June 13, 2013
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Jaimee Garbacik's Gender and Sexuality For Beginners is both an accessible and informative book on society's perception of gender and sexual preference.
Flavorwire wrote of the book:
"...a beautifully written and accessible exploration of a variety of gender-related topics."
Bob Dylan - "All I Really Want To Do"
For me, everything starts with Bob Dylan. My sense of the world is largely rooted in his lyrics and melodies. My dad is a big fan, and Dylan has been a very big voice in my life. "All I Really Want To Do" came out in 1964 on Another Side of Bob Dylan, which was a huge departure from his political rant songs. The song is basically a list of things Dylan doesn't want to embody, specifically in reference to the listener, who can be interpreted as his recent ex, Suze Rotolo, or maybe as women in general. The studio version is full of Dylan's laughter, and the whole time he's saying how he doesn't want to be possessive, or "chain" the listener down, or meet their family, or "do [them] in". He sings over and over that he just wants to be friends. It changes the convention of the romantic love song, reinventing the "boy + girl = eternal love and/or heartache" ballad. Some people even think it satirizes male responses to early feminist mantras. There was a wicked backlash around that time towards feminists for questioning the nuclear family unit and wanting independence, and here's Dylan, laughing and winking at the audience, singing how he doesn't see the point in any of the traditional arrangements between men and women, and can't we just be friends? I love it.
Elton Motello – "Jet Boy Jet Girl"
I want to dance around crazily every time I hear this song. It's about a fifteen-year-old boy who has been having oral sex with another guy who's now seeing a girl instead. The boy is a little bit heartbroken, but the song is fairly light and silly, and mentions gender role-playing, which I find radical and racy.
I think this would probably be a very scary song to a lot of people, and that fear is what I want to address with this book. Fear of not understanding. Fear about young people having a sexuality at all, nevermind whether or not they're having sex. Fear about genders that aren't totally clear cut. We need to talk about it, sing about it, joke about it, or we're never going to be able to figure out how to accept one another, how to respect one another, and how to keep each other safe.
Propagandhi - "Refusing To Be A Man"
What an incredible punk anthem. Distilled simply, the singer (Chris Hannah) owns that he's not unique among heterosexual men, was subject to the same social conditioning as his peers, and that he is afraid and frustrated by his sexual attraction to particular body types. Hannah sees his own potential to objectify women, that he has some sexist tendencies. He sings about how sexism is a case of nurture, not nature.
"…at six years of age you don't challenge their claims / you become the same."
He also argues that it's not a lost cause, that you can fight your enculturation and try to inform yourself and be better than society dictates. Ultimately, he refuses to be the kind of man that's been modeled for him. We all have this option. Rape certainly isn't a foregone conclusion that all men sooner or later succumb to. Patronizing or demeaning women isn't unavoidable. This is learned behavior, and you can unlearn it, even with the media shoving archetypes down our throats every day. It's totally possible.
"I fought against their further attempts to convince a kid /
that birthright can bestow the power to yield the subordination /
of women and do you know what patricentricity means?"
This was the first and most obvious track I decided on for this list, as Jeff is both my good friend and the illustrator for this book. It's also hilarious and touching and much subtler than I think the first listen suggests. Jeff is one of the most charismatic, brilliant people you could ever meet, but I don't think he's particularly confident about his appearance, and in this song he talks about how he would consider it a relief to be objectified. Of course, he's mostly kidding, and riffing on how men sometimes say things like, "Hey, I wouldn't mind if someone wolf whistled at me," while failing to hear the threat in a catcall that a woman experiences. They're not scared to walk down an alley at night, you know?
Privilege is so blind in that way – objectification doesn't seem so horrible when you're safe from actually being thought of as a thing someone wants to acquire. When you aren't leered at, or reduced to your appearance as the sum of your worth. This book talks a little bit about that, how women are portrayed in the media and often treated as a commodity. When Jeff sings, "Going bald is the most manly thing I'm ever gonna do," my heart just breaks, because he's not an archetypal male at all, doesn't see women as conquests instead of people. He's so committed to defeating that sort of culture, and yet, there's a part of him that would really like to walk into a bar and have all the women's eyes turn to him with longing. And he's embarrassed about that want, so he did the very self-depreciating Jeff-like thing and wrote a song about it.
