle they can use in a highly competitive entertainment (word used intentionally) market, and so on. Conversely, we can trumpet our resentment at prudish patriarchy, the male “gaze,” prurience, and the gender roles that lead to women’s finding themselves in these kinds of situations. We can also point to Barbara Stozzi, superb Italian Baroque performer and composer (and, some might say, luscious babe), who clearly—as the “entertainment” for groups of well-educated and discerning gentlemen, or so I recall reading—played this side of the line herself. We could. We can talk ourselves into damned near anything.
Tell you what, though: people thus marketed (I suppose male performers doing the beefcake thing might fall into the same category)—and again, I don’t know that these women had anything to do with their inclusion on this page—have no right to complain about being regarded as an object, not being taken seriously as a professional, or being pigeonholed by attitudes toward your gender. Youthful indiscretion or not, if one becomes a household word by being the classical musician who strips, it’s hard to imagine reconceiving the person as a serious artist.
Is this the current Playboy equivalent of their old automobile/hi-fi/bachelor pad/gorgeous women view of the Finer Things in the space age? The old assumption was—as far as I understood it, as a kid—was that the Finer Things (all of them) were there to be appreciated and enjoyed. So, sure, you got the pictures of nude women (not lost on me, at that age), but you also had serious interviews (Nabakov, John Lennon etc.), Ken Purdy’s car articles, high-end stereo equipment, Jean Shepherd’s sidesplittingly funny memoirs of this youth, and so on. It all was of a piece (er…so to speak).
This current webpage aspires to the classical peepshow. Does cheap really work for this artform and market?

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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9 Responses to Augenmusik

  1. Lisa Hirsch says:

    You’re probably thinking of Lara St. John, who appears on one of her albums photographed nude from the waist up with a strategically placed Strad.

  2. ben wolfson says:

    Three sopranos, six violinists. Bah.
    I recall an article about risqué and otherwise “pop”-like album covers in classical music, mostly concerning the agency that designed them, in some German paper or other from 2006. But I can’t remember which agency or paper or even who the musicians they mentioned were, so this comment won’t be very informative, I think.

  3. Sara Heimbecker says:

    Thanks for taking this on, Jonathan. This link was posted in a thread about Sarah Pallin and her representation in the press.
    I noticed a couple of things about the women on the list. First, the head shots are all nice, interesting photos. Nothing at all like the Lara St. John photo which elided with Calvin Klein’s heroin-chic, crack-basement, kiddie-porn ads from the mid-1990s. One of the men on the “women who write about rock” listserv said that the women and their labels bear some responsibility here because they are promoting themselves as sex icons. I don’t see that here. They are certainly not tarting it up like a Brittany Spears or Christina Aguilera.
    The other interesting thing about the list is that they are all sopranos or violinists (with the exception of the one oboist). Where are the cellists? (Ofra Harnoy immediately comes to mind, but I’m dating myself.) There are a number of very beautiful and interesting women from every section of the orchestra. Why only the stereotypically “feminine” instruments here?
    It seems like the person compiling the list was either playing into some male fantasy about female musicians (but where are the flautists?) or, more likely, they just did a quick web search.
    One of the exercises I do with my rock and roll students is to have them name a butt-ugly female rock star. After thinking for quite a while they usually name Janis Joplin, or if they are really hip, Mama Cass. They cannot name a contemporary female rock star that isn’t generally attractive. The male rock stars that are ugly are so numerous that we stop naming before we run out of potential candidates.
    Grunge rocker Courtney Love had discussions with her band about how they would sell more records if she had a nose job, and when she’s not completely stoned (and not talking) she’s actually very attractive. But she’s had to answer to some criticism: Did she really write those songs? Did she really play the guitar parts? These are questions that her male counterparts usually don’t have to answer.
    Frankly, my reaction to the sex-kitten head shot on the classical album is the same: Can she really play well, or does she just look good? We (cellists) generally dismissed Ofra Harnoy in the late 80s as all package and no content, perhaps unfairly.
    What Playboy has done, however, seems to go a step further and discounts their talent altogether with the cheap puns (hot asp?) and crude slang.

  4. Fëanor says:

    Hi! I haven’t checked out the Playboy link (yet!) but I remember they had several issues years ago with this or that classical musician. Wrote a small piece about the phenomenon myself a few months ago, if you are interested:
    http://jostamon.blogspot.com/2007/09/classic-beauties.html
    While it’s nice to see a beautiful woman, I really don’t see how these images encourage anyone to develop an appreciation for classical music.

  5. boxplayer says:

    “One of the exercises I do with my rock and roll students is to have them name a butt-ugly female rock star.”
    No one came up with Beth Ditto or The Magic Numbers? I teach some pop/rock and am constantly bewildered by students’ narrow breadth of knowledge…

  6. David Cavlovic says:

    Back in the early ’80s, Anna Moffo appeared nude in a European magazine. If any one needed to be turned-off opera, those pictures would do it. If you really wanted to hurl, you could check out the same European magazine which also specialized in obtaining piccies of famous people nude, usually at nude beaches. Including Mr. and Mrs. von Karajan. Seriously, that was enough to encourage chastity for ever!

  7. Thomasina says:

    On the other hand, as Amanda Ameer over at Life’s a Pitch points out, some of the actual descriptions for these musicians are accurate and well-written. As far as the words go, Playboy has managed to surpass a lot of the clichéd and often meaningless PR/marketing fluff that’s out there.
    Amanda quotes the blurb for Hilary Hahn (which she would since she represents her). So I’ll use Leila Josefowicz instead:
    “Who she is: American violin prodigy out to prove her early success wasn’t just because of her looks. | This one-time model made a splash as a teenager with a recording of Tchaikovsky’s showboating Violin Concerto, but her commitment to new music shows she can do more than whip the Romantic warhorses. Some nasty reviews have resulted, but Josefowicz soldiered on and manages to maintain a jet-setting career with a young baby in tow. She’s moved her repertoire beyond the Russian and German giants and can be seen sawing away on an electric violin in the live productions of John Adams’ “Dharma at Big Sur.”
    Compare that to the usual blah-inducing phrases: beautiful…winning hearts of audiences worldwide…thrilling audiences with brilliance… (Only slightly paraphrased from real publicity blurbs for Ms J.)
    (Life’s a Pitch post: http://tinyurl.com/6o8etw)

  8. TTU Theory says:

    Don’t ask how I stumbled upon it, but there’s an entire website devoted to “the hottest women in classical music,” http://www.beautyinmusic.com. They have a wide variety of instrumentalists (including Ondists!). Ofra Harnoy appears near the end of three pages of cellists.
    Here, too, no really racy pictures–mostly publicity photos that you could find elsewhere. I think the site’s choice of URL is telling: if you Google “beauty in music” (something a student of aesthetics might be inclined to do) this site is the first thing that appears.

  9. Yuri Broze says:

    I think that any popularization of art music is fundamentally a good thing — we’re fighting a battle of recognition at this point, and not one of respect.
    Or, Sarah Palin needs to KNOW about the Bush Doctrine first from news clips, ads, online blog rants, etc. The problem was, she didn’t have a clue.
    Playboy’s fanbase is surely unaware of Shoenberg. Now, they’ve at least heard the name!

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