Trans/queer rock music (Part 1)

I like rock music rather a lot. When I was coming to terms with myself in my teens, I sought to find stories I identified with in the music I listened to. Unfortunately I didn’t come across a whole lot at the time other than the odd somewhat mention in dire cock-rock songs such as “Dude Looks Like a Lady”. Over the years though I’ve managed to turn up a few gems. In this entry I’m writing about songs which are (as far as I’m aware) written by cis artists who have chosen to explore trans issues.  A second entry dealing with actual trans artists will hopefully follow soon, and I’m giving stuff with a throwaway mention of trans issues or characters (e.g. Get Back by The Beatles or Seven Days in the Sun by Feeder) a miss, for now at least. A nice, simple list of the (good!) songs under discussion can be found at the end of this entry.

Most rock music which involve trans characters and/or queer gender issues seem to be written by cis people.  That’s not particularly surprising really, given that there’s a lot more cis than trans people in the world and that it’s not too easy for trans people to become rock stars. I’m sure there’s a lot of rock music out there by trans bands and artists which is hard to find simply because there’s no way of doing so unless you happen to stumble across their myspace page, a trans music compilation or, indeed, a list on some blog. Still, the stuff that reaches the mainstream – or even a relatively wide underground audience – is likely to be written by a cis artist.

So why would a cis person want to write about trans stuff? Well, why not? Breaking sex and gender boundaries is pretty interesting after all, and writing about lovey-dovey stuff all the time has got to get boring after a while. That said, sex still tends to usually come into it. Quite aside from horrific stuff by glammy metal bands (see Aerosmith’s “Dude Looks Like a Lady” and The Scorpions’ “He’s a Woman – She’s a Man”), there’s a fair bit of stuff by men who are attracted to trans women. The classic example of this is “Lola” by The Kinks.

There’s a lot to be said about “Lola” – and a lot that has been said – so I don’t think there’s much I can really add. Still, despite the ambiguity of these lines… “Well I’m not the world’s most masculine man / But I know what I am and I’m glad I’m a man / And so is Lola”I like the way that her certainty and identity in the midst of others’ potential confusion about her gender appears to be ultimately upheld: “Girls will be boys and boys will be girls
It’s a mixed up muddled up shook up world except for Lola”
. Lola isn’t portrayed as a freak or an object, but as a woman with sexual agency. 

Similarly positive is “Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed. It’s about various queer individuals who worked with Andy Warhol, including three trans women. It doesn’t shy away from the realities of transition, unemployment, drugs and prostitution, and ultimately seems to be celebrating vitality in the face of hardship.

A far more ambiguous character can be found in David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel”: “Got your mother in a whirl – she’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl”. Even better, said person is portrayed as a hottie! Speaking of Bowie, his past ambiguous image is still a pretty positive challenge to binary gender norms even today.

Skipping forward a couple of decades, more ambiguity can be found in Blur’s “Girls & Boys”. Music journalists usually seem to claim that song is a celebration of bisexuality and consumer culture. Whilst it’s certainly commenting on the latter, there seems to be some seriously queer gender going on as well as queer sexuality: it’s all about the “girls who are boys who like boys to be girls who do boys like they’re girls who do girls like they’re boys“. Always should be someone you really love!

Androgyny is celebrated more explicitly in “Androgynous”, originally by The Replacements but more famously covered by Crash Test Dummies. My favourite version though has to be a more recent cover performed by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. The song celebrates a relationship between two androgynous individuals and hopes for a more open-minded future:

Mirror image, see no damage
See no evil at all
Kewpie dolls and urine stalls
Will be laughed at
The way you`re laughed at now
Now, something meets Boy, and something meets Girl
They both look the same
They`re overjoyed in this world
Same hair, revolution
Unisex, evolution

Interestingly, most of these songs have been about sex – or at least attraction – and have were (originally, at least) written by men. This probably reflects the institutional sexism of the music industry and our culture’s obsession with sex as much as anything else. Still, in the light of that it’s pretty cool that a bunch of trans-positive songs turned up in the 90s and 00s with lyrics written by Shirley Manson of Garbage.

