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Wherefore art thou, androgyny?

June 28, 2010

I have always been attracted to androgyny. I don’t know that it’s so much of a sexual attraction as it is an attraction to an aesthetic or style or just a natural way someone presents to the world. I remember this period of time when I was commuting from Brooklyn to my job in Manhattan and I would see this person on the subway nearly every day who was incredibly and naturally androgynous. They had reddish brown hair that hung down to almost chin level and wore fairly gender neutral clothing. I honestly could not tell what their sex was and I loved that! I loved seeing them occupying this space between and not being easily definable. They could have been cisgendered or transgendered; straight or queer – it didn’t matter. I thought they were fantastic. And then one day my androgynous bubble was burst when a young woman who knew my secretly admired subway neighbor saw them when she got on and called out “Hey, Becky!” and they immediately started chatting and Becky had a very distinctly female voice. I was a bit bummed. Sure, it’s not anyone’s place to live up to a certain gender or non-gender specific role just to please me. But I was really loving this experience of seeing someone who so easily defied categorization and challenged my own learned reflex to try and decide someone’s gender immediately upon viewing them. And I could still love Becky being Becky and still looking way androgynous.

But that anecdote is symbolic of how I feel in a larger sense about the landscape of pop culture, especially the landscape of popular music. Being the ripe old age of 37, I can remember a time when the world of popular music brought forth such wonderfully androgynous and highly successful musical folks such as these (click photos to enlarge):

David Bowie

It seems difficult to even imagine these folks – and they are just a few examples – existing in today’s more gender normative musical terrain alongside the likes of Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift, Beyonce and Shakira. Even Lady Gaga, while known for her outrageous fashions and no-holds-barred kookiness is still quite feminine. The only current, mainstream, successful pop star I can think of who courts androgyny is Rihanna, and there is something distinctly feminine in the way she presents sexiness in her photos and videos. It sometimes seems like there’s very little place for androgyny in increasingly regimented, branded, ultra-serious world of pop music. But there may be some hope on the horizon.

A crop of artists coming out from the sidelines or up from the underground and grabbing some attention are bearing the torch of androgyny with much style and flair. First up is the dazzlingly talented Janelle Monae, whose blend of hip-hop, r&b, rock and futuristic pop is almost out-shined by her yen for impeccably tailored, mod-eqsue tuxedos and a flawlessly coiffed afro-pompadour. She even refuses to let her fashion be gendered as seen here in this photo/quote from InStyle magazine’s July 2010 issue:

How fantastic is that? Ah, I do adore Ms. Monae so. I also admire her image all the more in a music industry that seems to always present images of black women that are usually quite feminine and often hyper-sexualized. And while I don’t think that you could ever say Janelle Monae isn’t as sexy as hell – because she is! – it’s a sexiness that we haven’t seen on the scene in quite some time.

And no post containing Janelle Monae would be complete without including her amazing video for “Tightrope”:

Gaaah, so good! Her tuxedo owns me, seriously! And I love her little squadron of lookalikes including that super-cute short lady with the bob. Killing me!!

Okay, recovered! Now from Sweden comes Robyn, the electro-pop sensation who is slowly building a bigger and bigger audience here in the U.S. Robyn’s signature icy-blonde, asymmetrical cut and the way she often exaggerates aspects of femininity with bold makeup alongside a more gender-neutral ensemble make my androgyny-loving heart go pitter-pat. Her videos always feature an array of Robyns – from androgynous outfits, to obviously feminine looks to her being dressed as a bumblebee or a jukebox. She plays with her image so readily and so easily that her “brand” often seems to be her defiance to definition. Here in the video for “Who’s That Girl”, while she sings of not being able to live up to the idealistic girl in a suitor’s fantasies, there are flashes of images of female archetypes of all stripes, contrasting as much to Robyn as they do to each other and presenting the idea that there’s never a neat, easy role or image that embodies all women, all the while Robyn looks smashing in an old school marching band uniform:

In the original version of the video heartbreaking “Be Mine”, a seemingly shaved-headed Robyn takes on a variety of roles from sassy showgirl to distressed-yet-hip housewife, in a way that displays the chameleon-like benefits of her androgynous features (apologies, the sound on this video is horribly out of sync):

Last up is Eleanor Jackson, singer for the electro-pop duo La Roux. In this case I find myself more interested in Jackson’s androgynous aesthetic than in the music of La Roux, although I do dig a few of their tracks. My favorite of La Roux’s videos is for the track “Not Your Toy” wherein Jackson is dressed a bit like a loungey crooner while an audience of mostly indifferent, haughty, rich folks observe her performance with almost no response whatsoever until they all give in to the urge to dance as the song progresses:

I also kind of love how the video seems to be set in some slightly futuristic, multi-cultural pleasure dome where people read hologram books and talk on their light-up-fingers-phones.

