How Pop Music Broke the Gender Binary

By Sasha Geffen April 16, 2020

By Sasha Geffen
 April 16, 2020ON MUSIC
MA RAINEY IN 1917. PUBLIC DOMAIN, VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

The gender binary cannot really be broken because the gender binary has never been whole. It has always limped along in pieces, easily cracked by a brief foray into the historical record. The Christian colonialist construction of men as inseminating subjects and women as reproductive objects does not extend into ancient history, nor does it govern every facet of the present. Masculinity and femininity, so much as they refer to certain strategies for moving through the world, have never neatly corresponded to the two types of bodies defined in the opening passages of the Bible. Even human bodies don’t hold true to the popular myth of strictly dimorphic sex, as anyone in the intersex community can tell you.

There have always been more than two genders, and music and gender nonconformity have gone hand in hand since long before pop music emerged as a product—since before the concept of “product” existed. But the patriarchal order, in order to survive, needs to brand threatening ideas as artificial, superimposed, harmful, and new, so as to distract from the underlying truth: that patriarchy itself is artificial, superimposed, harmful, and not nearly as ancient or universal as it pretends to be. Hardly the natural order of the human being, patriarchy relies on the illusion of its own inevitability to survive.

The notion that only two genders exist, and that each gender prescribes specific behaviors, movements, and relations, has always been undercut by a thriving spectrum of deviant expressions that white capitalist patriarchy seeks to erase. When European settlers devastated the Americas, they “looked to the existing sexual and gender variance of Indigenous people as a means of marking them as racially inferior and uncivilized: a justification for a forever unjustified genocidal conquest,” wrote Michael Paramo. During the era of American slavery, white men and women similarly clung to the gender binary to distinguish themselves from the racialized people they were brutalizing, stamping out expressions of gender that didn’t fit into the white Christian patriarchal mold as part of a long campaign of hellish state-sanctioned violence.

The gender binary, which seeks to clearly label who can get pregnant and who can’t, who should have power and who shouldn’t, has served white supremacy for as long as white supremacy has existed. But cross-dressing, homosexuality, and fluidity of form sparkle throughout history. It’s just that the powers that be still need the binary to persist to keep cis white men in charge and cast aside everyone else, and so they rigorously shutter the light that leaks in from just outside their cage.

Music shelters gender rebellion from those who seek to abolish it. In music, drag is not an aberration but a form of play. Women can sing with masculine bravado and men can adopt transcendent femininity: poses that were often dangerous to display offstage and outside the recording studio for people of all genders. Drag queens such as Julian Eltinge sang in vaudeville revues to broad acclaim while homosexuality was still illegal in the United States during the first decades of the twentieth century. Queer, trans, and gender nonconforming artists similarly populate the history of blues, R&B, jazz, and rock and roll. There’s no pop music without artists who reveled in lashing out against the gendered expectations levied upon them from on high.

The blues as a cultural product begins with Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, the Southern singer who in 1923 signed a record deal with Paramount and soon became famous throughout the United States for her powerful, androgynous voice. Her friend and collaborator Bessie Smith, who had auditioned for Rainey’s band in 1911, similarly became a star after signing to Columbia Records. Both women were black and queer, and both sang about lesbian love via barely coded lyrics. Rainey’s song “Sissy Blues” also playfully celebrated feminine gay men: “My man’s got a sissy / His name is Miss Kate / He shook that thing like jelly on a plate,” she sings. In prewar America, major record labels were willing to sell gay records so long as they came from black women, whose voices and presences already deviated from mainstream norms.

“The blues songs recorded by Gertrude Rainey and Bessie Smith offer us a privileged glimpse of the prevailing perceptions of love and sexuality in postslavery black communities in the United States,” wrote Angela Davis in 1998. “Both women were role models for untold thousands of their sisters to whom they delivered messages that defied the male dominance encouraged by mainstream culture. The blues women openly challenged the gender politics implicit in traditional cultural representations of marriage and heterosexual love relationships. Refusing, in the blues tradition of raw realism, to romanticize romantic relationships, they instead exposed the stereotypes and explored the contradictions of those relationships.”

Rainey and Smith, along with fellow blueswoman Lucille Bogan, set the stage for pop music’s tendency to incubate androgyny, queerness, and other taboos in plain view of the powers that would seek to snuff them out. They were joined by Gladys Bentley, the stone butch blues singer who performed in a top hat and tails throughout the Harlem Renaissance in New York and whose deep, gritty voice foreshadowed the guttural howls of rock stars.

