How Pop Music Broke the Binary
Sasha Geffen’s Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary is best read with headphones on and YouTube at the ready. For queer fans of music, the table of contents itself is exciting: Essays like “Butch Throats: Women’s Music and Riot Grrrl” and “Funky Cyborgs: Time, Technology, and Gender in Hip-Hop” await. It might be tempting to turn to an essay that focuses on familiar artists or nostalgic times, and that’s definitely a pleasurable way to read the book. However, to begin at the beginning and read through the book in order is a joyful exercise in pattern recognition. Part of the gratification of reading in order is clocking the lovely echoes Geffen reveals between movements and artists, audiences and media.
The introduction is an interesting primer on gender construction and how it shaped the role of music in popular culture. Like the most successful of musical movements, the last paragraph is a challenge, invocation, and invitation to burn it all to the ground: “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.”
Young artists’ unwillingness to define themselves by outdated modalities and identities has created a rising confusion between the straight and non-straight worlds, but their insistence upon the creation of a new world altogether has alienated the queers of old.
My favorites of these essays include movements that I was either not at all familiar with, or thought I knew everything about. The first is a sideways portrait of the Beatles, who have historically been lauded for their willingness to break with gender, class, and social conventions. Geffen posits that the Beatles not only broadcast “androgyny across the States on an unprecedented scale” but also broke with traditional masculine convention by embracing the “vocal relationships” popularized by black girl groups of the day (the Shirelles, Marvelettes, Cookies).
Unlike other books that track music movements through American history, Geffen’s observations probe beyond likely pairings and influences. Their intersectional approach examines age-old American burglarization of black music, and deftly analyzes how the racial and economic oppression of those left behind contributed directly to the successes of some of the biggest white artists in history.
Another of my favorite essays in this collection focuses on Klaus Nomi, a German countertenor who often came to the stage dressed in plastic and made up in the colors of a French mime. His voice was so novel and shocking that audiences had to be reassured that they weren’t hearing an electronic “womanized” version of a man’s voice. Nomi’s work and surprising popularity is introduced in an essay titled “The Fake Makes It Real: Synthpop and MTV,” which examines drifting gender expressions in the 1970s and ’80s. Geffen deconstructs the shifting artifices of Nomi, David Bowie, Grace Jones, and Annie Lennox, pulling from live performances and music videos—many of which can be found online.
Readers outside of music journalism and gender theory will find the prose accessible and clear. For instance, in “Funky Cyborgs” Geffen economically breaks down the brilliant fun in Missy Elliott’s form and content: “Throughout her music and her videography, Elliott strained against the standards that threatened to cage her. She made hit songs with unintelligible hooks, scrambling her voice into gibberish. On ‘Work It,’ the lead single from her 2002 album Under Construction, she throws her voice into reverse. ‘Put my thang down, flip it, and reverse it,’ she raps at the chorus, and then plays the line backwards twice. It’s a hook that dispels any attempts to sing along with it, and it stuck in people’s ears all the same, reaching number two on Billboard’s Hot 100.”
Geffen’s work doesn’t shy away from difficult anomalies, uncertain futures, and the queering of mainstream artists for the sake of Internet infamy. In “No Shape: The Formless Internet,” Geffen explores musical artists pushing past what older generations had come to find comfortable. This marked difference between generations of self-identified LGBTQIA folks is couched in the rise of a new language, new art, and new expression surrounding gender, identity, and sexual attraction. Young artists’ unwillingness to define themselves by outdated modalities and identities has not only created a rising confusion between the straight and non-straight worlds, but their insistence upon the creation of a new world altogether has alienated the queers of old. Artists like Janelle Monae, Perfume Genius’s Mike Hadreas, and Arca build on the freedom that David Bowie, Gladys Bentley, and Sylvester claimed was their own. In doing so, they also forge a new path for the future.
Perhaps the most personal parts of the book are the introduction and the coda, which offer a little insight into the author’s relationship to music and its power to offer hope in an uncompromising world. Geffen writes that music “binds you to other people, letting you share in sublingual joy. Music dissolves the artificial boundaries we build between each other.” This spring, as the spread of COVID-19 pushes us farther and farther apart on the physical plane, Geffen’s essays are more than just portals to the past and the future. They’re community when we need it most.
REVIEWED BY JACK KAULFUS
Jack Kaulfus is a trans writer living and teaching in Austin, Texas. Jack’s first collection of stories, Tomorrow or Forever, is now out with Transgress Press. To read more of their writing, both online and in print, visit jackaulfus.com. Jack is also the Fiction Editor of Gertrude.