Beastie Boys – "Sure Shot"
Licensed to Ill had some pretty damning homophobic lyrics on it, and the sexism was just oozing all over the place. If that album came out now, I'd think the Beastie Boys were the biggest bigots in the world. But I was like 4 when that album came out, and so when I was 9, I danced around the living room with my brother to it, and I thought they were uber cool and that it was all a big joke - just some guys fronting how big and bad they were, partying hard. I didn't think about it too much. As it turns out, they didn't either. A few years later, a slightly older and humbler Adam Yauch ("MCA") gave a little monologue on "Sure Shot" that goes down in history as one of the only noted apologies in hip-hop. It's to all the women who he feels that they have disrespected, who society and hip-hop as a whole were disrespecting. The Beastie Boys also publicly apologized for their thoughtless antigay lyrics, citing that they had grown a lot since then. Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz later married Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill, Le Tigre), one of the original Riot Grrls and most brazen feminists in punk rock. They remain a huge inspiration and influence of mine.
Today, hip-hop is as polarizing as ever. Misogynist lyrics abound, but there are also people like Macklemore rapping about marriage equality. Frank Ocean came out very publicly and asked the hip-hop community to be more inclusive of gay people. And then there's Thee Satisfaction – an incredibly rad black lesbian hip-hop duo who are playing the big festival circuit and cracking jokes about being bicurious in their songs. I guess what I really want to get at here is that we can nail everyone who says something lame, or we can try to get to the heart of the matter, educating and having difficult conversations. Be willing to forgive and move forward. No one is born knowing the language of oppression, and everyone's at different places in their journey to figure out how to be a good citizen, friend, person. It's alright if you don't know all the right words, or even if you were taught some terrible hateful things that you have to unlearn, as long as you're willing to listen, consider new perspectives, grow and change.
"I want to say a little something that's long overdue / The disrespect to women has got to be through / To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends / I want to offer my love and respect to the end."
Crass - "Systematic Death"
I love Crass like burning. I love their DIY ethos, their graffiti campaigns, their critical nature and their commitment to so many diverse causes while still being anti-militant. The entire Penis Envy album was completely revolutionary, but this song is probably the lynchpin. It runs chronologically through the lives of a man and woman who are being socially conditioned from birth to death, showing how systematic indoctrination in schools, work, and society in general leads people to spin their wheels. The couple act in predetermined gender-specific ways, never questioning the path that's been laid out before them, and eventually they become complacent and apathetic. I definitely don't think that's everyone or that it's unavoidable, but I won't lie and say it's not the norm. I'm sure that plenty of people have really fulfilling lives in the suburbs, love their families, do jobs that they're passionate about - I just don't know many of them. There's a darker malady under the surface. I definitely think that tons of folks are disenchanted with the rat race and the idea of 2.2 kids and a picket fence, but they've stopped inventing other alternatives and options for themselves. It's hard to see outside of the fishbowl. You get tired, and it's easy to numb yourself with TV and cocktail hours and look forward to that one week of vacation. It's easy, but it's no way to live. In order to live a deeply considered, accountable life, it's crucial to at least examine the status quo closely, not just take it at face value.
"He's got a life of work ahead, there's no rest for the dead /
She's tried to make it nice, he's said thank you once or twice"
Tori Amos – "Icicle"
Tori Amos sings about mythic idols, sexuality, and about how society gives women very specific character roles to embody that are incredibly limiting: the whore, the virgin, the madonna, the witch. Those roles are so polar, so extreme that anyone who's a little complicated, who isn't infinitely pure, or who owns their sexuality, is typically disrespected. There are tons of important women in blues, in punk, and in folk who addressed similar themes; Joni Mitchell, Patti Smith, PJ Harvey and Nina Simone, in particular, are gigantic, almost otherworldly heroes of mine. But Tori Amos was my first encounter with a woman claiming the right to her own pleasure. In "Icicle", she sings about masturbating in her bedroom while her preacher father holds a prayer circle in the living room. Instead of agonizing over the blasphemy aspect of it (although, of course, she definitely has clear questions about faith and some anger towards Christianity), it's clear that she's trying to have a relationship with her body and contemplating the "body" of Christ. Sure it's an act of rebellion, but more than that, Tori seems to just finally decide that she's going to find God and a sense of self however she has to. It takes a lot of courage to reconsider what we've been taught growing up and decide for ourselves what our morals are. She's exploring, the way any kid does, and along with the guilt, she's determined to just find out what her parts mean, what it means to be a girl in the world. And I just think we should celebrate that any way we can. It's such a huge accomplishment, really.
