The outspoken transgender activist on remaining independent and subverting the industry
As consumers and fans of music we want to learn about the musicians themselves. What sort of people are they? What sort of music do they like? How do they react to a cancelled flight? In many ways a lot of this stuff seems trivial, and surely it's the actual music that's significant not the musicians, but yet we still read on.
Even in the case of abstract electronic music, the context in which the music was created plays an incredibly important role in shaping the music itself, some have even argued that context is an essential part of what makes music, music.
In light of that there seems like no one better to speak to on the subject of context than Terre Thaemlitz. Known primarily for her work as DJ Sprinkles, her music, indebted to New York's queer deep house tradition, is fiercely political, often melancholic and draws on themes almost universally ignored by the commercial music industry. In her own words: "The contexts from which the deep house sound emerged are forgotten: sexual and gender crises, transgendered sex work, black market hormones, drug and alcohol addiction, loneliness, racism, HIV, ACT-UP, Thompkins Sq. Park, police brutality, queer-bashing, underpayment, unemployment and censorship… all at 120 beats per minute."
Thaemlitz's knack for gorgeous ambient music bleeds into her house music productions, creating atmospheric tracks that are unique in their ability to locate suffering within the sublime. Her Soulnessless project not only critiqued the major record labels' modes of distribution but took that argument beyond the music itself by releasing the album in an unorthodox way.
I asked Thaemlitz to discuss the context of her music and share her feelings on how audiences consume and understand her work. In reply, Thaemlitz offers an insight and guide to the principles that have informed her music as well as the sacrifices required to continue to operate wholly on her own terms in the music industry.
I think most peoples' rejection of feminism and gender issues occurs on an subconscious level as an act of self-preservation because questioning gender constructs means you risk upsetting certain preconceptions about oneself while potentially destabilising other social relations. Certain subjects only become relevant to the person when one has experienced discrimination at a certain level of intensity, thereby dislodging them from their apathy. So, of course, it means that a lot of people who stumble upon my productions might not be in a place in their own lives where the issues being discussed could resonate for them. Maybe because they "have it easy." Maybe because they have it so hard they cannot openly confront the issues yet.
I am deliberately not a pop musician who has to worry about resonating with as many people as possible. For me, the image of a crowd of thousands cheering in unison is utterly fascist and unappealing, and is not a part of where I culturally operate. I make choices in business which allow me to avoid that commercial demand for mass appeal, even though it may be counter-intuitive to the flow of capitalist business dealings. It definitely sabotages my ability to work with certain labels or producers. And these are decisions of consequence because I don't come from a wealthy family or whatever, whereby I am able to just play around with these issues on some artsy or theoretical level.
BE AS USELESS AS POSSIBLE
This is how I have spent decades now strategizing my income, paying my rent, and putting food in my mouth. It's an ongoing and unstable process that requires a lot of energy. And - this is really important - it's not about being "uncompromising" or some cliché art-hero bullshit. It's not about "doing what you love." No! It's about addressing the compromises being made everyday in this industry. It's basically the feminist energy Laurence Rassel spoke of in "Useless Movement": "We will never catch it. I mean, we'll never get the right location [as producers], always displacing, always chasing, always moving, always chasing after something we cannot have. It makes us have a lot of energy, and useless expectations, or useless movements." I mean, in this sense "useless" is as much about dominant exclusions as it is about a kind of voluntary disengagement from the demands of dominant patriarchies. It includes the refusal to perform as required by capitalist markets. What is dismissed as "useless" or without value by the dominant cultural establishment can at times be transformed into an incredibly functional uselessness - one which facilitates other ways of doing and existing. But this requires deliberateness. The same degree of deliberateness used by major industry bastards.
