We lost many an androgynous icon this year. David Bowie. Prince Rogers Nelson. George Michael. They were celebrity deaths within a year of death, a year where black and brown people continued to be gunned down by the police, transwomen of color continued to be murdered (and sometimes misgendered), refugees were trapped as they were trying to escape Aleppo, and queer or queer-friendly night clubs (Pulse in Orlando, Ghost Ship in Oakland) were caught in—or on—fire. And then we played the “it could have been me” game, as hard as we may have tried to avoid this. It could have been me… in a tightly filled venue in Manhattan during high school. It could have been me… at a packed basement in West Philly. It could have been me… on the floor at a cafe in Brooklyn. It could have been someone I knew; it could have been an entire contingent of people I knew.
Yet I am still here, left with the living to write, reflect, scream, and cry over it as I will.
When news of the shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando in June reached me, I could hardly hold it together. For days, I could not seem to focus. Despite my very conflicted relationship with gay clubs, I felt the loss of so many people (and that so many of them Latinx) viscerally. Music is a survival mechanism for some or many queer, black, brown, and/or punk people—and my queer white female self is in good company with them. I always tell friends that I experienced my first conscious desires for women at a Tegan & Sara concert at Bowery Ballroom in Manhattan in January 2005. Queerness and androgyny materialized as options for me in a new way on that night. In music and/or in these night clubs, some or many of us find the space to be as fluid with gender and sexuality as we have always wanted—or didn’t even realize that we needed. To see such clubs under fire is to watch our dreams go up in flames. But, we are not without the power to keep these dreams from being relegated to the realms of nightmares.
Androgyny and intergenerationality have always one hand-in-hand for me.
Midway through high school, I began to fill my walls with new icons. As I was in a transitional period in my music listening life, let alone my in existence as a teenager, it was a more than fitting time to shake up the photos on my wall. Down came Jack White, Julian Casablancas, and Roddy Woomble and up went Sleater-Kinney, Placebo, and Tegan & Sara. Although there was something at least a little bit queer about nearly all members of this new blessed trinity of bands, Placebo’s Brian Molko stood out most for his androgyny.
Underneath the crucifix in my room, I strategically positioned a black and white photo of Molko looking pretty as ever. In the photo, Brian Molko slightly pouts his lips and stares into the camera as long pieces of hair fall over the edges of his face. My sixteen-year-old self thought that he was incredibly beautiful (still do)—and marvelled over his ability to let masculinity and femininity co-exist on his body. Between him and Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein, I had plenty of inspiration for (very slowly) beginning to cultivate an aesthetic that I now describe as “feminine hipster boy.” Wanting high school to be over already since the end of my sophomore year, I came home every night to these images.
It was 2004 yet my bedroom was covered with photos of Sleater-Kinney and Placebo from the mid- to late 1990s. Brian Molko had cut off his hair for the release of Sleeping with Ghosts, the 2003 Placebo album that I came to purchase through hearing one of its songs on an Urban Outfitters sampler CD; nevertheless, it was the photos of him from the 1990s that most appealed to me. I was 16, looking at photos of Brian Molko at 26 from six years back in time. What I didn’t realize then but understand now is that Brian Molko was doing his own share of gazing at photos of musicians from a generation(s) ahead of him. Working backwards through Placebo’s discography, I eventually reached their 2000 album Black Market Music. For the Japanese version of this album (which is what I found in the used CDs section at Sounds in St. Mark’s in Manhattan), the band included a re-recording of the song “Without You I’m Nothing” featuring David Bowie. I had no idea who David Bowie was at that point (and wouldn’t until I heard Ziggy Stardust in someone’s dorm room in college), so I had to go look him up online. I was amazed at the images that I found of him—and would never forget the lightning bolt cutting across his face on the cover of Aladdin Sane.
When David Bowie died at the beginning of the year, I immediately went searching for footage of he and Brian Molko performing together. A longtime fan of the band, Bowie would on occasion join Placebo for a performance of “Without You I’m Nothing,” a fan favorite even before Bowie’s blessing. “Without You I’m Nothing” is one of Placebo’s most painfully beautiful songs, a song about love lost that is so acutely personal that Brian Molko eventually stopped including it on Placebo’s setlists. But on the night of March 29, 1999, Bowie joined the band on stage at Webster Hall in New York City.
