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Do you ever listen to music and feel like it was made for you, when it clearly wasn’t? Sometimes even when you know an artist absolutely has not had the same experiences, something about their music feels personalized, as if they were watching your life and wrote it with you in mind. I can’t speak for the entire transgender population, obviously, but I have a theory that trans people face this more than other people. We don’t have the privilege of being surrounded by art that was created by people like us, for people like us. As much as trans music has achieved more mainstream acceptance in the past decade (looking at you, Arca, SOPHIE, and 100 Gecs), there’s still very little out there, especially for people who like music that isn’t pop-adjacent experimental electronic. I think there is a lot of discussion to be had about what makes some music so relatable to certain trans people (read: me, a trans woman). So that’s what this is about – music that isn’t specifically for or by trans people that feels like it is.

First on my list is “Morning Train (Nine to Five)” by Sheena Easton. This song is very traditional in its portrayal of gender roles, glorifying a man who works hard to find his (narrating) wife waiting for him when he gets back home, fucks her that night, and then continues the cycle the next day. It’s understandable that from an outside perspective, this would seem to have no appeal to someone trying to push against gender. But from my perspective, this is a moment in music where I can fantasize about taking the point of view of the narrator, a submissive wife, someone who is useful to her partner as an object, instead of a subject. This is probably not the healthiest daydream, but it’s one that clearly has its roots in longing to escape assigned gender roles – not a trans-exclusive feeling, certainly, but one that almost all transgender people experience. It’s a song that feels like it was made with me in mind only because I am trans (and often unemployed), so it qualifies.

Another reason “Morning Train” goes on the list is because it feels so feminine. I have a playlist full of songs like this, from “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)” by the late Natalie Cole, to “Best of My Love” by The Emotions, to “Got to Be Real” by Cheryl Lynn. This playlist includes mostly disco-inspired hits by mostly female artists. These are the songs that I was trained to stop dancing to (sidenote: I am embarrassed still to dance, because dancing is feminine, unless you’re a man paired off with a woman) as a child, the music I had to love in secret all growing up, even from myself. And sure, music like this doesn’t inherently have anything feminine about it, and especially not trans-feminine, but I was always pushed away from it, because I was told I was a boy. Disco’s association with homosexuality meant its association with femininity. The only way you could listen to this kind of music, as a man, was to do it ironically – the idea of breaking gender boundaries has to be a joke. To this day, listening to The Ronettes, The Supremes, and Earth, Wind & Fire feels transgressive.

Music doesn’t have to be upbeat and feminine to feel trans, of course. Burial’s discography feels cold, dark, and dysphoric to such a degree that 15-year-old me, upon hearing Untrue for the first time, decided to never listen to it again. Little did I know it would become one of my favorite albums, a place to hide myself when I’m feeling completely rejected by society, when I feel trapped in my own flesh, when I feel hopeless, it’s just bright enough to keep me going when all the other lights are too loud. Burial fans might be thinking that this is a stretch from Rival Dealer‘s explicit transgender message. But I feel like his music has been expressing a lack of belonging since the beginning. There’s a few key quotes in his post-Untrue interview with Mark Fisher. In response to being asked why he used to search for ways to escape: “As a kid I used to dream about being put in the bins, escaping from things, without my mum knowing she’d put me out in the bins. So I’m in a black plastic bag outside a building, and hearing the rain against it, but feeling alright, and just wanting to sleep, and a truck would take me away. It’s stupid.” He also mentions how he missed out on a lot of parties growing up and dreamed of being there. It’s not hard to see how those feelings could be particularly potent for listeners who don’t fit into their assigned gender and often wish to escape to a better world, or at least to feel peace.

Jam City’s discography is full of transformation, renovations and deconstructions, most obviously in his debut album, Classical Curves, a major keystone for the deconstructed club genre. The most well-known example of this genre today is Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, an album that is indisputably an exploration of the trans experience. In objective terms, Curves serves as more of a stylistic mapping than an emotional insight, but it feels like a look into my mind. The way “Her” creates its beats out of a shutter and loops “move, camera, flash, work” mirrors the repetitions of words, ideas, and images that are forced to echo inside my mind endlessly since I cannot let them out to the general public for fear of being rejected or much worse, as well as the routines I must force myself to practice to avoid detection. And just look at the title, both of that track, other tracks (“How We Relate to the Body” stands out) and the album itself. And like all of these examples, there’s something comforting, in this case the synth pad towards the end of the album’s final main tracklist, and the dimly lit textures of “The Nite Life” that remind me of all the times I spent walking by myself contemplating everything, especially who I wanted to be. His later albums are very different, but have the same effect on me, just with slightly different flavors. Dream A Garden is peaceful and soothing, an optimistic and anti-capitalist record, representing the oft-repeated idea of a plant growing in concrete, the sense of hope that can come from even the darkest environments. Being transgender in a capitalist neoliberal society is certainly a dark environment, and fighting back against that brings some of the only peace one can have. Most recently, Pillowland takes the soft aesthetic of Garden and amplifies it into a glam pop album, unabashedly proud, created by a man but uninterested in proving masculinity, a man who once said “music is a place for freaks.” Hopefully at this point, the parallels are getting obvious.

