The Knife Raise Big Questions About Gender, Sexuality, and the Power of Pop Music
In high school, I had a friend, another "Andy," who came out to me and, soon afterwards, came out to our classmates. It was a big deal. And Andy quickly resigned himself to the predictable abuse familiar to gays and lesbians around the world and across time.
The bullying and taunting he endured always struck me as the worst sort of irony. Here was an awful clash. It was his courage versus their fear; it was Andy's strength of nerve against their failure of imagination.
I was reminded of those times last week by an unlikely source: a press release issued to me on behalf of a pop group. I must have received 50 such emails that day. They push concerts, records, late night TV appearances, and the like. But when Swedish duo the Knife teased their upcoming album, Shaking the Habitual, with a song and video called "Full of Fire, " they did so with these words from the video's director, Marit Östberg:
"The film 'Full of Fire' started to grow as an embryo in the song´s lines 'Who looks after my story'. Who takes care of our stories when the big history, written by straight rich white men, erase the complexity of human´s lives, desires and conditions? The film 'Full of Fire' consists of a network of fates, fears, cravings, longings, losses, and promises. ... We will never stop being responsible, being extensions, of one another. We will never stop longing for each other, and for something else."
Strong words. Brave sentiments. But I have just one small quibble with them. I'd argue that, in our time, gender equality and LGBT rights have indeed become "the big history." For those of us who look at the past five hundred years and see them defined by the gradual but resilient spread of social equality -- from the cranky letter a Renaissance monk named Martin Luther penned to his bishop, to the marriage vows Kitty Lambert and Cheryle Rudd exchanged at Niagra Falls on a midsummer's day, becoming the first couple to wed under New York's Marriage Equality Act of 2011 -- the point we've reached on this timeline as global citizens is clear. It's our challenge to finally look past gender and see the heart and the brain -- the bundle of untapped capabilities -- in those we oppress with unequal wages or a refusal of basic rights. This is the narrative arc under which all our otherwise disparate subplots hang. This is the big history -- now.
Then again, that a couple musicians from Scandinavia had me thinking about history's about-face is perhaps not so unlikely after all. Rock 'n' roll saw this turn-of-tables coming decades ago. It might have even provided a nudge or two. At the very least, it sounded a diversion, a loud bang in the kitchen while the parlormaids ran off with the silver.
Because while millions of white men, a few of them rich, where puffing up their machismo to match the volume unleashed by Les Paul, rock musicians like Little Richard and the Shangri-Las were using the new sound's subtler frequencies to ring out the truer revolution. From its birth, whether it was in the eyeliner Elvis brushed below his heavy masculine brow or in the Polari Dusty Springfield engaged her gay fans in from the stage, rock always liked to demonstrate the fluidity of gender to its mass audience. Sure, so did Depression-era Hollywood, with its influx of Weimar decadents calling many of the shots. But what once was mannered and alien in a Marlene Dietrich setpiece suddenly seemed colloquial and intimate in a 22-year-old Mick Jagger's turn on the short-lived NBC pop music showcase Hullabaloo. Suddenly, for a nation that was devoutly blue-and-pink before it was blue-and-red, this boy-girl stuff got a lot more interesting, which is also to say it got a lot more real.
Though, at a much deeper level, pop music has nudged us toward gender equality not only by playing dress up, but by democratizing desire in its lyrics and iconography -- by placing all the longing Östberg refers to in her statement on an equal plain. "Fever." "You Send Me." "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" -- to me, that's what the celebration of sex in rock 'n' roll has always been about. It's a call for honesty and frankness among consenting partners. It's the opposite value system of that propagated in the advertising world, which tends to pit the sexes against each other in a shabby game of courtship and deception and demographic-chasing. Rock 'n' roll at its purest doesn't con us into negotiating affection -- it challenges us to seize it, to love with a heart unburdened by fear and stigma. In light of the new frankness heard in rock lyrics with respect to earthly longing, it's not surprising that our talk would eventually begin to ape the candor of our lives' soundtracks. And it's no coincidence that, as we've grown more open to discussing sex, we've grown steadily more accepting of others' sexuality.
Within the realm of public policy, the mainstreaming of gender equality was made a fact of American life last month when Barack Obama, in his second Inaugural Address, said "Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well." If the President's sentiment rings melodiously familiar, that's because pop music has been saying the same thing -- sometimes under its breath, at other times loud and clear, and, true, often by exploiting for shock value the threat opponents to equality feel has been leveled at their comfortable perch atop the gender hierarchy. Rock has been saying these things for 60 years now. And I have no doubt cultural historians in the far-off future will contextualize the music of our time within the centuries-long story of human rights. The big history. That's where they'll find pop made a modest yet durable contribution. The only question I have is whether they'll view Andy's love as equal to their own. Will they look after his story? Will they look after yours?