The above footage takes place in a dressing room at Webster Hall, before the time of the performance. A 28-year-old Brian Molko is seated on a chair, guitar in hand; a 52-year-old David Bowie kneels next to him with an unlit cigarette in his mouth. After Molko gets the song going, Bowie stands up and retreats into the corner. As the camera zooms in on Brian Molko’s face at 1:23 and again at 2:13 into the footage, the younger musician can hardly contain his joy over rehearsing with one of his idols.
At the 2:36 mark, the two discuss harmonizing in between lyrics:
Molko: “I’m coming up.”
Bowie: “Mmm, keep that harmony, man. It’s much better here.”
Molko: “It’s hard, though.”
Bowie: “Oh, is it?” [looks at Molko with eyes full of feeling]
Molko: “I can try it.”
As the song progresses, Molko and Bowie move up octaves and into the registers traditionally classified as female—to the extent that they are practically screeching at the end. More than a shared penchant for femininity and makeup, the androgynous connection between Molko and Bowie in this moment is just as much sonic as it is visual. “And I will sing, waiting for the gift of sound and vision,” David Bowie declares in his 1977 song “Sound and Vision.” In 1999, Bowie was over three decades into his career of gender-blending via the aural and the visual. In the presence of the younger Brian Molko, Bowie illustrates how it is the imperative of those who come next to pick up and continue this work of troubling binaries. The song is Placebo’s yet Bowie’s presence is a welcome one, lending Molko’s sonic and visual transgression an air of posterity. Of course, what is also passed down in this moment is whiteness. We see Bowie, but not Prince or Grace Jones; we can sense Freddie Mercury, but not Sylvester or Little Richard. While this is a powerful moment of intergenerational androgyny and bisexuality, it happens within a particular white genealogy—and between men.
There is a second possible meaning of the “vision” in “sound and vision.” In addition to what one sees in front of her, there is the vision of what one would like to see. Through the photos of Brian Molko on my wall in high school, I was able to envision a female self that strayed away from the gender binary. In a more musical vein, Grace Jones was able to use the Bowie-penned “Nightclubbing” (written for Iggy Pop in 1977) to create her own version of sonic and visual androgyny, one in which blackness was/is an indisputable component. It can be easy to overlook race when androgyny is conceptualized in terms of sexual and gender fluidity, even as definitions of race are what get reconfigured in this process. My proposed dissertation project is an exploration of black sonic and visual androgyny, a zooming in on the places where blackness, femininity, and queerness become scrambled. This blog is becoming a space where I unpack many of the things that hover in the background of that work: my own whiteness, the slew of white bands that I listened to in high school and college (and, for some of them, still listen to today), my personal investments in queerness and androgyny, and my positionality as a white person who grew up surrounded by racial diversity and immersed in music made by black people.
Throughout this hell of year (which has been quite good to me on an individual level but, conflictingly, quite shitty in terms of the state of the country—and the world), I have continuously kept turning back to Cathy Cohen’s 1997 essay “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?” On the first page of the essay, Cohen proclaims, “Many of us continue to search for a new political direction and agenda, one that does not focus on integration into dominant structures but instead seeks to transform the basic fabric and hierarchies that allow systems of oppression to persist and operate efficiently” (GLQ, Vol. 3, Issue 4, p. 437). Cohen is critical of conceptualizations of queer politics in the late 1990s, asserting that such politics reinforce an overly simplistic binary between “heterosexual” and “queer.” Better to, she suggests, turn to the workings of punks, bulldaggers, and welfare queens for reimagining intersectional (race, class, gender, and sexuality) coalitions for challenging power structures and creating new worlds. Cohen presents this expansive queerness as the foundation for a new politics.
My question always is: if politics have supposedly failed, then do we need to begin from somewhere else entirely and build up a new politics from there? Could androgyny do this work? Could music? As Josh Kun writes in Audiotopia: Music, Race, America, “Music can’t topple regimes, break chains, or stop bullets. But it can keep us alive” (17). After so many people have died in so many terrible ways this year, I am looking for the ways that we can physically, mentally, and emotionally keep ourselves alive on both an individual and collective level. We all need to find the thing right now that’s going to make sure we keep taking care of ourselves and one another. Listening to Placebo is what kept me from descending into depression during the later half of high school; meeting people in line for Sleater-Kinney shows in early college is what gave me some of my first glimpses into alternative kinds of collectivity. Yet as I’ve learned from the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement(s) during my time in grad school, I too have had my share of racism to unlearn, from both mainstream and indie cultures. Plotting in my room, I slip back into the music that first got me through high school. Intermixing that with sounds from the year of the album, I once again begin to imagine new worlds and collective possibilities.
In 2017, I’m choosing music.