There are queer themes in a whole bunch of Garbage songs (“Queer”, anyone?) but explicit trans stuff turns up in “Androgny”, “Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go!) and “Bleed Like Me”. At least two of these songs were inspired by fraudster JT Leroy (prior to the unmasking of creator Laura Albert), but they’re still pretty positive portrayals of trans experience.  “Bleed Like Me” is darker and more introspective, with a character “trying to figure out if he’s a girl or he’s a boy“, but “Cherry Lips” is an all-out celebration. Despite being “a delicate boy in the hysterical realm of an emotional landslide in physical terms“, the central character of this song is “the sweetest thing that you have ever seen“…”whenever [she] came near the clouds would disappear“. The music itself is joyful and fun.

You hold a candle in your heart
You shine the light on hidden parts
You make the whole world wanna dance
You bought yourself a second chance
Go Baby Go Go
We’re right behind you
Go baby Go Go

On the very same album (Beautiful Garbage) “Androgyny” proclaims that “you free your mind in your androgyny“. Awesome.

Despite there being a fair few songs about androgynous individuals and trans women and/or other individuals on the MtF spectrum, there’s barely anything out there about trans men. I was therefore in for a pretty pleasant surprise when I went to see Swedish prog act A.C.T a few years back with a minimal knowledge of their back-catalogue. Right in the middle of an awesome set they launched into “She/Male”, which tells the story of a trans man who decides to transition, and becomes a lot more happy in himself as a result. It’s a bit silly, but then A.C.T are generally a bit silly.

A somewhat different approach to transition is taken by The Dresden Dolls in “Sex Changes”. I’ve heard this song talked about as transphobic and as deeply positive. Ultimately I think it’s pretty easy to read either of these interpretations into the lyrics, which appear to be about a bunch of different people telling a trans woman different stuff ahead of genital surgery. Personally, I love it: there’s a real feel of desperation and confusion which for me perfectly reflects the doubts and worries that sometimes come with transition. Also interesting is “Half Jack”, which probably isn’t about a trans character, but sure sounds like it could be (if not about an intersex person).

This brings me neatly onto the subject of bringing trans interpretations to songs which probably weren’t written explicitly about trans subjects or issues. There are a few tunes which make this really easy. “She’s Got Balls” by AC/DC celebrates how “she’s got balls, my lady“. “I’m A Boy” by The Who, which is about a boy who’s brought up as a girl and forced to wear dresses, could practically be a trans man anthem: “I’m a boy I’m a boy but my mother won’t admit it, I’m a boy I’m a boy I’m a boy“. The treatment of the character in this song seems tantamount to child abuse, but then childhood can be pretty crappy for a lot of trans kids. Then there’s “Been a Son” by Nirvana and “Gender” by Orgy: take a listen and make your own interpretations! “Listen Up!” by Gossip isn’t really about trans stuff at all, but you won’t think that after watching the music video.

Finally, we have the interesting case of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Hedwig is a rock musical which was originally a stage show, and was later made into a film. Every trans person who’s seen the show (or, more likely, the film) seems to have strong views about it: they either think it’s awesome, terrible, or incredibly confusing. Personally, I’m a fan: I’m not bothered that Hedwig isn’t necessarily a “real” trans woman. She transitions to escape East Berlin with her American boyfriend during the Cold War, but seems to be perfectly happy living as a woman despite the numerous setbacks she suffers. She might not identity as a woman in a straightforward fashion, but her gender is certainly pretty queer. Besides, the songs are awesome, with “Tear Me Down” and “Angry Inch” in particular being powerful statements of intent in the face of ignorance and oppression.

For me, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is pretty typical of trans stuff by cis artists in that there’s a fair few issues with it, but it’s still pretty cool. A whole load of the songs I’ve mentioned have dodgy pronoun usage and stuff in the service of demonstrating gender movement or queerness, but they still tend to be celebrating the existence of trans people. These artists are telling our stories and often making money off doing so, so we have a right to criticise them (more on this in my next entry) but ultimately I’d rather that we were present in the world of rock rather than completely absent. Aerosmith can still bog off though.

