Queer Performance

FEATURED WORKS

Jenna Noe, "Queer Musicology"

Garth Vest, "Gender and Drag Performance"

 

Jenna Noe, "Queer Musicology"

Music surrounds every individual whether they welcome it into their lives or not. Every single day, jingles on the television, radios blaring on the street, somebody whistling a tune, even one of those annoying songs you can’t get out of your head, you are faced with music. It has the ability to envelop all behavior the moment one realizes a pat on the table using their fingers or pen, or tap of the foot rhythmically binds you to a beat, thus creating music! But does anyone ever stop and think about the kind of music they are creating or jamming to? Yes perhaps they see the genre in which it fits (but who decided those categories anyway?) or the overarching message of the lyrics, but do they ever sit and ponder what it is that they like about music? It gradually changes with time actually; societal trends and interests paired with mass production to please the majority ultimately rule the music scene. This can be argued with the likes of Beatle mania, disco and rock in the 70s, hair bands and heavy metal of the 80s, alternative rock and rap in the 90s, boy band phenomena of the early 2000s, and pop-punk and electronic age of the modern day. 

            But it’s already 2013, three years into a new decade! What is to come of the 2010s? It seems as though all of the past musical trends have been exhausted to an extent where they are not welcome to return or any attempt to recreate it would be an insult to their legacy. So that leave a whirlwind of opportunities to strike anew, mixing genres and tastes and crossing boundaries to make sound aesthetically pleasing is maybe the only route left. Though amalgamating different styles has never been an issue in the music industry, whereas crossovers, duets, and sampling on select tracks has always been popular and is still thriving in the culture today. Therefore, the actual change in music comes from who it is being produced for, who wants to buy and download CDs, merchandise, cover art, t-shirts, and so on. It can be said then that music is always being queered to fit the majority’s acceptance. The term ‘queer’ itself can encompass an entire ocean’s worth of definitions, categories, labels, etc. outside the realm of its usual lgbtqa stigma. All music has been changed, queered, and now in 2013 there is music specifically put out FOR queer people, a queer act in itself! Queer Queer Queer!

            In JoséEsteban Muñoz’s piece, “Disidentifications, Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics, he discusses the concept of queer disidentification in life and the realm of performance. The queering of music and addition of queer music for queer folk can associate with this quote of his:
 

"These identities-in-difference emerge from a failed interpellation within the dominant public sphere. Their emergence is predicated on their ability to disidentify with the mass public and instead, through this disidentification, contribute to the function of a counterpublic sphere"

 

Essentially, it can be said that when music attempted to assimilate to what the public wanted, it failed, thus a new sphere (or counterpublic) created as a result. A new sphere that appeals to a fresh and new perspective of individuals: a queer perspective, queer individuals. The queer community, in its own aspect, has become a queer counterpublic. Queer is still a term that is looked at with strange connotations and, frankly, those not associated with the term do not understand how to comprehend the “taking back” of the term by those once offended by its definition. Therefore, in the realm of musicology, queer application spawns a brand new dominion in where the music it applies to, stands.

            First, I will begin with a personal anecdote where I first noticed the queering in music and realized I was interested in the topic. This previous winter, I went to see a band where the front man (notice how the usual go-to is ‘man’) is a female. Her band was the headliner and as I was sitting and sipping my beer I noticed that all of the bands preceding hers each had at least one female member. In a little bit of a haze, I was like, “hm, this is something I have never noticed before, how weird!” Then, immediately upset with that assumption, I realized how cynical of me to assume that it was out of the norm to see females as a majority on stage performing, playing instruments. As a female performer and percussionist myself, I was extremely disappointed that my immediate reaction was to assume how unordinary it was to see the majority of performers on stage be females. So I realized that this strange happenstance could only be defined as queer, an instance that I was so unfamiliar with, but so NOT out of the ordinary that the only way to define it would be to create something new out of its existence. I decided to research the record company under which all of these bands exist, and to my not so surprise, every single band on the record has a female in it or blatantly featured. What is unfortunate is the fact that THIS is out of the normal. A record label that features females exclusively? Dear god, someone alert the music gods…women are the new face of music, and they are here to stay. But you know what, why not? And why shouldn’t women feel empowered on stage showing off their blatant talent that should in no way be compared to that of the males that dominate the industry we are trying so hard to incorporate the female presence into? As a female and musician, I am apart of a musical group that contains two females and two males. On countless occasions we are asked, “who is in charge?” and, “who does all the work?” Well excuse you curious snobs, maybe ALL of us work together to complete our goals! The two boys and I initiated the process in forming the band, and after the eventual add of our female bassist Nicole, we formed a quartet of talent that should be judged not by our sex but by our musical capability overall. Sadly, it is not the case all the time.

