Gender Fluidity, Sexual Identity & Punk Rock (An Introduction)
Music has never really shaped who I am. But at different stages of my life; the type of music I listened to definitely affected the loudness of my identity. It was a reciprocal relationship too: how comfortable I felt about myself led me to gravitate towards some genres over others. Not evident in the title of this post, is a story of how I fell in love with rap and hip hop a bit too late.
The original date for this post is October 15, 2016
(Before I carry on, I want to note that any citation of musicology/musical history/musical fact & trivia in this blog is not as well-researched as I hope it could be. My knowledge at times might seem deceivingly vast, however I would still advise you to do your own reading and approach this with the subtext that most of the content here are off of my own opinion, and nothing more)
As with most people out there, I went through many of my own phases in life when it came to taste. These "phases" though, were not exactly well-defined. I remember flipping through the channels and stumbling upon MTV as a prepubescent, snotty-nosed kid and finding my love in pop punk bands like Good Charlotte, Simple Plan, Green Day, My Chemical Romance, - among other bands people fell in love with at that age (if they were born in the early '90s)
Almost contemporaneously, I was influenced by the music my cousins from Terengganu listened to as well, with bands like Sheila On 7, OAG, Pop Shuvit, One Buck Short, Disagree and Malay staples like Siti Nurhaliza, Dayang Nurfaizah, KRU, VE, Ruffedge popped up here and there as often as my relatives came to visit me, or I them.
Rap, hip hop & R&B were always present in my life, but in the back of my mind - rarely at the edge of my ears. I was first exposed to rap mainly through Eminem, hence my initial yet infantile perception of hip-hop was fast-paced comedy, with satires, parodies and lewd commentary. Even local artists I loved, such as Too Phat were humorous at times (see: Anak Ayam, Freak To The Beat)
Humour isn't a bad thing. But humour which these rappers conveyed were never bricks of my identity as an 11-year-old. They were about some bigger notion of pop culture, about 'being cool', swagger effusing from endless rhymes of picking up chicks with your hip new details, clothes and other instances of branding, 'being the best there is', and 'fighting all odds to get the top'. Even when they were serious (like Lose Yourself by Eminem), they were often unrelatable (drugs, gang violence, sexual violence, etc) or simply not geographically resonant (Black ghettos? White trailer parks? There are just beaches in Kemaman and malls in Petaling Jaya right?).
Don't get me wrong, I loved Destiny's Child. Still do. But booty-shaking as a skinny Malay boy raised in a religious Muslim household was frowned upon (or maybe I was just really bad at it). My exposure to that strain of pop and R&B was limited by the micro-police state that was my mum scolding me whenever she sees MTV playing on the television, criticizing half-naked women like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Beyonce, Brandy and Spice Girls. Chiding them for their lack of modesty, reminding me that "as Muslims, we shouldn't act that way."
What was more palatable to my mum was "loud music" in the form of all the pop punk that played on the radio. Avril Lavigne, Good Charlotte, Simple Plan, Yellowcard, Blink 182 and so on. The women were more fully-clothed in their music videos, so at best we all received some form of nagging but never outrage or crippling disappointment. Since there was also less swearing in pop punk (as opposed to some rap songs), my siblings and I didn't get into trouble for singing along to it. The only trouble I got into was when I called up my dad to ask for some money to buy a Busted album and he angrily rebuked, mishearing me, saying that I shouldn't be listening to music by bands called Bastard.
At best, my love for hip hop & R&B was subliminal from all that repression. If the kids in class asked me what music I loved I would proudly stake my claim on Green Day or Sheila On 7 or OAG, depending on who asked since, unfortunately, I racially profiled as a child that Chinese kids did not listen to OAG. When people asked about what music I liked, my severe anxiety as a person about to reach puberty and the crush I had on the person in the classroom next to mine transformed itself into my love for Good Charlotte, McFly, Busted and the occasional The Click Five, because "my crush would love this", I thought.
Even then, as I flipped through Hitz.tv, MTV, Channel V, Era, Radio Muzik and Mix.FM, I felt like was always looking for something else. I knew a significant part of me was missing, or at least, still waiting to be discovered.
