Where the Ladies and Transgendered At: Stand Up and Sing
As I mentioned in my comment on Nemo’s original post, I think songs that seem to address more personalized themes, like gender identity, sexual fluidity, female empowerment don’t receive the same amount of criticism as songs/artists who appear to be addressing things that are viewed as larger, structural like the prison-industrial complex or geopolitics. Maybe because the artist is presumed to have more cred as someone who can assume a personal identity (as enraged woman or transgendered individual).
This is partly why I like Grizzly Bear’s cover of He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss). A Brooklyn-based band made up of straight and gay men, their cover of an overly-covered song is haunting and I think re-subversive because they aren’t really the people you’d expect to be singing this song.
There is a trio of female empowerment songs that might receive more lambasting, because they get caught up in a whole “female power” thing that male pundits take delight in mocking: Aretha Franklin’s “R.E.S.P.E.C.T,” Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” and more recently Beyonce’s “Put a Ring on It.” Of course the empowerment of these ballads depends on context. Single Ladies is a song about women holding men to commitment, explicitly marriage. Played at a conservadox Jewish wedding I was at last year the effect was muted. But if you were to visit a suburban Connecticut high school dance in the late 90s/early 2000s, a place where feminist was an unspoken or dirty word, you might appreciate the fact that it was something wonderful for a group of teenage girls, whose main media messages were perfect bodies and achieving male affection, to be able to hop around in a circle belting out “R.E.S.P.E.C.T./ Find out what it means to me.”
But to be honest I’ve never been one to really find my political messages in the lyrics of song. I read much better than I hear; I don’t digest the spoken or sung all that well (ask me to give you the lyrics of a song I’ve listened to a hundred times and I’ll come back empty). So for me music is more about the sense I get from it, the atmosphere it creates around me, the random thoughts it brings to mind. I discovered Antony and the Johnsons in college at a moment when I first started thinking seriously and began to be seriously bothered by gender and sexuality in society, binaries and restrictions. Coming from a very “normal” town the oppressiveness of “normality” and the value of fluidity and blurriness made sense to me.
Antony’s voice is gorgeous and, oh god, don’t kill me for saying this, it seems to perform yet subvert gender all at once. One critic described him as a white man who sounds like a black woman. There’s something of the cabaret in him, which reminds me of the time I was at Judson Memorial Church by Washington Square Park and a very large gay man got up on stage in something that wasn’t quite drag but wasn’t quite wasn’t and belted out a showstopper show tune in the middle of the church service. This is maybe the closest I’ve ever gotten to 1980s gay New York and I treasure the experience dearly.
On his album “I Am A Bird Now,” which came out in 2005, Antony’s lyrics explicitly talk about boys becoming girls, but it’s his voice that really blurs these lines and is the political message, a voice that is sorrowful/lamenting but also sounds otherworldly/betterworldly. Antony’s also been a popular success, winning Britain’s Mercury prize in 2005. It is very likely that he’s contributed more to everyday people understanding the humanity of transgendered and transsexual identities than a thousand copies of Anne Fausto-Sterling’s Sexing the Body… which don’t get me wrong I love and is the way I first started thinking hard about gender ambiguity, since I’ve never been able to actually hold on to any of Antony’s lyrics beyond the fact that there’s a boy who wants to be a girl.
In any case, I submit to you Antony and the Johnson’s “For Today I Am A Boy”