Into the Post-Election Wild

For the first eight days immediately following the election, I was unable to write anything.  I filled the space with music, art, performance, conferencing, talking, and wandering Montreal.  In the middle of that chunk of time, I went to see/hear British band Wild Beasts at the Middle East in Cambridge, MA, an outing that I had planned well in advance of the election.  Wild Beasts are unquestionably one of my favorite active bands/artists, in good company with Sleater-Kinney, PJ Harvey, Austra, Blood Orange, and FKA twigs.  When they announced no dates in Texas (or the South) this tour, I chose another place: the legendary Middle East in Boston  At the show, this 575-person capacity room was at best half-full; it was hard to avoid the feeling that people had perhaps just stayed home that night out of depression or despair.  But I was present that night; I needed to be there.  Standing immediately in front of bassist and main vocalist Hayden Thorpe, I was the physically closest I have ever been to the band in experiencing them tour their last three albums.  Although I was surrounded by clusters of white and Asian American college-aged youngins and pockets (usually couples) of people who seemed closer to my age hovering near the stage, I could still feel all the empty space of the venue—and of everyone’s emotions—at the moment.  “You look bad—and I don’t say that often,” guitarist, keyboardist, and vocalist Tom Fleming would say to the crowd early on.  The band would attempt to fill that space with music, empathy, and… hope.

Wild Beasts’ Boy King was released on August 5, 2016, back when, for all of her many flaws, it didn’t seem real that Hillary Clinton could lose the presidential election.  “It’s been a long week,” Thorpe acknowledged before ripping into a song early in the set.  The sheer energy of the songs got me—and others around me—moving.  More than on previous albums, Wild Beasts go for a funk and R&B (and soul) groove on Boy King, dragging out those bass lines.  The album is dance-y in a way that their sophomore album Two Dancers was not, the kind of call to dance that gets inside you and viscerally compels you to move.  On multiple songs—”Get My Bang,” “He the Colossus”—the band crank up the volume and the intensity at the second versus to keep pushing the momentum from the chorus further and further.  At the Middle East, it’s the transition from “Bed of Nails” into “He the Colossus” that first pushes me far enough beyond post-election despair and gets me moving.  In one of their most beautiful chorus harmonies, Thorpe and Fleming sing, “Do I dare to disturb the universe?/ Lest I crush the softest among us/ The universe has locked us in a death spin/ Not enough fucking and too much of wondering.”  This is a song about fucking and fucking around laced with J. Alfred Prufrock-ian anxiety.  But we are not fucking around anymore—and some of us, for all of the reasons, cannot just fuck the pain away this time.  I dance, I move, but I cannot escape hearing and feeling the lyrics of this and so many of their songs through the lens of white supremacist patriarchy.  Wild Beasts are trying to be better but they still have the privilege of being white men—and in a moment where white male heteropatriarchy is, in advance of January 20th, already stretching its leash to the point of breaking.

At the end of their pre-encore set, Wild Beasts close out with “Alpha Female,” a song where Thorpe declares in the chorus, “Alpha female, I’ll be right behind you.”  I keep waiting for British songwriter and friend of the band Anna Calvi to walk out on stage (as she did in the above video clip at a different show); I keep waiting for this alpha female white woman to walk out into the spotlight.  After the first debate, this election—and now seemingly our daily lives—quickly became about how deeply entrenched straight white patriarchy is in this country and increasingly in many around the world, from Brazil to the supposedly progressive Nordic countries in Europe.  The disconnect between the visuals, sounds, and movements of this Wild Beasts show as an allegory for what’s going on in America right now is unprecedented in any of the 200+ shows I’ve attended in my lifetime.  I am still moving along with this music that a dear friend at Penn introduced me to right after we finished our undergraduate educations, their second album Two Dancers entering my life right as I was really beginning to throw myself into queer theory, with absolutely no turning back (especially not now).  I hear the band lyrically and via banter call for us to not lose hope, even as I look onto stage and notice the absence of a particular white woman (Anna Calvi, who has garnered many comparisons to PJ Harvey for her guitar shredding, shrieking and moaning vocals, and collaborating with original PJH trio member Rob Ellis).  I am moving and moving with the music because to stand still is not a long-term option or solution or strategy.  But it is only when musically grappling with what’s going on that I realize how much all of the uncertainty terrifies me.

