The unquenchable fantasy for the unattainable woman: British Sociological Association

AS RENEE walked away from the Four Tops, she was really helping to codify a man's potentially disruptive, irrational self. It does not rhyme very well, but the woman in the song 'Walk Away, Renee' was basically a means to hold on to self-indulgent yearning, writes Jonathan Foster.

'Men, pop songs and remembrance of the unattainable woman' represent an important socio-cultural fantasy, according to a paper delivered yesterday at the British Sociological Association's annual conference in Preston, Lancashire. 'Remembrance of an unattainable woman is a recurring theme in pop and rock music,' Ian Atkin, from Bolton Institute of Higher Education, and Graham Bradley, from Brooklands Technical College in Surrey, said.

'Remembrance is the desire for desiring a loss - nostalgic pleasure derived from the memory of an unrealisable relationship,' they told the conference whose theme was 'Sexuality in Social Context'.

Suffering is indulged in countless male rock narratives, the male ego sometimes immersed in rejection, they said.

'And all this guilt will be on your head. I guess you'd call it suicide, but I'm too full to swallow my pride,' they quoted from 'Can't Stand Losing You' by the Police.

The understanding of 'male perceptions of love' gleaned from 40 years of rock and pop is scarcely sympathetic. They said the identity of the unattainable woman is recreated by the male as images of 'femaleness which women have had to tolerate throughout the history of civilisation'. Renee was loved, but she was also a source of male insecurity and jealousy.

But what if Renee was a lesbian? The chances are she would be a fan today of kd lang, the country and western singer.

Louise Allen from Lancaster University told the conference that country and western has become increasingly popular among lesbians, with prizes awarded to the best dressed cowgirls attending women-only nights at country music clubs. 'It is possible to see how the body of kd lang is constituted through its effects,' she said, citing letters written to her by the singer's fans.

Ms Allen said: 'kd lang holds an ambiguous position in relation to gender, because of the way she plays with cowboy culture and presents a dykey image, and also in relation to race, because of her native American identity and ability to pass as white.'

Ms Lang's body was desired by some lesbians because of its masculinity and American Indian characteristics, she said. But it was 'fandom' that defined those categories of race and gender.

'It is doubtful how far lesbian country and western and kd lang's public gender-bending can challenge or transgress hierarchical notions of race and gender reproduced in cowboy culture,' she said.