I penned a super lengthy piece on the state of heteronormativity in various fields of pop music for independent student magazine Exetera. It was expertly edited to bitesize, concentrating on the section exploring Queer Rap. Published in early June 2013, written in March.
Read the edited article here
Read the full piece, unedited and carried away, here:
Four decades since Queen (in Pitchfork’s words) “duped a nation into pounding a masculine chest with a feminine fist”, and less than a year after Frank Ocean’s coming out, we look to the contemporary masters of gender bending in pop music’s last bastions of heteronormativity, homophobia and misogyny. But is there such a thing as a prophet in the complex world of gender and the consumer-led music industry?
Let’s start by looking on the fringes of mainstream rock and pop, at indie and alternative music. The blog rock hordes and their raised Pitchforks are ostensibly one of the most liberal-leaning fields of pop music, what with all that Judith Butler and Helen Cixous read at NYU and Oxford before moving to Brooklyn and East London. Hipsters love gender equality and po-mo conceptions of sexuality, right?
That said, the world of the alternative troubadour is not yet stripped of the ‘female singer-songwriter’ tag; straight, male artists undeniably still rule the roost. Sure, many breakthrough successes from artists like Feist continue to endure. And 2009’s notable surge of female solo artists marked five out of the ten Mercury nominees, including the winner. But Speech Debelle saw tragicomically low record sales following the win, and despite the weighty oomph of her post-riots anthem “Blaze Up A Fire” last year, no one’s going to remember it over Plan B’s slightly politically dubious “Ill Manors” – but then, those Prodigy-esque breakbeats on the chorus were pretty fab. What are we left with? Because Florence Welch’s tremulous wail doesn’t look to be quite the siren of the pop patriarchy’s downfall.
Things do seem to fare better on the sexuality front in indie though, with no one batting an eyelid at Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke or Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste, for example. But the war is far from won. They underplay, or at least aren’t forced to reference, their sexual orientation, but Boy George-acolyte and critical golden boy/girl Antony “And The Johnsons” Hegarty – outspoken about being transgender – still finds it very much necessary to draw attention to troubling gender boundaries. Challenging heteronormative values is still a project far from completion. And, luckily for everyone, flaunting sexual deviance and camp is a hell of a lot more fun than the perverse ticking of the proverbial diversity chart.
Take Canadian cyber-pixie Grimes’ enormous success last year. Despite a heavy reliance on the most absurd hipster aesthetic in her later marketing, she did a good bit of hammering at the glass ceiling with her warping of tropes of femininity and performativity. Beyond just shaving the side of her head in a kooky way, she took the idea of the super-produced pop diva and flipped it on its head, exaggerating her bubblegum cuteness to disturbing levels and manning (‘scuse the term) her live performances with a supreme control over every aspect of her visual and sonic presentation. She was the ultimate self-producer, she squealed into microphones and looped and re-looped herself with rigid autonomy. Not that that’s never been done before, but she did it with the kind of pop-savvy vigour and technical dexterity (using little but a couple of synths and a sequencer on an ironing board) that conjured a Gaga-esque monster out of thin air, slamming it down your ears in streams of sub-bass. And all to a pretty tune.
But as Vice magazine’s Noisey would have us believe, this and her super-chic goth-hipster imagery mean that “all lesbians love grimes”. So forget challenging stereotypes and package that piece of potentially transgressive gender bending back into its glossily labelled shrink-wrap, I guess.
Onto hip hop then, where use of the word ‘faggot’ is still a commonplace (used 213 times in Tyler, The Creator’s last album). Frank Ocean’s openly addressed letter revealing his first love as a man was met with a lot of publicly positive comments from rappers, as was Barack Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage broadly celebrated. But beyond surface PR common sense (perhaps barring Busta Rhymes’ shameless fag-bashing), you don’t have to look hard to find explicitly homophobic sentiments in rap music.
On one hand this phobia of transgressive gender might stem from a complex history of black masculinity touched upon in Byron Hurt’s 2006 documentary Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes. But heteronormativite sensibilities pervade all-male crowds, spilling out of incidents like openly bisexual Azealia Banks’ homophobic slur in a recent twitter spat with upcoming fellow female rapper Angel Haze. And that ‘fellow female rapper’ tag only outlines a persistent liability for pigeonholing every new woman on the scene – decades after Salt ‘N’ Pepa’s feminist stardom, and Missy Elliot and Mary J Blige’s chart domination – as the ‘new Nicki Minaj’ or ‘Lil’ Kim’. Remembering that those latter rappers’ infamous beef was essentially rooted in there being space for only one cowgirl in town, it seems depressingly clear that the female rapper – and the masculine braggadocio they need to adopt to win respect in their scene – is still a novelty.
