Friday, April 15, 2016


xx/xy playlist

As an adult, my consistently favorite musical theme seems to be gender identity. I've often explored 'gender inversions' (my term) (e.g., Bill Withers' "Who is He?" begetting Gladys Knight & the Pips' "Who is She?" begetting Me'Shell NdegéOcello's "Who is He?"). I've never tackled gender as the central lyrical focus, so this was a welcome challenge.

The old, bloated elephant that has historically occupied most of the room is the cis-male-hetero idea of masculinity (and, because everyone has to have an opinion, of femininity, too). Because this has been the norm for years of pop music, I intentionally didn't give it much airtime. Instead, I selected a small batch to capture the essence of this ethos. Spencer Davis Group's "I'm a Man" embodies this spirit like few other songs, from its tough riffage to its blunt title. Plus, it felt good to bookend the session between that song and Neko Case's "Man" ("I'm not an identity crisis / This was planned"). I admittedly picked "Walk Like a Man" less for its outline of manly qualities, but more for the shits and giggles of hearing Frankie Valli's ridiculous falsetto punctuate this list. And I had to include the Bacharach-David composition "Wives and Lovers" for its stunningly bone-headed lyrics -- a useful reminder that misogyny does not begin and end with [fill-in-the-blank African-American-rooted popular music style]. And then there's Muddy Waters' "Mannish Boy," which IMO trumps "I'm a Man." Waters has numerous recordings of this song. I goofed and played the Electric Mud version when I meant to play the Hard Again session (yes, I know there are some goofy ass players backing him on that record, but the relatively modern recording standards makes that record bang hard as fuck). Do yourself a favor and check it out in the playlist, if you aren't familiar. Well, he literally screams, "I'm a Man!!"

More interesting to me are the challenges to these standards. "Runnin'" leads the charge courtesy of Fatlip's soul-bearing verse which details an adolescence stripped of any Superman notions. Surrounded by a sea of aggression ("I can recall crip niggas throwin Cs in my face"), he knows what path he's supposed to follow, but has no tools to achieve it ("My pappy never taught me how to knock a nigga out"). Coupled with the song's hook, the running metaphor becomes a particular condemnation of macho standards.

I also focused on cis-female-hetero ideas of gender. The ideas of femininity range from the stereotypical traditional (Peggy Lee serving womanhood on a doily with "I Enjoy Being a Girl" and Joyce's fragrantly poetic "Feminina") to the prototypical feminist (The Slits' shit-talking "Typical Girls;" and even the solidly blue country of Kacey Musgraves' "Merry Go 'Round"). Just like the straight fellas, homegirls give considerable attention to masculinity. Sylvan Esso's "Hey Mami"calls out catcalls, while PJ Harvey's "Dress" paints a fuller picture of the male's perverted gaze. Suzanne Vega's "As Girls Go" highlights the more subtle, but no less pernicious digs at women.

I clearly can't get enough of inversions, because a fair amount of the set explored various border crossings and non-binary states. Etta James' muscular vocal performance on "W-O-M-A-N" (and, in fairness, most everything she recorded) is a great example of simultaneously encapsulating and exploding traditional notions of femininity. The recording is sexy, smoky, sensual... but continue throwing superlatives at the wall and you quickly find the list weaving in husky, swaggering, ballsy... did we take a left turn? No, she sings with all those qualities, but is undeniably a W-O-M-A-N. Thank goodness for the Mats's "Androgynous," which paints such a natural, loving portrait of gender and sexual identity exploration ("Mirror image, see no damage / See no evil at all"). Sure, the ending is a bit of a middle-aged bummer, but kudos to Westerberg for being able to forecast that in his mid-twenties when he wrote this. "Masculine Women, Feminine Men" was included mostly as a historic document of how long hetero mania over border-crossing (or, the notion there is only one border or that borders even exist) has existed.

When I return to this theme (and I certainly will, given how much fun this was), I want to break out of the cis-male and cis-female hetero voices. A good chunk of Antony/ANOHNI's work is really a starting point for me. I'll have more to say after exploring this some more.

And a quick word about the name of this session, "xx/xy." I recognize that referring to chromosomes suggests biology and sex identity. I know this is not the best session name. I'm happy to revisit this theme with a new session title. Any suggestions?

Labels: , , , , ,