Trans/queer rock music (Part 2)

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:

Jayne County – Man Enough To Be A Woman, Fuck Off

Manic Street Preachers – Born a Girl

Cretin – Daddy’s Little Girl

Bitesize – Surprise Ending

Coyote Grace – Daughterson, A Guy Named Joe

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!

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