In my first entry about trans themes in rock music, I concentrated on music created by cis bands and artists. In this post I’m going to be exploring the work of a some trans musicians, and comparing the themes explored in music by trans as opposed to cis rockers.
Trans rockers don’t tend to reach any kind of large audience. There are plenty of bands like All The Pretty Horses out there with trans members (who may, or may not, choose to write songs dealing with trans themes) but they tend not to gain even a significant underground following, let alone a mainstream one. In one sense, this isn’t too surprising: even if there’s a lot more trans people in the world than is commonly thought, there’s still only so many of us. Still, on top of that there are various reasons why trans people wouldn’t necessarily want to get involved with a band (fear of transphobia comes to mind) and why trans people might have problems gaining a significant following or getting signed to a record label.
It’s not surprising therefore that those trans rock musicians who do gain a certain degree of success tend to be forgotten, if not erased from popular conciousness altogether. An interesting example of this can be found in the case of Jayne County, a trans woman who was a key figure in various pioneering punk bands.
I came across Jayne’s story completely by accident whilst reading an article about the early punk movement in Viviane K. Namaste’s Invisible Lives. Namaste writes about how Jayne was sent to jail after defending herself from a queerphobic audience member at a gig. After she was released, a fundraiser event was held in a prominent punk venue to cover her legal fees. A whole host of bands played, including Blondie, The Ramones, The New York Dolls and Talking Heads. Like these bands, Jayne herself was an influential part of the New York punk scene, as a live musician and DJ. She also appeared in The Blank Generation alongside various other iconic punk groups.
Why, then, has Jayne been broadly forgotten? You have to wonder. She still has hardcore fans, but I’ve never read about her in the mainstream media or seen her alongside some of the pretty obscure groups you tend to find on compilations of oldschool punk, despite the fact she seems to be pretty talented. Namaste argues that Jayne’s absence from modern punk discourse is part and package of the erasure of women and LGBTQ people in general – and trans people in particular – from the discourse of punk following the explosive success of the genre (and the impact of the Sex Pistol’s media image) in 1977. I’m inclined to agree with her: the mainstream media’s portrayal of musical sub-cultures can have a significant impact on the predominant attitudes of their fanbases. You just need to look at how the meaning of emo has changed during the last couple of decades to see how this happens.
Reading about all of this made me curious about Jayne’s life…and her music. It seems like she’s been everywhere and done everything…she’s an American who took part in the Stonewall Riots, performed live and recorded albums with numerous bands in New York, London and Berlin. She’s still active as a musician and artist, and has a blog which seems to consist almost entirely of obscene rants directed at the “Republikkkan” party. Awesome.
Most of Jayne’s songs seem to be about sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, but she’s written a few tunes about being trans. “Transgender Rock ‘N’ Roll” is pure celebration, whilst “Man Enough To Be A Woman” explores self-assurance in the face of bigotry:
“I got a transexual feeling
It’s hard to be true to the one that’s really you
I got a scandalous feeling
It’s hard to be true when they point and stare at you
Conditioned to portraying the mask of masculinity
Another blend of different shading
I am what I am
I don’t give a damn”
This personal take on trans experiences is something that, understandably, simply can’t be found in cis portrayals of trans issues. As demonstrated in my previous entry, even the most trans-positive songs by cis artists tend to feature trans characters experiencing “issues” (or featuring as objects of sexual attraction) and hence can’t offer a first-person perspective. By contrast, trans artists have the advantage of being able to share deeply personal experiences of shame and internalised transphobia, coming out, dealing with experiences discrimination and the sheer messiness of gender. Of course, there’s a lot more in the world to sing about, so most bands I’ve come across with trans members or lyricists tend to just have a handful of songs that deal explicitly with trans themes.
