Jack Halberstam: A Sociological Playlist

Professor Jack Halberstam contributes the first “sociological playlist” in our July series. Introduced below, the playlist can be listened to in full here.

World’s End

And in 2020, the world ended. What the waves could not batter down, what the winds could not blow away, what the feral beasts could not ravage, what the sun could not burn, what the ice could not freeze, what the dust could not smother, what the waters could not drown, the virus chased and caught, infected and killed. And like all so-called natural disasters, its victims were the poor, the vulnerable, the abandoned, the dispossessed and the unprotected. There is no soundtrack for the misery of early 2020, and no lyric that captures the anger of protesters in the face of callous politicians, brutal and racist police and incompetent, banal bureaucrats. But there are plenty of songs in the key of rage, anthems to the necessary demolition of the dreadful world we have built and scores for the continued struggle of queer and trans people of color against the forces of white supremacy.

The songs I have assembled here are about rage, destruction, hurt and confusion. They tell of trying times, walking nightmares, they sing of snow and ice, fire and heat, they sing of death and destruction, wilderness and cities. In some of the songs, unnamed and unnamable agents of destruction survey the ruins and try to gather together the splinters of a broken world. But then, remarkably, they all turn away, deciding, no, leave it, let it burn, let if freeze, let it not be. These songs do not herald new beginnings, they do not mourn a glorious past, they tell of what is not and what will not be.

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1. Max/ine Feldman, “Angry Atthis” (1969). Max Feldman said they wrote this song one night in 1969 upon arriving in LA after experiencing police raids on gay bars. They were a lesbian at the time and later came out as a trans man in the 1990’s. Max performed the song live in California and was arrested for obscenity. The song has been classified as “women’s music” but that is a weird label for a historic performance and it does not get at the punk power of this anthem to queer anger.

2. Abbey Lincoln, “Throw It Away” (1980). This gorgeous song by Abbey Lincoln can be placed alongside her epic performance in We Insist! Freedom Now Suite as a deeply unconventional protest song. While her screaming performance in We Insist unleashed the raw anger of the 1960’s, in “Throw It Away,” she advocates that you “keep your hand wide open, let the sun shine through, cuz you can never lose a thing, if it belongs to you.” The song offers new notions of belonging, owning, sharing and losing. Listen to it alongside We Insist.

3. Grace Jones, “Demolition Man” (1981). The video for this song from the 1981 album Nightclubbing is Grace Jones at her androgynous and otherworldly best. She is angular and long, she turns a vapid song by Sting and the Police into a threat of mayhem and destruction.

4. Klaus Nomi, “Cold Song” (1983). Another queer performance bristling with gender variance and evidence of alien life forms. Nomi becomes the chosen vessel for Henry Purcell’s most famous aria, and, as he himself was dying of AIDS, he sings of another time of plague and destruction and asks not to be rescued but to be allowed “to freeze again to death.”

5. PJ Harvey and Thom Yorke, “This Mess We’re In,” (2000). “Can you hear them, the helicopters, I’m in New York…” We hear them, we see the “city sun,” we riot, we recognize the mess we’re in. What seems like a love song becomes an homage to a city torn apart not by protesters by police, bankers, mayors, governors, lazy rich people and a failure of imagination. We are in this mess, we are the mess.

6. Anohni/Antony and the Johnsons, “Landslide.” The song was released originally in 1975, Anohni’s version came out on a tribute album to Fleetwood Mac in 2012. Anohni named their band, Antony and the Johnsons, as a tribute to black queer activist Masha P. Johnson. Much of their music is part of an environmentalist political project. This cover of the classic song sung originally by Stevie Nicks brings out wistful yearning in the face of unstoppable forces of time, ruination and extinction – the landslide will bring you down.

7. Jay-Z and Kanye West, “No Church in the Wild” (2011). When it was released, the video that accompanied Jay-Z and Kanye West’s single from the collaborative masterpiece, Watch the Throne, was dubbed “riot porn.” The video, directed by Romain Gavras, who also made videos with MIA, featured black men in a stand-off with then police. Even if it is riot porn, the video is gorgeous and it brings out the anarchist potential in the lyrics. While Kanye and Jay-Z have both, for very different reasons, articulated ambiguous political positions, this collaboration with Frank Ocean is a smart, powerful anthem to wildness.

8. Big Thief, “Not” (2019). It’s not the lyrics only, nor the queer lead singer, not the growl in their voice, not for these I linger, not the guys, with their man buns, not the drummer on back up, it’s “Not lying/ Not the vacant wilderness vying/ Not the room/ Not beginning/ Not the crowd/ Not winning/ Not the planet/Not spinning.” The ultimate refusal song for a moment that requires us to stop, not collaborate, not believe, not hope, not continue. The Brooklyn band’s masculine of center singer, Adrianne Lenker, is a marvel in the live performance, with their gap tooth scowl, the catch in their voice, the unleashing of raw anger at 3:14 in the video. The way they pivot from a roar to perfect pitch and back again offers the only out – take beauty, destroy it, live it in its ruins, resist rebuilding, dismantle, unmake, undo, unbe.

The playlist can be listened to in full here.

Jack Halberstam is Professor of Gender Studies and English at Columbia University. Halberstam is the author of six books including: Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (Duke UP, 1995), Female Masculinity (Duke UP, 1998), In A Queer Time and Place (NYU Press, 2005), The Queer Art of Failure (Duke UP, 2011) and Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal (Beacon Press, 2012) and, most recently, a short book titled Trans*: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variance (University of California Press). Places Journal awarded Halberstam its Arcus/Places Prize in 2018 for innovative public scholarship on the relationship between gender, sexuality and the built environment. Halberstam is currently working on several projects including two books on “wildness”: the first, titled WILD THINGS: THE DISORDER OF DESIRE will be out Fall 2020. The second, which is in progress, is titled THE WILD BEYOND: ART, ARCHITECTURE AND ANARCHY.

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