Junebug versus Hurricane


She’s Got To Be

She’s Got To Be

Taylor Black

July 2011


When I was very young I wanted to be a witch.  No, not in the sun and moon-worshipping, pentacle-wearing way, but a real witch, the kind you see in movies.  In fact, my obsession was specifically with the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz, and until I was around seven or eight years old I not only idolized her mentally and emotionally but also dressed as her more often than not.  Cloaked in black, witch’s hat in place and riding around my family’s house on a broomstick, I felt most at home in my own skin.

As the years passed and all the confusing feelings and sensations brought on by puberty began to wax, all the imperiousness and dark glamour that influenced my idea of myself as a young witch transformed into what might be generously called a bourgeoning gender and sexual identity.  As I ceased riding around on broom sticks and began to ponder my life as a matured adult being I then began to slowly cultivate a different idea of myself as a person found myself drawn to women that were, like Miss Witch: cold, commanding and horribly imposing.

I then spent the rest of my teenage years basking in the glow of these women and this wicked, feminized vision of myself.  Luckily, I then found myself able to manipulate my icy form of majestic detachment as a sort of self-defense mechanism as I hurtled through all the drama one might expect for a depraved young faggot growing up in the oppressively masculine, drab Bible Belt South.  More tragically, I suppose, I also felt a certain distance —from other people, from lovers, from myself, from my own body.

Living in the ivory tower of my fantasies, I began to feel all alone.  And then soon I was.  Everything would be okay, would stay in its rightful place, so long as I didn’t look into a mirror.  Sex felt alright if I didn’t have to be touched or feel anything good.  Friendships were okay if I did all the talking but none of the sharing.  Being a member of my family was fine just as long as no one mentioned or thought about my future as a human being, much less as a gendered one.

Fast-forward to my sad, stony face staring around New York City, my new home.  Running just as fast as I could out of North Carolina and pointing my toes, or my broomstick, due north, I landed on its shores at age 18, expecting something of a community and some kind of solid sense of identity to come my way.  The queer world I found myself in was not one I was able to fold myself so easily into.  Drunk on (post-)identity politics and the prescriptive narratives and vocabularies that went along with it, I felt even more failed than before.  Knee-deep in sinners presumably like myself and settled into a community of queers and a city full of failures, I still felt my obvious lack of identification and hope for my sorry state of sexual abjection and gender dysphoria to be a burden and a source of that same loneliness I’d become so accustomed to.

Which brings me, however belatedly, to the song that I intended to focus squarely on this week, but that got waylaid by this little confessional.  Not just the title for this mistaken autobiography of mine, but also the title of the second song off of Amy Ray’s most recent solo record Didn’t It Feel Kinder\”She\’s Got To Be\” is the closest to an anthem or to a trans/queer audiobiography that I might be able to relate to.

Odd as it is, I find a lot of myself in this road-weary, road-worn song Amy Ray has written about her butchness and her own relationship to gender dysphoria.  Across generations, bodies and sexualities, I find this very personal, yet complicated and even cagey, “anthem” of hers comforting.  For better or worse, the song stands out on the album it appears on, but also in the whole of Amy Ray’s catalogue.  Following behind the image

the bass and the beat comes Amy Ray singing in a boyish falsetto.  Her voice is deceptively sweet, sounding almost like some sort of fucked up version of David Cassidy or Donny Osmond.  If you don’t listen carefully to the lyrics in the first verse it would be easy to think of the song as a love song for another woman.

She’s got to be with me always

To make sense of the skin I’m in

Sometimes it gets dangerous

And lonely to defend

Marking time with every change

It’s hard to love this woman in me

The first time I listened to the song was at a concert, standing just a few feet from Amy Ray and her band as she closed her eyes and started in on this devastatingly personal and personalizing ballad to her self.  Mind you, I’d heard the song a whole lot of times in the weeks leading up to the show on record, but I hadn’t listened to what it was saying.  More than that, though, I don’t think it would have willfully occurred to me that a song sung about queerness might have anything to say to me, isolated as I have become in my mixed-up, useless image of myself.

Amy Ray’s song romances the sadness I’ve always had but never clearly felt or understood.  “She’s Got To Be” is everything I need it to be: an anthem about losing gracefully.   It is resigned, undone, incomplete and, at least to me, absolutely gorgeous.  As I’ve said, you can’t sing a song in praise of some-thing about yourself that you didn’t create or do.  If you try and sing triumphantly about a game you can’t win, you’ll lose out in the end.  You lost before you began.  But, what you can do is sing in the name of your failure—not to over-essentialize or lionize it, but to wrap yourself in it and feel at home.  You can stop fighting against yourself if you stop pretending you might be able to win.

She’s the one that stills the seas

Finds the truth in this anarchy

Dives the depth of every age

Keeps this body and knows the shape

The chorus sounds anthemic, but is really more of a spell that Amy Ray casts in her singing of it.  Instead of celebrating, it’s creating. It’s resolving.  You’ve got to be to be free.

I will love I will protect this love

It was hard to get

I will love and I will protect this love

And it’s anarchy

Standing at the show, drunk on gin and staggered by the weight of what I was suddenly hearing, I began to cry quietly—something, as you might imagine, that doesn’t come naturally or easily to me.  The revelation in the song is in Amy Ray’s willingness to give in to herself, to stop fighting and start becoming.  Central to my own melancholy regarding any queer or trans narrative I might be able to apply to myself is a recognition that my fantasies and desires—of my self, my body and my sexual expression—can’t translate into anything.  This song, like me, is resigned to its failure and in love with its chaos.

The thing that made me cry is the impossibility—of gender, cohesion, language, existence—Amy Ray realizes and demonstrates in her performance of the song.  I cried not because I was sad for her, though, but because I knew what she was expressing, felt what she was admitting to have failed at.  From my early years on a broomstick to my isolated attempts at finding a home for myself and a useful meaning for my desires, I stood rejoicing in this sweet little song of hers about giving up and staying put.  In order to love yourself and become you’ve got to learn to leave well enough alone.  Instead of breaking you down, failure can be full of capacity,  a way of being and becoming in and of itself.

As I have come to believe in my twilight: when there’s nowhere to go it can feel a lot less lonely and horrifying to stay put, to remain right where you seem to belong.  “She’s Got To Be” isn’t a queer anthem, but it’s an anthem to queer-ness; to self-love, instead of misguided self-praise.  In place of the noise of rebellion and the silent echoes of loneliness came this song of self-love and affirmation to save me.  In every subsequent listen, I remain to be wooed by its sweet sounds of failure, caught up in the romantic melody of resignation.

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“The Second Time Around” for Amy Ray’s “Laramie”

— Again

Elena Glasberg

November, 2010

hunting season's over

I’ve got a queer hangover and it is NOT getting any better.  Actually, it’s getting harder and harder to be me.  I mean at 51, finally the world cannot stop speaking of my categories in the most emotional and righteous of ways.  If it’s not Israelis killing innocent Palestinians in the name of God-knows-what, it’s gays beaten and killed by “neighborhood bullies.”  Or, as some lament, not being allowed to kill (unlike those universally conscripted Jewish Israelis) for their country.  And now, “gay suicide”: gays killing themselves before anyone gets the chance.

Life for gay kids was once easier.  Before the “It gets better (so you can become normal)” tidal wave gathered and struck.  I remember as an undergrad at Purchase College in the late 1970s I had a chance to take a course on gay culture with a now-foundational anthropologist.  She was a Jew and a butch.  No way, I thought.  Why would I want to study what I already knew?  I was so dumb!  I could’ve caught a case of identity studies as it was on the rise and begun a profitable career in my self.  But no.  I took astronomy and Medieval literature, though I was neither sidereal in nature nor was I of the past.  I was just trying to live my girl-obsessed punky little life.  I showed up one time to the (newly forming) gay undergrad club that met in a room in the basement of the dorm.  Scanning the room of fatties and dweebs and seeing not one female who didn’t make me hate myself almost as much as I was likely to come to hate them if I stayed, I fled back to the light of apolitical prettiness and joyful exclusion.

