Prove It On Me: Androgyny In Music

Bursting out of the gender box...

1. Biology Having both female and male characteristics; hermaphroditic.
2. Being neither distinguishably masculine nor feminine, as in dress, appearance, or behavior.

Music writing on androgyny usually begins with David Bowie, takes a direct route through Annie Lennox and Grace Jones and ricochets off the bubblegum-pink lip-stick of Brian Molko before exploding in Lady Gaga, the Kali of gender. Yet singers, and particularly female ones, were finding nifty ways of transcending the constraints of gender norms long before the 60s. As early as the 20s and 30s, blues divas Bessie Smith, Lucille Bogan and ‘Ma’ Rainey were exploiting the then-fluidity of the blues community to sing about black, lesbian lives. If Ma Rainey is to be believed in ‘Prove It On Me Blues’, androgynous- and cross-dressing were a part of queer experience at this time:

‘Went out last night with a crowd of my friends,
They must’ve been women, ‘cause I don’t like no men.
It’s true I wear a collar and a tie,
Makes the wind blow all the while.’

Even more overt is Bogan’s ‘B.D. Woman’s Blues’, a brilliantly belligerent song about the figure of the ‘bulldagger’ (slang for lesbian) who wasn’t taking any crap from men:

‘Comin’ a time, B.D. women ain’t gonna do need no men,
Oh they way treat us is a lowdown and dirty sin.’

Financially solvent, sexually fluid, hard drinking and living, Smith, Rainey and Bogan left a trail of (female) broken hearts Mick Jagger would’ve been proud of. Unafraid to borrow from ‘masculine’ musical tropes and behaviour, these trailblazers flew in the face of stereotypes of the female artist, and women in society as a whole.

The late 60s are cited ad nauseum as the decade in which sex was invented and gender norms could get stuffed – providing, as John Gill notes in ‘Queer Noises’, you were a white, middle-class man. All this gender freedom didn’t mean doing away with good old traditions, either. Like misogyny. Jagger might have outraged middle England with his effeminate floppy hair, but it didn’t prevent him singing, “It’s down to me, the way she talks when she’s spoken to…the way she does just what she’s told.”

Since the 60s, women have seized on androgyny and run with it. Artists like Siouxsie Sioux, Annie Lennox, Grace Jones and Suzi Quatro didn’t just embrace it – they stuck a knife in it, hacked it to pieces and then reassembled what had been a rather dandyish, foppish image and re-presented it as an identity for fearsome, female artists who weren’t going to look like nice girls or sing like them either. Nicknamed ‘Android’ and described by NME in 1978 as ‘snapped, harsh, asexual’, Sioux carefully crafted her image through exaggerated make-up and costumes which accentuated her androgynous body type. Lennox’s adoption of masculine suits and hair styles was so confusing to some that her birth certificate was requested ahead of one US performance.

So, as the pin up boi for an androgynous generation might ask – where are we now? A cursory glance at the popular music landscape prompts the dismal answer – in much the same place. The music industry continues to aggressively promote the hyper-feminisation of female artists where, increasingly, sex sells. This is not to say that all women pop singers are passive puppets of the industry or even ‘bad’ role models – there’s no doubt that Beyoncé is queen of her empire, and we were all down with the feisty femme that is Rihanna until about the time she took back scumbag Chris Brown. The flip side of this is that we also have to contend with vacuous, flat-packed furniture like The Saturdays, Little Mix and Miley Cyrus.

Despite this rather glum roll call there are, as ever, artists who refuse to bow down at the altar of gender conformity, particularly away from the pop charts. Jehnny Beth of deservedly-hyped new girls on the block, Savages, expertly channels Sioux and the spirit of Ian Curtis, eschewing a fashionista image so that people can focus on, you know, the music. Meanwhile JD Samson of MEN (formerly of Le Tigre) is flying the flag for genderqueer artists while Anthony Hegarty is one of the first, successful, openly transgendered artists. And lest we forget, Jessie J is doing it like a dude.

Advances in technology have been crucial when it comes to how an artist ‘does’ gender. Individuals are no longer confined to the bodies with which they were born, as Janine Rostrum, aka Planningtorock, demonstrates. Through the use of facial prosthetics and voice modification, Rostrom has created an all-round androgynous persona that does not fit comfortably into gendered, musical or visual categories. She takes this genderfuckery one level further by maintaining her identity as a woman, telling Clash, "I like ‘androgynous’ but it’s not only that…for example, the prosthetic was an experiment to expand on perceptions people have of a person who identifies themselves as a woman." She is emphatic when she says, "Gender-based assumptions are boring and lazy and get in the way of both music and life."

Jonna Lee, the visionary behind multi-media project iamamiwhoami, also utilises technology to mess with our perceptions of gender, using make-up, costume and visual effects to create fantastical, macabre characters and personas who are uncannily, not-quite human. In an interview with Clash last year, Lee was clear how this frees both artist and listener:

"I wanted to create undisturbed away from the noise together with my collaborators. My identity was not hidden but neither articulated by me because what is relevant is the work we have done and the audience reflection of my identity." 

What is indisputable is that both Rostrum and Lee are about as far from the cardboard cut-out world of manufactured, two-dimensional feminine pop as is humanly possible.

And finally, to Gaga – lauded and vilified in equal measure. Detractors often wax lyrical about how she is another manufactured pop icon, but this misses the point. Clearly, there is nothing natural about Gaga. Every aspect has been carefully, even cynically constructed – by herself. What’s more, Gaga has made blurring gender integral to her artistic identity. She has become the ultimate female-identified pop star without conforming to the binary of the sexually available bad girl or the woman you want to marry. Does this make her androgynous? Not exactly, although her moonlighting as Joe Calderone shows a flair for drag and genderfuck. Rather, in her ironic, exaggerated, pastiched, often grotesque depictions of female sexuality – remember her lying on the bed next to a male skeleton, smoking a cigarette, dressed in a flame thrower bra – she has become almost asexual. If sex sells, so – for Gaga – does its absence.

As technology continues to race forward, androgyny is clearly becoming ever more accessible to artists wishing to bust out of their gender box. For female artists, it is an escape route from the production line of carefully crafted coquettishness, irritating flirtatiousness and simulated sex associated with the industry-manufactured pop princess. As Shirley Manson once sang, "You free your mind in your androgyny." 

Words by Theresa Heath

Planningtorock's new EP 'MISXGYNY DRXP DEAD' is out now.

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