Archives for category: Writing

A friend I’ll call G recently wrote an impassioned post about the experience of growing up female, that this is a unique thing that trans women somehow dilute. Her post included also argued that the sheer average size of biological males argues against their right to occupy biological female space. They are incapable of knowing the fears and joys of being female, from the perspective of being biologically female from birth in the world.

As cisgender humans, G and I are incapable of occupying the spaces of other genders. Our experiences don’t allow for that – nature or nurture – but we can empathise with others’ experiences. I can start to imagine the fears of women making their way through public spaces where they’re catcalled – fears that as a cis-presenting male, I don’t live with. I can imagine those fears and be with those who have them in their space without, for example, denigrating their lived experience. Stating it this way is, I admit freely, very harsh to my friend’s position – possibly harsher than it needs to be. With that empathy I can try to a better human, advocate, partner, and friend.

I also didn’t grow up suffering any kind of gender dysphoria, but I can empathise with those who experience it now – who spend every moment with the feeling that the space they occupy, the space assigned to them, the roles society puts them in are wrong – and argue to make their existences easier and more aligned with who they are. I don’t need to live their experience to trust their lived experience. I was reading today about Brianna Titone, a trans woman in the Colorado legislature. Her childhood dream was to work for the FBI and she remained closeted until she aged out of admission to the Bureau at the age of 37. I can barely imagine the pain that cost her.

From my perspective, it matters what those initial experiences imprint on a person, but those experiences are both internal and external and shouldn’t be legislated back into the closet.

Paraphrasing from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan: We can’t know the inner experiences of other people, but we can know our own hearts and by this know the hearts of others. Not what their desires and needs and fears are, but the nature of desire and need and fear. (Hobbes presents this idea in the introduction to the Leviathan. The syntax is very old-school, but it’s four paragraphs worth reading.)

This is possibly the key to the argument. G knows the nature of her fears and needs and desires as she grew into womanhood – or does if she examines her own heart, just as I know mine. We can use that self knowledge to examine the fears and needs of those who grow in a body that doesn’t feel right. Or with desires that don’t align with what the so-called majority posits are the only legitimate paths for desire.

How do we make things equitable in the public square in the face of state after state legislating against trans existence? It’s truly fascistic, in my view, and sets the stage for a full rewrite of the sexual freedoms Americans have had since Griswold. Women are already suffering as a result of restrictions on procedures and medicines that are associated with abortion even if the mother’s ability to further bear children should she survive complications of a pregnancy gone awry. It’s a demonic state of affairs. A few years ago there was a case in Dublin where a woman’s pregnancy went septic – she was denied abortion and died as a result. In response, Ireland legalised abortion and at the time was seen as a latecomer to abortion rights in general. Since then, the US has gone backwards with alarming speed.

What does all of this have to do with trans rights? Good question. Affirming that a person has the right to determine where and how they are most comfortable in their body is one place – bodily autonomy is another. Gender affirming care is a phrase, like ‘woke’ and ‘political correctness’ that has been twisted out of all recognition. G has also argued that drag in general mocks femininity rather than embraces and exalts it. Was Barry Humphries, or Ian McKellen for that matter, mocking women? Do panto dames mock women by their very existence?

G has shared a point about drag being men in ‘woman-face’ and she’s not the only one of my friends to do so. What makes drag different than minstrel shows – Al Jolson singing Mammy in black face? The sidestepping of discrimination and thereby making fun of an underclass group is partially at the heart of each one. But drag has always seemed to me more celebratory of those things that make women different than men.

In considering the arguments against trans people, I’ve wondered if autism in a similar category as gender dysphoria? In both cases, societal and medical changes developments should make it more possible to live comfortably and successfully in the world than was possible ten, twenty, thirty years ago. I can hear a case that these are totally different – one is something that you can show in a medical diagnosis and is historically identified. And the other? Very much the same.