Okkervil River – "Westfall"
Will Sheff wrote "Westfall" about a murder case in Austin where three guys robbed a yogurt shop and killed and mutilated the girls who were working there. They literally cut them open and filled them with frozen yogurt. Will has explained in interviews that he and his co-worker were watching one of the kids who had done it on TV, trying to find the evil in his face, and couldn't see it. He looked like anybody. This song is about that. It's dominated by an eerie mandolin, and by the end, Will's howling, having framed the whole song from the point of view of one of the murderers who feels perfectly fine about what he's done. The first time I heard it, I was in total shock, just shaking. All I could think was, "This happens all the time. How is that possible?"
Let's just say it right out: We treat women so poorly in this world we live in. Globally, one in three women and girls is beaten or sexually abused in her lifetime. If you're a woman between the ages of 15 and 44, you have a greater chance of being murdered by a man than dying from malaria, cancer, war, and traffic accidents combined. These are statistics we hear surprisingly little about. It's probably too daunting. No one wants to tell their daughter that, chances are, they'll personally know the person that rapes them, that they might be more likely to be killed by their spouse than by heart disease. But we really have to start telling them. We really have to face the culture of violence against women head on if we're ever going to overcome it.
"Suggestion" is about how we embody assigned gender roles, and how women are blamed for their own objectification and rape, while men are often inviolable. Although it was written in 1988, it couldn't be more appropriate than after what happened in Steubenville. That poor girl's peers were saying, "Well, she was drunk. I mean, she kinda asked for it there." But no one asks for it. It's never your fault. It's been twenty-five years since this song came out, but apparently, we still can't decide what "legitimate" rape is – or, at least, some of our less intelligent government officials and pundits can't. In the law, it's pretty clear cut, even though the burden of proof is still unfairly on the victim. If you don't or can't give consent (due to age, mental or physical incapacity, intoxication, or being asleep), and you are penetrated orally, vaginally, or anally, by a body part, object or sex organ, then it's rape. Clothing, flirting, level of intoxication - even if you've slept with that person before – none of those things come into the equation. The name of the game is consent; without it, you don't do anything. Period.
On a related note, by including Fugazi here, I also want to pay a bit of tribute to a band, a whole scene really, where overwhelming male presence didn't automatically mean female oppression. When I was in high school and first going to shows, most of the emocore bands we were seeing had been heavily influenced by earlier post-hardcore bands like Fugazi, who I actually heard a bit later. That scene was incredibly male dominated, but also hugely in support of anyone whose voice wasn't being heard. Anyone who was marginalized, this was supposed to be for you. That was what all that music was about. So every Friday night, my two close guy friends would stand next to me in a basement and protect me from the pit, where all these dudes dressed in all-black would viciously dance around and flail their arms, not caring who got hit. It sounds un-inclusive, I know, but actually, it was the best community I'd found up to that point. I found everybody respectful and open-minded. I never heard anyone in that crowd say anything homophobic or sexist or shitty.
Maine is intensely impoverished, and at that time it wasn't particularly gay-friendly. I definitely grew up knowing what hungry looked like, aware of alcoholism, domestic abuse, and what happened to girls in the factories in our logging towns. At the time, I hadn't heard of Riot Grrls or queer anything. I just appreciated that these hardcore guys welcomed me in. They didn't comment on my androgyny or call attention to my sex; we all wore band t-shirts and hoodies like they were a uniform, and it was very innocent. Still, our angst was totally genuine and rooted in the classism that ran through all of our lives, even though probably none of us knew that term.
