Comparing someone to the Beatles was once akin to hurling a homophobic slur at them; Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, a queer black woman, started the blues; and Elvis was considered a feminine gender deviant when his pelvis first thrust its way onto the music scene.
Those music-history nuggets come from Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary, the debut book of Denver-based music journalist Sasha Geffen. This slim yet sprawling volume, published by the University of Texas Austin Press, overturns traditional approaches to pop-music history by revisiting popular stars, songs and genres through a gender-expansive, queer lens.
The book starts with Alessandro Moreschi, the only Sistine Chapel castrato to be recorded. It follows the lineage of gender-bending performers through Billie Holiday and Little Richard to culture vultures Elvis and the Beatles, ’70s renegades such as David Bowie and Genesis P-Orridge of Throbbing Gristle, later stars like Prince, Green Day and Against Me!, and such recent acts as Perfume Genius and Grimes.
Geffen also looks at the influence of Beatles manager Brian Epstein, a gay man who shaped the band’s style and turned its members into the first pop darlings. It was through Epstein’s queer gaze, argues Geffen, that the musicians became the object of teenage girls' adoration.
Taking on Bowie, Geffen explores how the glam star stole fashion and music from Andy Warhol associate Jayne County, the trans lead singer of proto-punk band the Electric Chairs. By Geffen’s assessment, Bowie was an expert at borrowing trends from transgender and queer culture, repackaging them into something that mainstream consumers would buy. “It was very consciously a costume for him, and the stakes for him in the drag he did were a little bit lower,” Geffen explains. Bowie's formula worked because he flirted with the queer fringe, but as a man married to a woman with a child, Bowie was still someone whom cis-heterosexuals could understand.
"You have to introduce enough danger to the culture to be exciting, but have enough of a foundation to return to so you don’t freak out the record companies," Geffen explains. "Bowie is a figure who walked that line really well. That’s how he could take advantage of the fact that queerness and its aesthetics were starting to gain traction.”
In the book, Geffen also makes a compelling case for how gender bending wove its way through punk, from Iggy Pop and Patti Smith (who viewed herself as neither man nor woman and was so androgynous that gay poet Allen Ginsberg apparently tried to cruise her) to Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day and Laura Jane Grace, the transgender lead singer of Against Me!.
Geffen assesses Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love’s gender presentation and relationship, as well as the evolution of the anti-disco movement from a punk critique of corporate culture to an outright homophobic Disco Demolition Night, when tens of thousands of rock fans burned disco records at Comiskey Park in July 1979 at a White Sox double-header.
The book also delves into the women's-music movement of the ’70s and the competing desires of trans-inclusive feminists and anti-trans activists. In a particularly disturbing anecdote, Geffen recalls how members of the group the Gorgons threatened to murder trans recording engineer Sandy Stone, who was at a music festival put on by Olivia Records.
Glitter Up the Dark winds down with an examination of how Internet technologies and science fiction have shaped gender presentation and sexual identity, digging into the persona of Janelle Monáe, who recently came out as pansexual, and her queer Afrofuturist pop. Then it looks at a bigger question — whether expansive understandings of gender offer utopian possibilities — that Geffen has yet to answer.
The goal of the book, says Geffen, is to “look back at some artists who have been digested through the canon and look at what they had in common when it came to gender-bending, gender-fucking strategies.”
Geffen argues that by breaking with the conventions of the gender-binary, many musicians found success in the mainstream. At the same time, those artists communicated messages to gender-nonconforming people that they needed to hear.
“Writing the book was an opportunity to look back at my teenage years and figure out what was going on,” says the author, who identifies as nonbinary. “I didn’t have a good conception of trans identity or nonbinary identities. It was not language that was available to me.”
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Instead, Geffen, who was born in 1989, was drawn to music by men who sang in higher registers, from Bright Eyes and Neutral Milk Hotel to Placebo and Savage Gardens.
“Those failed male voices spoke to me really well,” Geffen says. “I spent a lot of my teen years pretty upset. Getting into music was one way to survive that. I didn’t really understand what was wrong with me or why I couldn’t be a person or be normal. I listened to a lot of music and filled myself with it.”
To this day, Geffen uses music as a comfort and a way to explore the often unmanageable emotions that come with being human.
“Singing is a way of expressing that emotional overflow that happens when you’re just too much for your surroundings and too much for the box you’re supposed to fit in, and you spill out of it and make a huge mess,” Geffen says. “That’s the root of this whole project.”