In the end, I do think there’s still hope for androgyny to exist in the spectrum of popular music. But I don’t think it’s at all a coincidence that it seems to be largely championed by women. I would be remiss in not mentioning Antony Hegarty, vocalist for the band Antony & The Johnsons whom I adore as an androgynous/transgender/gender variant person but am not as much of a fan of musically. A simple Google search of the words “Antony Hegarty gender” brings up a wealth of articles in which Hegarty’s discusses hir gender identity/presentation and the rigid gender roles still so present in mass culture. In an interview in Diva, a UK lesbian magazine, Hegarty states:

I think it’s fascinating and horrifying that from such an early age we’re taught to identify ourselves and everyone around us in terms of gender. One of the first things we learn at school isn’t how to treat everyone the same, but to act and behave in a masculine or feminine way. I’ve been thinking about this a lot and I’m really looking forward to the day when all children are encouraged to grow up and not think of themselves as male or female. Wouldn’t that be refreshing?

Hegarty’s bio page on the Antony & The Johnsons site is equally fantastic and I had to take a snapshot of it and include it here:

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that sie is not nearly as popular or well known as the artists I mentioned above. I think that is partially due to not making more mainstream, listener-friendly pop. But I also think it’s due to the discomfort so many people have in seeing someone who was born sexed as male embrace any sort of feminine traits or identities. But I hope that many more artists will follow in the footsteps of these awesomely androgynous folks and not let total gender normativity become the new legacy of  music. I think we’re all due for some gender shake-up these days, don’t you?

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. June 28, 2010 2:23 pm

    I think Adam Lambert and Janelle Monáe are keeping the dream alive.

    • June 28, 2010 2:26 pm

      I thought of mentioning Adam Lambert but I find him to be so irritating that I couldn’t bring myself to. I think it’s his total attention-hungry ways.

      • June 28, 2010 2:28 pm

        Ha! You sound like me! I made a post about telephones which did not include a very popular song by a mega popular artist because both the song and the artist kind of get on my nerves.

  2. June 28, 2010 2:27 pm

    Antony and the Johnsons is the kind of music they play in the elevators on the way to heaven. I am also loving seeing all these great artists of my childhood – hey we’re the same age – and how their androgyny/gender construction supported the way in which they framed their lives as artists and people, and not merely a cheap ploy to garner attention. Grace Jones has stated part of her embrace of her androgynous aesthetic stems from her time as a fashion model where she realized there was a place for a black female body that actively sought to challenge the tropes about black female sexuality by reclaiming those same tropes and wearing them like any other article of clothing.

    This was a fantastic post.

    • June 28, 2010 2:33 pm

      Grace Jones is so very fantastic! She has always been so transgressive and surprising in the way she presents herself to the world. It never feels false or put-on, even if it is often very performative and purposeful. I love how she recently dissed Lady Gaga and basically called her out for copying her. I’d been saying she owed a lot to Ms. Jones for awhile, but reading her saying that exact thing in an interview tickled me to no end.

      • June 28, 2010 6:09 pm

        Grace to Gaga: “I just prefer to work with someone more original.”

        Oh that was satisfying. I walked around saying that for DAYS, regardless of the situation.

  3. June 28, 2010 2:30 pm

    I heart me some Antony Hegarty, that voice hits my senses in all the right places.

    I was trying to think of other androgynous voices in music today but I couldn’t come up with any beyond what you’ve listed. A great post!

    • June 28, 2010 2:37 pm

      I want to like Antony’s voice more but it just doesn’t quite gel for me. That being said, I am so supportive of hir existence and fearlessness in being so openly gender transgressive AND a visible performer.

  4. July 2, 2010 7:34 am

    Hi. I followed your link from I Fry Mine in Butter and am so glad to see someone else attracted to androgyny. I tried to write a similar post a while back, but I kept hitting a wall somewhere, I think, because a lot of women artists who adopt an androgynous look aren’t necessarily identified as being “androgynous” in the way that Antony or late 70s-Bowie is. I love Antony’s voice. I agree, it takes some warming up to if you’re not used to performers with theatrical vocals (it did for me).

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