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Making the Man in North American Drum Corps: Masculinities and Militaristic Music in Performance

Creative Commons 'BY-NC-SA' version 4.0 license

As a North American musical subculture steeped in militaristic and masculinist aesthetics, the drum and bugle corps scene continuously grapples with the politics of gender in performance. Recent debates within the community over the transformation of historically “all-male” ensembles into gender-inclusive groups show that masculinity remains a hotly contested topic, with stakeholders questioning whether gender-restrictive membership practices have a place in the contemporary scene. My thesis explores this shifting discursive field by investigating how masculinity is constructed by professional arrangers, producers, and choreographers (a.k.a. “designers”), and how participants—especially queer participants—in this North American music tradition navigate these masculine ideals on and off the field of competition. Based on ethnographic research and interviews conducted between 2015 and 2017 as a member of The Cavaliers Drum & Bugle Corps, I argue that queer men in this “all-male” ensemble use and transform corps-specific ritual traditions to reorient themselves within physical, social, and sonic space. I begin by historically situating the development of hegemonic masculinity in North American drum corps, then assess The Cavaliers’ 2017 competitive program Men Are From Mars to highlight how professional show designers produce masculinity in drum corps performance. Combined with ethnographic insights, this analysis reveals how designers perpetuate the scene’s hegemonic and militaristic masculine aesthetics, even as they promote drum corps as a space where participants can explore a range of masculine expressions. I then move to examine how queer men in The Cavaliers participate in ritual traditions of initiation, singing, and drag performance to reimagine the types of racialized and gendered practices they might embody during a season of drum corps. Drawing upon frameworks from queer scholars of color, I suggest that performers use these ephemeral off-field traditions to articulate queer subjectivities that exceed those that they convey in competition. In doing so, they demonstrate the ongoing construction and contestation of masculine aesthetics that undergird competitive marching music in North America.

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