CALL BULLSHIT ON THE NOTION THAT MUSIC IS UNIVERSAL
Considering most music is pimped to us through the rhetoric of "universality" or some empathic one-to-one understanding between listener and producer, I was relieved to know there was the possibility for some other kind of reaction, and that it had to do with an awareness of different experiences around the same audio. That could also include an awareness that a project has a specific model of audience in mind, but that one may not necessarily be at the core of that target audience, despite having purchased the album (if it even was purchased, and not just a bootleg download). So, in simple terms, I interpret your feeling of "voyeurism" as an awareness of some social gap, which is the first step to getting away from that "music is universal" bullshit. This is all related to an awareness of contexts, which is obviously my interest, and something I put a lot of effort into trying to get people thinking about. I am more alarmed by people who don't think about, or "feel," any social distinctions at all - like being at some snobby, rich, white club that plays old Jamaican reggae records and nobody thinks it's incongruous at all. Do you know what I mean?
BE WILLING TO MAKE PEOPLE UNCOMFORTABLE
The "it" we must all constantly struggle to "get" is not an empathic one-to-one understanding of the experiences of others, but an understanding of how one's own context relates to one's understanding of other contexts, how that understanding affects one's interactions with those around them, as well as how one participates in the construction of contexts. Rather than only striving for emotional alliance through music, I think it is more important to think about what dominations or alienations might be at play between contexts of production, distribution, performance, consumption, listening, etc. We have much more to learn from the interstices between, than from commonalities that are generally illusory to begin with. I don't think one can really start addressing the material realities of social privilege, power and domination until one starts to actively have a sense of those dominations which sustain one's own comfort zones. If you want to start interfering with, or dismantling, certain power dynamics in your own life, that is not simply about copying what some other "community" might be doing elsewhere, or getting into "their" music. It is about allowing oneself to be informed by the practices of others, and figuring out how to apply that knowledge to one's own context with different outcomes. "Getting it" basically means being willing to ruin your comfort zones, in ways that affect your relationships to others. For obvious reasons, most people are not willing, or able, or are afraid, or don't have effective tools to socially do that.
A lot has been written on voyeurism, which also has rather explicit links to histories of sexuality and perversion, so maybe that's an area of study that could give you some language or strategies for engaging those feelings. Then start thinking about what music you don't feel voyeuristic about, and begin trying to unpack all the ideological production behind that every day numbness. That's what one should be surprised and alarmed about.
Thaemlitz's track "Ball'r (Madonna Free Zone)" explicitly criticizes Madonna's "Vogue". She explains the reasons for her disdain here.
ON MADONNA AND RESISTING THE ERASURE OF SOCIAL CONTEXTS
What I'm about to say pertains to more than just "Vogue", but the problem with "Vogue" is not a problem of Madonna's lack of authenticity. If we're talking honestly about issues of drag cultures, which are inseparable from sexual and gender closets born of the violence of heteronormative cultures, we're automatically in the realm of culturally mandated fraudulence and hypocrisies. Authenticity is not the issue. Fuck authenticity. What is at issue is how the track functions as media, and as a representational device - particularly as a pop track that sold several hundreds of thousands of copies, if not millions. "Vogue" bought its access to the mainstream marketplace by aggressively erasing the factors of race and gender which gave rise to vogueing, all for mainstream appeal. On the marketing level, there is no doubt that mainstream appeal means "white heterosexual". That's how you end up with a lyric like, "It makes no difference if you're black or white, if you're a boy or a girl." In fact, the subcultures that cultivated vogueing were inextricably linked to social contexts defined by dominant cultural exclusions of race, gender and sexuality. So that is the issue. Even if the intended audience is entirely oblivious it really comes down to how one chooses to discuss and represent things with an audience. It is about how one anticipates and mediates the misunderstandings that are likely to arise. It is about representational strategy.
And I find Madonna's strategies to be quite deliberate in their execution. That is where a track like "Vogue" becomes problematic. It engages in deliberate reductionisms that dismiss the very issues at hand. It excludes the very things it presents itself as embracing. It fails to teach about the very thing it claims to be educating the "entirely oblivious" about. Decisions were made to do so.
