The Worst Filing System Known To Humans

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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

I Don't Ever Wanna Talk That Way Again: Transfemme Singers and the Dissonant Body

Shouting and howling. Pitching up and clipping out. Smothering in soundscapes of sighs. From 100 Gecs to Against Me! to Ada Rook, trans women push vocal technology to the breaking point--and in the process expose how we think of gender.

Hey! There's a whole lot of Gender going on in "Money Machine" by 100 Gecs, you ever notice that?

The whole first verse fucks gloriously with masculinity. In the music video Laura Les pops on screen abruptly, immediately spitting insults. Hey Jude? No. hey you little pissbaby! Iconic song opening. There's multiple cgi explosions in the background as Les disdainfully waves her beer? energy drink? around while questioning the listener's toughness. And it culminates, of course, in a line whose delivery syncs with the beat, hyping up the audience:

You talk a lot of... big game for someone with such a SMALL TRUCK!

It's absurd obviously, a joke. I love the character Les paints here of a dude who has a truck, symbol of rugged masculinity, but the truck is too small! I mean like it's not hard to get to a dick joke from here and coming from a skinny trans woman dressed in scene clothes it's extra funny and successful as a burn. You're trying so hard to be a dude but you've got a way smaller truck than this scene girl!

And the disses continue like a hilarious steam of consciousness:

Aw, look at those arms
Your arms look so fucking cute
They look like lil' cigarettes
I bet I could smoke you
I could roast you
And then you'd love it and you'd text me "I love you" and then I'd fucking ghost you

I love the implication that she COULD roast you, like, if she really WANTED to. Oh you thought this was you getting roasted? No, no you haven't been roasted yet. She could go way harder on you, pissbaby. 

And you'd love it if she did, wouldn't you?

That last line, that last smug diss, is what really sends the verse for me over the edge from just a funny roast that plays with gender signifiers into something else. It turns the verse into something transfeminine, and consequently into something I really had to write about. 

Les talks on rap genius about imagining this line as the ultimate insult, "ruthlessly" going a step further from threatening go kill you into threatening to make you love her instead. And that's such a trans thing right? Like I think this fundamentally captures a basic fucked up dynamic of fixation and repulsion that I've certainly seen plenty online, where trans women get these weird reply guys who seem to get their thrills by being dumbasses then having trans women insult them. I've watched people get chased off social media by these types of creeps, and the weird thing is that removing themselves just makes those women live rent free in their stalkers' heads even more!

So Les here transforms that dynamic into a subject of the roast. You really love us don't you? You can't get enough of us and how we call you pigshit and nothing is worse than us ghosting you.

That's the rhetoric of the words. What about the rhetoric of the musical arrangement? Well, there's that thing I mentioned already about the verse hyping up the audience by slipping between modes of a more spoken and more rapped delivery, and that's a big part of it, making the song feel almost like she's just telling someone off and getting so hyped up by herself that she slips into song. But what I'm really stuck on is the use of the pitched up autotune by Les and Brady. Like ok so, this is a whole tangled Thing here, and I'm a little leery of jumping in cause this article's subject matter digs at some uncomfortable trans realities and some complex collisions of individual intentionality, biology, and culture. But. 

I think that it's important to recognize that what Les does in her songs is a bunch of technical work used to achieve an uncanny stylized version of feminine speech. 

Which is something we essentially already do right? This is something trans folks trying to pass as a new gender grapple with, the need to change our vocal patterns. This requires particular work for women whose vocal cords are hardened and resonate at lower ranges due to the effects of testosterone, effects that are not reversible by hormone therapy. So, we learn behavior patterns, themselves technologies of performance, in order to compensate for that. Les layers onto that additional technological affordances that are part of her musical traditions, already part of hyperpop culture, to achieve a cartoonishly high vocal performance. It's a trans person using technology to augment a gender performance.

But... that's not that different from cis people is it? I mean we just got through talking about trucks as a symbol of masculinity. What the fuck is that if not a technological affordance that makes a particular hypermasculine gender performance possible? Or it would make hypermasculine gender performance possible... 

If you didn't have such a dinky little truck. 😏

So the voc tech affordance weirdly plays off the truck tech affordance, two pieces of gender technology that seem to contradict each other. The song as a whole has a bunch of dissonant blown out features and ends with a noise solo, and the confusing gender signifiers of the tech present lyrically follow that dissonance. The song is defiantly Music 2, as reflected in Dylan's verse and its "fuck off and let us do our thing" attitude: said it all before and I'll say it all again, I'm better off alone.

I'm draw to trans industrial and metal and punk musicians because the dissonance in these genres sincerely reflects dissonances and tensions within my own lived trans experience. I don't think it's that surprising that there's a lot of trans musicians drawn to these kinds of aesthetic approaches... Ada Rook and Black Dresses, Molly Noise, backXwash, Sopor Aeturnus, Against Me!... Lots of trans women in particular seem to be drawn to harshness, noise, shouting, and most notably nonmelodic vocal performance. The conventions of these genres and the technologies of their recording and mastering emphasize rather than disguise the underlying frictions of the transfeminine voice.