Forgive me, Amy.  I didn’t know any better.  I was a rocker.  Loved Lou Reed and Patti Smith.  Television, Neil Young.  Screaming guitars.  Lucinda, Dylan.  I did not associate with lesbian-feminist women’s music festival any more than I could tolerate Melissa Etheridge’s middle American high school version of the lesbian loner peeking in straight girls’ windows.  Earnest and direct politics worked for Woody Guthrie.  But for everyone else, it’s musical death.  But with typical missionary zeal, Junebug showed me the error of my ways.  Now the scales have fallen from out my ears holes, I can hear Amy Ray’s commitment and her experience with multiple communities and genres: rural kids, Homocore, women’s music, bluegrass, Native land rights, protest songs, anthems.  And as it turns out, she was weary, weary of the coerciveness of communities of outlaws and of the highjackings of injury and loss of the normative movement of gay politics.  Given the recent and seemingly natural (or as they say on the internet where everything happens now, “viral”) expansion of national gay rights production of an evidential “epidemic” of gay bullying and suicides in the “It Gets Better” videos, it just might be time for a second time around with Ray’s 2001 Song about Matthew Shephard’s murder, “Laramie.”

Amy Ray sings the connections of the US landscape, from the old fields and plantations, dirt roads, and highways.  She’s been riding the rails between a place called home and the road, like a good American troubadour.  When she’s on the road she’s dreaming of a dirt road.  When she’s sitting at the end of that dirt road, she’s singing about getting back on that open road.  That’s what troubadours do; they trouble space and the air with their songs.  When she’s not hurrying on to some woman down that road or trying to make her way back to the one she shouldn’t have left, Ray’s road songs are actually thinking about those spaces, fences, and networks that trace and create the political landscape of the US. Now is the time to revisit one of those places at the end of a road, Laramie.

The road to Laramie is a weary one.  “We all heard about that mess.”  We’ve been hearing it and replaying this dirge of young men martyred in the name of hatred.  Or was it freedom?  The campaigns for so-called “gay” marriage and for open military service and the repeal of don’t ask don’t tell policy more than ever define gay politics.  These moral, political goals leave behind the “mess” of actual sexual politics as it forms bodies and classes of people not unlike the way barbed wire created the Plains by fencing things in and keeping things out.

Laramie’s liquid la la syllables invoke the “open plains” of cowboys and Indians.  Of course cowboys and Indians has never been a simple set of stories.  Laramie’s associations of conflict, enmity, and racialized hatred have deepened since Matthew Shepherd met his end on the side of a road, leaned up against a barbed wire fence, the same cheap and flexible fences that helped create the “open” space of the plains and a cattle industry.  The same fences that helped drive under Native ways of living on that land.

The “road to Laramie” comes at you with a heavy downbeat.  It comes with Neil Young’s electric guitar distortion, catching at your mind like the barbs on the wire catch at the animals, the weeds, all the lives trying to pass through.  And it comes now with a new myth, one to replace the dead Indians and the wide open: a little blond boy beaten to death by ignorant, hateful and doubtless desirous white thugs from hometown Laramie. 

With a dolorous atonal chord Ray calls out, “Hey coalitions/ Lay down your mission/aries” to skewer the morality of the aggressive new missionary mode of gay politics.  And it applies even better to this understandable but no less lamentable recent move to counter-missionize “at-risk” youth.  The viral “It gets better” videos point to the truth of the slur that gays “recruit.”  They missionize.  Of course they do.  Surely, MS was on a mission that night at the bar in Laramie – to get laid, to find friends and acceptance.  What he ran into were the fences and the barbs.  But Laramie wasn’t any different from the rest.

it gets better

Ray won’t give into urban-centered myths of freedom: “those boys just doing what the fancy people think.”  They’re the cowboys who unrolled and strung out the bales of wire fencing that made the plains.  But more often as not they’re just frat boys now, bewildered and diminished manhoods roaming the range to which Amy Ray aims another wall of noise: “Hey motherfuckers! Party season’s over…” Not just for them, but us too. Those boys in Laramie are not a party, a people “out there.”  They are not an enemy.  And not only are we not martyrs, the martyrs are actually not us.  Despite the outpourings of facile identification and developmentalism implied in the “It gets better” viral reproduction, no one really knows what it was like for the suicides.  Or for Matthew Shephard.  Further, these deaths and failures to connect, victimizations and murders may not add up to anything we know call homophobia.  For example, few consider the persistent utility of homophobia in the expression of so many religious leaders as more an effect of historical sectarianism than a real hatred of gay people.  In fact, with the “It gets better” campaign the public gay movements now slavishly imitate religions, states, and as the term campaign also suggests, military strategy.  In other words, Ray suggests that the Coalitions are missionary.  Imitators of what they seek to upend.

For coalition, Ray offers Neil Young, a connection through rock n roll, distorted guitars, songs like “Pocahontas” and “Powder Finger.”  And it makes sense Ray has been covering these relatively obscure Young songs for her young-er audience, carrying on the tradition of redressive resistance.  “Pocahontas,” despite its creepy moccasin-fever, animates the myth of the dead Indian: Pocahontas is a living, seeing presence in the aural landscape.  “Powder Finger” is a Faulknerian take on coming of age with Civil War.  From its opening alarm, “Look out Mama, there’s a white boat coming down the river” it tells the story of the brief life of a boy caught up in a war that comes to his quiet town.  American history never sounded like this, it never looked like this.  The boy might have just as easily been on the banks of a river in Viet Nam, too.  All the rivers, like all the roads converge on a young man “just turned 22” and not going to make it to the last line of the song, dying in a war he had no idea of.

There’s a connection Ray is trying for, between Young’s generation of the Vietnam War and civil rights protest movements and the contemporary resurrection of that national sacrificial figure.  Now, post-nation, “post” civil rights, we get gay martyrs as representative of a real rights-bearing category of civil life.  Before “all [this] mess,” Matthew Shepherd might have been another boy dead from war, drinking, class anger, syphilis, AIDS.  But now that sexuality fights its way through injury towards a rights-bearing condition, a gay martyr emerges from the murk of people just doing wrong.  And it is no accident that he was – and is – that type of the white male citizen, soldier, martyr.  Yeah, we all heard about that mess.  “But that town ain’t any different from the rest.” The sentimental attachment to male martyrdom and to suicide in particular distort understanding of what can change politically – and for whom — in the area of sexual freedom and policy (or rights discourse).

Laramie was also the end of the road in the gay rights imaginary—both an impasse, or a turning point in time where they said ‘enough’s enough,’ invigorating their homonationalist campaigns for rights at the end of the century.  Imagine all the concerned left and east coast homos who descended on Laramie in the years following the incident like ‘49ers, picking at the memory of this poor dead boy and mining that poor dead town for all the political and cultural metaphors they could fit in their knapsacks and take back home with them, back on the campaign.  Can a town’s political metaphors/usages be stripped mined out until the landscape is bare?  Will the fair-haired white gay martyr continue to be the gold standard of the gay rights movement at the expense of the all the land, the rest of the people, a fuller accounting and connection through history and geography?

When this country or this gay rights movement can use a different kind of martyr, well, the need for civic sacrifice will itself most likely have died out.  “Party time” will one day be over.  In that case, with Amy Ray, I say RIP.



The Final Case Against Miss Gaga

The meat goes in the pussy

A Benediction

Sunday, 09/19/10

We know what you were thinking: so much for Junebug vs Hurricane!  Those two dolts haven’t gotten enough executive between the two of them to finish an email, much less keep a blog up and running for very long!

Well, dear reader, you’re very wrong – and I must say, you shouldn’t say or think such nasty things about us!  Have some faith!  We were simply taking the summer off to recoup and deal with other things: our good friend Hurricane met a lady-friend and spent that time being punch drunk, and I my sweet summer months wandering the streets of London and New York just plain drunk.

You can rest assured that you’ll have access to our wonderful thoughts and musical asides in the cold weeks to come, but for the moment we have felt it necessary to emerge from the sticky warmth of our hibernation to set the record straight once and for all on every last conversation having to do with dear Miss Gaga.

In general, we try and keep our noses out of so-called pop cultural trends and discussions that are beneath both our tastes as well as our radars, but, as you might imagine, the Lady Gaga phenomenon is not one we have been successful at hiding from.  Consider this intervention more like a benediction: this is the last thought that you or either of us will need to think about Gaga, and this is the last conversation having to do with the cultural trend that she represents.  Anything you enjoy or appreciate in the blog entry to come you may credit both me and my partner in crime with duly; however, if you find yourself offended you should feel free to direct your blame and anger at me, Junebug, since I know my much wiser and more tactful friend would surely have worded this in a much different way.