OLD CDs AND BBC
Road trips to Terengganu back then were really long. Even longer without iPods (or if I wanna be appropriate to the time-setting, Walkmans). Back then I dreaded having to listen to my dad playing Alleycats, Sudirman, and Pink Floyd. My quiet monologue as I tried to sleep in the backseat of the car went something like this:
<em>"Where was my Simple Plan?! I need Babah to know that I'm not Perfect! What is this "We don't need no education" drawl. All of these songs are so old, Babah!"</em>
Everything about that monologue changed around the time I turned 14. I don't know whether my dad meant to do it, but those car rides inadvertently became an experience I looked forward to. If my eclectic love for music was a firestorm, those moments were little matches that sparked everything else. Everything else which now seems inevitable.
From the casual conversations I would have with my uncle as Search was playing on his cassette player in the background (<em>Dia, Isabella, lambang cinta, yang lara..)</em> as he let me look at his old CDs,<em> </em>to manually searching for new music on the toddler days of the Internet via Rolling Stone, NME, and even Myspace Music, I became greedy. It was all BS - Before Spotify - so I would have to be constantly updated and informed, looking through long lists of Greatest Songs of All Time, Best Indie Tracks of the 2000s, and everything else as hyperbolic as that. Searching for new songs or artists were much more rewarding and personal. Instead of sharing things on Facebook or checking out Discover Weekly's, I would make mix CDs. If you've ever dated me, or ever been in the unfortunate fate of being my crush, you would own some of these CDs thus know exactly what I'm talking about.
Maybe the reason I was always wanting more music was because it became a marker of who I was, or how I wanted to paint myself to be. I was not fit enough to be athletic, not smart enough to be a nerd, and not geeky enough to talk about video games or anime. But if I could find someone I could talk about music with, I would forget about all that I was not. All that I was lacking. Even if for a short while, I could speak to people I thought were not in my league at all.
My avarice grew steep. When YouTube was only three-years-old, (they had a star system instead of a "like or dislike" system then, can you imagine?!) I discovered a documentary called BBC Seven Ages of Rock.
As the video was buffering on my Streamyx, I was giddy from anticipation. I didn't know then that music would become more than just a tool for me to get to know others but also almost definitively, a tool for me to get to know myself.
G.A.P. (GRUNGE, ART, PUNK)
Before punk rock, punk was North American slang for 'a worthless person'. Like the word 'slut' or 'nigga', and also 'Christian', (since that was the word used by the Romans against the followers of Jesus as an insult), the people receiving these abuses ended up taking ownership of it. Making these labels something they could be proud of, whilst telling their oppressors to fuck off.
Musically, punk was a revolt against the complicated virtuosity of self-indulgent rockstars and their long elaborate guitar solos. Eric Clapton was a god, Jimi Hendrix was god's god, but Johnny Ramone was an angry street punk, and he wore that badge with a smirk on his face. Punk rock was supposed to make music simple again. Angry and honest, yes, but simple. There are rarely more than three chords in most of the Ramones songs, and hardly ever any guitar solos. Music, or at least rock, was accessible again, and not something someone would have to go through 6 grades of music school to be able to express themselves. Check out Blitzkrieg Bop:
Pertinent to this essay though, is what punk did to perceptions of gender, and how it revealed parts of my identity that was dormant.
Whatever you think of Patti Smith's music, her decision to pose like this (dressing like the conventional notion of a man as opposed to wearing a dress) for her album 'Horses' is significant, arguably to the history of rock, but absolutely to the history of "Me". As a 14-year-old struggling to conceptualize himself, I discovered the word 'androgynous'.
In the turbulent times of the '70s in the US and the UK, (and in Malaysia too, though we rarely talk about it *cough racial riots cough national identity*), identity politics were rife among the feminists, black rights civil activists, and LGBT advocates. Punk has a tinge of all of those on its proverbial bedsheet. Punk was not a genre, and still shouldn't be. Punk proposed its own set of ethics (or the destruction of any). Things were supposed to be DIY, and is amorphous yet changeable, up to the interpretation of whoever was handling it at that time. There were the Sex Pistols, with anarchic anti-establishment fervour, Bad Brains with their pacifism influenced by the Rastafari movement, the Slits with a giant, naked middle finger to the patriarchy and the likes of Siouxsie Sioux & Joan Jett crushing to pieces what femininity means.
