Ten songs that mix masc with femmme, from Patti Smith to Perfume Genius and post-punk to queercore
Is 2015 the year we finally do away with rigid gender codes? The past few months have given us reasons to be optimistic: Thailand made plans to legally recognise a third gender, online gender options got infinite, Selfridges announced they were opening a gender-neutral pop-up department, and the catwalk was positively dripping in androgyny. It seems that the world is not only starting to recognise that there is a trans/queer community that shouldn’t be ignored, but that gender binaries can be really boring… unless you play with them, that is. To celebrate these recent progressions, we’ve selected some of our favourite tracks that stick a middle finger up to gender norms, from scuzzy Oregon riot grrrl faves Team Dresch to the dark ballad queen Perfume Genius.
PATTI SMITH – “GLORIA” (1975)
“I get into so many genders I couldn't even tell you,” Patti Smith told Mademoiselle in 1975. “I’ve written from the mouth of a dog, a horse, dead people, anything. I don’t limit myself to anything.” Nowhere is this open-mindedness more prominent than in “Gloria”, the punk-spattered opening to her canonical album Horses, which turns 40 this year. Singing from a man’s perspective, she lusts after “sweet young thing” (the Gloria of the title) as trickling piano quickly transforms into a defiant, propulsive guitar riff.
THE RAINCOATS – “LOLA” (1979)
The Raincoats’ scratchy post-punk cover of The Kinks’ much lauded, gender-subversive classic (about a man that falls for a drag queen) takes it a step further in singing from a woman’s perspective. “Well I’m not the world’s most masculine man, but I know what I am and I’m glad I’m a man. And so is Lola,” sings Ana da Silva in off-kilter tones over dissonant, jangling guitar. The Raincoats were always vocal about distancing themselves from tired old gendered standards. “The basic theme in rock’n’roll is what goes on between men and women,” they explained to Greil Marcus in his book In the Fascist Bathroom. “Which is why we want to put a bit of distance between what we do and the rock’n’roll tradition.”
THE SLITS – “TYPICAL GIRLS” (1979)
“Who invented the typical girl?” sings Ariane ‘Ari Up’ Forster in a pioneering punk classic which pokes fun at what a girl is ‘supposed’ to be. Lyrics aside, The Slits were subversive just by sheer force of being. Being scary, that is – as guitarist Viv Albertine told The Independent last year: “People told us as The Slits we were scary, but we had to be. Women were sneered at whatever they did, so to rise above that you had to be doubly scary.”
GRACE JONES – “WALKING IN THE RAIN” (1981)
“Feeling like a woman, looking like a man”, Grace Jones growls in throaty, lilting tones over sparse dub beats. Appearing on her 1981 album Nightclubbing, in which she graces Jean-Paul Goude-styled front cover wearing only a suede black shoulder-padded blazer and a barely-lit cigarette, it’s the moment that Jones first emerged – high-top first – as the undisputed reigning queen of androgyny and fierceness.
PJ HARVEY – “MAN-SIZE” (1993)
The raw, jagged riff builds, skitters and crashes as PJ Harvey morphs into a chest-beating male alter-ego, leering after his prize. “Got my girl and she’s a wow, I cast my iron knickers down, Man-sized no need to shout, can you hear, can you hear me now?” Yet despite the feminist undertones here, she rejected that label at the time. “I don’t even think of myself as being female half the time,” she told The Guardian in 1993, as quoted here. “When I’m writing songs, I never write with gender in mind. I write about people’s relationships to each other.”
TEAM DRESCH – “UNCLE PHRANC” (1995)
In this thrashing, shit-kicking ode to original queer queen of punk Phranc (of 70s innovators Nervous Gender), Kaia Wilson screams, “I can choose my own family, I’ll take one Uncle Phranc / She’s seen what it is to feel, and be called crazy.” It’s a deliciously menacing call to arms against oppressors of all kinds. “She told me not to fuck with straight girls, she told me not to take pills!” Sage advice from the queercore icons.
ANTONY & THE JOHNSONS – “FOR TODAY I AM A BOY” (2005)
It’s hard not to be enamoured with the distinctive voice of Antony Hegarty. “One day I’ll grow up, I’ll be a beautiful girl. But for today I am a child, for today I am a boy,” Antony sings in a quivering high register akin to the silky, androgynous tones of Nina Simone or Alison Moyet. “There’s been a shift in the perception of trans people in popular culture,” Johnson told The Quietus last year, in a discussion on gender identity. “That’s the way it evolves. Someone inspired us, then we did this, then it went there and on to the next thing.”
PERFUME GENIUS – “QUEEN” (2014)
“No family is safe when I sashay,” Perfume Genius drawls over fuzzed-out piano, slow-pounding drumbeats and a high-pitched, circular synthesiser that rings like a deranged choirboy muffled in distortion. It’s a captivatingly bold assertion against gendered expectations and stifling cultural norms. Don’t miss the video, where he invades a boardroom and bathrooms with a gender-vengeance, and if you haven't seen it for a while, watch it again.
PLANNINGTOROCK – “LET'S TALK ABOUT GENDER, BABY” (2014)
When The Knife invited Jam Rostron (aka Planningtorock) to reinterpret their mechanistic, industrial dancefloor masterpiece “Full of Fire”, she took her favourite lyric and ran with it. “Let’s Talk About Gender, Baby” is as take-no-prisoners direct as it is celebratory, in an effervescent mix of minimal disco-house beats and warped, de-gendered vocal techniques. “I get excited about terminologies around fluidity or liquidness in sexuality and gender,” Jam told Dazed last year. “I think the whole thing should be hugely playful and open.”
ST. VINCENT – “PRINCE JOHNNY” (2014)
There’s something remarkably tender about this slow-tempo slice of cinematic dreaminess, where St. Vincent toys with meaning and ideas surrounding gender: "Saw you pray to all to make you a real boy... So I pray to all to make me a real girl." Her voice unfolds over a beautiful, almost indulgent melody, like a half-regaled tale that you’re allowed to listen in on.