So, without further prefacing or adieu, we present to you:

The Official Junebug vs Hurricane Dismissal of Little Miss Gaga:

1.  Her music is horrible, and you know it.

2.  We do not accept her as a so-called “queer” artist and do not find it interesting or even remarkable that scores of homosexuals find her interesting.  For one thing, queers from either side of the aisle have never been—and apparently will never be—known for their taste in music.  Let us not forget Quentin Crisp’s decades old, but still pertinent and wise words on this matter: “A lifetime of disco music is a high price to pay for one’s sexuality.”

3.  Neither her “music” nor her “performances,” whether on stage or off, “do” anything.  No, Miss Paglia, she is not stealing or appropriating anything from Madonna or anyone else—plagiarism is, we fully admit, part of the creative process and not something to get up in arms about (mostly because it can lead to very tiresome and tautological kinds of discussions, on both ends).  However, criticism and scholarship from the queer academy and from better bred members of the pop culture press that attempt to credit Miss Gaga’s music, performances and public appearances for “doing” anything both oversimplify and miss the point of musical production to be worthwhile in and of themselves without having to intervene in any political movements, change gender, do gender, represent sexuality or uplift queerness.  Music is music and it is only valuable for being music.  Music is capable of producing music.

4.  We think it’s very annoying that Miss Gaga has decided to become the new gay diva.  Admittedly, she is smart for recognizing a space for herself in the queer market place.  It has been a while since homosexual men in America, the UK and worse have had someone to look up to or to weep over since Whitney is too busy being a crackhead, Beynocé has proven herself to be a fair-weather friend, the pale and weepy homos that once followed Tori Amos have been restless lately and it doesn’t look like poor Judy Garland will be lifting her pie-faced self out of the grave anytime soon.

However, we snub our noses at everything she has done and wonder why other otherwise intelligent queers have fallen for it hook line and sinker—we know they can’t love her for her songs!

4a. We are annoyed with Lady Gaga-the-political-leader in the following ways: from her maudlin attempts at shoring up the hearts and minds of the gays with all of her “You are my little monsters!” business to her very misguided and nosey intervention in “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” proceedings in Congress to the stupid new title of her stupid new record “Born This Way.”

Divine did it for our sins.

5. Who cares if she wore a meat dress to the VMAs?  We all remember Pink Flamingos and know full well that Divine already stuck a big slab of cube steak in her panties way back when.  This is not a who-done-it-first kind of claim, mind you, but a Divine-shoved-meat-in-her-cunt-years-ago-for-our-sins kind of claim.  I mean, we’re supposed to be schocked by Miss Gaga when we have the memory of Divine written into our very souls?  Please?

As a matter of fact, to (roughly) quote John Waters on the Gaga thing: “I’ve seen it before.  The only thing nice I’d have to say about her is that she’s got a pretty ugly face.”

6. Lady Gaga is a trap.  She only represents a new trend—in fashion, pop culture criticism, journalism and homosexuality.  Fashion trends are arbitrary sets of rules that change arbitrarily from year-to-year without doing or saying anything interesting, unique or queer in the least.  In times of doubt, let us not look to or participate in fashion trends for our sense of our selves, our community or our politics.  The visibility Lady Gaga offers queers in the marketplace and in the middle of American pop culture is a trap, and we suspect that those of us who have not relished our time in the darkness wisely might have fallen for the insulting invitation into the ugly and banal spotlight that her presence has offered us.

7. Did we say her music sucks?  It does gey stuck in your head, true, but that just reminds us of the feeling we get waiting in the lobby at the Dentist’s office or getting carsick in the back of a cab while someone else (someone with no taste or sympathy) is controlling the radio dial.

So, to sum up our little rant: Lady Gaga is annoying and so are arguments for or against what she does or doesn’t do to culture and politics.  These kinds of conversations abound, but are all based in knee-jerk reaction and very generous and misguided uses of political theory and cultural studies.

If anyone involved in these kinds of discussions needs a cautionary tale they only need look back upon the very embarrassing “debates” around poor little Madonna from the eighties and early nineties—we all thought those conversations to be terribly pertinent and relevant at the time, but look at her now!  The bitch’s off speaking with a Scottish accent doing God knows what.

I shudder to think at how silly all this will seem once the dust settles, the wind blows in a different direction and we have all accepted the utter hollow and annoying essence of our dear Little Lady Gaga.



World Without Tears: A Devotional, Part 1

World Without Tears: A Devotional, Part 1

Taylor Black

May 2010

    Coda:

    I climbed all the way inside

    Your tragedy

    I got behind

    The majesty

Of the different shapes

In every note

The endless tapes

Of every word you wrote

Preface: Misery Loves Company

Just as that tired, worn out old saying says: misery loves company.  While the remark is normally intended as a kind of passive-aggressive jab directed at the kind of person who tortures their friends, family and really any poor charitable soul who will listen with a never-ending sympathy of complaints and woe-is-me’s, for me, it’s a way of life.  As you plunge your self and your own sympathies into this piece, you will see that my own love of misery’s company is really the motor behind all my thoughts and affections, weepy and strange as they may be.

And another thing, dear reader: whether or not you’ve figured it out by now, the string of ideas, gushes and aphorisms that might otherwise be politely referred to as a “paper” will be largely—and, I hope, wonderfully—self-indulgent. There will be more affection in my writing than analysis, and I will concern myself more with how things feel and sound as I say them than defend them as ground-breaking ideas or concepts—I will be writing about music after all.  At the very least, I hope you read things you want to hear and that the sight of me wallowing in my own wickedness is entertaining.

We are entering dangerous territory, or, rather, I should say I am entering into a project that’s about my absolute favorite album done by my absolute favorite artist.  Why is this dangerous?  Well, as most of my previous “academic” work has been conventionally analytical, I haven’t spent much time or intellectual energy lingering on the things in my life that I love.  I will shamefully admit that for a long while, my interpretation of doing scholarly work has been about making arguments about things or situating myself into theoretical discussions that have been raging on in one form or another for-probably-ever.  In this state of blissful recalcitrance, I found it easiest to make my arguments and my very defensive(?) claims about things I felt a certain detachment from; the idea of responding to and writing about something I love so religiously as music and a figure I identify with so wholly might lead me into embarrassing, confessional territory.

So, with all of that said, I would simply like to emphasize the fact that with this new turn in my work (let’s call it my musical turn for the time being), I am pushing my thoughts and my academic productions away from its defensive, readerly roots towards somewhere and something more celebratory.  The joke I brought up in the first sentence will not be, at the end of all of this, on me; as I ruminate on Lucinda Williams’ World Without Tears I will hold it up as an ode to loneliness and despair, all the while doing my own part to draw out and wallow around in the loooove in “Misery Loves Company.”

In terms of a method, mine will be not be very methodological.  For starters, you will detect a stark lack of citation in what lays ahead of you—this is not because (believe it or not) I don’t care what other people have to say about Lucinda or any of the musical genres her music and my depictions of her engage with, but because I want to resist the rather litigious urge in academic scholarship to prove what’s said critically and creatively by citing, engaging and situating compulsorily.  My thoughts and indeed the sonic space inside my head where they reside and are generated have not come from a vacuum.  In similar ways that songwriters can say that this or that piece is inspired by this or that artist or genre, there is a kind of interplay between this paper and the texts—in this case, Wayne Koestenbaum’s The Queens Throat, José Muñoz’ Cruising Utopia, Jimmy McDonough’s new Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen and Hélène Cixous’ Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing— I have been inhabiting during the writing process.  While I engage with these pieces to the extent that their thoughts and modes of writing ring in my mind and my ear while I myself do work, I will not attempt to condense or be totally responsible for them, as I try and work with this model of residual, ghostly intertextuality through my own thoughts and feelings.

Secondly, I will confess that the idea of explicitly explaining, describing or deconstructing Lucinda’s music and the album I am approaching gives me even more angst than attempting to be responsible for the contents of a book.  Music, like literature and academic scholarship alike, is a process of creativity and failure, and its products and productions should not be approached in order to determine what is they represent or explain, but instead honored for what they do, as well as for what sensations, feelings, misgivings and thoughts they create in the hearing of them.  So, just as these authors and these books will be singing their songs in my head while I write, so too while the contents of World Without Tears play while I move from word to word and page to page.  As I move ahead, I will rarely approach a song in any literal way or attempt to take it apart—either lyrically or otherwise.  Instead, I will let my thoughts and feelings flow against the backdrop of particular tracks on the album, which I will dutifully and possibly excruciatingly play on repeat while I construct the different spaces of my piece.  When I have done so, I will list the song and request that my reader try and listen while they read so that they too can sense the rhythm and the affective space with which this piece comes to be.  When I do sense a particularly cogent or uncanny relevance of Lucinda’s lyrics for these songs, I will chop them up and place them—in italics—throughout the piece.