Pop punk that I was referring to a few paragraphs ago, is punk in the hands of commercialization and has long forgotten its roots (if not among the practitioners, at least among the listeners). Avril Lavigne's 'Complicated' or 'Girlfriend' is not a destroyer of norms. It is a reminder to hormonal teenagers that they are either always in love, heartbroken or hate their dads. Nothing wrong with that, but it is not the punk I'm talking about.
So from punk, - the old, raw kind - a teenager feeling distant from other people's picture of what was macho, manly or cool, learned that his identity was his own and he could do whatever the hell he wants to do with it, and everyone else can mind their own business.
This spirit, of course, was not only limited to the angry working-class subset of society. It also inspired plenty of art students from fancy colleges to jump in and gave their own interpretations of norm-bashing musicality and artistry. You had David Bowie (RIP) and his chameleon-esque proclivities, changing makeup and costumes and making it part of his theatrics. There was also Genesis, with Peter Gabriel appearing on stage wearing a red dress and a fake wolf's head.
I was stoked. I found my weirdos, and I say that with the utmost admiration. It changed how I perceived my own ideas of gender expression, and sexuality too. Perceptions that were waiting to formulate, to see things that were already true about me for a long time. Then when I found Nirvana, and saw their video for In Bloom, capturing them in dresses parodying the Beatles, I remembered mouthing silently, "This is me."
And I haven't even mentioned Nirvana's influences, such as the riot grrl band called Bikini Kill and their usage of noise to upturn expectations of womanhood AND machismo.
Was there homophobia and patriarchy in the world of punk, art rock and grunge? Obviously. The Sex Pistols made fun of Queen for being gay, and that casual homophobia was taken seriously by Freddie Mercury who showed that they could be rough too with their song We Will Rock you.
Were some of these depictions merely caricatures of actual minorities?
Yes. But not every instance of them. Even the caricatures inspired me, regardless of the sincerity of the artists.
Whatever the intention of all this music was, and whoever it was for did not matter to me. I was hooked.
And in some cliche, Utopian way, I was complete.
So by now it should be simpler to guess why I fell in love with hip hop & R&B only later in my teenage years.
Although hip hop has its own history of struggle and revolution, with political activism in the songs of Public Enemy and NWA, for a long time hip hop & R&B missed out on questioning two major components of identity - gender and sexuality.
Even the songs I loved, weren't songs that made me. Usher's Burn was something I could sing-a-long to word-by-word, but this suave man exuding testosterone to pick up conventionally attractive women with his moves, was not me. I could not be him.
The same goes to Kanye West, or Jay-Z. Watch the Throne, College Dropout were (ARE) amazing albums. When people ask me whether I like Kanye, I would reflexively say "I Love Kanye" and then rap out the entirety of Heard'em Say. But they never seeped into the gallery of experiences and memories I could honestly call "myself".
Later on, hip hop and R&B became much bigger. So big that so many people were caught by the tenterhooks. With noisy debates about civil rights and the appropriation of culture, it also became owned by people who were normally disowned by rap and R&B as queer. "This sounds gay lol faggot" were template comments on forums and social media everywhere. But it stopped being that for quite a while now. Even if the inherent culture is still non-conducive, casual (or sometimes even vicious) homophobia did not stop artists like Frank Ocean, Azealia Banks, or Syd the Kyd from entering into the scene.
When the genre started dissecting the components of society I feel the most empathy for, I grew closer to hip hop and R&B. Frank Ocean is sex, and the Internet (the musical group) is too.
This of course does not apply to everyone. Maybe there were artists I missed out on that need to be mentioned as early LGBT or gender-fluid advocates (I would love for you to tell me, dear reader, if I did). But this is about what's true to my journey of self-discovery, and not really a general social commentary. Obviously there is no such thing as "gay rap", like how there isn't (probably) any prominent self-labeling of "gay punk" or "gay rock". F. Virtue once said in his song Anita Bryant, "This isn't gay rap, do gay chefs make gay food?".
However, no one can deny the impact of seeing someone you can relate to perform your love songs the way you understand love - the way you understand yourself.