Another documentary – Jennie Livingstone’s 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning, sheds light on a parallel narrative: New York ball culture. An LGBT stronghold, the ball subculture and its houses create spaces for the marginalised – largely African American and Latino drag and transgender groups – to celebrate and compete, “walking”, “voguing” and “reading” in highly stylised shows of “realness”. The best dressers, the most outrageous and the biggest attitudes win the most respect. Sound familiar?
“Gay men invented swag”, quotes Michael Quattlebaum, whose stage identity Mykki Blanco delivers an aggressive flow of cold put-downs to horror-show beats, wearing smeared lipstick, a wig and a nightie. Mykki is one of many kick-ass rappers to emerge into the limelight last year, lumped under the ‘queer rap’ umbrella. See also Le1f, Cakes Da Killa and Zebra Katz, whose ‘I’mma Read’ (heavily referencing NY ballroom putdowns) was snatched up by infamous fringe-miner Diplo on his Mad Decent label. Gay rappers are nothing new, but these artists’ explicit, violent appropriation of rap’s tropes of swag reveals a height of camp that’s existed in hip hop for decades. Sam Davies (writer for The Wire) re-read Susan Sontag’s seminal Notes On Camp and discovered hip hop as “camper than a row of pink velvet tents”, with all its airbrushed music videos and flaunting of glamour. ‘Queer rap’ – if it shares one thing in common – hammers home this glaring hypocrisy in hip hop with equal measures of defiant, flamboyant individuality and floor-shaking bass. Katz’ “I’mma Read” tears along nightmarishly to a break of pulsating kicks, Le1f’s productions ring with rave synths and Blanco’s beats echo the more electronic end of trap rap.
This rave-influenced hip hop comes after the dissolution of longstanding US aversion to dance music for supposed homosexual connotations. ‘Brostep’, much like The Prodigy in the 90s, put frat boys onto bass (even though Skrillex looks a touch more Marilyn Manson than James Dean), and dance music’s boys-only club is looking straighter than anything these days.
For a start, where are all the female DJs? Just as Caitlin Moran begrudges that girls with guitars looked awkward in the 90s, “like a dog riding a bicycle”, you don’t see a lot of women tearing up Fabric. The phallic guitar (‘ax’) and the braggadocio of jerking it around a stage like a weapon is still a novelty in the hands of women outside of Riot Grrrl bands (a sad state of affairs that Haim might be some way to remedying, if they would only make music that wasn’t so damn bland). And equally, although supreme electronic radio DJs Annie Mac, Mary Anne Hobbs and more recently Heidi have had a massive impact on dance music, Mixmag’s top 100 DJs list still only features one female name.
Besides, the female producers and DJs that do crop up on the scene nevertheless seem to have to resort to highlighting the novelty of their gender: see Ikonika, Madam X and Queenie. Bristol DJ Eton Messy’s Youtube channel (basically softcore porn), and a long history of Ministry Of Sound ads featuring bikini-clad page 3 models has hardly done its bit to fight the objectification of women. If only Burial hadn’t revealed his identity in 2008 – he might have turned out to be a transgender refugee with disabilities, fighting the patriarchy with, err, ambient breaks and future garage.
The only stolid exemplars of gender warriors still fighting with techno that come to my mind are Swedish duo The Knife. With previous releases called Gender Bender, ‘We Share Our Mother’s Health’ (with shadows of abortion in its lyrics) and the recent ear-shattering refutation of heteronormative sensibilities ‘Full Of Fire’, you would think The Knife only follow in generations of gender progressives in the musical avant-garde. When actually, their 2003 single ‘Heartbeats’ remains a hit Karin Dreijner’s side-project Fever Ray made huge waves in 2009 and they hugely influenced UK bass and post-dubstep with their appropriation of (hip hop’s most notable casualty to Purple Drank) DJ Screw’s ‘chopped and screwed’ style of pitch-shifting vocals in order to blur sonic gender boundaries. Thee steel-pan hook of ‘Pass This On’, for example, hugely informed Jamie xx’s productions (which in turn were recycled by Drake), even though its music video is based around a drag queen doing karaoke.
While The Knife, or Grimes, or Mykki Blanco, are never going to purge homophobia and sexism from the music industry, they offer up startling reminders of its lingering prejudices. With oodles of freak show theatrics, bass piled to the rafters and a stunning discography, they pose a refreshing, impactive middle finger to heteronormativity in music. And it’s one that needs playing loud.