We Exist: Representations of Transpeople in Music

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When I was nineteen, I went to see Savages perform on the Thekla. It’s a performance that has always stayed with me, but perhaps for not entirely obvious reasons. Certainly the allure of Jehnny Beth’s chant-them-if-you-like lyrics and the band’s primal no wave / post-punk instrumentation had a great effect on me, but it was not until after the show when I met the band that something even more vital occurred. I’d never heard of Antony and the Johnsons until Fay Milton recommended them to me.

The notion of ‘trans music’ is a peculiar one, and certainly one that defies easy classification: whether this is music for transpeople, by transpeople or something else entirely. However, it is a fact not worth shying away from that very few transpeople have made a commercial impact within the music industry. Whether this relates to the wider appeal of their work, the fact that any minority is likely to produce fewer artists, or that some sinister oppressive stance has been taken, it is difficult to gauge. But certainly, those that have managed to break through are few and far between.

The impact that bands like Antony and the Johnsons have had on cultural perceptions of gender dysphoria is paramount to any discussion of the topic. Their 2005 Mercury Music Prize-winning album ‘I Am A Bird Now’ is a deeply personal exploration of relationships, memory and gender, replete in majestic swells and Antony’s own beautifully evocative vibrato; a critical success in every right, but indeed, an album that serves an even greater purpose for the trans community than the sum of its parts: it is a breakthrough. Similarly, Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! began her public transition in 2012 and released ‘Transgender Dysphoria Blues’ in 2014. It was another frank, introspective release that highlighted several of the issues faced by transpeople, both in their daily lives and in the music industry.

But still, the relationship that exists between transpeople and music is an exceedingly difficult one to discuss, even for a transperson who writes about music. When I look back upon the twenty-one years of my life, such a substantial part of it is filled with music. Whether I’d intended for it to be or not, music became a guiding light through my confusing, foggy teenage years right up to the present day. It’s helped me come to terms with my own identity and fashion my own place in the world. Through the ups and downs, I’m thankful to have had that. But still, it is such an intensely subjective relationship that writing about anyone’s personal experiences bar my own can seem a tad insulting.

In May last year, Laura Jane Grace openly criticised the music video for ‘We Exist’ by Arcade Fire for casting Andrew Garfield as its protagonist, as well as stereotyping the experiences of transgendered individuals. In a series of tweets, Grace drew attention to the insensitive casting of a cis-gendered, straight white male in the role of a body dysmorphic individual, before also calling out the poor plot reasoning made by the video’s creators. Grace expatiated: “why does Garfield cry about shaving [his] head to then put on a wig when they have gorgeous hair? Why does Garfield go to the sh*ttiest bar ever to drink domestic beer and dance with bigot rednecks? And the idea that the band playing Coachella is [the character’s] Mecca of acceptance and validation. Phfff. As if.”

Whilst transpeople may find comfort in music, even glimpsing a handful of genuine expressions from the semi-mainstream, flawed portrayals like the above make it clear that we still have some way to go. The issues surrounding transgenderism should not be exploited by the contemporary music industry, as hot-button fodder to push sales or otherwise, but rather given the space to be expressed with sincerity, particularly at this delicate interval.

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