On Tag-singing and Gender

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bshop book coverThe end of September marked the twentieth anniversary of the completion of my first book. It was another 18 months in production, so we’re a way off the two-decade milestone for publication, but in terms of the shape of my life, the submission of the manuscript is the more vivid memory.

When it came out, the two chapters that got the biggest response from within the barbershop community were those dealing with, respectively, gender and tag-singing. And there are ways in which both of those dimensions of barbershop culture have changed in the interim, and also ways in which they haven’t.

On the face of it, gender would appear to have seen the biggest changes, with the embracing of both mixed barbershop ensembles, and the increasing presence of men’s and women’s ensembles at the same events – whether competing against each other (as in the Barbershop Harmony Society, BinG!, and IABS), or in parallel contests with separate rankings (as in the European championships and SNOBS/Northern Lights joint conventions). My chapter title of ‘Separate but Equal?’ would be less of an immediately obvious choice today.

Tag-singing, meanwhile, seems more timeless in the way it organises singers into little huddles in corners and stairwells to harmonise together. The primary visible difference from the end of the last century when I was first documenting the practice is the glow of small screens as people pull up sheet music from online collections to sing from.

And I wonder to what extent that actually represents quite a profound change: one used occasionally to see people pulling out small printed tag collections from a back pocket, but it was rather felt to be cheating. Certainly the capacity to be able to both teach and learn by ear was a key determinant in establishing status and pecking order in that niche social world. Online tag sites have not only drastically increased the number of tags in play, but have also changed the role and status of music literacy in tapping into that resource.

One of the things that I only considered in passing in my book was to what extent the practice of tag-singing is itself gendered. Whilst groups in which I experienced it as participant-observer during the research process often included women (and not just me!), they were more frequent at men’s events than at women’s. And tag-singing at women’s events was often led by men too back then – where ‘led’ betokens both instigating the activity and taking responsibility for choosing and teaching what to sing.

I think that balance has shifted in the interim. There are still interesting negotiations of informal leadership/followership roles within tag-singing groups, but, particularly in the younger generation, there is less of an assumption that men have inherently better musicianship. (I think national cultures as well as age may be relevant here too: I realise I am implicitly contrasting observed behaviours in older Americans with German youth chorus members and there are multiple lines of cultural difference that may be salient.)

Twenty years ago, social singing at British women’s events revolved more around singing whole songs, in larger groups. These would often be formed by a nucleus of people from the same chorus, but would welcome others who also knew the song to join in. This was consistent with the general prioritising of chorus over quartet in LABBS, which I did discuss in some detail as part of a gendered culture difference. Whilst I think that the overall mistrust of quartetting which I documented back then has to a significant extent dissipated, the generalisations about gendered habits in social singing still largely hold true in British barbershop.

Mind you, the appearance of this difference is probably exacerbated by gendered differences in tag-singing behaviour. When I have found myself singing tags with a group of women, it is nearly always tucked away from the wider shared social spaces, and thus much less visible as part of the overall social world. Mixed groups do this too of course (and, presumably, all-male groups, though I don’t get to be part of those). It’s a way of getting a bit of sonic privacy so you can tune into each other without having to get tangled up in other music or just general hubbub.

Whereas if you hear a screaming tag cutting through the general afterglow, it is pretty much always from a group of young men (and/or middle-aged men who established their barbershop personas in youth and want to stay in with the young crowd). In much the same way that the people driving fast cars with loud engines and powerful sound systems round residential neighbourhoods are invariably young men. It’s a form of sonic territory-marking that those in whom the testosterone is flowing generously engage in as a form of masculine dominance display.

And as masculine dominance displays go, screaming tags are much more to my taste than dangerous driving. Indeed, I’ll happily join in with them (as a middle-aged barbershopper who wants to stay in with the young crowd), though I prefer to do so away from the main social space of the afterglow.

Because I have seen the looks on the faces of women when a blare of trumpeting overtones blasts through the careful spatial negotiation of sound groups in an afterglow, and it is a look of something between exasperation and disdain. If tag-singing is indeed less integral to the culture of women’s barbershop than men’s, it could be because it is associated with these experiences of inconsiderate phonic manspreading into women’s social spaces.

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