Pitchfork Book Club highlights today’s best new music books.
Growing up queer requires a unique set of survival skills. You learn to pick up on subtle social cues, whether from potential tormentors, suspicious adults, or other queer people. You figure out you’re the other before you even know what that means, usually from a stray comment about your gait, your speaking voice, your interests. You’re put into a box before you come of age, with a host of expectations and judgments that disabuse you of the ability to craft an identity for yourself.
For many of us denied that experience, art becomes a lifeboat. Music, with its intimate ability to bridge the gap between artist and listener, leaves a lot of room to dream into. Whether by way of the disco mavens who projected glamour, the riot grrrls who took a sledgehammer to gender expectations, or the gender-fluid pop artists of today who use technology to subvert, music has this ability to transport queer people to another realm entirely—to design a self-image of our own making.
In Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary, Sasha Geffen sets out to banish that lack of self-identification in queer readers. The Colorado-based critic (and Pitchfork contributor) dismantles the myth of gender experimentation as an anomaly throughout music history by tracing a lineage from blues icons Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, who sang thinly-veiled lesbian lyrics 100+ years ago, to the present wave of internet-based iconoclasts like Arca and SOPHIE. The timeline is peppered with queer, trans, and gender-subverting artists who ruptured the rules of the binary, ranging from the mega-mainstream (Prince, pop culture’s patron saint of gender mindfuckery) to the underground (proto-punk pioneer Jayne County). The book speaks to pop music’s effect on future generations of norm-breaking artists, but also on public perceptions of gender and its engagement with race and class politics.
Part of the joy of reading Glitter Up the Dark lies in Geffen’s sheer depth of research. The first-time author takes detours through post-punk, industrial, synth-pop, grunge, and countless more scenes in order to link gender performances across eras. The scope is most evident when Geffen zeroes in on smaller, little-reported moments, like DJ Frankie Knuckles’ origin story in the New York City drag scene, before he helped invent house music in Chicago; or the rumor that the Ramones’ “53rd and 3rd” is about bassist Dee Dee’s time as a sex worker hustling a popular gay cruising spot.
Geffen keeps the narrative grounded in the trappings of the patriarchy, exploring how different marginalized identities navigated that system in order to break it. In capturing the emergence of female masculinity in early hip-hop, Geffen describes Salt-N-Pepa and Detroit rapper Boss as adopting gruff rapping styles in order to consciously invert the era’s dynamic, of women as the singers and men as the rappers. This idea reaches its pinnacle in the mind-blowing, at-times-surreal music and visuals of Missy Elliott, an artist who consistently subverts gender expectations. “Missy integrated masculinity into her work, but she was also abundantly feminine, seizing as many gender markers as she could to overload the eye and the ear,” Geffen writes. “Her work was and is delightfully confusing, breaking open the expectations levied on it with a keen sense of play and chaos.”
Prince, who upended expectations of pop star masculinity with his discerning aesthetics and flamboyant crop tops, is given one of the book’s lengthier appraisals. Purple Rain’s schmaltzy screenplay is treated like a formative text, akin to academic works outlining queer theory. Geffen designates Prince’s sapphic strain of androgyny as a “channel of free expression and free love, a liquid space where [he] could not only desire women but adopt those features he desired at the same time.” He took on an alter-ego named Camille and recorded an entire album in her pitched-up voice (the project was scrapped but a few Camille songs appear on Sign o’ the Times). That duality recurs throughout Glitter Up the Dark as a way to free oneself and occupy a more liminal space; besides Camille, Laurie Anderson’s Fenway Bergamot alter-ego offers another interesting example, with his snazzy suits and digitally altered voice that parodies masculinity.
Gender ambiguity as artistic reinvention is an ongoing conversation across the book. I was constantly surprised by how many artists I love are revealed to have been playing with gender on a micro level. Ian Curtis, singing about his discomfort in a shrugged-off baritone, shifted something loose in me when I first heard Joy Division in high school. Geffen highlights “Disorder” lyrics where Curtis pleads to feel the “pleasures of a normal man,” a detail I hadn’t picked up on as many times as I’ve buried myself in the song’s motorik paranoia. In a section on pop punk, Geffen breaks down the “deviant affection” at the root of Buzzcocks’ 1978 classic “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldnt’ve),” making the queer subtext—that gnawing sense of forbidden longing—gloriously obvious. It feels like a pinch back to reality when Geffen then points out that a sanitized version of the song made it onto the Shrek 2 soundtrack.
Of course, expressions of gender experimentation have existed covertly in music perhaps forever, but quite clearly throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. In describing the Beatles’ early appeal to teenage girls, Geffen notes that the Fab Four covered girl-group staples by the Shirelles and the Cookies on their 1963 debut Please Please Me, imparting their boy-band allure by imitating harmonies of sisterly bonding. “They’re boys emulating girls who have grown tired of gender scripts,” Geffen writes. “Boys trying to be girls who are sick of what it means to be a girl.”
On the flip side, Geffen digs into Grace Jones’ covers of Iggy Pop and David Bowie songs, which “bask in and intensify the apathy [they] got to enjoy as men.” Jones, like Prince, visually and musically reconfigured the template for celebrity gender presentation and existed somewhere thrilling, in between masculinity and femininity. “Her performances also have a male and female side, and yet her work does not simply project her interior experience of gender,” Geffen writes. “Jones’s music is not an opportunity to know her. It revels in its own artificiality.”
Identity has never been a fixed idea—instead, it’s always been a conduit for grand expressions of selfhood. Geffen seamlessly imparts this idea into a patchwork of music history. “The fiction of identity is one that is accessed with relative ease by most majoritarian subjects,” the late Cuban-American academic José Esteban Muñoz wrote in his 1999 collection Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. “Minoritarian subjects need to interface with different subcultural fields to activate their own senses of self.” Glitter Up the Dark offers a musical roadmap for such an activation, one paved with countless examples of gender as a device for personal metamorphosis. It’s an essential contribution to the modern music-book canon, made all the more intimate in Sasha Geffen’s hands.
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