Little Richard

While watching John Waters’ controversial movie Pink Flamingoes for this course, one thing that lingered in my mind was how important the film, and its creator, ultimately were to queer culture. Despite what you may (and let’s be honest, will) think about it by its conclusion if you can stomach it, it is a cult classic still talked about today with fans similar to those of Rocky Horror, and there was nothing like it or him at the time of its theatrical release. I consider Little Richard in the same way I consider John, because even today it is hard to state there was anything, or anybody, quite like Little Richard at the time.

Little Richard in my opinion is not just an important part of music culture, but queer culture as well. For one thing, the subject of his sexuality was a mystery throughout his career, and that mystery continues to this day. Whether it’s intentionally vague or not can also be debated, but what is known is he’s admitted to having sexual relationships with men and women, had drag queen stints, married a woman, told his biographer in 1984 he is omnisexual, told both his biographer and Penthouse magazine in 1995 he is homosexual, and authorized Mojo magazine calling him a “bisexual alien” in 2007. Who knows? The only thing that seems crystal clear amidst all the confusion is he does not identify as straight.

Little Richard was like nobody else on the planet at the time, in more ways than his sexual orientation. He broke barriers for both sound and skin color that were unheard of in his heyday. He was one of the first popular black crossover artists in music, selling out stadiums filled with black fans and white fans, appealing to minorities while being embraced by the majorities. He combined elements of different music genres like gospel music and the blues into rock and roll music everybody could not help but love, even if they did not want to; they usually did not want to, because of both his questionable sexual orientation and his androgynous appearance. And his voice. Holy shit, his voice! Drag queens in the ’50s who wore long wigs or had long hair like him, and who ever sounded high pitched like him (singing or just talking) were usually banished to the darkest recesses of street corners or bars with very low attendance, but in that same time Richard was selling out major stadiums and earning the respect of all who viewed his performances (spoiler: there were a lot of viewers). His flamboyance was never seen before from a major musician of the time, let alone a singer in as high a profile as him. His high pitch vocal style still resonates in gay bars in California, where “Tutti Frutti” can commonly be heard on the same night on the dance floor as Sam Smith’s “I’m Not The Only One” and Adele’s “Hello”.

Every single thing that made Little Richard Little Richard was odd, weird, and was not seen before he entered the stage, entered the public eye, entered people’s thoughts, hearts, and minds, and blew it all away with good catchy music you could not help but dance to, even if you had nobody to dance with. His influence and excellence inspired generations of straight, queer, and questioning individuals alike to get into music, while simultaneously inspiring musicians of his same generation to improve (as both musicians, and people). There was never anybody quite like Little Richard before he started, and I cannot say there has been anybody quite like Little Richard ever since.

Joan Jett, it’s all in the Lyrics

Born Joan Larkin, Joan Jett soon became a name that was the foundation of a major change and movement in the world of rock and roll. Little did everyone know at the time, Jett would later become a name in rock and roll that will never be forgotten. Jett formed her first actual band, The Runaways, at the age of 15 in 1975. The Runaways, which was the first all girl rock band mainly produced music that was considered hard rock. Though The Runaways only lasted a couple short years before breaking up, Jett continued to fight the status quote by being a strong woman in the predominately male dominated world of rock and roll. Jett eventually went on to try to find a record label which would accept her work only to be turned down 23 times. Jett was so frustrated that with a help from Kenny Laguna she created her own record label, Blackheart Records. This made Jett the first woman artist to not only own, but also have direct control over an independent record label.

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Throughout her career, Jett often pushed the envelope by being not just the average woman who sang in a band. Jett was the only woman on the scene throughout the late 1970’s and on who was not dressed in a cute outfit singing the words to some song about her boyfriend or what have you (like all the other female singers did). Jett, on the other hand was the lead singer and guitarist for her band, which produced hard rock music such as I Love Rock ’n’ Roll. The almost grunge rock sound in her voice and the way she was not afraid to really get into her music like the men in rock and roll did set Jett apart from all other female singers at that time. The songs she wrote and produced through her record label also set her apart from all the other female singers at the time.