            Luckily for the gals on Don Giovanni Records, there are a few influences they can look up to. Mainly, and most obviously, it lays in the female, lesbian duo Tegan and Sara. Originating from Canada, an aboriginal queer concept of music originality in the United States itself, these girls queer music to the extreme extent that the music they make is ACTUALLY queer! Meant for females to listen to about other females. Melissa Ethridge’s country lesbianism aside, these girls make indie, pop, sad hits for other lesbians to listen to and think things from, “Damn. Why aren’t I in love?” to “Holy shit being in love is the absolute WORST!” And you know what, sometimes girls need to hear that. And not from some boy’s speculation about what it is like to kiss his girlfriend, no, it should be heard from a girl talking about another GIRL. And Tegan and Sara serve justice to do so. With lgbtqa priorities and deserved rights coming into the mainstream political spectrum and societal primacies, it only makes sense that the generally accepted forms of entertainment, i.e. music, film, video, etc., conform to such tastes, and these Canadian lesbians do such justice. With lyrics suggestiing “top” and “bottom” positions, a concept hetero-normative couples never have to comprehend or associate with in their relationships, is introduced and exclusively appeals to a queer audience. This is the kind of lyrical adaptation to queer society that needs to be applied in order to disassociate with accepted society into a subculture that only queer folk may grasp. In all of history the majority of mainstream music has been dominated by the male persona: BOY bands, the predominantly male controlled rap scene, guitar influence of the late 70s and 80s existing chiefly due to male guidance, and unfortunately, the list goes on. For some, unknown and really no precedential reason, males have dominated the music scene. Therefore, women NEED to reclaim culture. Women NEED to come into society and the musical mainstream to reclaim what is ours, to make other women feel empowered, and as if they too can come into a male dominated spectrum and overcome the strange-ness and display the power dynamic a male sphere as set up. A subculture of queer music may exist despite the heteronormative authority.

            Yet sometimes women do not even have to adhere to a queer audience in order to display their dominance. Controversial yet extremely influential artist Kesha Rose Sebert, more prominently known as Ke$ha, has brought a light to the music society that has unfortunately been overlooked and under-appreciated by almost all who listen. Here is a girl who openly expresses her interest in partying, hooking up, and exciting adventures but is CRITICIZED for having a good time! Drake can come out with a song about one night stands, Jason Derulo can sample Imogen Heap to sing a song about cheating on his girl but still being in love and making millions to win her back, but here is a female who honestly displays the fun in having a good time and suffers under receiving the condescending remarks of being labeled a “slut,” “whore,” “party-girl,” and “sex-fanatic.” You know what? Fuck that! Songs about cheating, multiple girlfriends, and sleeping around are proliferated by the ideal that men are allowed to express their sexuality in a way that serves to only enhance their masculinity and in the music scene today women are expected to sing about their boyfriends, being pure, taking their boys back, or even, as unfortunate as it sounds, observing to a strict social standard by forgiving their men when they have done wrong. Ke$ha is a revolutionary because she denies all of these aspects. She tells her ex-beau’s to “suck her dick” and this abhorrent remark labels her music as “offensive” and “inappropriate” by major music magazines simply because she embraces sexuality in a sense that overlooks gender affiliated clarifications. It could be argued she is feeding into the stereotype with a remark like, “suck my dick” because she is perpetuating the male anatomy as a symbol of power, but honestly, I think she is being as queer as can be: reclaiming the most prized possession of male masculinity and saying, “you know what? You can throw it around like it’s some prize to be won, well I can too!” She is criticized for being a woman exemplifying the party lifestyle, but every male out there personifies such a lifestyle to that of ultimate relief and satisfaction, so why not have a woman doing the exact same thing? The answer is HELL YEAH, WHY NOT?! Let a woman come up on stage and sing about getting wasted, having random hook ups, and partying ‘til she drops. If bands and performers were once deified for destroying their hotel rooms and having groupies, why can’t a woman also be elevated to the same level if she is willing to admit it?