With all of that out of the way, I promise not to defend myself or my feelings anymore throughout this work, which is really more like a religious devotional than any kind of academic prose I can imagine.  I’m sure I will contradict myself here and there, and my love of Lucinda and tragedy may confound or even fatigue my reader, but I do hope you will at least appereciate my earnestness and the purity of whatever feelings I express here. But why?  And shouldn’t I be ashamed at such a disgusting display? Isn’t all of this self-loathing instead of self-loving?  Or am I just being ironic?  One very easy way to get out these pointed, if obvious, slew of accusations and doubts about my so-called love for misery and the truly miserable would be to revert to some kind of psychoanalytic explanation about being from the Bible Belt South and having internalized and maybe even romanticized all of the most terrible components of the melodramatic Fire and Brimstone culture I was brought up in; or worse, I could simply lean on my identity as a homosexual man and sight some well-known, meaningless tropes about queerness and tragedy as a way of placating you and letting me and my work off the hook as “camp.”

Her Wonderful Wickedness

(Listen to) Righteously

          • Think this through
          • I laid it down for you every time
          • Respect me I give you what’s mine
          • You’re entirely way too fine

In all kinds of rather obvious ways, my decision to undertake this Lucinda record is a mistake.  First of all, it’s not her most beloved body of work; 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is the one album critics and journalists love to love.  With its cinematic, narrative songs that weave their ways in and out of moldy, humid corners of the Delta region of the American South, Car Wheels combines just the right amount of folksy realness with meticulously high-brow literaryness to please the kinds of critics who felt invested in roots music but isolated from the explosion of decidedly middling, middlebrow pop music coming out of Nashville.  Here you had something as conceptual and sophomorically intellectual as a Bob Dylan or Neil Young album falling from the heavy, weary lips of a woman who had not only conceived of, but actually lived the very southern stories she sung about, all delivered in her thick, muggy southern drawl. Even more exciting for journalists and critics alike was the gossip surrounding and the drama that weighted down the production of the album; taking over four years, three different incantations, three different producers and countless victims employed along the way, once Car Wheels finally came out, Lucinda had managed to gain a reputation for herself as a bitchy, histrionic perfectionist—and (the mostly male) world of rock criticism and journalism still, to this day, can’t seem to publish anything without using that “perfectionist” word, just like no one had ever said it or thought it before they regurgitated it.  Leave it to them.

    • Arms around my waist
    • You get a taste of how good this can be
    • Be the man you ought to tenderly
    • You’re entirely way too fine

You see, or as you already assume or expect, our Ms. Williams is a bit hard to take.  For one, she is a perfectionist, and, leaving all gendered epithets aside, doesn’t hide her emotions very well.  While most of her fans and critics are both men, their relationship is totally different, and what they see and hear in Lucinda varies completely.  For the detached rock critic, weighed down by their strange mix of irony and corporate professionalism, Lucinda’s story is sort of a joke on her, something to talk about ad nauseam.

When you run your hand

All up and run it back down my leg

Get excited and bite my neck

Get me all worked up like that

You don’t have to prove

        • Your manhood to me constantly
        • I know you’re the man can’t you see
        • I love you Righteously

I

The song “Righteously” that is blaring in my ears while I write this is an anthem to power and glory through abjection.  In some ways related to Tammy Wynette’s epic song of total, devastating and, in the end, failed devotion to her man, Lucinda’s song is, in some ways, a promise of hers to the man she’s got in her life.  However, it’s also a wicked line of flight away from the sentiments expressed in “Stand By Your Man”; beyond and behind her coy promises of righteous love is the real power of this song, which actually, magically stimulates, entices and interpellates her man’s devotion. For the middle aged white men I see at her shows, however, there is a spark in their eyes and a look of abject devotion on their face that lets me know they get it: they don’t look down on Lucinda, they look up at her, and while the sad and sorrowful definitely falls out of her whenever she opens her mouth to sing, it is her fierce, flirtatious and wicked delivery and composure that transforms her tragedies into an elixir that draws her devotees in and brings them down to their grateful knees.

Arms around my waist

You get a taste of how good this can be

Be the man you ought to tenderly

Stand up for me

Approaching Lucinda, Our Beautiful Loser

(Listen to) Sweet Side

      • So you don’t always show your sweet side…

Just this side of strange in comparison with the other men at Lucinda’s concerts, I will admit that the main reason I enjoy myself at her shows, though, is mitigated through my sense as well as my perception of her anxiety that is normally—almost ritually—played out each evening she performs in a certain chronology.  When she finally makes her way on stage (always very belatedly, in my notable experience), she brings with her an unsettling sort of presence.  Lucinda’s affect and disposition is weighed down by a stony, stoic, silent stage fright for the first third of the set, as she moves her way through a handful of amazingly slow, overwrought, plodding, pitiful old songs (the kinds anyone else would tell you to not perform in concert, much less for the first part of the damn set!) allthewhile averting the gaze of the audience and dissociating her from the stage she is performing on.

        • You run yourself ragged tryin’ to be strong

You feel bad when you done nothin’ wrong

Love got all confused with anger and pride

So much abuse on such a little child

Someone you trusted told you to shut up

Now there’s a pain in your gut that you can’t get rid of

After this, thanks to nerves and/or whatever liquor she’s got in her cup up there on stage (she says she drinks Grand Marnier to coat her throat, so there’s at least that…), our once sheepish heroine warms up a bit, maintaining her anxieties and displeasures about her surroundings.  Peppering—or, if you’re not into such tenuous forms of spectatorship, cluttering—her performance with false starts and vulgar outbursts, Lucinda has come out of her shell a bit (the last example that comes to mind is her, very seriously and angrily, stopping mid-song to say “Who do I have to fuck to get a fucking fan up here? It’s fucking hot!” Other times I’ve heard her scold people for talking during her set, asking them if they’d like to “fucking do it” themselves)—finally opening herself up to the crowd, only to turn, venomously and breathtakingly, against them.

You were screamed at and kicked over and over

Now you always feel sick and you can’t keep a lover

        • You get defensive at every turn
        • You’re overly sensitive and overly concerned

Few precious memories no lullabies

Hollowed out centuries of lies

A Lucinda Williams concert then, and finally, comes to an end in a flurry of hard-rocking, loud songs that are as frayed at the edges, but orgasmically so.  By the time you’re ready to leave, Lucinda has certainly done what a good showman is supposed to do, which is give you your money’s worth by keeping you on the edge of your seat and the tips of your toes.  The angst and constant fear of total disaster that guides both Lucinda and her audience through the evening come full circle by the final bows, as she drags out the blaring, cathartic portion of the evening until everyone is drunk and damn well spent.  Bill Buford, in his—confused, rather patronizing—depiction of Lucinda published in The New Yorker not long after the release of Car Wheels summed up one of her shows in this way:

    “. . .it’s still possible to see a live show in which she gets a little carried away-and she always seems to be on the verge of getting a little carried away-and hear almost the entire oeuvre, as was the case about eighteen months ago at New York’s Irving Plaza, when Williams’s [sic] encores went on longer than the act, and the audience emerged, after nearly two and a half hours, thoroughly spent, not only by the duration of the program but also by the unforgiving rawness of the songs.”1

What I cannot grasp here—and indeed what I intend to turn on its head, is this very expected, boring depiction of Lucinda as merely a crazy bitch who happens to have written some amazing songs—that being a fan of hers or even being in the presence of her is a thoroughly harrowing thing for someone to be put through—is the lack of empathy that Mr. Buford carries in his self-confessed appreciation of Lucinda’s music.  And, of course, he’s not the only person or journalist to put Lucinda and her concert performances in such a glib light (incidentally, a Time Out New York blurb that hinted at possible trainwrecks and meltdowns at one of her concerts was the cause of a night of drama and bitching from Lucinda, who did not get over or stop mentioning it for the entire evening); perhaps this condescending sketch of Lucinda-the-crazy-person is their backhanded, backwards way of complimenting the strength of her music, which they appreciate and understand through very staid tropes of the beautiful loser: the outsider/tortured artist whose brilliance shines in spite and at the expense of themselves (think: Townes Van Zandt, Janis Joplin, Billie Holliday, Tammy Wynette, and on and on).  You see, for these folks, Lucinda and her music alike are only fascinating because she’s a train wreck; all descriptions of her, in turn, quickly become cautionary tales.

