Queer I

Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary BY Sasha Geffen. Austin: University of Texas Press. 264 pages. $19.

The cover of Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary

In November 1961, a closeted gay man in a well-tailored suit went to see an unsigned and relatively new musical group performing at a Liverpool club called the Cavern. “I was immediately struck by their music, their beat, and their sense of humor on stage—and . . . when I met them, I was struck again by their personal charm,” Brian Epstein would write in A Cellarful of Noise, his 1964 memoir about the band he would soon manage, make over, and turn into mop-topped superstars. Teasingly, referring to the open secret of Epstein’s private life, John Lennon suggested an alternate title: A Cellarful of Boys.

“The gaze cast on the Beatles was a queer one from the start,” the critic Sasha Geffen writes in their incisive first book, Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary (University of Texas Press, $19). It is seldom now, fifty years after the Beatles’ breakup, that one encounters new ideas about the most written-up band of all time—but, I have to say, I’d never quite heard that one before. Such is the subversive thrill of Geffen’s wide-ranging book, which takes a brisk tour of the last century or so of pop music to ask a number of provocative questions: “Why has music so often served as an accomplice to transcendent expressions of gender? Why did the query ‘Is he musical?’ become code, in the twentieth century, for ‘Is he gay?’ Why is music so inherently queer?”

Geffen’s most compelling answer winds throughout their reading of everything from Italian castrati to MTV: the free rein that ambiguity allows. “The powers that be do not always recognize music as subversion. Music is a space where singers can say what they mean without saying it, where melody and rhythm offer plausible deniability for even the most plainly sung truths.” This is one way of explaining why so many of pop music’s most magnetic heroes—Little Richard, David Bowie, Patti Smith, Frank Ocean, among others—revel so freely in androgyny that words like “gay,” “straight,” “girl,” or “boy” all seem too limiting, if not entirely beside the point. It does not seem coincidental that Prince, one of pop’s defining sexual icons, changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, or that the closest he came to labeling himself was in the lyric, “I’m not a woman / I’m not a man / I am something that you’ll never understand.”

For many of the artists in this book, music and performance’s inherent haziness is able to envelop everything in an intoxicating fog, which allows artists the freedom to try on different gender identities without always revealing where, exactly, their “authentic” selves begin. (Of course, it offers similar possibilities to the complex and questioning people listening, too.) This is the “alternate ribbon of time”—a phrase Geffen borrows from the queer indie pop star Perfume Genius—that links the butch blues singer Lucille Bogan’s 1935 recording of “BD Woman’s Blues” (the initials stood for “bull dyke”) with, say, the crusading punk group Against Me!’s 2007 song “The Ocean.” Five years before the band’s front person Laura Jane Grace came out as a transgender woman, she sang in that song, “If I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman / My mother once told me she would have named me Laura.” Presuming poetic license, no one batted an eyelash. Grace “assumed everyone around her would pick up on her overt confession of dysphoria,” Geffen writes, “but couched in a song, it glanced off the world.”

The birth of MTV in 1981 opened up a whole other medium of imagination—and plenty of new opportunities for video stars to scramble gender norms. Unlike the previous promotional clips that usually centered around live-performance footage, music videos, Geffen writes, “could be fantasies in miniature, four-minute dramas divorced from the conceit of the live show but softer and more liquid than narrative-based short films.” Boring, uninspired misogyny certainly flourished in the heyday of MTV in every genre from hair metal to hip-hop, but Geffen is more interested in limiting their scope to the innovative artists who used the medium to toy with gender roles and bring transgressive erotic reveries into the mainstream. Grace Jones and Annie Lennox toggled fluidly between butch and femme imagery, while synth-pop acts like Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Soft Cell slyly smuggled the gay underground into daytime programming. (At least until the BBC’s higher-ups finally realized what Frankie meant by “when you want to come,” and promptly banned the hit video for “Relax.”)

Music’s ability to offer “a more detailed, nuanced form of expression than even spoken language” isn’t always a boon: it also means there’s a lot of atrocious writing about it out there. Geffen, thankfully, skirts that tradition. Their lucid prose is frequently enlivened by small, passing insights into music I’ve encountered a million times but will now forever hear refracted through their imagery and words: Donna Summer’s percussive pronunciation of “love to love” “hits like a brushed cymbal”; Joy Division’s Ian Curtis “carried his low voice as though it were new and unfamiliar to him, like that of a pubescent child whose vocal chords thicken before he enjoys a growth spurt.” Glitter Up the Dark also converses with the more academic strains of queer theory (without getting overwhelmed by them). One particularly resonant chapter applies the ideas laid out in Jack Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place (2005) to the origins of house music during the aids epidemic. “If the straight world collapsed time in the ’80s, marking even healthy gay people as already dead, then house music helped queer communities reclaim the present tense,” Geffen writes. “In the now of the dance floor, gender and sexuality have no eventualities.”

