When discussing Led Zeppelin’s gendered social impact, David Kirby of the Washington Post quotes Bebe Buell, as saying, “I don't know if the music was designed to give boys power and sexual prowess, but I do know that when boys listened to it, they would become extremely cocky and full of themselves" (Kirby). Susan Fast problematizes this representation by pointing out that, “the way in which popular music is consumed/interpreted is dynamic, ever changing, depending on the individual” (Fast 251).
Susan Fast critiques academic discourse on Led Zeppelin’s first public image, which is that of masculine rock stars. Fast goes on to point out that many of the articles and books written about Led Zeppelin’s music have been inaccurate and the readings have been unsupported by textual evidence (249-257). The purpose of Fast’s analysis is to lay a foundation for an alternate reading of Led Zeppelin’s music, public image(s), and social impact. Fast’s first point relates to the ungendered appeal of the rock star as a cultural icon: a “fantasy [involving] being powerful and attractive” (258). Fast is de-gendering the appeal of the rock star, positing that any individual can be inspired by Led Zeppelin’s music.
While Led Zeppelin’s primary public image (that of powerful, masculine rock icons) has been viewed negatively in previous academic discourse, Fast points out that the “music and visual iconography” (259) allows “women [to relate] to a song that is, supposedly, sung from a male point of view” (267). The destabilization of gendered entertainment assumptions is a key focus in Fast’s analysis, but this analysis does not attempt to connect this gendered destabilization to Led Zeppelin’s success. Leslie Meier attempts to explain the success of bands with “bad” connotations by qualifying hard rock as a “body genre” of music (247-248), and states that “theatrical performances of sexuality may take priority over the music” (249). While some scholars may find this problematic, for Fast and Meier, this sexual performativity is not relegated to the masculine sphere. Both men and women may take equal part in the enjoyment of the sexual performance, and it does not necessarily have to be viewed as marginalizing or demeaning women, which is fast’s argument in “Rethinking Gender and Sexuality in Led Zeppelin.”
Fast’s argument is sound, but she fails to connect the endurance of Led Zeppelin’s popularity to their simultaneous public images. She makes connects their image of hypersexualized rock stars to their audience, de-gendering the issue along the way to account for the variety of the band’s fan base. She does not, however, engage with the band’s second public image: that of earnest, skilled, Celtic-inspired rockers. This public image is vital in understanding the intertextual nature of Led Zeppelin. The Celtic-inspired sounds of their albums following 1969’s Led Zeppelin II are a departure, both musically and lyrically, from the first two albums, which does not replace their original public image
Led Zeppelin’s initial appeal was due to public image, but their enduring popularity is due to their legacy of top-quality musicianship. Beginning on Led Zeppelin III, the band shifted from aggressive rockers to versatile musicians, showcasing rock, blues, and acoustic pieces. Kent Drummond, a Marketing and Management scholar says that “the imagery, too, had expanded. Rather than singing exclusively about women who had done him wrong, Plant could suddenly sing about white ladies wandering through the streets of heaven, Welsh border wars, even flowers” (38). This expansion of the band’s artistic exploration has allowed Led Zeppelin to maintain its fan-base for decades. Additionally, the broad range of the band’s lyrical content has allowed new fans to be drawn to the band’s music decades after the band broke up.
According to Drummond, Led Zeppelin’s embrace of a Celtic aesthetic allowed them “to explore traditionally feminine notions of vulnerability, loss, and separation” (39). This, combined with Susan Fast’s arguments for the de-gendering of Led Zeppelin’s music, allows for an interesting space, wherein both men and women can experiment with what is traditionally considered gendered. Women can experience the male-coded aspects of the music: the typical societal images of hard rock and men can experience the female-coded aspects of the music: the emotional aspects of the lyrics. This play with gender and identity was part of what Drummond calls “a heroic act of self-invention” (41). Since Zeppelin was already a popular band when they formed their Celtic identity, their initial public image of masculine rockers persisted. However, their new Celtic image provided them with a new public identity as well: “founded on eccentricity and emotion, intuition and serendipity” (Drummond, 43).
This Celtic identity cemented the band’s image as one that existed in between the two public images that had been constructed for them. This inter-textuality is present in all of Led Zeppelin’s music starting with Led Zeppelin III until the end of their career. The music and lyrical content of their first two albums remained intact, was expanded by the new ideas adopted after their embrace of the Celtic identity. The band’s Celtic identity was a sublimation of their previously hypersexual identity. The Celtic image allowed for alternate interpretations of the band’s performance of sexuality. As Drummond puts it, “soft hair, obtrusive jewelry, satin blouses, and velvet pants” (39), allowed Led Zeppelin to create a space in which people could identify their sexuality with the band. The inter-textual space created by the band’s play with lyrics, music, and sexual performance allowed them to attract new audiences.
Not only has Led Zeppelin’s original fan-base continued to enjoy their music, but new generations have been attracted to their music. This is not just a fluke of the commercial music industry, as many other popular bands have risen and fallen. This continued success is due to the band’s intertextual nature—their music has the capacity to transcend age, sex, gender, and class. In the words of Kenneth Drummond, “it’s the feeling, the effect, the ineffable magic” (39) of the band that made them commercially successful. Their music has the ability to enchant multiple audiences across multiple generations, and their influence on music and culture still continues to this day.
David, Kirby. "The untethered decadence of Led Zeppelin." Washington Post, The. July 2012: Regional Business News. Web. 6 Nov. 2013.
Drummond, Kent. "Climbing a Stairway to Heaven: Led Zeppelin's Celtic Embrace." Journal of Strategic Marketing 14.1 (2006): 35-43. JSTOR. Web. 5 Nov. 2013.
Fast, Susan. In the Houses of the Holy: Led Zeppelin and the Power of Rock Music. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001. Google Books. Google. Web. 5 Nov. 2013.
Fast, Susan. "Rethinking Issues of Gender and Sexuality in Led Zeppelin: A Woman's Views of Power and Pleasure in Hard Rock." American Music 17.3 (1999): 245-99. JSTOR. Web. 5 Nov. 2013.
Meier, Leslie M. "In Excess? Body Genres, “Bad” Music, and the Judgment of Audiences." Journal of Popular Music Studies 20.3 (2008): 240-60. JSTOR. Web. 5 Nov. 2013.
Shuker, Roy. Popular Music Culture : The Key Concepts. New York: Routledge, 2012. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 11 Nov. 2013.