M.I.A – "Paper Planes"
M.I.A. has said (in an interview in Fader magazine) that this song is about how the worst thing that anyone can say to immigrants and refugees in this country is something like, "What I wanna do is come and get your money," implying that they don't contribute to our culture, that they're leeches. In this song when she says, "All I wanna do is [sound of gun shooting and reloading, cash register opening] and take your money," she conveyed half of that in sound effects, leaving the actual words as obscene, censored right out. I think it's quite painful and true that Americans treat immigrants and refugees as though they're looking for a handout, when their opportunities are often scant, and they might be coming from quite tragic circumstances. But then, I think we also treat a lot of the lower middle class and people below the poverty line that way as well. There's that horrifying attitude that the far right has, that "the 99%" are all living on welfare and that we want a handout, as though the majority of us aren't incredibly hard-working blue collar folks, teachers, the people fixing the roads. It all feels related to me, and of course, the book is about the interconnectivity of oppression, and how LGBTQIA people and women have traditionally had fewer opportunities than straight men, and are treated as second class citizens.
Ironically, before I had any idea whatsoever what this song was about, I was listening to it constantly while researching the book because it was in a skate video for this all-women skateboarding competition that some people I know were in. I was just living and breathing that song and thinking about strong women and queer people and I had no idea until way later that the song was satirizing the oppression of immigrants. So there's that.
Carissa's Wierd – Drunk with the Only Saints I Know
I was part of the South Park generation. I knew an awful lot of people who thought, based on having grown up around that sort of "shove it in your face and deal with it" humor, that ignoring PC prescriptions of how to speak to people would be ultimately liberating. Their reasoning was that if you don't give "bad" words power, they can't be used against you. It was really flawed logic, but many of us hadn't been oppressed or informed enough to understand the damage that kind of thinking could do. Though, to be fair, I've since discovered that a whole other set of dangers come along with policing language. In trying to avoid alienating anyone, we sometimes wind up silencing each other, and getting very little done. There has to be tolerance for debating truly disparate points of view.
This is a really roundabout way to explain how I feel about Carissa's Wierd. I've been listening to this band for fully fifteen years now, and the entire time, this song has lived alongside me. It's about how friends hurt each other more than anyone else. Really good old friends will forgive you for just about anything, but their words still hurt and stick with us. Your friends are definitely the only "saints" you'll ever know or party with; you'll idolize them in ways that even your heroes can't match, and you'll remember things they say to you the rest of your life. Say kind things. You don't know how long someone will remember something you said off-handedly and agonize over it.
Le Tigre - "Hot Topic"
Le Tigre is a feminist dance-forward electropunk band whose themes often revolve around LGBT politics. In "Hot Topic", Kathleen Hanna lists activists and writers and musicians whose work was controversial or importantly political. Think Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire", except it's all people who mattered specifically to extremely leftist movements, punk sensibility and gender politics. Hanna throws Aretha Franklin in next to The Slits. Gretchen Phillips in with The Butchies and Leslie Feinberg. I find it particularly moving how Hanna's screaming at everyone on her list not to stop, that she'll die if they stop; she's rallying her heroes and allies and hoping for a big coming together. The song invites a kind of interdisciplinary feeling of community and connectedness that I sometimes find lacking in fights for gender equality. It's so easy for the politics of oppression to divide people who are really, ultimately fighting for the same thing.
Rodney Crowell – "Wandering Boy"
I'm mostly a fan girl for folk and punk music. The beautiful and the raucous, the political and sentimental, narratives and rock-your-heart-out songs. But then there's Rodney Crowell. Rodney Crowell married Johnny Cash's daughter and reveres Townes Van Zandt. He has more soul and angst in his country singer blood than he knows what to do with, but he always keeps a little left in the reserve. He doesn't go in for melodrama, and that makes this song all the more powerful. In it, the protagonist invites his wandering brother to come home and rest, promising to take care of him while he dies, presumably of AIDS.