        • You’re tough as steel and you keep your chin up
        • You don’t ever feel like you’re good enough

Well, as I’ve said and will say again and again, this tale about our Miss Williams will not be a cautionary, ironic or detached one.  In order to love her music, you’ve got to appreciate the angst, romance in the disaster and wallow along with her as she moves through her songs and makes them work.  True listening is an act faith on the part of the listener—and when the image of the singer/songwriter is just as present in the song as the notes and the lyrics that guide them through, a determined empathy and, dare I say, a religious affection are both completely necessary.

    • I’ll stick by you baby through thick and thin
      • No matter what kind of shape you’re in

Cause I’ve seen your sweet side…



No Thoughts On Writing

Stop the Music for a Minute

fit to be tied

Taylor Black

May 5, 2010

No Thoughts on Writing

My reading of Roland Barthes’ S/Z could not have come at a better—or, depending on how you look at it, worse—time in my life as a thinker and reclusive academic.  Telling as it may be, most of my energies and worries lately have been about my profession and my professional community.  Specifically, I have been concerned about the prescriptive and sometimes limited ways in which scholarship and critical discourse get carried out and received in contemporary academia.  You see, I have had a sinking feeling over the past few years that the well of what we call “critical analysis” might have run dry long ago—that maybe there are only so many arguments that we can make as academics and cultural theorists without eating ourselves alive or, worse, devolving into a world where everyone is arguing and no one is listening.

Thankfully, M. Barthes’ essay seems to be heaven-sent: sent at just the right time and delivering just the right message for my world-weary soul.  While it seems to have been decided that both academic labor and cultural theory ought to be affirmative, positivist and invested in the endless production of arguments and new ideas, S/Z focuses on the creative aspects of writing and reading in order to imagine new ways of thinking about conducting flows of thought, literature and ideology. The classical, prescriptive concept of a text is a religious one.  Even in spite of years of post-structuralism and deconstruction, there is still a certain reverence and awe given to pieces of literature and philosophy that holds onto the assumption that there are definitive answers, connections, metaphors and clues imbedded inside the pages of a book that, with the proper equipment and know-how, can be dug up and put on display for all to see.

The compulsion we as academics have to argue the truth or the validity of a text treat the process of reading in a liturgical manner.  The goal of these sorts of academic regulations and conventions represent a literary ideology: a “monster” that those of us employed in the profession of scholarship and academic reading that makes dead objects of pieces of literature and paranoid consumers out of its poor, pitiful readers.[1] All the rituals—the ten minute talk, the twenty page paper, the conference presentation, the question and answer period, the research, the thesis, the argument, the point—that we maintain in the holy name of professionalism and what’s often referred to as good academic work are only ways in which we foreclose the creative in the name of the critical, leave out the listening in the name of the prescriptive reading and unfortunately allow for the kind of prose that even the writer themselves can’t bear to read once it’s done.

There are, even as I’m writing these very words, scores of undergraduate students whispering to each other in the cold, dead halls of English departments across the world, trying to figure out what this text or that essays is about or represents so that they may walk into class with a confident air about them, prepared to tell their teachers just what they’ll expect to be hearing.  This habit of approaching pieces of literature as dead object that contain within them mummified information that the professional scholar must necessarily be able to seek out and cite like some sort of necrophilic archaeologist is what Barthes refers to as “the readerly.”  The ultimate goal of the readerly reading of a text is to sort out right away and without a doubt what it is that a book represents.  Sort of like writing an obituary, this kind of consumption of a piece of writing proclaims with theological certainty how an object of literature should be remembered.  It carves it into stone.

Failure to comprehend a literary work or piece it together so that it might be explained to those poor, lost sophomoric souls roaming the halls of academia everywhere is exactly what the readerly attempts to avoid in its self-confident, almost scientific rendering of a text.  The same finality that gets carried by an obituary is, in Barthes own words, a product of the readerly: “To depart/to travel/to arrive/to stay: the journey is saturated.  To end, to fill, to join, to unify—one might say this is the basic requirement of the readerly, as though it were prey to some obsessive fear: that of omitting a connection.”[2] The idea behind readerliness, and indeed behind what’s considered responsible literary scholarship, is that professional duty lies in the academic’s ability to succinctly and effortlessly piece various works of literature together—both in and of themselves as well as in conjunction, or religious association, with each other.  Once someone is able to successfully defend and articulate their own positions on this or that literary body then they can call themselves—at least to those who will listen—an expert, nay a doctor of literary analysis.

So, while Barthes refers to the readerly text as simply what we conceive of as a “classical text,”[3] as a thing, I also believe he has imagined it for us as a process.  The experience of consuming a classical text allows for a certain kind of freedom, he says, that allows them to decide “either to accept or reject the text.”  Readerly reading is, then, “nothing more than a referendum…[representing] what can be read but not written.”[4] Both the archaeological ways in which, as I have described, works of literature get approached, taken apart and put back together as well as the pious manner in which literature gets remembered and associated weigh this freedom that Barthes lays out for us.  The “right” of scholarship and academic reading lies in the ability of the professional critic to have something distinctive and utterly, horribly communicable to say about the mass of literature that they indulgently refer to as their “field of research.”

There is no pleasure in the holy kingdom of academic literary studies, only proclamations, theses and one defended paper after another, marching off into the abyss.  The rolling hills of this great dark land are filled with the gravestones of classic, readerly, texts and teeming with busy-bodied academics and critics searching, digging and scratching away at surfaces looking for the one last idea that hasn’t yet been uncovered, the decomposing trace of something, anything, that hasn’t already been said.

And then there’s academic writing.  We have become so professionalized, so very guarded about what it is we say and do as professional scholars that we have let our fears and conventions get the best of us.  Just as there is no pleasure in the act of readerly reading, there is also no fun in the writing of critical analysis.  When what you’re told you have to do is make an argument, prove your point or exhibit some sort of fool-proof comprehension of a text then there’s little room for mistake.  The failure of completion—whether it be of your own vision of a book or body of work or simply of the weight of your argument itself—that makes readerliness such a paranoid, safeguarded venture saturates what we now know as academic prose.  The thing that makes a thesis good or worthwhile in the world of academia is its ability to convey confidence, finality and achievement; likewise, the one thing that makes a piece of professional scholarship itself is no real person–or even, really, academic person—would dare read it!

Literature, in our minds, expresses, and its use language creates metaphors. The job of the professional scholar is to uncover, situate and show an astute understanding of how these things are imbedded in whatever body of work they are approaching and defending to death.  The essay is, then, a kind of challenge, an investigation of the individual academic’s fortitude; the professional reading of the essay, in turn, works to declare whether or not a scholar has succeeded or failed at showing and expressing their total comprehension of a text and of literature in general.  Just like the undergraduate students I painted earlier in this piece who stand outside of their classrooms explaining texts to each other and getting the gist of what’s happening in their literature classes so that they can be examined once they walk in and take their seats, literary scholars of all stripes attend conferences and pore over peer-reviewed journals in search of holes in each others’ arguments, looking for a way into the great academic party.  Our writing, then, is really just an expression of readerliness, as it gets soaked with the weight of referendum that Barthes has described for us.  In the name of professionalization and academic success, we mask our failures—of understanding, of investigation, of comprehension—with conventions and false confidence.

Good academic prose isn’t supposed to express, that’s what, at least as we say to ourselves, literature does.  Instead, our writing distills our knowledge, it represents our abilities to read.  Even now, I am working against my better judgment that says that even though I have been assigned to respond to a text that really I should be showing an omnipotent understanding of it—that there should be less of me talking and thinking through my own reaction to my reading of S/Z and more of me making definitive statements about it and clear associations with the bodies of scholarship that I have found myself invested in.  What I ought to be doing, or rather, what’s come to be known as a proper academic response to something, is making claims about Barthes’ book, searching for an argument in order to situate my essay amongst all the other essays that have already been written about S/Z.  But, to situate myself is to do away with myself; to make a claim that can be rock steady and can live on its own.  Never mind the text itself or even the event of my reading it, the real goal of the scholarly—or, if you’d rather, the readerly—is to record my own success over a literary work.  After this, my response can live on its own, and if something as unfortunate as publishing happens to my piece of scholarship, my arguments can crystallize and lay waiting until some other wayward academic soul comes and shreds them to bits.