A very narrow and cliched understanding of gender might see shrill, loud, artificial, or ultra-expressionistic vocal performances as a failure to perform femininity. It's not, historically (hysterically?) speaking. There's a long history of women's voices being treated as harsh, unbearably shrill, dissonant. Like the squawking of hens, cis women's voices are also constantly failing to perform gender in a particular acceptable way: subservient and silent.

Anne Carson traces this, in the essay that closes her Glass Irony and God collection, all the way back to ancient greece, and uncovers a whole explicit philosophy underpinning these ideas. That's the thing about the greeks. When you have a bunch of monstrously powerful and arrogant slave owners sitting around all day discussing philosophy you get them saying the quiet part loud. You get the unvarnished truth of their ideology spoken freely. This is ironic, because so much of their ideology separates deep voiced men out from women and "catamites" and "androgynes" as being uniquely taciturn and restrained by logic, never saying what shouldn't be said.

For the greek patriarchs, Carson says, women's vocal register, phonemes, and word choices all are parallel, in their innate depravity, to the content of their speech. Women gossip, famously. They lack self control in what they do with their mouths. Are you picking up on another innuendo here? Good because Carson draws a whole history from greek dudes all the way to early modern dudes like Freud showing a fixation and slippage between both kinds of (cis) women's loose lips.

What stands out to me here is the way this operates as a cultural assumption about how to receive certain kinds of speech. I mean this is gonna immediately date this article but what is Ben Shapiro cringily reciting the phrase "wet ass p-word" if not a perfect example of a man outraged at a woman's sexual and vocal lack of self control? I'm not actually sure if the trans performers I'm interested in here are consciously doing something subversive with their vocal performance to express something about gender. In fact some of these artists resist or problematize that reading (on Ada Rook's latest album: "Breathe [Psychography Experiment 24-04-19 II] - NONE OF THIS IS ABOUT TR**S SHIT"). But in the collision of individual expression and cultural ideology, I'm not sure a gendered reading being unintentional... matters?

Like maybe the greek dudes have a point. Hear me out. Speaking tells. Like, it communicates via words but it also contains tells about a person's place within a social hierarchy, or a person trying to change her place in a social hierarchy. In that sense, yeah, women's speech is uncontrollable, communicating more than it should--namely, that the speaker is a woman, or that a speaker is trying to become one.

There's a great Laura Les solo song, "How To Dress As Human" that gets at this. The song is about dysphoria and Les's voice is pitched up to the point of cutsieness while she sings about the miserable feeling of "I look stupid, I'm never gonna pass":

Drunk in the bathroom
Messing with my skirt
I got hair in my tights
And nothing in my shirt
If I paint on some lips
Will they come off with a kiss and tell? (and tell)

The lips, like the sounds coming from them, are technologically created, painted on, and might kiss and tell--a play on the trans concept of the "tell" (wide shoulders, facial and body hair, heavier brow, deeper voice, adam's apple, fat distribution, height, weight, bone structure, anything and everything under the fucking sun it feels like) that you have a particular birth gender. 

So, for trans women doing vocal performance there's a cultural one two punch. Not only are they experiencing the cultural tradition of the woman who should shut up and make men a sandwich, they're entering into that willingly and trying to achieve this unvirtuous state. Even cis women don't take kindly to trans women opening their mouths in this way. I mean, we've had one trans woman cancelled a week as far as I can tell since quarantine started. Destroying trans women for saying things they "shouldn't" is the recreation of choice for a nation of bored teenagers. We can be "represented" now in Hollywood but only by cis people whose voices are less debauched than ours, less out of control and likely to let something slip that would offend cis sensibilities.

So prevalent are these pressures that it comes as a surprise when cis people don't seem to be aware of them at all, or understand when our art responds to these dynamics. Laura Jane Grace might put out a song portraying trans women as "Osama bin Laden as the Crucified Christ", on an album called "Transgender Dysphoria Blues", with cover art of a pound of flesh featuring a severed tit, and you know how some music critics interpreted it?

As a song about it being good that Osama bin Laden was killed by the US military.

I mean for goodness sake:

What's the best end you can hope for?
Pity fucks and table scraps
Subterfuge and detachment
A bullet in the head and a bullet in the chest

Yeah dude absolutely this is what it's about, about how no one's gonna fuck Osama. Or something. Unbelievable. Even when we speak out of turn, sometimes no one notices we've said anything at all.

Regardless of critical obliviousness, though, the song's expression of the deranged perceptions of transsexual women, the projection at once of diabolical evil and saintlyness, the unfuckability and lasciviousness, comes through harshly and cathartically to me. Catharsis--that's a good word for it. It's one Carson uses, describing the way laws restricted women's speech in greece to times of festival or major life events, when they poured out with cathartic, dissonant, bestial emotionality. 