"I used to cast my judgments like a net / ‘All those California gay boys deserve just what they get' / Little did I know there would come a day / When my words would come back screaming like a debt I have to pay"
The speaker renounces his former homophobia, and tries to make his peace with his mistakes, imploring his brother to lean on him in his last days. It's tragic and honest, and it touches on something very fundamental about the AIDS epidemic and about homophobia as well, which is that sooner or later, it's going to hit close to home for just about everyone.
In the early years of the AIDS epidemic, people dismissed it as a "gay thing", which further stigmatized LGBT people. We know now, obviously, that HIV is most certainly not a gay-specific virus, but it has killed many of us, and continues to be harder to prevent, diagnose or treat among disenfranchised populations. It spread out of control because straight people weren't getting tested or practicing safe sex, and gay people didn't have access to decent health care period. Just realize, we're all in this together. The second that you make any big sweeping assumption, whether to contain a new and unknown health threat, or in writing off a huge chunk of the population for their orientation, you're really shooting yourself in the foot.
Belle and Sebastian – "The Boy Done Wrong Again"
"What is it I must do to pay for all my crimes? / What is it I must do? / I would do it all the time."
That verse where the speaker wishes to repent cuts me deeper than any line in any song that I've ever heard. I've never once made it through that track without crying. I think somehow it just allows me to access that place where I carry guilt and really vent it and push it farther away from me. It's incredibly cathartic.
Self-loathing, among LGBTQIA people and among women, frankly, is a bit of an epidemic. It's so easy to internalize sexism, homophobia or transphobia. It's so easy to absorb the confusion and resentment that other people seem to have towards queer people for something we can't possibly change – and often wouldn't want to. Beyond that, I know that I personally carry around a huge storage room of guilt about how many people I didn't come out to sooner, and about letting down people who had other expectations of me, who are confused about my becoming a walking amplifier for social justice causes. I have guilt about leaving behind my rural upbringing and all the queer kids that are still stuck there without an empowered queer adult like me to tell them that they're totally normal and fine, just the way they are. And especially guilt about former partners who treated me well but couldn't make me happy when I was still unhappy with myself.
But sooner or later, we have to find a way to forgive ourselves for going through the process of coming to terms with ourselves. We have to learn to celebrate our difference and our strength, because we are all survivors, and we are all strong.
Afghan Whigs - "When We Two Parted"
When you're a teenager or in your early twenties, and especially if you're a LGBTQIA person, it can sometimes seem like your options for relationships are pretty limited. Sometimes you might accept some shitty treatment from a partner in order to have a partner. You might not realize being treated poorly isn't normal, or that if it is "normal" in your world, that it's certainly not ok. There's also a really dangerous tendency when you're a teenager to think that the more intensely you feel, the more "real" your feelings are, the more true the love is. And that can invite all kinds of dangerous power dynamics.
This track is a freaking badass song – the bass is killer, and Greg Dulli is one of the most compelling frontmen of any 90s rock band. I've heard people say that if Gentleman came out before Nevermind, that it would have been the Afghan Whigs instead of Nirvana, that they would have blown the world apart. I don't know about that, but they definitely proved malleable. Their songs moved between soul and post-punk and they stuck around for fifteen years; but above all else, their lyrics are just completely horrifying. They're so dark and it's impossible to tell if they're consciously addressing the masochistic behavior they're describing or just plain living it. Either way, I've long thought of this song as a warning against abusive and manipulative relationships and getting caught up in the feeling that, "If I inflict the pain, then baby only I can comfort you." In trying to excuse his misogynistic behavior, Dulli inadvertently says a very true thing: "If it starts to hurt you, then you have to say so."
Kimya Dawson - "12/26"
Somewhere in the middle of writing this book, I had a crisis of conscience. I'd been conducting interviews with queer and trans young people, and some of their stories were just devastating. After hearing them relate the abuse they normalized, and their commitment to making things better despite dwindling confidence that anything would actually improve, I hit a point where I was just terrified. I felt like the wealth of information I needed to do justice to these topics was a lifelong journey and that I didn't have the right to put this book out. I was scared that nothing I wrote could possibly make an impact, that the situation was just too dire. I wondered if all the so-called "getting better" was isolated to some very privileged people, while mountains more were dying, suffering, getting lost in the system.