The problem with scholarly writing is, as I’m sure I’ve made abundantly clear, that its fascinated with its own success—indeed, to argue at all is to be invested in the business of being right and proving value.  But, what if writing didn’t argue?  After all, to concede yourself to an argument leaves open the possibility that you might—and considering the fastidious energy of literary critics, probably will—be wrong.  The answer to this conundrum, and the way out of this wicked fantasy of success that academic inquiry holds so close to its heart is a kind of wonderful failure, a resignation and romantic dedication to what Barthes calls “the writerly.”  Instead of working to overcome disorder in a literary object, the writerly text is only focused on the experience, or the event of the language being heard and read.  Unlike the scholarly paper, which attempts to codify and broadcast the academic’s success over a work of literature and makes arguments that are past even before they’ve been published in journals, the writerly text is, in Barthes’ terms:

“A perpetual present, upon which no consequent language (which would inevitable make it past) can be    superimposed; the writerly text is ourselves writing before the infinite play of the world (the world as function is traversed, intersected, stopped, plasticized by some singular system (Ideology, Genus, Criticism) which reduces the plurality of entrances, opening of networks, the infinity of languages.”[5]

So, if the readerly text ought to be read authoritatively and the scholarly argument is meant to convey success and completion with a kind of religious fervor, then I would like to humbly suggest that the writerly response necessarily be a record of failure—to investigate, to piece together, to associate, to understand, to communicate.  Instead of reading to understand and writing to explain, we could write to write, respond to respond and express what is already expressing.  While people read books like treasure maps and write essays like Bibles, the writerly text can write the things that need to be heard.  Writerly readers can listen to language the way we allow ourselves to listen to songs—to be taken over by them, to be perhaps discombobulated by them, or even to be confused or ambivalent about the content that they may or may not carry with them as they are uttered and echoed off into the distance.  You can argue and defend your self into oblivion or maintain your rights of failure and expression.  Instead of training myself to succeed at this academic profession I have placed my gilded toes upon, I will dedicate myself to protecting and expressing the kinds of personal failures—to explain, to be critical, to be scientific and precise—that got me here in the first place.


[1] Barthes, Roland.  S/Z: An Essay. New York: Hill and Wang, 1970. 97-98

[2] S/Z, 105

[3] S/Z, 4

[4] S/Z, 4

[5] S/Z, 5



Sweet Sad Songs (sung by lonely girls)

Taylor Black

03/31/10

lonely girls

lonely girls

Forgive me, for, try as I might, I cannot let the hag thing rest.  It’s like a song that won’t ever get out of your head.

With this entry, I would like to think about/clarify my own romantic inclinations towards ruined femininity and all the sweet silent solitude awaiting me and all the other lonely girls of the world who live their lives at the end of the bar—living a whole life like it was the end of the night, dancing alone and pretending like we’ve got somewhere to go.

Even as I write this entry, I feel guilty, in part, because I feel I’m just repeating exactly what I said about myself last week—that I longed for the hag’s life; that I have always imagined myself waiting my life out alone at the end of some bar, always there at closing time cloaked in false hope and averting glares behind false eyelashes.

lonely girls

lonely girls

But, sometimes there’s nothing to do but repeat yourself.  More staggering than whatever hesitations I have about blogging and, to put it kindly, doing critical analysis about myself the music I listen to, is the image that’s glaring back at me off the computer screen: the image of a lonely girl nursing a gin and tonic that she wishes she could weep into (for dramatic and literary effect, of course) who doesn’t even know how to cry, who can’t even think of something worth getting that upset about.

heavy blankets

While it might be easy to assume that my attraction to failed femininity might have something to do with being a white, gay male, that stock narrative doesn’t work for me…try as I might.  You see, my taste tends less toward what you are imagining in your stock narrative of gay masculinity than it is actually, legitimately and tragically aligned not with icons of tragic femininity—Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, Whitney Houston, Hillary Clinton—than it is with the actual nameless ruined and destitute women that are, as I speak, sitting by themselves, waiting for something good to happen and singing all the sweet, sad songs that lonely girls do sing.  You see, believe it or not, there’s not much irony in what I’ve been trying to convey lately.  Forlorn and busted are not qualities that I appreciate, they’re what I am, what I will become.

So, if you’ll allow me one last siren song to close out this hag’s trilogy I promise to be less personal and less overbearing in entries to come.  But, with my apologies and defenses out of the way, I’d like to riff off of this song that wrote me long before I tried to comprehend it, that sings the song not only of my life but also of the whole constellation of down and out ladies who are joined with and adhered to me.  Their lives rhyme with mine, and together we make up one great big song that never ever ends.

heavy blankets

heavy blankets cover lonely girls

Like the song that I’m burying these thoughts in, the story my face tells and the song that I’ve got to sing about myself doesn’t really go anywhere, even though it probably ought to.  Lucinda’s “Lonely Girls” is the first song on Essence, the album immediately following her hugely successful, career-changing Car Wheels on a Gravel Road—a foundational record in the annals of what’s referred to as alt-country, but also simply a whole collection of brilliant narrative-driven songs.

“Lonely Girls,” as you can see, doesn’t have a story to tell…at least that’s not what it’s content is focused on doing…the song really doesn’t even have much content to it in the first place.  Like the lonely, ruined women I have been conjuring up the past few weeks as I have attempted to characterize my own romantic image of myself, this song stands alone.  There are no metaphors in the song you see before you either, not really even what we think of as artistic expression.

The things that make and cover over lovely girls are not things at all…not descriptions or literary devices but productions, connections, events, stains and always-echoing echoes.  You sing the song long enough that you become it.

Rocking back and forth both melodically and rhythmically and not moving beyond the kinds of lyrical descriptions and musical associations normally destined for the first verse of a song, “Lonely Girls” doesn’t go anywhere.  However, because of the way the song moves and repeats itself it becomes more like an echo even before you’re a minute in—and when it’s over it’s hard to know how long you’ve been listening; you ask yourself if, perhaps, the song has accidentally gone on repeat.

So goes the life of a lonely girl: destined to repetition and bound to always be too late.  I should know.

sweet sad songs

sweet sad songs

sweet sad songs sung by lonely girls

This last verse, I’ll admit, has sunk into my bucket of regularly used phrases—and, if you’ll notice, my blogging—without my even knowing I was doing it.  “What a wonderful way to put things, Lucinda,” is the phrase I must have looked over the first minute I uttered the phrase “sweet, sad songs,” assuming it was something I’d come up with myself.  But, to her credit as a songwriter and as an alibi for my “creative” plagiarisms, I’d like point out that this is what function a song should play: it sings the story of your life that knew you before you knew it; it makes you a part of the world it creates—fixing you into its lyrics, its cracks, its seams, itself.

Lonely girls may be coming apart at the seams, busted to the gills, broken down and made fragile by their place in the world, but they’ll always have each other; even if they only know themselves through their own personal, languid, remote locations, they know they’re not the only ones out there waiting for their last-call, partner-dancing all by themselves and picking up the pieces that were fractured before the start.

lonely girls

lonely girls

lonely girls

lonely girls

pretty hairdos

pretty hairdos

pretty hairdos worn by lonely girls

sparkly rhinestones

sparkly rhinesstones

sparkly rhinestones shine on lonely girls

Lonely girls

Lonely girls

Lonely girls

Lonely girls

I oughta know

I oughta know

I oughta know about lonely girls

An hour and a half in and I can’t remember where I began.  The song’s been playing on repeat for twice as long as that.  Filling my glass with one last gin and tonic before bed, I’m getting used to the idea of leaving this piece unbalanced and unfinished…how in the world am I supposed to close a piece up neatly that didn’t really even ever properly begin?

I oughta know.