We see a modern carthartic outpouring in expressions like the screams Ada Rook uses in her music. Take Shed Blood, for example, a masterpiece of an album about cyclical trauma. The album opens with a spoken, almost chanted, short prelude that announces and denounces her words as "not sacred, or cherished" but rather "parts of me/that have seized up and died" which have to be expelled for some kind of recovery or escape.

And then the screaming starts.

The second song, "Sardonica", opens with an oppressive carnival organ over which Rook lets out a wordless howl. The first actual words of the song, particularly as she renders the lyrics textually, stand out, though: 

though you won't remember it "

The opening exhumes something buried, something not to be spoken of, and doing so takes its toll. Rook's vocal performance is pushed to a monstrous physical limit. Her screams seem wrenched from her body. "I want to heal, so you want to kill me" she proclaims with the end of the line dissolving in a scream so intense she immediately starts gagging and coughing. The inclusion of this breakdown of the body suggests that the history of violence the song describes is so unspeakable that to bring it to the surface is physically damaging. Telling like this hurts.

What's more, it's threatening. Carson notes that part of the monstrosity of women's voices is that it might carry an affect rather than a word, expression without the carefully guarded door that is language. The screaming doesn't signify anything, but it sure does mean things, in a seemingly unmediated way. This kind of performance can be profoundly unsettling. Compare: Anna-Varney Cantodea's use of makeup and physical performance to create a disturbing image of abjection, or Ashanti Mutinta's use of bloody religious imagery in album art and song lyrics.

These things still frighten patriarchy because they perform affect rather than "reason". Rather than being logical and distant about the horseshit we have to put up with, they are what they seem, visually, haptically, aurally, texturally. They directly express anguish, hurt, anger, frustration, even sometimes fierce celebration or desire. 

In that sense, Carson's account of female voices and bodies misses the complexity of these bodily expressions. I mean, she's a cis woman writing in the 90s, it happens. Her essay is just one essay covering one range of possible explorations of voice and the unspeakable and gender, just like mine is. I mean, I decided to limit myself to just transfeminine vocal performance. Can you imagine if I decided to write about Dorian Electra's vocal performance? And... their uh... everything else performance? We'd be here all day! Someone please do that though holy shit there's a LOT going on with Electra. 


The point is that an account of vocal performance might capture a cis woman's place in the hierarchy, but there's much more to be said. Trans women, in our struggle to match feminine vocal patterns, actually express the malign embodied feminine catharsis that so freaked out Freud or Aristophanes. When we're speaking out of turn on subjects like the abuse we receive in the name of keeping society safe, we're close companions to the wild women reveling to Dionysus, ready to rip an intruding man limb from limb. We just also are perceived as intruding men ourselves, and our festivals of cathartic expression end up even further in the wild, even more primal for failing to be gendered enough male or sexed enough female.

In our wild dionysian art, there's plenty of technological mediation going on, of course. There's the technology of vocal training, and the technologies of recording, mixing, cutting, layering, collaging. This technology allows Ada Rook most notably to produce complex, unsettlingly deep mosaics of vocal intonations, gasps, moans, cries, held tones that are manipulated and fluctuated and retuned... The effect, on songs like the mesmerizing "Dream of the Void as She Comes Inside Me and Unmakes Reality and She Dies and I Die and Everything is the Color of Burnt Lawns and Absinthe", is one of transfeminine speech not constrained and mediated by the technological but instead accentuated until it becomes the whole space of the song. The music clipping and blowing out suggests that this technology just barely coexists with the transfeminine voice. At the moments of greatest intensity:

she asks me if it's okay 
her voice is so small 
and i want to cry 
so i look away 
i nod, and she trembles 
and then 

that technology simply gives up.

This process both emphasizes the biological situatedness of the voice, just as it exposes exactly how fraught and performative and technologically derived that voice's gender is. You can actually put any voice through these processes--the voicing of the character Junebug in Kentucky Route Zero is a great example of doing exactly that. This makes the technology of vocal performance both powerful in its versatility, but also weak because we can bend and even break it to better express the reality of our trans experience.

And doesn't that suggest some unsettling things about cis gender? Doesn't that, in itself, tell in a way it shouldn't? This kind of vocal performance and manipulation might be understood as its own kind of gender-derived diss track against cis gender performance. "You've put all your gender identity," this kind of performance might sneer or whine or laugh or groan, "in all this technology and artificially secure boundaries, but look at you!"

"You've got SUCH a small truck!"

The most fearsome and exhilarating thing transfeminine vocal performance tells cis people is that the comforting gulag of patriarchal relations between them is nowhere near as solid and natural as they believe.

I don't ever wanna talk that way again
I don't wanna know people like that anymore
As if there was an obligation
As if I owed you something
--Against Me!, "Black Me Out"

This Has Been

I Don't Ever Wanna Talk That Way Again

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