Jett’s music was often geared towards those of us in society who feel like social outcasts. Even though Jett does not really step into the spotlight much to speak on such social issues, some of her songs such as Androgynous tell a story of people who do not necessarily feel comfortable with their gender. Throughout Androgynous Jett tells a story of a man and a woman who are similar to what someone today might consider as being gender fluid. Meaning that one day they wake up and want to wear a dress, and the next day they might want to wear a leather biker jacket with chains (clearly not being very girly but rather masculine instead), both of the choices being available regardless of their assigned genders. As we have discussed in class this is not uncommon for people to want to dress in the opposite manner that society decides is appropriate for their biological genders. Though Jett does not outright publicly advocate these ideas in terms of speaking on behalf of such issues, she does advocate them through her music and personal style.

The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs

AlbertNobbs

The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs is a novella published by the writer George Moore in 1927. It, and its 1980’s adapted stage play, is the genesis behind the 2011 film Albert Nobbs. Directed by Rodrigo Garcia, the movie includes a cast of Glenn Close, Aaron Johnson, Mia Wasikowska, and Janet McTeer. Glenn Close plays the title character, Albert, who is a woman masquerading as a butler in a mid 1920’s Ireland Hotel. Her role is shaken when she must share a bed with a visiting painter, Hubert (played by McTeer), and her identity is discovered. What is more confusing to Albert than having her gender known is that Hubert is as well a woman living as a man. The two form a friendship that cumulates with Hubert suggesting to Albert he ask a woman to marry him so he can have a companion. He chooses the maid Helen (Wasikowska) who is already embroiled in an affair with the boiler man (Johnson). The two scuffle and Albert is hit in the head, tragically dying through internal injury and thus ending the dream of marriage and independence.

This story needs to be represented in the archives because it is a commentary on the queer theory of What is visible and What is invisible. Albert can get no work as a young woman; so she steals a butler’s uniform and enters the profession for the safety and security of the male domain. That first move is already laden with symbolic questioning, because why a butler position? Where wait-staff is seen and not heard, it seems to already be a focus on the visible invisibility of queerdom and drag. Where it is known but it is not acknowledged by mainstream society. The returning theme of hidden and known is aptly summarized during the party scene where the owner of the hotel addresses both himself and Albert, “We are both disguised as ourselves”. There is no more fitting description for the constant conscious struggle of gender-queer in their everyday interactions as the unfamiliarly familiar. Albert is the quantifiable notion of suppression, a woman living as a man working as a butler constantly in fear of losing place and purpose. She cannot reveal her secret because that is actually all she is. What is most intriguing is that even as he saves to own his own shop and gain a measure of freedom, he no longer wishes to run it as a woman. Instead he wishes to marry and have a companion throughout his (drag) career.

Albert embodies himself, he is a butler for thirty years, she is a man for a lifetime, and he no longer identifies with any other name. It calls to *Butler’s thoughts on ‘gender performativity;’ it is a personal example of a constant citation, a sedimentation of repetition. She so continuously plays and believes the role of ‘male’ that given the chance to change, she would not take it. A moment emphasized during her day of ‘reverse drag’ where she walks to the beach in a dress. It is uncomfortable, a caricature of a person who does not exist. He does not want to be a woman in the heteronormative definition of the word; he just wants to create a world where there is neither fear nor threat of discovery. This fear is demonstrated when Albert’s panic of an outside flea accidentally brought in by Hubert leads to exposure. ‘Normal Societal Expectations’ is the flea and Albert “cannot abide fleas”.  There is parallelism drawn from outside forces and how they hinder and damage Albert—for it is the outside force of head trauma that ends his life. What others do to Albert is constantly at odds with what Albert wishes to do for himself. Society is against what Albert is within.

To quote Les Finberg about the fluidity of Gender, it “is the poetry each of us makes out of the language that we are taught”. Albert taught himself to live as a ‘he’, but the nearly universal indiscrimination faced if he were to be found out, discrimination even if she lived as a ‘she,’ is what creates her language of reservation and seperativeness. She suffers under the invisibleness of her biological sex, suffers under the weight of maintaining its invisibility, and the visible invisibility of her chosen profession. Albert lived a quiet, lonesome life, and died a quiet, lonesome death. His life is the theory of what must remain invisible even as the visible creates lasting damage. The constraints placed upon gender, of what is allowed to be known and what is not, is ultimately what killed her. He needed freedom of movement, and that is not possible in a dress. Society’s view of Albert as an ‘impossibility’ created the dichotomy that made her lead such “a miserable life”.