In 1938, the gospel guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe laid her music to tape for the first time at age twenty-three. Throughout the following decades, she would develop a style of playing electric guitar that would influence generations of rock musicians to come. Tharpe, too, was queer, and she adapted a phallic symbol of masculinity—the electric guitar—to her own gender-breaking whirlwind of a stage presence. “In that day it was still unusual to see a woman guitarist, in gospel or in any musical field,” wrote Gayle Wald in a 2007 biography of Tharpe. “Not merely to play, but to wield the instrument with authority and ease, was to subvert convention and expectation.” Tharpe was doing the windmill on her guitar while Pete Townshend of the Who, the white man with whom the gesture is most commonly associated, was still learning to walk.

Reach further back in time and you’ll find a long and varied history of third, fourth, and other alternate genders—people who slip between the poles of the Western binary, often in keeping with musical and ceremonial traditions. Among indigenous Americans, Two-Spirited individuals manifest both male and female qualities. In India, third-gender Hijras who recently won the right to their own legal gender marker appear in ancient sacred Hindu texts, such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. In Bolivia, the China Supay—a devil character historically embodied by transfeminine performers—plays a key role in the Carnaval de Oruro festival. Contemporary electronic musician Elysia Crampton dedicated her 2018 self-titled album to Ofelia Espinoza, “one of the mariposas, or butterflies, who forever altered the costume of the china supay in the 1960s and 1970s, the Aymara femme devil performed by queer and trans bodies in the street festivities, which, though now formally Christianized, can be traced back to before the conquest,” she said in a 2018 interview. These identities only mirror the contemporary model of “trans” when viewed through a colonial lens. Within their original contexts, they do not mark a journey from one gender to another, but are natural and frictionless ways of being in their own right.

Many disruptive gender identities have deep ties to music. In Italy, for hundreds of years, a third gender was biologically created for an expressly musical purpose. From the sixteenth century until the early twentieth century, castrati sang in a third voice, neither male nor female. Castrated before puberty so that their voices would never drop, these singers paired the unthickened vocal cords of the soprano with the deep lung capacity of the baritone, resulting in a distinctively androgynous vocal quality. “Although the pitch may have been similar to that of a female, the timbre of the voice was different,” wrote J. S. Jenkins. In 1799, a French music critic “described the castrato sound as being ‘as clear and penetrating as that of choirboys but a great deal louder with something dry and sour about it yet brilliant, light, full of impact.’” For centuries, these voices were popular in opera and in Catholic choirs, though the practice of creating castrati was outlawed in the nineteenth century as industrialization and its attendant social values swept Europe.

The figure of the castrato and the invention of music recording technology briefly overlapped: only one castrato was ever known to make solo recordings. The last surviving Sistine castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, recorded a handful of songs on wax cylinders in 1902 and 1904. The recordings are remarkable. Moreschi’s voice, reportedly past its prime at the time, has a coarse, rippled quality to it. He hits soprano notes with a guttural grain. The texture of his voice, combined with the ghostly quality of the recording, lends a spectral aura to the music. Moreschi does not sound like a combination of male and female vocal traits, but like a supersession of the gender binary altogether.

The availability of musical playback devices surged at the same time that the last of the castrati died. Recorded music, played at first within the inner sanctum of the home, severed the voice from the gendered body. The gramophone had no perceptible gender, and while commercially sold music often reinscribed conventional gender roles, it also frequently dismantled them. In his 1993 book The Queen’s Throat, Wayne Koestenbaum theorizes a connection between the proliferation of recorded music and the articulation of homosexuality, with its associated androgyny, as a social category. “The category of ‘homosexuality’ is only as old as recorded sound,” he notes. “Both inventions arose in the late nineteenth century, and concerned the home. Both are discourses of home’s shattering: what bodies do when they disobey, what bodies do when they are private.”

In the first half of the twentieth century, black American musicians gave rise to new and dangerous genres, including jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll. The history of American music is the history of black music, and since the gender binary is inextricably tied to whiteness, pop music’s story necessarily begins slightly outside its parameters. It begins with queer black women like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Billie Holiday; Ma Rainey, Lucille Bogan, and Bessie Smith, who wove references to lesbian sex into their lyrics; and Big Mama Thornton, who wore suits and ties while singing rhythm and blues. It begins with queer black men like Esquerita and Little Richard, early American rock performers who wore their hair fabulously high and swung their silky falsettos up to meet it. These artists formed the musical base that would give rise to the exceptional popularity of postwar white thieves such as Elvis Presley and the Beatles, who gave white record executives the opportunity to re-create old colonial dynamics by taking well-established cultural forms created by black people, feeding them through the throats of less talented white performers, and pretending that they were brand new.