There were two things that pulled me out of that and convinced me to keep writing the book. One was the fact that a lot of the people I interviewed thanked me adamantly for listening to them, for integrating their voices into the book, for including them. And that made the work feel very worthwhile, knowing that they felt heard and that I was helping to direct attention to their voices. The other thing that helped was Kimya Dawson's song "12/26", which is about the 2004 tsunami and how the U.S. provided such pitifully little aid to Sri Lanka. Kimya sings about how people lost everyone they loved; their entire lives just washed away. It's gotta be the saddest song in the world, but when I listen to it, I'm able to put in perspective that there are things totally outside our control, worse things even than the oppression of the people I'm fighting to empower. It helps me remember that this situation is one that is created, not innate. It comes from people's ignorance and stubbornness, and as such, it has a much better chance of being overcome than, you know, fighting with mother nature. So I decided to keep plugging away at it.
ACLU Benefit – "Still Love You Anyway"
Noah Britton is one of my best friends and favorite people on the planet. "Still Love You Anyway" has the simplest melody, the softest purest expression of someone who has given love a tremendous amount of thought. In it, Noah sings about his confidence that age, illness and bodily decay will never affect his ability to love the right person. Now, ageism is an issue that's incredibly close to my heart, but I usually think about it in terms of teenagers. A lot of my life has been devoted to working in alliance with young people. In helping to govern an all-ages music and arts venue, I see every day how young people's voices are so crucial and often get drowned out in non-inclusive environments. And of course, that's true for the elderly as well; in this culture, the young and the very old don't get much respect at all. Noah sings about how when his partner's hair is falling out and their breasts are sagging and everything about both of their bodies just breaks down, he'll still love them just as much. It just makes me so freaking happy. It's so encouraging.
Hedwig and the Angry Itch – "The Origin of Love"
Hedwig and the Angry Itch was a risky, compassionate, unlikely stage show and film, and one that highlighted my all-time favorite myth: This song tells a story from Aristophanes' speech in Plato's Symposium about a time long ago, when all people had two sets of arms and legs and there were three sexes. One sex was essentially a combination of two men, one was comprised of two women, and one was made up of a man and a woman. Out of jealousy, Zeus split them all down the middle one day, and as a result, for the rest of time people are doomed to spend their lives trying to join back up with their other half. In the song, Hedwig (who, for anyone who hasn't seen the film, is an East German transgender singer in a fictional rock band) interprets that myth to mean that making love is an attempt to merge again with the half you've lost. It's a beautiful idea, both in its simplicity and because it makes the idea of gender and orientation kind of irrelevant. In that myth, everyone is just seeking the other part of them, and whatever parts fit are innate. There's nothing else to it. No politics, no drama, no neurobiological debate, no judgment. You just need your soul mate. It doesn't work as well as a myth for intersex, asexual or polyamorous people, I suppose, but it certainly separates the meaning of sex from reproduction. It puts love in the fundamental equation, where it belongs.
The Replacements - "Androgynous"
The couple described in this song, Dick and Jane, are definitely gender bending - maybe genderqueer, maybe trans, it's not totally clear. More importantly, they're very much in love, and it appears to be a non-issue that they're in liminal space according to much of society. I find it so tender and clean. Really sweet.
"Here comes Dick, he's wearing a skirt / Here comes Jane, why' know she's sporting a chain / Same hair, revolution / Same build, evolution… And they love each other so / Androgynous"
Pet Shop Boys – "Go West"
My partner Josh and I often sing this song at karaoke bars, alternating the different singer parts, switching off totally arbitrarily, both of us taking the low and high registers in turn. No one is more gay or danceable than The Pet Shop Boys. This song is the uplifting rallying cry for just living it up that necessarily pairs with this book, which I hope is an empowering swiss army knife for anyone trying to sort out gender and sexuality.
Jaimee Garbacik and Gender and Sexuality For Beginners links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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