Probably the most high-profile of these bands are the Manic Street Preachers. During the group’s early years, bassist Nicky Wire and lyricist Richey Edwards had an androgynous, glam-rock image. “Stay Beautiful” celebrated being a “mess of eyeliner and spraypaint“, whilst “Life Becoming a Landslide” declared”I don’t want to be a man”. The band’s music became a lot darker ahead of Richey’s disappearance (and probable suicide) in 1994, whilst their lyrics maintained an ambiguous attitude towards gender. The troubling “4st 7lb” reflected Richey’s struggles with anorexia and – like the vast majority of other Manics songs – is sung by the straight, cis James Dean Bradfield, but appears to be written from the perspective of a teenage girl. Meanwhile “Yes” (a song about prostitution) proclaims “here’s a girl / you want a boy so chop off his cock / tie his hair in bunches / fuck him / call him Rita if you want“. A similarly messed-up take on gender variance can be found in “Daddy’s Little Girl” by Cretin, a death metal band fronted by a trans woman.
Although the Manics became a lot less “glam” after Richey’s disappearance, bassist Nicky Wire continues to cross-dress on stage and in his personal life. Interviews seem to indicate that he’s perfectly comfortable living as a man, but it would seem that he’s dealt with significant gender issues in his life. This is powerfully portrayed in “Born a Girl”:
“Do I look good for you tonight
Will you accuse me as I hide
Behind these layers of disguise
And the mirrors of my own happiness
I’ve loved the freedom of being inside
Need a new start and a different time
Something grows in the space between me
And it’s twisting and changing this fragile body
And I wish I had been born a girl
Instead of what I am
Yes I wish I had been born a girl
And not this mess of a man
The censorship of my skin
Is screaming inside and from within
There’s no room in this world for a girl like me
No place around there where I fit in “
A more light-hearted approach is taken by Bitesize, an indie band featuring trans feminist extraordinaire Julia Serano (the author of Whipping Girl) on guitar and vocals. “Surprise Ending” tells the amusing story of a sexist fellow who hits upon an attractive woman, only to realise (to his shock) that he used to bully her in school for being feminine before she transitioned. Meanwhile Coyote Grace are a duo more folk than rock, but deserve a mention for also delivering brilliant, fun songs that deal with the experiences of guitarist Joe Stevens. “A Guy Named Joe” and “Daughterson” deal with his coming to terms with being trans and the reactions with others at a young age, whilst “Girls Like Me (Summertime)” is written from the perspective of a woman who falls for a trans man.
By contrast, The Cliks – who are probably the best-known contemporary rock band with a transsexed member – don’t seem to have any songs that deal with trans themes, explicitly at least. I view this as a positive thing: there’s no reason why you should have to write about trans issues just because you are trans. Lead singer, lead guitar and principal songwriter Lucas Silviera deserves serious kudos both for being out as a trans man and standing by his decision to transition on his own terms and at his own pace, having decided not to take testosterone in order to preserve his singing voice.
Finally, some thoughts on a well-known song from a well-known musical. “Sweet Transvestite” (best known from the musical’s film adaptation, The Rocky Horror Picture Show) really annoys a lot of trans people I know. Rocky Horror has a deliberately nonsensical story which puts off many, whilst the idea of an insane transvestite doctor from Transsexual, Transylvania gets a lot of complaints for appearing to conflate cross-dressing with transsexualism. Still, let’s be fair: the Rocky Horror Show is intended to be very, very silly. Despite that, some of the lyrics to “Sweet Transvestite” (written by Richard O’Brien, who identifies as transgender) are pretty damn positive:
“Don’t get strung out by the way I look
Don’t judge a book by it’s cover
I’m not much of a man by the light of day
But by night I’m one hell of a lover”
Roundup of awesome songs:
Manic Street Preachers – Born a Girl
Cretin – Daddy’s Little Girl
Bitesize – Surprise Ending
The Cliks – Dirty King
Rocky Horror Picture Show OST – Sweet Transvestite
If there’s any cool trans rock bands or artists you’d like to share, please do comment!