Perhaps even more obvious is the work of Cashmere Cat. While his whole discography has consisted of building up to classically masculine drops and releasing into unexpectedly cute flurries of literal bells and whistles, Princess Catgirl is, predictably, the project that feels the most trans-friendly. The advertising campaign for the album consisted partially of images like this one, constructing the eponymous Princess Catgirl as a real being, one that exists despite everyone insisting otherwise. Of course, Catgirl is animated and transgender people are flesh and blood, but the desire to exist in a world that doesn’t accept you connects with me. Tracks like “WATERGIRL” and “EMOTIONS” use impossibly high-pitched (read: feminine) vocals to say simple things like “what a girl wants, what a girl needs” (a Christina Aguilera sample) and “emotions, emotions, but you’re my emote.” 19 minutes later, the whole album is finished, a perfectly timed rush of sparkling energy to help you cope with your phorias (dys and eu) when you don’t have the chance to deal with it for real.

When you have the chance to explore your feelings a little more, Art Angels is an exercise in euphoria if I’ve ever heard one. Moving on from the dreamy night of Visions, Angels is the sun shining right in your face. It’s how it feels to confront and feel proud of who you are. The first half is complicated, going back and forth between explosions of emotion (“Scream,” “Kill V. Maim”) and healing solutions (“California,” “Belly of the Beat”), just like the uncertain and often confusing mess that gender exploration initially presents. Starting with the title track, it’s followed up by some of the most radiant pop songs this side of Mariah Carey’s peak (a self-confessed inspiration for Grimes, and a LGBT+ icon in her own right), the feeling of confidence and certainty, understanding converted into audio. From “I think I love you” to “every morning, there are mountains to climb taking all my time” to “there is harmony in everything, it’s a butterfly whose wings span the world, so fly away,” these lyrics feel simultaneously joyful and aware of the pain. It’s the reason this album is different than music by, say, Björk, another art pop artist. As Nick James Scavo notes in their review for Tinymixtapes, most art pop is painted with an otherworldly brush, with notes of sci-fi or historical fiction. Unlike Björk, or even Boucher’s work before or after this, Angels is not escapist. There’s room for escapism in the trans experience, of course, with plenty of it listed in this article alone. But Angels feels grounded in “REALiTi,” perhaps a better version of reality, but a potential one. One where trans euphoria is not only possible, but inevitable.

This is not an expansive catalog of all music that feels centered on the trans experience when it clearly isn’t, but a list of examples of this phenomenon as it applies to me. You are welcome to disagree, although there’s not much to disagree with here, since this is just music that I connect with my personal transgender life. I’d be happy to hear your own feelings you connect with music, or what some of these songs, albums, and artists mean to you. Thank you for reading, I hope you can look at music from a different angle the next time you listen.


Sources:
https://www.thewire.co.uk/in-writing/interviews/burial_unedited-transcript

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/may/28/jam-city-interview-dream-a-garden-music-place-freaks

https://www.tinymixtapes.com/music-review/grimes-art-angels





Sowing
11.30.20
Since I'm sure it will be asked: this was submitted to me by a user with intent for it to be posted anonymously, hence the generic "staff" designation.

Hope you enjoy it!

Pheromone
11.30.20
nice article sach!

SteakByrnes
11.30.20
Rad writeup, I'm glad music has helped you so much in this respect

Onirium
11.30.20
Nice to see some trans representation

Sniff
11.30.20
cool and personal writeup i like

Pheromone
11.30.20
actually just read through this - really enjoyed n nice change of pace for sput

definitely not sach

BlushfulHippocrene
12.01.20
Beautifully written piece, thank you for writing.

Winesburgohio
12.01.20
i would hereby like to exalt this delicate, considered piece of writing. yours, winesburgohio

normaloctagon
12.02.20
really lovely. thanks for posting this

parksungjoon
12.03.20
really cool writeup

music is the best agreed

wish you the best whoever you are

JohnnyoftheWell
12.03.20
forgot to comment on this, but it was a fabulously read. write more!! thank you :]

JohnnyoftheWell
12.03.20
*fabulous!

porcupinetheater
12.03.20
Not much directly repping trans non-binary, so dose me up on taking guitars and making them fucking sound weird. Whoever wrote this, fucking fantastic

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