It's similar to the way her song "Papa Don't Preach" could have never entered the US pop charts if the lyric, "but I made up my mind, I'm keeping my baby" had been "...I'm not keeping my baby". Wow, what an impossibly different song that would have been! With just that little twist, I'd likely be a Madonna fan. It probably would have never made it onto the album. Without a doubt, major retailers would have banned it. I don't know if people in the UK can fathom how anti-abortion US culture is to this day, and how difficult it is for any mainstream media to suggest abortion could be something other than a tragedy.
If you look at US television shows, a character who discovers she is pregnant might momentarily "consider her options" (the actual word "abortion" generally remaining unspoken), but will always choose to keep the child. You can count the historical exceptions on a single hand (and in those cases, she usually turns out not to have been pregnant after all, or had a natural miscarriage before the procedure, etc.) It's a culturally imposed rhetoric that "of course every woman would want to keep her child if she could." No, that's not true. And it certainly shouldn't have to be true. And women shouldn't have to feel guilty about their choices, particularly within patriarchies that disproportionately burden them with the responsibility of child rearing while denying them both living wages and child care assistance. It's 2014, and the old 80s slogan "Abortion on demand and without apology" remains the most poignant pro-choice slogan ever.
DON'T MAKE CONCESSIONS
So these concessions of access to the musical mainstream express deeply contextual political compromises. Within a global economy, where people in even more fundamentalist nations than the US are singing along to the lyrics, this stuff has deep propagandistic effects. And of course, it's a sign of tragedy that in many countries - including the US - "Vogue" or "Papa Don't Preach" were received as somehow radically "liberal" (like, religious nuts were upset about "Papa..." because it's about a young girl who had premarital sex... "What kind of message are we sending our children?" blah, blah...). And yet, the subtext of both tracks strikes me as unquestionably conservative. They don't go far enough. In fact, they explicitly sabotage any attempt to take the discussions far enough. They are strategically booby trapped to shut the conversations down after a certain point, and this is inextricably linked to their capacity for marketability and sales.
And this is how the real trouble arises with regard to the ethics of how "misunderstandings" happen among broader audiences. It's on this level of analysis that people should learn to listen to the music they buy because this is the level at which the music so many people feel defines their identities actually engages issues of social and cultural consequence. If you don't get to this level of discussion, then I would suggest that indicates a lack of awareness as to how one's sense of self is constantly being culturally manipulated. And that in turn limits one's sense of political agency.
ACKNOWLEDGE THE HYPOCRISES PRESENT IN YOUR OWN WORK
I don't think you can compare the popularity of Madonna's "Vogue" with the "popularity" of my own productions. The scale of my distribution and listenership is not even a fraction of a percentile, so the cultural and economic ramifications are entirely different. But for sure, in my own productions there are shitloads of hypocrisies going on. The strategic difference is that I attempt to deal with the hypocrisies of representation more openly, actively implicating myself (and the labels I work with) within my own critiques, and openly anticipating the misunderstandings that are likely to arise. I try to lay the problems out there for discussion, understanding that doing so will shut down the possibility for populist appeal.
PRIVILEGE SPECIFICITY OVER MASS APPEAL
In pop music, the conventional "value" of a producer's work is judged by the breadth of its appeal. I'm going in a different direction, where breadth of appeal is deliberately avoided in order to speak more precisely, and potentially open up spaces for dialogues of greater material consequence. Of course, it's not only about my efforts. The labels I work with and listeners must also be willing and able to do some work. Unfortunately, dominant culture is hell-bent on denying us the tools of listening and seeing that we require. We have to unlearn and deprogram dominant culture within ourselves. We have to grope for other methodologies and ways of receiving. We have to learn how to hear. But that's a lifetime of serious work and self-evaluation. It's no joke. It's not fun. And, of course, that is precisely why most people will avoid doing that work if they can live in a way that convinces themselves issues of gender or sexuality or race or class or ethnicity, etc. are somehow magically not of personal consequence to them.
More of Thaemlitz's writing is avaliable to read on her website.