The main problem I have with my friends expressing anti-trans or anti-drag sentiment is that trans folks and queer people in general are in the legislative crosshairs in the US and elsewhere. And the last couple of years have seen a massive uptick in these things.

There are eight trans legislators in US statehouses. None in the US Congress. The silencing and outlawing a class of queer people is happening in at least half of the states with very few voices able to stand up on the other side. And when they do stand up, they’re often silenced. The case of Representative Zooey Zephyr in Montana comes to mind. She was ousted from her duly elected seat for speaking against an anti-trans bill and is still unable to return. The bill passed and was signed by the state’s republican governor.

I read the papers everyday and above the virtual fold, always, is something about the targets on the backs of gender non-conforming people. There’s the bill in Texas trying to legislate that people working for government dress to match the gender they were assigned at birth. (This is nothing new in Texas – I had a housemate 20 years ago who fought her previous employer, the Houston office of the Internal Revenue Service for the right to wear trousers to work. If I recall correctly, she had to take them to court.)

And the BBC reports that the Proud Boys (yes, the source of five seditious conspiracy convictions this week) are now targeting drag shows.

I’m not sure of the answers and I think my lack of certainty is me being played into a more fascistic position. I’m not active in drag (though I once dated the first drag queen to run for president, Joan Jett Blakk), and I’ve never watched Ru Paul’s Drag Race. Are a bunch of queer men dressing up and making their faces exaggerations of femininity problematic in ways that I as a queer-adjacent male can’t comprehend? Are we really that different, men and women (and all human points between and beyond), that we can’t bridge this divide without othering and criminalising a valued (or any) segment of the population, without devaluing any of us? It’s the devaluing of humans for something that’s inherent (heck, even if it’s for something as harmless as drag, that’s chosen) that gets me first, whereas othering people at all takes a piece of my heart and incinerates it while I still breathe.

So the BBC posted an article last week about music industry profits and greed with the title Music industry makes $26bn but wants streaming prices to rise.

Of course the music industry wants streaming prices to rise. They’re in the business of maximizing shareholder value by hook or by crook. Raising streaming prices, of course, doesn’t mean they’ll pay the artists any more, but the coffers of those at the top will be enriched. More.

The BBC article has an interesting table of the top ten earning artists worldwide last year, with the assumption that these are the artists who make up the bulk of that 26 billion in the headline. Four are from Southeast Asia, four from North America (including Taylor Swift at the top of that list), and two from the UK. The table doesn’t include their earnings.

Who the artists are and where they’re from aren’t very useful metrics for understanding the position or state of the music industry as a whole.

To get closer, sure I want to know what those artists earned, but the music industry is massive. What the artists earned might be peanuts compared to what the labels earned on the backs of their work. Also, the music industry is comprised not just of artists and labels, but of touring and ticketing organizations (dominated by LiveNation and Ticketmaster), distributors, agents, and all the people and infrastructure around secondary markets such as television and film.

Once upon a time, there were about a dozen major labels. When I was in high school, the shop I worked in sold almost entirely 45s. (When, you ask? I worked at American Pie on Venice Blvd from 1983-1985. I don’t know when it eventually closed.) The business model included a storefront, but was mostly dedicated to wholesaling. The records were organized by label and then by record number. It was MCA, Polgygram, WEA (Warner / Elektra / Atlantic), CBS (which was Columbia and Epic, later subsumed by Sony), Capitol/EMI, A&M/RCA and a small scad of independents. We dealt entirely in reissues of the oldies and the current top 40. Even those six conglomerates have shrunk to a smaller number. The thing is, at the time, they were all doing well as separate entities.

Fast forward 20 years for an anecdote about the times they’d fallen on. In 2005, EMI (and whatever agglomeration it then belonged to) pinned all of its financials on one release. One. The release in question was Coldplay’s X&Y. Great pop album. It did really well, but EMI, once home of the Beatles, Duran Duran, Kate Bush, and Pink Floyd, sold its recorded music division to Universal Music Group. UMG, by my own finger in the wind estimate, accounts for about 40% of the recorded music business. A list of UMG’s labels is here.