            The worst part is that we NEED more women willing to admit it. The music scene needs women like Tegan and Sara, Ke$ha, and the females on Don Giovanni records to come forth and not only embrace their musical talent but their womanhood to continue the queering of music. Through this, a counterculture beneficial to those who perhaps never found a place in the popular music scene may fit in. Though this study illuminated the progress and successes of females, it serves to illustrate that the queering of music is necessary on all boundaries, not just gender. Tegan and Sara may sing to lesbians, but there is definitely a gay boy out there who jams to their songs and patiently waits the day a gay male comes forth to sing about his male lover, so they too can feel the same enablement to come forward and embrace their love. The queering of music is necessary not only in the sense of the composition itself, but the way it is presented, to provoke a new viewpoint of it entirely in order to appeal to a mass audience that is queer in itself, ever-changing and always expanding.

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Garth Vest, "Gender and Drag Performance"

Drag constitutes the mundane ways in which genders are appropriated, theatricalized, worn, and done; it implies that all gendering is a kind of impersonation and approximation. If this is true, it seems, there is no original or primary gender that drag imitates, but gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original; in fact, it is a kind of imitation that produces the very notion of the original as an effect and consequence of the imitation itself.”  -Judith Butler’s Imitation and Gender Insubordination

 

            Gender is not typically thought of as a performance. It is just something that most people accept to be one of two options, male or female, on the basis of which genitalia you were born with. Perhaps this is not the case though. Gender completely changes its meaning when thought of as a performance. In fact many people make a living off of thinking exactly that. Drag queens imitate the opposite gender in order to entertain an audience, comment on social issues, and make money. But are drag queens really imitating the opposite gender? If what Judith Butler states is true I would argue that they are not for the very reason that the original does not exist. Gender does not truly exist only the imitation of gender exists which creates the idea of the original. Simply put, a teenage girl sees a dress being worn by a woman in a catalog. To imitate this feminine image of the woman wearing a dress she goes out and buys one herself. Now the dress will never look the same on her as it did on the woman because every person is different but her attempt at imitating this allows her to act and feel more like the woman she admired in the magazine. This is a performance. She wears the dress in order to be perceived more like the woman she admired by the people around her or so she can perceive herself to be more like this woman. Similarly many high school age boys participate in sports. This is also a performance of gender. It is (unfortunately) stereotyped that sports are a very masculine activity.  It is also not uncommon for boys to have fathers who participated in many sports and thus in order to imitate their father’s gender many boys feel the need to participate in sports themselves. Gender is a constant performance with an audience that exists everywhere. These are two examples of “normative” gender performances.

Drag performers are able to successfully break these normative structures every day. Drag queens are able to play up feminine gender stereotypes in order to create characters that break the normative structure of gender. Some have so well perfected female impersonation that they can easily take a walk down the street, or hop on a subway train in New York City and have no one give them a second glance. But if gender is truly a performance then where does the line between drag performers and transgendered persons exist? Would this allow all people to choose a different gender every day? Biologically no but according to Judith butlers theory I think it would allow exactly that. Gender as a performance allows anyone to present themselves however they want. A drag queen has the ability to perform as a woman on stage, a girl can chop off all of her hair if she wants, and I can walk down the street in a pair of heels just because I feel like it even though I am male.

