Arca’s recent album KiCk i, her first identifying as a trans woman, opens with a song called “Nonbinary.” The song is a challenge: “Who do you think I am?” she asks in an ASMR whisper over a percussive, industrial beat. She’s dared you to classify her from the start of her career — both as a musical performer and as a person in a body — while continuing to defy any easy classification in the first place. On this song, she’s revels in it. “What a treat / It is to be / Nonbinary,” she proclaims at the end.
To Sasha Geffen, it’s all intertwined. In their recent book Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary, the critic lays out the argument they’ve been making for years, in publications from Pitchfork to the Nation to Vulture. Music has long been a vessel for gender expression, subversion, and realization like no other art form. From the third-gender castrati singers of old Italian opera, to the Black lesbian women who invented the blues and laid the foundation for rock music, to Arca’s audacious gender experimentalism, the history of music transcends the gender binary — although, as Geffen writes, the construct “has never been whole” to begin with. “This alternate ribbon of time is not a parallel universe,” they caution. “It winds through recent and ancient history, as musician after musician has opened space to dance outside the roles they were prescribed at birth.”
That’s the wonder of Geffen’s book, their first. It’s not a straightforward history of music, but a path that turns and dives, arguing that music from decades ago still resonates across today’s pop landscape, even as new musicians continue to break ground. (In the ’70s and ’80s, for instance, the rock-and-roll that women like Ma Rainey and Sister Rosetta Tharpe established splintered into gender-bending across the rock landscape: whiny punks, flashy glam rockers, provocative industrial musicians, moody goths.) History is too restrictive a word for the book anyway; Geffen blends biography, theory, and memoir in an account that goes deep instead of wide.
Geffen closes their book thinking about internet-age musicians who “have begun to make work that unstitches the gendered body from its usual schematic of meaning.” Among them are Perfume Genius, Yves Tumor, and Arca, three musicians who’ve made some of the best albums of 2020 so far by exploring form. On Perfume Genius’s stunning Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, the often-androgynous Mike Hadreas tries on country-inspired masculinity; Yves Tumor’s epic Heaven to a Tortured Mind finds the escape its title dreams of in heavy rock music; Arca wills her pop diva-dom into existence through artifice and technology on KiCk i.
Geffen didn’t get to study any of these latest transformations in Glitter Up the Dark, of course, but their book illuminates all of them. To understand why soft-spoken Perfume Genius, who’s long desired to transcend his body, would want to embody such a masculine icon as Elvis on his latest album, you need to know how early rock-and-roll was founded on breaking gender expectations. In Yves Tumor’s turn from the disembodied industrial electronics of 2018’s Safe in the Hands of Love to the weighty guitars of Tortured Mind, you’ll hear the gender-fluid artist standing upon years of gender subversion, from glam to punk, to reach an acknowledgement of their body via the more physical genre of rock. And you’ll stop yourself from calling Arca’s electropop inauthentic with the knowledge that trans musicians dating back to Wendy Carlos have used the synthesizer — a masculine-coded piece of machinery with the power to dissolve assumptions of a gendered body — as a tool of musical transition. Seeing and hearing these transformations happen at the forefront of today’s music, I find myself thinking of a line from Geffen’s analysis of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” of all things: “Freedom comes not in arrival but in transition.”
But Glitter Up the Dark doesn’t just apply to the queerer corners of today’s music — the analysis even reaches the biggest artists. As Geffen described Iggy Pop’s confrontational androgyny, I thought of Matty Healy, The 1975’s flamboyant front whose very musical existence feels like a fuck-you to some. Reading Geffen’s case for Prince’s sapphic desire to both have women and be a woman, I thought of Harry Styles, who, as Bitch proclaimed, “centers women’s euphoria” in his recent video for “Watermelon Sugar.” Even one of the most talked-about albums of the year so far, Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters, brought to mind Geffen’s account of the ’70s women’s music movement — as those women took on a deeper vocal affect, knowing they weren’t performing for the male ear; Apple contorts her voice for a record that addresses her own relationships with other women and her femininity.
This is how Glitter Up the Dark, and all of Geffen’s writing, works: Once you start reading it, you’ll hear the world through new ears. You’ll devour Glitter Up the Dark with eyes wide and mind racing, drawing connections to whatever music you listen to. It’s exciting. And if you’re a queer or trans listener, it’s validating reading about how generations of us have found a haven in music. “Inside a song, every singer is exactly who she says she is in the moment her voice passes through her throat,” Geffen writes in one of the book’s most poignant passages, on how Against Me! leader Laura Jane Grace sang about being trans years before she transitioned.
“Listen and you’ll hear it,” Geffen writes in the introduction. “A catch of breath, a euphoric wail, skidding away from one way of being to another and back again.” It can feel like they’re telling you secrets, but really, Geffen is just showing you how to hear what’s been there all along, and still is today. You’ll keep hearing it long after you finish Glitter Up the Dark.