KAZAKY

Kazaky is a synthetic-pop, dance heavy, Ukrainian-based boyband that came together in Kiev, Ukraine back in 2010. Current band members consist of Kirill Fedorenko, Artur Gaspar, Artemy Lazarev, and Oleg Zhezhel. Famous for their 5.5-inch custom stilettos, the band first gained momentum towards the end of 2010 with the release of their first single, “In the Middle.” The song transfixed audiences across the world as members started out in more masculine clothing and then transitioned to a more androgynous appearance with their infamous heels. Their second single, “Love,” further expanded their popularity, with the music video reaching nearly 5 million views. The band has now produced two studio albums (The Hills Chronicles and I Like It (Part 1 + 2)) and numerous music videos. Unsurprisingly, the band members even appeared in one of Madonna’s music videos, “Girl Gone Wild” – Madonna obviously has a pattern of including backup performers that can dance significantly better than her. In addition to their studio albums and music videos, Kazaky has been featured in numerous high profile publications due to their bold and intrepid taste in fashion.

With backgrounds as trained dancers, group members are famous for their intricate and synchronized dance moves that draw upon many different styles and cultures. Kazaky’s choreography consists primarily of acrobatic dance, voguing, and waacking. Members of the band contrast gender with their high stilettos, hyper masculine physique, dark sensual androgynous fashion, and runway style dance choreography. More interestingly, band members intentionally keep their sexual identities hidden, only pointing out that some members are gay while others are not. In a response comment on one of their Youtube videos, member Oleg Zhezhel states, “the reason we never answer this question is because we try to keep a kind of mysterious charm.” Member Kirill Fedorenko adds, “We are unbiased in terms of being pro-straight or pro-gay. There is no gender-related implication. It’s all about the dance and the movement.” In addition to adding a level of curiosity, the band’s decision to withhold their sexual identities can be seen as a form of protective secrecy against their anti-queer, fascist political state.

On March 4, 2013 the band released a new track and video, “Crazy Law”.

Although not confirmed, it’s been speculated that the song and video are responding to the anti-gay propaganda legislation coming out of Russia. While synchronously dancing in intense leather and kink-spired clothing, band members promote ideals of self-love, desire, peace, and gender-nonconformity.

“Why am I feeling? This is a crazy law
You can have many looks, even how you’re born
Why am I feeling, this is a crazy law
I’m not trying to show you something wrong”

In the opening lines, band members question the validity of Russia’s homophobic legislation. Emphasizing a dynamic, non-singular attitude towards outward appearance, more arguably gender, the band rejects typical static, singular, and dichotomous stereotypes of gender. The band members argue that their performance and appearance is not unnatural, but instead a valid and real identity. Towards the end of the song members sing:

“Keep your dreams, keep your plans
All of this things you have is nice

The crazy best it’s now with us
Your body disappears don’t come up
Look around a lot of noise
Never gonna lose your voice”

Band members again reiterate a sense of anarchic validation towards individuality and separatism. They encourage listeners to maintain eccentricity and self-advocacy despite living within a controlling and repressive environment. Though Audre Lorde argues for a new modern understanding of the erotic from an empowering female perspective, one could connect ideas from her writing to members of Kazaky. Kazaky’s performances can be seen as a source of erotic power, and a sharing of that power with their viewers. With their androgynous, gender-bending looks and outward projection of multi-faceted sexual identities, members refuse submittal to traditional gender and sexual expectations. Instead, members foster power from within themselves and from within their differences and similarities. They search for new understandings of the erotic and attempt to bring that power to those stripped of it by oppressive political structures.

Andrea Gibson: Defining Gender

“Hey… are you a boy or a… oh, never mind,
can I have a push on the swing?”
– Andrea Gibson, “Swingset”

Andrea Gibson, an American poet and activist, focuses her poetry on various political and social inequalities, specifically within the LGBTQ community. She uses poetry to convey the harsh truths of LGBTQ reality, and holds nothing back while she does so. Gibson, having short hair and “boyish” style, writes frequently about gender norms and the struggle she has personally faced while growing up as an androgynous woman.

