Grimes, Shamir and Angel Haze are calling out binary approaches and defining their own identity
“'Girls will be girls and boys will be boys / It's just the way it is'", tweeted Speedy Ortiz's Sadie Dupuis a couple of weeks back – before adding, "no they won't / no it isn't." At the same time, and with far greater publicity, Miley Cyrus was declaring to the world, "I don't relate to what people would say defines a girl or a boy, and I think that's what I had to understand: Being a girl isn't what I hate, it's the box that I get put into."
While much of the media’s gaze was trained towards her frank comments on sexuality, it was her genderqueer sentiments that were indicative of a more recent, highly nuanced shift in youth culture. Performative androgyny, of course, is no new thing – particularly in the world of music. Ever since the days of David Bowie’s theatrical costumes, extravagant make-up and cut-glass cheekbones, musicians have been publicly toying with the expectations of gender and heteronormativity. But recently, with the emerging critical voices of artists such as Angel Haze, Shamir, Anjimile and Grimes, it’s become more subtle, internal, and intrinsically personal. More about personhood than performance. Here are some of the musicians rising up the ranks whose gender identity falls somewhere between the rigid binaries of male and female.
Ever since "On The Regular" started making waves, showcasing Shamir’s countertenor voice and androgynous gender presentation, he’s had to strike the difficult balance between constantly confirming his birth-assigned gender, and reiterating its irrelevance to him. “I don’t like to identify strictly as a male, (and) I don’t like to identify as a female. I don’t feel tethered to a gender like that,” he told Dummy. Or, to put it more bluntly, “I have no gender, no sexuality, and no fucks to give.” His relaxed attitude towards his gender presentation have made him something of a role model for many young fans.
The pop artist released one of her best songs earlier this year – the airily nostalgic "REALiTi" – a demo that won’t make it onto her forthcoming album because she lost the audio file before she was able to mix it properly. Mixing, incidentally, is a skill she rightly takes pride in, despite the assumption of men “continually offering to ‘help me out’ as if I did this by accident and I’m gonna flounder without them. Or as if the fact that I’m a woman makes me incapable of using technology.” Perhaps it’s these gendered assumptions that led Grimes to write on Twitter, “I vibe in a gender neutral space so I'm kinda impartial to pronouns for myself. Don't have a preferred so much but I wish I didn't have to be categorized as female constantly. Everything I ever hear about Grimes is super gendered and it's always really made me uncomfortable."
When The Boston Globe did a profile on Anjimile’s brand of indie pop, – at times languid and lo-fi, at others spikily jaunty – they repeatedly referred to the band’s lead singer as “she” and “her.” In a Facebook post thanking the Globe for the piece, Anjimile politely pointed out, “This is a good time to publicly and officially state that I use gender neutral pronouns: they/them/theirs. Not she/her/hers.” In an interview with Mob Material, they expanded further on the importance of their identity: “My experiences as a non-binary, black, queer person consciously and subconsciously inform my lyrical content, and I feel like a lot of my songs portray a sense of isolation and ‘other-ness’. It’s hard for me to remember that my identity exists when I hardly see it reflected anywhere. I want my music to reach marginalized communities so that they can see their reflection. I want black genderqueers, queer people of color, women of color, queers in general… I want them to see one of their own making kickass music and succeeding in spite of the cis white heteropatriarchy. I want people to see a genderqueer black person fronting a rock band. I want everybody to see that shit.” Amen to that.
To Spoon, a Canadian singer-songwriter who makes sweetly poignant music, “gender is more like a whole galaxy”. Spoon lived as a man for ten years before realising that the expectations that came with male identity were equally as restrictive. “Gender expectation comes out of sexism,” Spoon says. “Coming out using the ‘they’ pronoun is refusing to accept a role. Anyone can refuse it. I’m moving toward an openness. The gender binary fails everyone at some point and this is dumb. In my approach to life, I don’t ‘other’ myself, I see myself as part of something everyone is a part of.”
"I'm not one for gender or sexual absolutism in the main", Annie Clark, who’s received more than her fair share of David Bowie comparisons over the years, told The Sunday Times. “I fully support and engage in the spectrum.” She frequently bristles at being asked questions related to her gender – though this is probably as much to do with her being wearisome of people’s patronising attitudes towards “women in rock” as it is her own non-binary identity. When the Sydney Morning Herald asked her about being a rare female headliner at an Australian festival, she said, "Am I female? I forget. I mean, I'm not really sure what to say about that. I don't sing or play guitar with my vagina..." Later, she acknowledged the potential misstep of equating womanhood with vaginas by retweeting a fan who gently scolded her for trans erasure.
When a fan tweeted the rapper to ask how they describe their gender identity, Haze replied, “Agender (don’t wanna explain)." It was a succinct response, and one that encapsulated Haze’s apathy for a world that constantly expects non-binary people to justify themselves. Haze did expand a little bit in a candid, insightful interview with Buzzfeed: “When I hear people use the word 'her' around me I'm like, ‘Who are they talking about’, you know? I just have felt this about myself for so long. I’m talking in circles around myself trying to explain it. It’s so fucking…it’s such a load off my shoulders. Now, I don’t have to be like, ‘Hey, don’t put that dress near me’, or, ‘Hey, I’m not a her.’”