AMIS 2022: “I Can’t Turn Off What Turns Me On”—A Queer Phenomenology and the St. Vincent Signature Electric Guitar

The American Musical Instrument Society (AMIS) promotes better understanding of all aspects of the history, design, construction, restoration, and usage of musical instruments in all cultures and from all periods. In June 2022, their annual meeting was held at Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre.

“I Can’t Turn Off What Turns Me On”: A Queer Phenomenology and the St. Vincent Signature Electric Guitar (Remote Presentation)
Erin Fitzpatrick

Erin A. Fitzpatrick, MA, is a PhD candidate in musicology at UCLA and an active songwriter, recording artist, and producer. Her research takes an interdisciplinary, autoethnographic approach to considering the intersections between electric guitar technique and expression, queer phenomenology and reception, and affect and eroticism. She will be releasing her second album, Do Your Worst, with the indie label Carpark Records on June 10, 2022.

In 2016, the queer art rocker St. Vincent collaborated with the Ernie Ball Music Man company to design the St. Vincent Signature electric guitar—the first commercially available model designed by and for women. This instrument performs remarkable interventions in an industry whose products demonstrate overwhelming investments in cisgender, able-bodied men. Dominant models favor strong hands and shoulders, long fingers and arms, and flat chests, with their dense bodies, high cutouts, and thick necks. But the St. Vincent Signature is significantly lighter, offers a cutout low enough to accommodate breasts, and features a thinner neck for maximum agility from small hands. I recently switched from the Fender Telecaster, my primary instrument for years, to the St. Vincent Signature (thanks to the AMIS Student Small Research Grant), and since, I have noticed a profound shift in my embodied musical experience. I have been grappling with what it means to be, for the first time, invited into physical intimacy with my instrument rather than an outlier to it—especially after decades refusing and reinventing canonically “virtuosic” techniques that my body could not physically replicate. Similarly, long before St. Vincent developed her Signature model, she became known for her own boundary-pushing, anti-virtuosic techniques—an approach which Sadie Hochman-Ruiz (2016) has theorized using Sara Ahmed’s notions of queer phenomenology and “disorientation” (2016). In this paper, I pick up Hochman-Ruiz’s argument where it left off and sketch a queer phenomenology of the St. Vincent Signature guitar that combines questions of performance studies with critical organology and queer subjectivity, considering the historical materialist implications of this object, the affective possibilities for queer female expression using “queer objects” (Ahmed 2006, Cusick 1998, Sedgwick 2003), and how this instrument philosophically upends old narratives about the electric guitar’s “phallic-ness” and instead proposes a more f luid, cyborgic relationship between body and prosthetic instrument (Waksman 2001, Haraway 1985).

Watch more videos from the 2022 AMIS Conference here.