(A side note regarding EMI’s accounting: In 1985, coming off the massive success of Hounds of Love and The Whole Story, someone at EMI dropped the ball and forgot to renew Kate Bush’s contract. Her next albums came out on Columbia.)

My perspective is (as is usual) different than that of the BBC. The larger metrics I’d like to have at my disposal are those associated with the independent music sector. While I enjoy a lot of pop, I was amused by the fact that I could hum exactly one song by one artist on that list up top. (To get Shape of You by Ed Sheeran out of my head, a friend sent me a link to BTS’s Butter which is a straight-up banger, no doubt about it.) As noted, I don’t listen to a lot of pop, but the artists I do spend a lot of time on have carved out their own interesting niches.

The folks I discuss here are ones I’ve long been fans of – Bandcamp and other such platforms support thousands and thousands of artists, many of whom are more or less successful on their own terms as well.

Michael Gira finances the recording of Swans albums by releasing limited edition CDs of demos and live material. The fan base snaps them up and the band goes into the studio every few years. Gira owns his own label, Young God Records and has been known to manage his own distribution by hand (though they inked a distribution deal with Mute for their last album, 2019’s leaving meaning which I think is still in effect for the upcoming release, The Beggar).

Laura Kidd, whose first several albums came out under the moniker She Makes War, and now records as Penfriend. Her most recent release, One In A Thousand came out under the name Obey Robots with Rat from Ned’s Atomic Dustbin), runs her own label, My Big Sister Recordings. She does all her own marketing and promotion and her last two albums have debuted in high positions on the UK’s independent music charts. She’s been doing things her way for almost 15 years without major label support. Check out the Obey Robots track Elephant.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor is another band who run their own label (Constellation Recordings). I’m well aware that music that falls under the rubric of post-rock aren’t going to be raking in the big bucks. Even as a fan, I was unaware of their last album, G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END!, until about a month after its April, 2021 release. They’ve been recording on and off since 1997’s F♯ A♯ ∞ (there was a break between 2002 and 2012 since which time they’ve released four insanely good albums) entirely on their own terms. When they tour, they sell out decent-sized venues without a lot of promotion. Given the chance to get their music to an even wider audience, the band holds to its principles. They allowed Danny Boyle to use a track in his film 28 Days Later but wouldn’t allow its inclusion on the soundtrack. My guess about this is that they stick to a singular artistic vision. Their albums, much like their concerts, are best experienced as full pieces, but there’s probably more to it. GY!BE are also one of those bands that allows taping of their shows and there’s an extensive list of concerts posted at Here’s Job’s Lament from a gig last year in Minneapolis.

Unwoman, who creates cello-based music which is ostensibly pop, reaches her fans through Patreon and judicious use of social media. I’m not sure how I would have found her had she not been part of group I belonged to who met regularly at a pub on Haight street back in the 90s. She releases independently, using Bandcamp as a distribution tool (as do most of the artists I mention here). One way she keeps her fans engaged is by polling them to choose which covers she’ll record. The music itself tends to emotionally bare electronic/goth sounds (which is really reductive, I know), but she’s an experienced enough musician to have fun with songs like Everything Is Awesome.

Promotion for a 2017 SUNN O))) gig at the Melkweg in Amsterdam.

SUNN O))) is another one of those acts who make difficult music for the benefit of an ever-expanding audience. Two guys who drive their sound with feedback-heavy riffs, performing in hooded robes behind waves of fog to keep their appearance hidden. Like the other artists I talk about here, they’ve been in this game for a long time. Evolving from acts such as Burning Witch, Goatsnake and Engine Kid (by way of Thorr’s Hammer), they created Southern Lord Records to release their own material and since 1998 of cultivated quite a roster. (Around 70 acts call or have called Southern Lord home.) Interestingly, Southern Lord’s distribution is handled by UMG. SUNN O))) also post audience recordings of their shows to Bandcamp. As was said about the Grateful Dead back in the day, the albums are fine, but the best way to experience them is live. That said, the in-studio set they recorded for the BBC, Metta, Benevolence, isn’t a bad intro.