Lonely girls

Lonely girls

Lonely girls

Lonely girls



Our Amy Ray Earworms

The Butch’s Throat: “She’s Got To Be” and \”Stand and Deliver\”

Elena Glasberg

03/10/10

I’ve been way too intense these days, way too dramatic.  My tendency to take myself too seriously or romantically — let’s call it my tendency in mid life to “fall in love with the first woman I meet/ Put her in a wheelbarrow, and wheel her down the street”– puts me in the Dylanesque category of wizened boy troubadour.  It’s an insouciant masculinity based in lusty misogyny and ultimately timed to keep moving on.  Though Dylan did once write “Tangled Up in Blue,” about the best most sustained plaint on companionate marriage ever sung.  So good that I recognized it long before I ever married, long before I ever broke.  I must have known it just from being born to woman and man.  But for the most part, Dylan’s love sick blues are lonesome.  He’s always showily singing to some idea of a woman and his anger is getting to sound more and more like stand up.  “Hell’s My Wife’s Hometown,” another cut from Together Through Life, makes me laugh every time.  Dylan stopped singing about real people and feelings a long time ago, though he still reaches me on the deep level of myth and song.

But any protection I might seek from the damage I do to other women and to myself in my wavering, weary boyishness and my inconsistency and bravado breaks down when I pay attention to Amy Ray.  “Stand and Deliver” and “She’s Got to Be” are both relationship songs, and in that they are a dime a dozen.  Cheesy, even.  I’ve never enjoyed the feeling of being hailed by TV ads (phone ads are especially manipulative) or pop tunes.  Of course part of maturing or becoming human for the queer child is becoming open to popular feelings, even feeling normal.  And now that queer is a brand name, a new way to be incoherent and individual just like every other tattooed sexual deviant out there, I’m even more resistant to the sound track.  But oppositional reading and selective insertion of my desires into even the greatest musical fabrics has limits.  When I listen to Amy Ray I recognize my nonsense.  I feel read, exposed, and even normal. I hear my own struggling voice.

Baby’s got a lot of tears

Enough to cry a thousand years

Enough to cry a thousand seas

Enough to break a boy like me

I want to stand and deliver

Be the one who makes it better.

“Stand and Deliver” deliberately plays with anthemic production modes and structure, the kind intended to hail large rooms of thronging fans.  But what theme exactly does Amy Ray seek to politicize?  Butch-femme relations?  Can an anthem represent queer relations and not monumentalize or reify the fluidity once offered by (and for) sexual resistance?

Even if the answer to these leading questions were not obvious, I’d still enjoy “Stand and Deliver” for precisely daring to speak for me, a lonely striving butch who never feels good enough.  Not good enough for womanhood in general, and certainly not good enough for any woman.  You can talk about pride and self-knowing, and you can even be really successful with getting men’s wives to sit on your lap (it’s easy, actually).  But there’s a part of every deep-in-the-bone butch that can never believe any (real) woman would have her.  That’s the butch’s throat, the wondrous contralto from the uncertain center of an unsung identity.  Cue the swelling strings and the Robinhood garb:

All I’ve got’s this little chalice

Born of fear and forged with malice

All I’ve got’s this coat of mail [male?]

But in its time it served me well.

It’s useless now as I wither

Why can’t I just deliver?

Forget Robinhood, it’s almost Wagnerian in its endless, swelling drive to cement the lovers and heal the wounded hero with love-death.  Sometimes Ray stands behind her electric guitar and delivers, drives forth her contralto from down in her chest, the covered place.  This is not a natural voice.  I know.  I remember one summer vacation in the Catskills making the decision to break the shyness and order an icecream cone.  I pitched my voice low, threw it down that hole, tried to feel it supported by my solar plexus, the fundament of my social projection: chocolate cone, please.  From that utterance on, that pitch stuck in my butch throat.

No one ever enjoys hearing themselves played back on tape (it’s way more disturbing than a glimpse of yourself unawares in a mirror).  The discomfort probably stems not from judgment but more likely from misrecognition: we do not hear ourselves internally the way the sounds come back through recording technologies.  Feedback is not so much a reflection as a harmonic disillusion, a rending of our imagined wholeness. Ray, unlike most other butches, spends much of her time working out the mechanics of her voice, its reproduction and circulation.  When not standing and delivering she practices the studio croon, the intimate delivery that became possible with the advent of miked recording on radio.  In a youtube video, a relatively dolled-up Amy Ray strums directly into the camera, into the microphone, crooning to an imagined audience one swooning femme at a time.  It’s a more anxious performance than the one on Wouldn’t It Be Kinder and I’m not sure it suits.

There’s another youtube video of just such an early version of “Stand and Deliver,” lovingly recorded by a fan.  It works.  Listening, I find myself holding my breath, sort of the way you do at the ballpark when the underprepared kid gets up to sing the national anthem – a notoriously difficult and unlovely vocal obstacle course – and you wonder if they can hit the highs and lows.  The same feeling comes over me in this solo acoustic version.  The vocal range and delicacy necessary to belt out the prayer, to cast the spell, to produce the butch voice, even more than to seduce the femme (who’s got her own thing going, and I’ll let it alone), makes me wonder, is she gonna make it to the end of this note, to the end of the song?

In the video and on the recording Ray shifts at the end of the song to falsetto, the quintessential male pop voice.  I don’t think I any other female singer has ever used falsetto, and there’s a reason: Amy Ray is the butch’s throat, not Patti Smith’s wonderful but still ventriloquized gender masquerade in “Gloria.”  No, Amy Ray don’t sound like a man.  Close your eyes; there’s no double take/ double listening.  Amy Ray is the butch throat.  And in “Stand and Deliver” her butchness is cast in relation to doing right, to making whole another woman.  It’s not ventriloquism, but something more contrapuntal.  Not univocal; it’s anarchy.

As anarchic as it may be, the butch voice springs from one unifying throat or position:

She’s got to be with me always

To make sense of the skin I’m in

Sometimes it gets dangerous

And lonely to defend

Marking time with every change

It’s hard to love this woman in me

She’s the one that stills the seas

Finds the truth in this anarchy

Dives the depth of every age

Keeps this body and knows the shape

I will love.  I will protect this love

It was hard to get

I will love and I will protect this love

And it’s anarchy.

Only Ray can occupy the con-tralto boy-like-me position and bypass soprano, the female high voice, bypass also the African-American infused gospel alto that had belonged to singers like Odetta.  Ray’s depth and range is less spectacular than K. D. Lang’s virtuoso croon.  It’s less self-assured, less placed, more liable to break down and to shift key and pitch mid song and between songs.  Her voice is anarchy, the pitched battle of internalized gender.

“Is this body just a cage?”  Well of course it is.  And that’s why the voice, emanates from the body and yet speaks outside it.  This variation on the old body-mind split I call the Gomer Pyle syndrome, after the suspect southern TV army recruit who gaaw-aawl-ied with a country accent, but who burst out in operatic baritone.  The voice, unlike the body, does not betray class status or sexuality but does the opposite, it soars away from Podunk, and away from the Viet Nam war.  It offers a better alibi than Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.  Jim Nabors through his voice became a whole, national crooner, the hopeless white southern faggot no more.  Voice can uncage the body, transform status, fool the ear if not the eye.  It is always projecting and projection.

But voice is also placed.  Voice teachers speak of placing the voice, meaning techniques for producing “head” voice, “chest” or some other foundation for the sound waves to be produced from forced and controlled air through the “pipes” of the larynx and the containing cavities of the torso and skull.  Amy Ray’s butch-ly placed sound may overlap with some critiques of the mezzo sound as hooty or covered or dark.  But there’s also a boyish brightness or white gospel clarity to her tone, if not emanating from its placement, then from its intention, its innocence and yearning qualities.  If the body is a cage, a place for the production of gender and trouble, it is also a staging for a projection.  When Amy Ray switches to falsetto, she performs an aural gender trick beyond even the most complex of Strauss’s late trouser role in Der Rosenkavalierbecause it is not only the context of the reception of the voice that changes, and not only how the voice is produced that creates the aural difference, but the final falsetto is a new move in gender’s voiced and performed history: a woman singing low, quoting a man singing high.  And the body does not, cannot change.  Nor is it a cage, exactly.  It is, Amy, a vessel, a location, a passage for air, a bag of wind, a bottom plexus of flesh and energy: it’s anarchy.  It’s politics.

Amy Ray is at times as good as Woody Guthrie or Bruce Springsteen when it comes to getting away with politics in song.  I could argue that the line “I spent all day pushing tissue roses into chicken wire” from “Put It Out For Good” is the most riveting, alarming, activating image of meaningless and underpaid factory labor in all of rock n roll.  But that would be strange, isolating praise.  Rock protest tends towards self-promoting anthems of youth and resistance.  Even great anti-consumer culture songs like “take this job and shove it” or “(Can’t get no) Satisfaction” prefer the anger of a duped man who thinks his life should matter to scarifying details of other people’s unredeemable labor.