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At the very end of “He the Colossus,” Hayden Thorpe sings with pained hesitance, “Do I dare disturb the universe?/ Before it get better, it’s gotta get worse” over a quieting cacophony of guitar, drums, and keys.  As someone who has never encountered a gay slur in ten plus years of wholeheartedly embracing queerdom, these are terrifying words for me to hear.  On the phone, in the airport a mere four days before, I am worrying aloud (more like screaming) to a relative about how many more people will die under this regime change, an intensification of the black and brown death (both in the U.S. and globally) that has become too familiar in the world post-9/11.  That this Wild Beasts show is happening at a venue called the Middle East is not lost on me.  Established almost a decade before the Iran hostage crisis, this Middle East (comprised of a restaurant, bar, and music venue) is an attempt to create sanctuary—a safe space, if we can dare to call anything “safe” these days.  During the set, when the band transition to “Lion’s Share,” Thorpe walks out into the crowd with microphone in hand.  He reaches out to extended hands as we open up a circle around him.  He then somewhat awkwardly half-pogos around our not quite mosh pit, making eye contact and emotively carrying his vocals over extra notes.  I don’t know anyone at the show but for a very brief moment I feel safe, even as I simultaneously notice who is not there—the queers, black and brown people, those who could not afford the $20 ticket for the show, people who have bigger things to worry about than the momentary escape of music or a rock concert.  The circle is only as good as the energy it gives us to go back into the world after the show—and keep fighting.

I’ve sat in (or will soon sit in) many healing circles post-election: with my close friends in my department at UT, with different small pockets of friends in Montreal, with the professors from NYU who taught or have inspired me while we were all in Denver, at friendsgiving back in Austin, at dissertation group, and in queer kinship with the members of the queer studies research cluster that keep me intellectually and emotionally grounded here—at UT/in Austin, in Texas, in academia.  Queerness suddenly feels urgent to me in a way that it did not before, even as I have always foregrounded it as such a major aspect of who I am.  I find myself turning inward, into myself and into the communities of the misfits who always escape to concerts, the outsiders who (intentionally) exist on the periphery of straight culture, and the explicitly militant and politicized queers who won’t shut the fuck up.  From the inside, I then peer outward.  I see white men attempting to make space; Hayden Thorpe steps back for Anna Calvi and Tom Fleming adorns his guitar with vaginal motifs.  I notice well-intentioned but misguided gestures, such as donning safety pins.  I repost the words of people of color on my FB wall and show my students clips of black queer men speaking and snapping in Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied.  Organizing—fuck, living and surviving—is always a matter of striking a balance between making space for others and keeping space for yourself.  The circle at the Wild Beasts show is rudimentary yet is also a formation ready to be taken up and (re)concocted in our lives away from the concert hall.  We’re going to need circles to get through this—and then to connect our circles to other circles in solidarity.

The above video of Wild Beasts traveling to Dallas, TX (many, many miles away from anything familiar to them) to work with producer John Congleton on Boy King speaks to me, who moved from Brooklyn to Texas for graduate school, on many levels.  The footage opens with Hayden Thorpe shuffling through a box of different shakers and tambourines in the studio.  The camera moves from capturing these moments in the studio to shots of taquerias and the Texas sun outside.  “You have to leave it all [somewhere],” Thorpe narrates at the end of the footage.  But before you can leave it all somewhere, you have to find it in the first place.  Two and a half years into my five-year stint in Austin, it is still not easy for me to live here.  Attempting to navigate a city built on racial segregation and a queer scene powered on cliquey-ness sometimes sends me home in great anguish and frustration.  I am still sifting through the boxes of shakers and tambourines in front of me, testing out possible tools for dismantling the quotidian microaggressions (and their structural foundations) that surround me.  More and more with each semester, I find myself sitting around the boxers of shakers with people looking to shake shit up with me.  Out of despair and turmoil, we create and we build.  After being out of town for most of the two weeks immediately following the election, there is suddenly nowhere else that I would rather be.  In Montreal for NWSA and then Denver for ASA, I kept finding myself in the same room with my close friends in my department and the members of the queer studies research cluster.  And I missed my students terribly.  Cities and institutions aren’t perfect but we find ways to build homes in them anyway.  And from there, we charge towards the outside.

The work for us now is to pick up those shakers and tambourines—and make some noise.