She was born in Maine in 1975, and currently resides in Boulder, Colorado. As the first winner of the Women’s World Poetry Slam, she has performed in many notable venues and has her work featured on prominent mediums. Gibson’s work has been highlighted on BBC, Air-America, C-SPAN, and Free Speech TV. In 2010, Gibson’s poetry was “read by a state representative in lieu of morning prayer at the Utah State Legislature.”
Gibson utilizes the form of free verse in her poetry. Because of this, her work intends for the audience to listen, as opposed to see. Gibson sells albums of her work on CDs. She has recorded five full-length albums of her poems, as well as published two books, which she sells on her website. Her albums include Bullets and Windchimes (2003), When the Bough Breaks (2006), Yellowbird (2009), and Flower Boy (2011). She also sells paperback editions of her work, such as Pole Dancing to Gospel Hymns (2008) and The Madness Vase (2011).

She has received praise from various artists. Buddy Wakefield, an award-winning poet, has expressed admiration for Gibson’s ferocity. Wakefield said, “Andrea Gibson does not just show up to pluck your heart strings. She sticks around to tune them. If being flowed is new to you, you might want to grab a cushion. Whatever the opposite of fooling someone is, Andrea does that. Beware of the highway in her grace and the crowbar in her verse.” As Wakefield explains, Gibson manages to awaken raw emotion as she guides the audience through her own experiences, tragedies, and triumphs.

In Gibson’s poem, “Swingset,” she discusses the ways in which the students she teaches in her preschool/kindergarten class learn about and handle gender. The lyrics to the poem can be found here.

“Swingset” is found in Gibson’s book Pole Dancing to Gospel Hymns. The title of the book is important to highlight the irony and even discomfort of her collection of poems. “Swingset” reveals the “tidal wave of kindergarten curiosity” Gibson faces each day as they question her gender, simply because she does not look like a traditional “girl.” With each question of “are you a boy or a girl,” Gibson gracefully accepts the inquiry, answering each child, and then continues to play on the playground, which is what is most important to the children. She teaches the children that, regardless of their question, it doesn’t quite matter what gender she is. The children, every day, are satisfied by her answer, afterwards always asking for a push on the swing.

“Dylan, you’ve been in this class for three years
and you still don’t know if I’m a boy or a girl?”
“Uh-uh.”
“Well then, at this point, I really don’t think it matters, do you?”
“Um…no. Can I have a push on the swing?”

The question Gibson faces each day is symbolized by the swing set, itself. While she answers the question, figuratively and literally pushing it away, it continues to come back, an action as oppressive as the social construction of gender. However, to a young child’s mind, “they don’t care” about her gender. Gibson shows here that gender is learned, molded, and constructed.

Fast forward to Gibson’s “father sitting across the table at Christmas dinner” physically unable to eat because of how distraught he is over his daughter’s short haircut. “You used to be such a pretty girl!” he claims. As children grow older, they learn the gender norms that society forces upon them, facing the possibility of becoming like Gibson’s father.

Fast forward again to the “mother at the market, sticking up her nose while pushing aside her child’s wide eyes, whispering, ‘Don’t stare, it’s rude.’” This is when Gibson shows her true understanding of the social construction of gender. She essentially scolds the mother for taking away a valuable lesson her child could have learned, simply by seeing how she’s dressed, what her hair looks like, and overall what Gibson is. Her rage is shown when she barks at the mother (in her head), saying:

“Listen, lady,
the only rude thing I see
is your paranoid, parental hand
pushing aside the best education on self
that little girl’s ever gonna get.”

Gibson effectively shows the reader how gender is socially constructed. Children learn gender, and the older generation is at fault for teaching the confinements of it, according to Gibson’s rant about the mother at the market. Gibson knows that children are the ones who our society depends upon to break these constructions. Her lesson here to the reader is to focus on the youth, because they are the ones who will grow up and determine how society ultimately treats gender.

“I start my day with twenty-eight minds
that know a hell of a lot more than you do,
and if I show up in a pink frilly dress
those kids won’t love me any more or less.”