Why is it that a hetero-normative, white, male based society is threatened by people breaking gender norms? It’s because gender normality’s fail all the time. Trans people exist, women have taken over the workplace, men are becoming stay at home dads, drag queens are becoming legitimate members of the entertainment industry and this gives us power. When gender norms fail we gain power, even if it is only a little bit at a time. We gain the power to say you can’t tell me what I can do as a woman, as a man, as a trans man, trans woman, boy, girl, it, or whatever you identify as. We are able to do this because we have the ability to choose how we perform every day. We have the ability to empower ourselves in this society.

Drag Queens often talk about a feeling of empowerment while they are in drag. My few experiences in drag came with a similar sense of power. I felt as though the world was staring at me and I loved every second of it. I felt as though no one could touch me, like I was invincible. This is exactly what makes society uncomfortable with this concept. Society is not comfortable with anything that empowers the non-normative people. Jinkx Monsoon exudes this power on this year’s season of Rupaul’s Drag Race. Jinkx, a narcoleptic boy turned drag queen from Portland Oregon, has been mistreated throughout his life and through drag has become one of the most loved entertainers to ever be on the show. Jinkx talks very openly about gender, especially in regards to queer youth. An interviewer asked Jinkx “I just watched the new documentary about the legendary drag queen Divine, called I Am Divine, and interviewed the cult star Mink Stole, who was fabulous. She mentioned that she wished Divine would've gotten more chances to play male roles, and I read in another interview that you hope one day that you can play any character regardless of gender. Do you feel like that's something American audiences are finally ready for?”Jinkx responded by saying “I think because of things like RuPaul's Drag Race, even though it's a very specific kind of representation of our community, I think the more and more we get integrated into the mainstream, the less of a big deal it is that some people are gay and that gender is in the eye of the beholder. I think within the next couple of years, it won't be that big of a deal for a gay male to play a straight male role, or a female role, or a gay male role all equally.”

Rupauls drag race has had a large impact on the world in regards to gender. After running for 5 consecutive seasons, including one shorter “All-Star” season, the show has quickly become one of the most watched reality television competitions in the United States. The show is an amazing platform for drag performers to change people’s opinions about gender and gender performance.

Rupaul’s Drag Race is not only changing opinions in America but 30 different countries across the globe where the show is aired. 10 years ago it would be unheard of for a show about drag queens to be aired in 30 different countries. It is truly creating a movement across the globe which is allowing gender to become more colorful and less black and white.

Why should people be constricted to only two options? If a restaurant was only serving me two different options for dinner do you know what I would do? I would walk down the street to another place that had more to offer. Bad examples aside it is impossible to believe that only two genders can exist because everyone is so unique. No person fits a stereotype so truly that this could be possible. If it were than every man on the planet would act the exact same way, and every woman would as well. There would be no creativity, unique ideas, art, music, etc. None of that woud exist because it would have no platform to exist on. The ideals of hetero-normative society fail all the time on the simple basis that what is believed to be true in that society can’t actually exist in a creative world. 30 different countries are currently airing a show that breaks down every gender stereotype known to the world. That simple fact in itself should be enough to prove that gender is not only male or female but completely and utterly unique to each individual person. Gender and biological sex are not and never will be the same thing.

To most of the people reading this it is not unknown that I am a theatre major. I live, eat, and breathe performance. Gender is an amazing tool on the stage that can create so many different reactions in an audience. A boy in drag on stage can be used to make even the most uptight person laugh. A woman in male drag can be equally as comical, or scarily convincing. Gender is simply a performance tool that is used in order to create a perception about yourself that other people see. Just like it is used on the stage for a particular reaction from an audience. It is like a costume that we where everyday. Some people use it to push boundaries, like myself. Others simply put on a normal costume and use it to pass by unnoticed. Some use theirs for survival but regardless of how you portray your own personal gender, it must be recognized that it is a unique, and interesting personal experience for every person. A male cat, and a female cat don’t act any different from each other. “Male” and “Female” are no longer, and never should have been, the only two options. But one option that is true for everyone is Human, and as such we should not judge each other, but rather help each other. Nobody should be scared to leave the house because someone else doesn’t like the way they dress or act.

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