To bring the thing full circle, the acts I mention here have been actively engaging the music industry for anywhere from 15 to over 40 years. (Swans evolved out of the same early 80s No Wave scene that gave the world Sonic Youth.) Many learned the hard way or took the hard way to satisfy the drive to create unapologetic music. Taylor Swift, according to Wikipedia, wanted to be making pop from a very young age and with the help of parents who were in a position to do so, she worked within the industry to develop her skills and create music that would sell. And sell it she has, by the truckload.

I know I’m not Swift’s target audience, but I recall my boss at American Pie telling me that the ability to write pop music that sells is a skill. I believe we were talking about Van (“The Hustle”) McCoy who had just passed away, but the same holds true of many such artists, Swift among them. She took her early successes and has continued to build on them. While she’s not my cup of tea, I can’t help but appreciate that. There are, however, massive communities of creators of hundreds of different musical styles who I’d like to see accounted for in these discussions.

Mason Alexander Park and Mike Garson and band at The Sun Rose in West Hollywood, 22 October 2022.

I’m not sure how I heard about this show – something shared on Twitter, it must have been. Park plays Desire on the Netflix series The Sandman and Garson played piano for David Bowie for years. (‘72-‘74 – Aladdin Sane, Pin-Ups, Diamond Dogs, and David Live, and was a constant member from 1995’s Outside through 2013’s The Next Day.) Park has other credits to their name, but nothing I’d seen. I just know that people thought it pretty cool they’d found a trans actor to play Desire. The theme to the show was songs associated with desire and dreaming, but in general it was a cabaret with a heavy Bowie emphasis. (Park mentioned that the two of them had done whole sets of Bowie covers together – that must have been a treat.)

Most of the songs in the set were pretty well known, but opening with a deep cut from a late Bowie album (Bring Me the Disco King from 2002’s Reality) was an odd choice. But the audience seemed ready for anything. Moving from that to Space Oddity (the second time on this trip to the US I’d seen that performed – Megan Slankard covered it in her set opening for John Doe) and Oh! You Pretty Things got everyone focused.

They then moved on to other artists for a while – two songs called Desire that I’d never heard – by Meg Myers and Bob Trask, a nice version of Mr Sandman incorporating first a torch song arrangement, and concluding with a couple of verses in the style of the Chordettes’ version.

Michael Thomas Grant of the show Zoe’s Extraordinary Playlist (yes, I had to look that up – I had no idea who he was, but he has a tremendous voice) joined in a cover of the Cranberries’ Zombie. (The guitarist tuned in to some amazing energy on that song – gracious but it’s good to be near good musicians when they’re in the zone.)

Keeping with the theme, the set also included pop standard Dream a Little Dream of Me, Jacques Brel’s My Death (covered by Bowie on the Ziggy Stardust tour and later on the Outside tour, when Garson was back in the fold) which Park introduced as being ‘about my sister,’ a nice little Sandman joke.

They continued with a quartet of songs from the Rocky Horror Show (which explained the young lady in the front dressed as Columbia). Garson introduced this with a story of getting a call from Richard O’Brien in ‘74, after he’d finished a Bowie tour, to play in this new production. The first night, he played the score straight, the second added some of his own flourishes, and the third had turned it into a Mike Garson score, at which point he was fired. They started with Sweet Transvestite (with Grant returning to do Brad’s lines – ‘We’ll say where we are and then go back to the car’) and moved into the show’s closing medley of Don’t Dream It – Be It, Rose Tint My World, and I’m Going Home.

The main set closed with a sweet rendition of the Kinks’ Celluloid Heroes. It was strange to be in Hollywood listening to a performance of a song about Hollywood. Even though I grew up in Los Angeles, I’m rarely here now and I felt an odd doubling of my emotional response to the tune – a combination of nostalgia and longing and infinite presence all at once.