Amy Ray can write an anthem too, though.  But people don’t necessarily understand where she’s coming from.  It used to be suburbia – the “tramps like us”? . . . Well, maybe not.  That was Springsteen’s word for the unsung.  Continuing in the American song protest tradition, Ray sings in “Put It Out For Good” for the tramps not like “us”:

All the punks and the queers and the freaks and the smokers

. . . A new gender nation with a new desire.

But lately I think Ray has exhausted the singular field of identity crisis.  Reports are that she thinks about the land.  She roosts back on that bloody soil of the Las Americas del Sud.  The American South.  Georgia’s on her mind and in her body.  Through Guthrie and Springsteen’s masculine outrage on behalf of outsiders, deportees, the people of the land caught among the map’s shifting borders and their insane walls and real porosity, Ray sings in the voice of the people.  But the people never cohered.  That’s why Ray’s people are all trannies.  No one’s got a home – and no one’s got a righteous purchase on the land.  Ray can agitate for the rights of the indigenous, for the people of place, the placed people, even as she speaks for the “new gendered nation,” the people of suburban anomie and placelessness, in a moving voice of contradiction with the power to transport.  Long live the butch’s throat!

She’s Got To Be

Taylor Black

03/10/10


When I was very young I wanted to be a witch.  No, not in the sun and moon-worshipping, pentacle-wearing way, but a real witch, the kind you see in movies.  In fact, my obsession was specifically with the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz, and until I was around seven or eight years old I not only idolized her mentally and emotionally but also dressed as her more often than not.  Cloaked in black, witch’s hat in place and riding around my family’s house on a broomstick, I felt most at home in my own skin.

As the years passed and all the confusing feelings and sensations brought on by puberty began to wax, all the imperiousness and dark glamour that influenced my idea of myself as a young witch transformed into what might be generously called a bourgeoning gender and sexual identity.  As I ceased riding around on broom sticks and began to ponder my life as a matured adult being I then began to slowly cultivate a different idea of myself as a person found myself drawn to women that were, like Miss Witch: cold, commanding and horribly imposing.

I then spent the rest of my teenage years basking in the glow of these women and this wicked, feminized vision of myself.  Luckily, I then found myself able to manipulate my icy form of majestic detachment as a sort of self-defense mechanism as I hurtled through all the drama one might expect for a depraved young faggot growing up in the oppressively masculine, drab Bible Belt South.  More tragically, I suppose, I also felt a certain distance —from other people, from lovers, from myself, from my own body.

Living in the ivory tower of my fantasies, I began to feel all alone.  And then soon I was.  Everything would be okay, would stay in its rightful place, so long as I didn’t look into a mirror.  Sex felt alright if I didn’t have to be touched or feel anything good.  Friendships were okay if I did all the talking but none of the sharing.  Being a member of my family was fine just as long as no one mentioned or thought about my future as a human being, much less as a gendered one.

Fast-forward to my sad, stony face staring around New York City, my new home.  Running just as fast as I could out of North Carolina and pointing my toes, or my broomstick, due north, I landed on its shores at age 18, expecting something of a community and some kind of solid sense of identity to come my way.  As evidenced in my last piece on Le Tigre’s ode to transmasculinity, the queer world I found myself in was not one I was able to fold myself so easily into.  Drunk on (post-)identity politics and the prescriptive narratives and vocabularies that went along with it, I felt even more failed than before.  Knee-deep in sinners presumably like myself and settled into a community of queers and a city full of failures, I still felt my obvious lack of identification and hope for my sorry state of sexual abjection and gender dysphoria to be a burden and a source of that same loneliness I’d become so accustomed to.

The central question, at least to me, posed in my bitchy little entry on “Viz” was about the subject of queer anthems, and specifically whether or not the two terms work together at all.  While an anthem is meant to celebrate and praise some sort of body—of work, of land, of a person—queerness, at least in my case, is a description for someone who lacks the sort of necessary cohesion to be sung about in such a praiseworthy manner, or even to be praised at all.

Which brings me, however belatedly, to the song that I intended to focus squarely on this week, but that got waylaid by this little confessional.  Not just the title for this mistaken autobiography of mine, but also the title of the second song off of Amy Ray’s most recent solo record Didn’t It Feel Kinder\”She\’s Got To Be\” is the closest to an anthem or to a trans/queer audiobiography that I might be able to relate to.

Odd as it is, I find a lot of myself in this road-weary, road-worn song Amy Ray has written about her butchness and her own relationship to gender dysphoria.  Across generations, bodies and sexualities, I find this very personal, yet complicated and even cagey, “anthem” of hers comforting.  For better or worse, the song stands out on the album it appears on, but also in the whole of Amy Ray’s catalogue.  Following behind the slow drawl of the organ and the almost funky, soulful push given by the bass and the beat comes Amy Ray singing in a boyish falsetto.  Her voice is deceptively sweet, sounding almost like some sort of fucked up version of David Cassidy or Donny Osmond.  If you don’t listen carefully to the lyrics in the first verse it would be easy to think of the song as a love song for another woman.

She’s got to be with me always

To make sense of the skin I’m in

Sometimes it gets dangerous

And lonely to defend

Marking time with every change

It’s hard to love this woman in me

The first time I listened to the song was at a concert, standing just a few feet from Amy Ray and her band as she closed her eyes and started in on this devastatingly personal and personalizing ballad to her self.  Mind you, I’d heard the song a whole lot of times in the weeks leading up to the show on record, but I hadn’t listened to what it was saying.  More than that, though, I don’t think it would have willfully occurred to me that a song sung about queerness might have anything to say to me, isolated as I have become in my mixed-up, useless image of myself.

Unlike Samson’s epic ode to her fabulous gender presentation, Amy Ray’s song romances the sadness I’ve felt of not having either.  “She’s Got To Be” is everything “Viz” song isn’t: resigned, undone, incomplete and, at least to me, absolutely gorgeous.  As I’ve said, you can’t sing a song in praise of some-thing about yourself that you didn’t create or do.  If you try and sing triumphantly about a game you can’t win, you’ll lose out in the end.  You lost before you began.  But, what you can do is sing in the name of your failure—not to over-essentialize or lionize it, but to wrap yourself in it and feel at home.  You can stop fighting against yourself if you stop pretending you might be able to win.

She’s the one that stills the seas

Finds the truth in this anarchy

Dives the depth of every age

Keeps this body and knows the shape

The chorus sounds anthemic, but is really more of a spell that Amy Ray casts in her singing of it.  Instead of celebrating, it’s creating. It’s resolving.  You’ve got to be to be free.

I will love I will protect this love

It was hard to get

I will love and I will protect this love

And it’s anarchy

Standing at the show, drunk on gin and staggered by the weight of what I was suddenly hearing, I began to cry quietly—something, as you might imagine, that doesn’t come naturally or easily to me.  The revelation in the song is in Amy Ray’s willingness to give in to herself, to stop fighting and start becoming.  Central to my own melancholy regarding any queer or trans narrative I might be able to apply to myself is a recognition that my fantasies and desires—of my self, my body and my sexual expression—can’t translate into anything.  This song, like me, is resigned to its failure and in love with its chaos.

The thing that made me cry is the impossibility—of gender, cohesion, language, existence—Amy Ray realizes and demonstrates in her performance of the song.  I cried not because I was sad for her, though, but because I knew what she was expressing, felt what she was admitting to have failed at.  From my early years on a broomstick to my isolated attempts at finding a home for myself and a useful meaning for my desires, I stood rejoicing in this sweet little song of hers about giving up and staying put.  In order to love yourself and become you’ve got to learn to leave well enough alone.  Instead of breaking you down, failure can be full of capacity,  a way of being and becoming in and of itself.

As I have come to believe in my twilight: when there’s nowhere to go it can feel a lot less lonely and horrifying to stay put, to remain right where you seem to belong.  “She’s Got To Be” isn’t a queer anthem, but it’s an anthem to queer-ness; to self-love, instead of misguided self-praise.  In place of the noise of rebellion and the silent echoes of loneliness came this song of self-love and affirmation to save me.  In every subsequent listen, I remain to be wooed by its sweet sounds of failure, caught up in the romantic melody of resignation.