Both Big Mama Thornton and Little Richard “cut their teeth as singers in the late 1940s in traveling troupes, where queer acts were part of the foundation of the early rhythm and blues music played to black southern audiences,” wrote Tyina Steptoe. These artists, some of the most influential in early rock history, made gay music from the start. Though they ultimately had to “dilute the queer content of their performances” while making mass-produced records, the vocal strategies they employed in their most brazen performances stayed with them: Richard’s irreverent “woos” and Thornton’s guttural croaks both broke out of the boundaries surrounding their assigned gender, and both vocal gestures made it to the recording studio. These musician’s racialized and gendered voices, audibly othered and yet free in their otherness, influenced generations of singers to come.

Sanitized white covers of songs first performed by black musicians tended to sell better than the originals in midcentury America, and in the fifties the recording industry capitalized extensively on this phenomenon by creating Elvis, whose cover of Thornton’s “Hound Dog” became his best-selling single. If we take Elvis to be the first pop product, the first instance of musical monoculture whose open sexuality scandalized older generations of listeners and gave the nascent white teenager a foothold for its new identity, then the pop star, as a mythic figure, has always been somewhat androgynous. Elvis threaded together the vocal quirks of both male and female singers while bridging the black genre of R&B with the white country world. He was a prism of disparate influences and varied gender expressions; his broad success depended on his ability to be anything to almost anyone.

Elvis’s breakthrough caused a stir among the old guard of music critics, who dismissed his performance style as too sexual and therefore too feminine. White men in postwar America were not supposed to exhibit so base an emotion as lust. In 1956, New York Times critic Jack Gould panned Elvis using the same language that many male writers still use to criticize female singers, effectively characterizing him as a male bimbo. “Mr. Presley has no discernible singing ability. His specialty is rhythm songs which he renders in an undistinguished whine; his phrasing, if it can be called that, consists of the stereotyped variations that go with a beginner’s aria in a bathtub,” Gould wrote. “His one specialty is an accented movement of the body that heretofore has been primarily identified with the repertoire of the blonde bombshells of the burlesque runway. The gyration never had anything to do with the world of popular music and still doesn’t.”

It’s difficult, in the twenty-first century, to conceive of Elvis as an androgyne, an effeminate threat to the gendered order. His iconography, sexual as it might be, looks purely masculine in retrospect. He sold so astonishingly well that American culture could not squeeze him out of its vision of maleness; unable to cast Elvis aside as a deviant distraction, mainstream America instead ate him up. If it can’t get rid of them, patriarchy tends to devour its threats. Given enough time and financial motivation, normative masculinity will absorb even its boldest disruptions.

*

Why has music so often served as an accomplice to transcendent expressions of gender? Why did “Is he musical?” become code, in the twentieth century, for “Is he gay?” Why is music so inherently queer?

In the nineteenth century, the first glimmering of the modern gay rights movement cropped up among writers who theorized the existence of the Uranian or Urning—a third-gender person assigned male at birth who housed a feminine spirit. English author Edward Carpenter suggested that music was the form of expression most closely allied with the Uranian—that is, that music might be the gayest art possible. “As to music, this is certainly the art which in its subtlety and tenderness—and perhaps in a certain inclination to indulge in emotion—lies nearest to the Urning nature,” he wrote.

Music’s ambiguity also enables the covert expression of queer desire and identity. “Historically, music has been defined as mystery and miasma, as implicitness rather than explicitness, and so we have hid inside music,” wrote Koestenbaum. “In music we can come out without coming out, we can reveal without saying a word.” Because music is a language of subliminal expression, because it hides in paradox and contradiction, it has historically served as a safe house for manifestations of nonnormative gender and sexuality. As Ann Powers writes in the introduction to Good Booty, “Popular music’s very form, its ebb and flow of excitement so closely resembling the libido, drew people to it as a way to speak what, according to propriety, couldn’t be spoken.” Music offers a more detailed, nuanced form of expression than even spoken language, and far more nuanced than the sex and gender binaries imposed from on high. And yet 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. “BD women, you sure can’t understand / They got a head like a sweet angel and they walk just like a natural man,” Lucille Bogan sang on her 1935 recording of “BD Woman’s Blues” (referring to “bull dyke women”). She openly celebrated her butch and transmasculine siblings decades before the fight for LGBTQ rights had entered the mainstream.

Listening to music is inherently a sensual exchange. Music enters the ear, causes pleasure, and inspires identification in the listener, who is not merely a passive participant in the encounter. The listener joins the singer in the song’s ambiguous and ephemeral space, and is changed by the act of attentive, emotional listening. “The listener’s inner body is illuminated, opened up: a singer doesn’t expose her own throat, she exposes the listener’s interior,” wrote Koestenbaum. “Her voice enters me, makes me a ‘me,’ an interior, by virtue of the fact that I have been entered. The singer, through osmosis, passes through the self’s porous membrane, and discredits the fiction that bodies are separate, boundaried packages.”