Songs (in the order I wrote about them):

The Kinks – Lola

Lou Reed – Take a Walk on the Wild Side

David Bowie – Rebel Rebel

Blur – Girls and Boys

Joan Jett and the Blackhearts – Androgynous

Garbage – Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go!), Androgyny, Bleed Like Me

A.C.T – She/Male

The Dresden Dolls – Sex Changes, Half Jack

AC/DC – She’s Got Balls

The Who – I’m a Boy

Nirvana – Been a Son

Orgy – Gender

Gossip – Listen Up!

Hedwig and the Angry Inch – Tear Me Down, Angry Inch

10 thoughts on “Trans/queer rock music (Part 1)

  1. My Body is a Cage by the Arcade Fire has always resonated with me quite a lot. It sounds a bit negative but the lyrics are actually quite positive: “My body is a cage / that keeps me from dancing with the one I love / but my mind holds the key”. The lyrics expand on that theme, although it’s not supposed to be about trans stuff, there’s a lot that can be read into it.

    • Too right! I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s thought this when listening to that song 😀

      If anyone else fancies linking to songs, feel free 🙂

  2. See, I’d say Half Jack is the story of someone resenting a hereditary trait. Given that most of Yes, Virginia seems to be about going through the steps of AA and given that “Jack” is also slang for Jack Daniels whiskey; I’d go out on a limb and say that both her and her father were alkies, she feels like she inherited it from him in some way and resents him for it.

    If you’re gonna include Orgy in a discography of trans-themed songs by cis artists then it’s worth noting the persistent rumours surrounding Jay Gordon’s 46th chromosome.

    Lastly, as a counterpoint:

    • Interesting point about “Half Jack”, although it’s actually from the Dolls’ first album rather than their second. I agree it probably isn’t “meant” to be about gender issues, but ambiguity is one of Amanda Palmer’s strong points, and you do have to wonder about the line “it’s half biology and half corrective surgery gone wrong”.

      Regarding Orgy: you do have to wonder, but at the same time I’ve found absolutely no evidence anywhere online about Jay Gordon possibly being a trans man. Any links or suchlike you have about it would be welcome though.

      As for the Manics – I’m planning to write about them in “part 2” of my trans/rock thingy 🙂

      • Hey, I realize this post is fairly old but I came across it when doing some reading on The Dresden Dolls. I just wanted to comment that Amanda’s official statement on Half Jack was that it was about struggling with identity – gender, sex, and family… And the unfairness of not understanding your identity. So yes, it is in part about being a trans person. 🙂 Gotta love The Dresden Dolls!

        • Awesome! Do you have a link to any writing from her about this, out of curiosity?

          Also, yeah, the post is old, but I’m planning a trans/queer rock music part 3 sometime soon… 🙂

          • At the veeeery bottom of the page here: http://www.dresdendolls.com/faq.html

            “”Half Jack” is the same way, it’s about my relationship with my father, but it’s also about the crisis of not knowing what makes you what you are. What identifies you . . . gender? sex? family? and the unfairness of that.”

            Also one of the questions on that page was (albeit potentially rude/triggering):

            Question:
            Some people have suggested that Half Jack is about a hermaphrodite. If this is true, my life will have no meaning. So what’s it really about?

            Amanda responds:
            Take a deep breath. It’s not about a hermaphrodite. Not exactly. Rest assured your life has meaning after all.

            So, yeah, it’s definitely about gender expression. 🙂

  3. Pingback: Trans/queer rock music (Part 2) « Trans Youth Takes On World

  4. Sonic Youth have song called “Androgynous Mind” on their album Experimental, Jet Set, Trash and No Star. Growing up, this was the first song that I could ever relate to involving trans issues. This song may not be everyone’s cup of tea as it is a bit abrasive and discordant, but it seems like it would resonate well with trans people rooted in alternative culture (such as Sonic Youth fans).

    Here is a link to that song:

    And a few lyrical excerpts from the songt:

    “Hey sad angel walks, and he talks like a girl
    out trying to think why it stinks, he’s not a girl
    now he’s kicked in the gut, they fucked him up, just enough
    they got me down on my knees, I kiss his ring, God is love”

    “androgynous mind, androgynous mind.”
    “Hey, hey, It’s okay. Hey, hey, it’s okay.”

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