The audience clamored for more – a slightly ramshackle version of T. Rex’s Cosmic Dancer, which the bassist didn’t know, but the guitarist showed him the tabs and he picked it right up. Jazz musicians don’t mess around. I had to go after that having not paid enough for parking to stay longer, but I think they kept going – somewhere in the set there was a song from Hedwig and the Angry Inch and I think they were considering doing another, but I was well satisfied with almost two hours of excellent music. I recommend this bunch highly.

Victoria Aveyard – Red Queen – Enjoyable YA (sort of) fantasy. A bit dystopian, I really liked how Aveyard set up the opposing factions. However much I was satisfied with the ending, I’m not driven to pick up the next ones in the series.

Marcus Alexander Hart – Alexa vs. The Afterlife – Ah. Alexa vs. The Merry Menace makes a lot more sense now. Former child star now slightly alcoholic punk discovers magical powers with the help of a couple of interesting undead folks. Very amusing.

Paul Verlaine – Poems of Paul Verlaine – Having passed by Verlaine’s birthplace on an overnight visit to Metz, I thought it a good time to read some of his work. Very beautiful stuff.

Cosey Fanni Tutti – Re-Sisters (audio) – Absolutely fascinating memoir/double biography, taking in the lives of medieval mystic Marjorie Kemp and modern electronic musician Delia Derbyshire. Cosey wraps their three lives together with some gorgeous insights into the nature of recording one’s life.

John Scalzi – Agent to the Stars (audio) – Another great Wil Wheaton narration. Protagonist, a Hollywood agent, is roped into figuring out how to negotiate first contact with gelatinous aliens. With an absolutely appropriate in context side trip into Holocaust territory. Beautifully done.

Marcus Alexander Hart – Alexis vs. The Merry Menace – Fantasy/Detective/Weird – Very amusing novella – former child star accompanied by a couple of ghosts solves mysteries. This one involves Santa and Krampus. Very amusing. I think one is supposed to read Alexis vs. The Afterlife first.

Bel Kaufman – Up the Down Staircase (audiobook) – Memoir – Interesting and poignant collection of interwoven stories of the author’s first year as a substitute teacher in New York. Really good. The narrator handles a lot of different voices very well

Jane Austen – Persuasion (audiobook) – Fiction – I wanted to read/listen after seeing the latest film version. After mentioning to my mom that I’d seen it, she forwarded an article detailing a very pertinent detail that the Netflix version leaves out: The fact that the novel takes place in that break in the Napoleonic wars when Napoleon was in exile and armed forces had come home and just before they’re all called up again. I chose a multi-actor reading on Librivox that was good, but not fantastic. I think a more focused single-reader version might have been better.

Dorothy L. Sayers – Whose Body – Detective Fiction – I wanted to enjoy this more than I did. However, being the first in its series (Lord Peter Wimsey) and possibly Sayers’ first novel, I can forgive a lot. There was a warning in the introduction of antisemitism. Yes, there are antisemitic characters, and one of the victims is indeed Jewish, but I think Sayers handled these things with sufficient panache.

Christopher Isherwood – Christopher and His Kind – Memoir – This was fascinating. I mostly know Isherwood through A Single Man (first the excellent movie with Colin Firth, then the novel) and Cabaret (just the movie). In this memoir, composed in the 70s, Isherwood recounts the late 20s and early 30s, including the period in Berlin, but also travels through Europe with his lover Heinz (trying admirably, but failing, to get him a visa to escape conscription into the German army at the beginning of the Nazi era), the US, and China. The ‘Kind’ of the title refers to comrades/compatriots/lovers (in a few cases) Stephen Spender, WH Auden, EM Forster among others. Paul Bowles is namechecked as the source for Sally Bowles’ last name. Virginia Woolf puts in an appearance (some of Isherwood’s early work was published by the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press), as do several others. Fascinating stuff.

Currently reading Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (slowly) and The Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard (much more quickly).