Anyone who has loved music has felt what Koestenbaum describes. The singer’s voice enters the listener and becomes the listener’s voice. The fan hears a beloved song and believes she is singing the words of the song, that they were written for her to sing. The division between artist and fan dissolves in the moment of impassioned listening, and with it goes the division between genders. In music, people are not separate; they cannot be divided up into two discrete categories.

At the 2018 Pop Conference at Seattle’s Museum of Pop, the scholar E. Glasberg, while moderating a keynote panel called “The Butch Throat,” wondered what the contemporary analog to the castrato voice might be. Whose voice soars above society’s gendered poles? In my new book Glitter Up the Dark, I wanted to explore some answers to this complex question, to shed some light on why music has become a unique cultural incubator for the expression of gender transgressions. It is not intended as a comprehensive catalog of androgyny in music; if it were, it would be much longer. Instead, it is meant as an investigation of the different strategies musicians have used to break out of the limited range of motion and expression mandated by gender essentialism. There are cis men and women who have used music as a temporary escape from their otherwise stable and socially ordained gender identity. There are trans men and women musicians who transitioned while in the process of making a pivotal work, perhaps seeing an opening in the music they were making at the time. And there are artists who defy labeling, who revel in music’s ambiguity as it reflects their own. I don’t mean to equivocate among these identities—nonbinary trans people face different challenges and follow different trajectories than do trans women and men—but to illuminate their common strategies as they pertain to music’s unique potential for defection from the status quo.

Over the past half century, music has accelerated the discussions of trans identity and gender fluidity that now command so much attention on a national scale. The second decade of the twenty-first century has seen growing mainstream support for trans people, though this wave of affirmation has also prompted considerable backlash, in turn. In 2014, Time magazine announced the “transgender tipping point” in popular culture via a cover story on actress Laverne Cox. The article called attention to the fact that trans people exist, have existed for a long time, and are not going away, even as its enthusiasm for a bold new world may have been preemptive: the forty-fifth American presidential administration is currently working overtime to delete trans people from reality and make our lives as difficult as possible. But trans people, as history shows, are not so easy to erase.

In Colorado, where I live, it’s now possible to get a driver’s license with the gender marked “X” instead of “M” or “F.” The AP Stylebook includes an entry on the singular “they” and advises calling trans people by their true names, not their dead ones. In interviews, mainstream pop stars such as Miley Cyrus and Sam Smith openly speak about their in-between gender identities, a feeling of neitherness that can be readily heard in the way they sing—in the creases of Cyrus’s husky alto, in the way Smith’s gossamer tenor lifts away from the diaphragm. In 2017, the pop songwriter Teddy Geiger, who has penned hits such as “Stitches” for Canadian singer Shawn Mendes, came out as a trans woman to the open excitement and joy of her famous collaborators. And in 2018, a giant projection of the late star Prince sang the lines, “I’m not a woman / I’m not a man / I am something that you’ll never understand” during the halftime show of the fifty-second Super Bowl, echoing his real-life performance at the same show in 2007. Gender transgression crept its way into even that most ostentatious display of normative American manhood.

Something has changed in America. Among more and more people, gender is understood not as an inevitable, unchanging characteristic acquired at birth, but as a language, a technology, a system of communication with a full range of expression. Trans and gender nonconforming people have always survived with or without the acknowledgment of the dominant culture, and the dangers posed by the straight world persist, but at the very least it has become easier for us to find each other, to call out into the dark and hear a chorus of voices calling back in return.

In a song called “Don’t Let Them In,” the queer performer Perfume Genius sings against a delicate trill of piano, “In an alternate ribbon of time / My dances were sacred / My lisp was evidence / I spoke for both spirits.” His voice carries the same ambiguity I hear throughout pop music’s history: a sense of belonging to neither gender, floating beyond the impetus to box oneself in. This alternate ribbon of time is not a parallel universe. It winds through recent and ancient history, as musician after musician has opened space to dance outside the roles they were prescribed at birth. Listen and you’ll hear it: a catch of breath, a euphoric wail, a skidding away from one way of being to another and back again.

Do not believe those bootlickers of the patriarchy who flailingly insist upon the androgyne’s novelty, and don’t listen to anyone who construes trans people as fictions. Trans people are as ancient as music. We have always been here, singing from the shadows, glittering up the dark.

Sasha Geffen is a writer based in Colorado. Their work focuses on the intersections between pop culture and gender and has appeared in Rolling StonePitchforkArtforumThe Nation, and The New Inquiry, among others.

Excerpted from Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary, by Sasha Geffen, © 2020, published with permission from the University of Texas Press.


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