Decoding Van Halen: Sexual Coding Devices of a Hard Rock Group, 1978-1984

By Thomas Harrison.

Published by The Humanities Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Van Halen was a successful hard rock band during 1978-1986. Most Van Halen fans recognize that a change occurred in the members’ songwriting at some point during 1978-1986. Most attribute this change to a change in personnel. Because a lead vocalist often affects audience perception for the entire group, an examination of sexually focused semiotic coding is necessary in order to understand how original vocalist David Lee Roth was perceived by fans, many of whom thought negatively of Sammy Hagar, and how fan perception of him contributed to how each vocalist was perceived by the band’s audience.

Van Halen had many features (including technical, emotional and even sexual) that interested a variety of fans, including those from different social groups and different tastes in the types of rock music. A careful examination of compositional practice by Van Halen reveals instances of semiotic coding of the “sexual” variety. Similarly, a number of studies have been conducted on gender in heavy metal and hard rock, demonstrating that femininities and masculinities are diverse and are embedded in specific historical and cultural circumstances. It is also evident that the musical codes relate to performance rituals and to the projected images of the band. In order to gain some insight into Van Halen fans, a survey was posted on the Internet, reinforcing findings through fan reception.

A singer’s stage demeanor and vocal prowess reinforces the band’s compositional method. In the context of Van Halen, those attributes affected the attitudes of the group’s fans towards all aspects of the band. It is through an examination of songs containing text of a sexual nature that establishes that musical devices were affected by Roth’s machismo. Ultimately, sexual innuendoes and sexual coding such as those found in these songs influenced the opinions that Van Halen fans had toward David Lee Roth, the lead vocalist on these songs.

Keywords: Popular Music, Musicology, Semiotic Coding, Sexuality

The International Journal of the Humanities, Volume 5, Issue 4, pp.115-122. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 568.400KB).

Dr. Thomas Harrison

Associate Professor, Music Business and Recording, Division of Music, College of Fine Arts, Jacksonville University, Jacksonville, Florida, USA

Dr. Harrison holds credits as a producer, engineer and/or session guitarist for recording artists. His research interests focus on hard rock and heavy metal of the 1980s, and the role of recording producers in the making of specific albums. He has delivered academic papers internationally, placed an article in Popular Music and Society, and is the author of Van Halen: The Music and the fans, 1978-1986. He holds a Ph.D., University of Salford, UK; M.M California State University, Los Angeles; Teaching Credential, California State University, Northridge; and B.M. University of Denver.


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