Perfume Genius, 2020.
Perfume Genius, 2020. Camille Vivier

In their previous writing for publications like Pitchfork, NPR, and The Nation, Geffen has established a reputation as a sharp millennial music critic whose work engages with internet culture; their writing often interrogates what previous generations of rock critics denigrated or overlooked and, in turn, looks enthusiastically toward a more egalitarian and cyborg-ian future (they have profiled artists like Björk and the trans electronic musician and producer Sophie). Since its early gonzo days in the ’60s and ’70s, modern music criticism has a legacy of being largely white, heteronormative, and overrun with cisgender machismo. Given this history, Geffen’s perspective is refreshing, and sometimes able to draw welcome attention to other critics’ blind spots. Writing about Swedish electronic duo the Knife’s 2006 album Silent Shout, Geffen notes that several reviewers, including the “dean of American rock critics,” Robert Christgau, automatically and mistakenly assumed that the male bandmate Olof Dreijer was responsible for the band’s production while Karin Dreijer—who describes themselves as genderfluid—was merely the “wacky” singer. “It was easier to imagine a man modulating Karin’s voice than to believe they were the one pitching themselves across octaves,” Geffen writes, with just the right dash of vinegar.

In both its approach to criticism and in the sounds of the forward-looking young artists described in its later chapters, Glitter Up the Dark subtly captures a generational shift. Though written at a time when, as Geffen notes passingly in the introduction, “the forty-fifth American presidential administration is currently working overtime to delete trans people from reality and make our lives as difficult as possible,” the book’s final pages resound with something resembling hope. In a coda, Geffen attends a Sophie concert in Los Angeles and finds the crowd “overflowing with beautiful, chaotic, chimerical genders.” Recent polls have shown the members of Generation Z to be even more accepting of gender nonconformism than millennials (declared one 2016 Vice headline, “Teens These Days Are Queer AF, New Study Says”), and attitudes about nonbinary gender identities are trending in a more progressive direction than ever before.

But the internet, as we’ve come to know by now, is in equal parts an agent of connection and commodification. As queerness becomes more loudly celebrated in the mainstream, the word “queer” risks becoming just another SEO tag or marketing adjective. As a music critic myself, I’ve uneasily noted a tendency in recent years for publicists to use terms like “queer” and “gender-bending” in their email subject lines when pitching new artists, as though these attributes automatically made an artist worth listening to, or even that there was something inherently virtuous about the consumption of their art. While reading the final chapter, which brings us to the present day, I found myself thinking how “queer” and its nebulous opposite “straight” have, in the quick, clicky discourse of the internet, risked hardening into their own kind of binary that limits the way we think about music. Two of the artists Geffen mentions briefly in that chapter, Sophie and the anarchic 2010s rap collective Odd Future, have in the past few years experienced a whiplash-inducing change in the tone of the criticism about them. Before Sophie transitioned, her music was criticized as being the product of just another man co-opting hyperfeminine sounds and imagery; that criticism feels unfortunately one-dimensional in the aftermath of her gender-affirmation. Similarly, Odd Future’s Tyler, the Creator was subject to a cottage industry’s worth of think pieces analyzing the violent misogyny and homophobia of his vivid lyrics; since he’s begun flirting with queerness in his rhymes, though, his past work (for those that can stomach it) feels more worthy of complex reappraisal than knee-jerk censure. Geffen doesn’t delve deeply enough into this to come to any conclusions beyond the influx of queer-identifying artists being a net positive, perhaps because the ink isn’t yet dry on any of these narratives—and critics’ past mistakes were in assuming it was.

What I found most valuable about Glitter Up the Dark was the lens through which it looks back and invites us to notice how such seeming “subversions” have always been present beneath the surface of even the most popular music, from the manager who styled the Beatles’ early stage look, to MTV’s libidinous strangeness, to Kurt Cobain’s deeply felt affinity for uterine imagery. Reading this book often gave me the sensation that I was looking at a familiar scene through a kaleidoscope, suddenly seeing smeared borders and tiny, winking rainbows everywhere.

Lindsay Zoladz is a writer in Brooklyn who has received the American Society of Magazine Editors’ Next Award for Journalists Under 30. Formerly a staff critic at New York magazine and The Ringer, she frequently writes for the New York Times, Bookforum, and other publications.