Perhaps my favorite depiction of the cracking forth of yolky spring from hard-shelled winter are Chaucer’s opening lines to The Canterbury Tales (bear with me through the Middle English, the ethical English major side of me disallows me from quoting a modern translation):
WHAN that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour...
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmers for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, couthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The holy blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seke.
Spring, when pale emaciated bodies sense the stirrings of life, nature’s sensual awakening, and imbibes the first slants of filtered light breaking through. Spring, that mixing of regeneration, continuity, bloom — the Dionysian enmeshed with the Apollonian — always seeming to terminate in travel, in rupture and movement.
The following is to accompany the wanderlust-drenched days of Spring Quarter. All of it off-kilter, queer in some way, and 1.2 hours — perfect for you Walkman users.
“Smalltown Boy” — Bronski Beat
A rare instance in which a song referring specifically to the more traumatic elements of the queer experience — familial and social rejection, hiding oneself away (in the closet), nonconforming masculinity (“cry, boy, cry”), gay bashing (to name a few) — gained popular success, this song details the departure of a young queer person breaking from their family, home, and traditions in the hopes of a more fulfilled, authentic “out” experience (“But the answers you seek / Will never be found at home. / The love that you need / Will never be found at home”). Jimmy Somerville’s voice performs the task of expressing the valences of such a transition, tentative, mournful, but also — in its direct address, repetition, and steady rhythm — affirming, comforting.
“Demon Road” — Yeasayer
Textured like the bubbles and warps of melted plastic, this song off of Yeasayer’s most recent album captures that moment of hiding one’s own queerness, socially or interpersonally unacceptable tendencies/desires/beliefs, from one’s significant other — a concealment that dam(n)s the relationship, seems such a dire impediment that all there is remaining is for “all hell” to “break loose,” opening up a “demon road” to “take [you] home.” The narrator cannot conform to conventional/popular scripts of romanticism, astrology, sentimentalism — is instead “into” some unspeakable kink.
“Diplomat’s Son” — Vampire Weekend
A reminiscence on a confused, spontaneous, drug-fueled first-time gay hookup, written by Rostam Batmanglij and sung by the beautiful, twink Endymion Ezra Koenig with an MIA sample, a perfectly constructed narrative replete with time signature changes to reflect tonal changes? Yes please.
“Tryst With Mephistopheles”—Owen Pallett
Speaking of twinky Endymions, no queer indie playlist is complete without mention of Owen Pallett, gay Canadian composer and multi-instrumentalist whose orchestral Baroque-pop delights in ornament, exuberance, and textural depth. I love this song in particular for its queering (if it needs much a queering) of the Faustus story. Moreover, something about Pallett taking Mephistopheles’ perspective and enacting his love for and murder of Owen, “the author,” makes me giddy with Freudian notions of homosexual narcissism and self-destruction. Yes, Marlowe and Freud would be pleased.
This is a song for that one cool, attractive (and usually self-aware of it) hetero guy who goes to gay clubs and is completely down be immersed in the rhythmic sea of queers. But even more than that, it’s an attraction that comes in a highly aesthetic, temporally localized, visceral moment — a refreshing depiction of sexuality which is (for good reason, but perhaps too homogeneously) almost always depicted as biologically fixed, ingrained, and non-dynamic.
“Cliquot”—Beirut & Owen Pallett
Seemingly a song about a homosexual couple sung by one lover about his partner’s slow slip towards death at the hands of the plague (and antiquated Medieval setting of the bubonic plague beautifully fitting with the wild, crass instrumentation), this story could easily be read as an AIDS narrative, one lover wishing his visceral, artistic creation could stay his lover’s fleshly consumption by the “gay plague.”
“Bed of Nails”—Wild Beasts
Shakespeare-laden kink — the quickly ascending, then quickly sinking, darting pitch of the vocals jagged like nails over the smooth, repetition of the instrumentation, an instrumentation which undulates such that one cannot help but recall a Beardsley illustration (at once sensually fluid and horrifyingly barbed!).
“White Night”—The Postelles
Although The Postelles’ frontman Daniel Balk is straight, he’s certainly comfortable discussing
and participating in queer culture. In song, the male-male call-and-response creates the the feeling of two gay partners (in crime, in addiction, in illness?) confiding in each other. Despite the problem-ridden lyrics, the song is upbeat and Balk’s vocals gleam (you won’t find a bigger than me of songs that stage a contradiction between semantic content and formal tone/style).
“Suzanne and I”—Anna Calvi
The power that inheres in every lyric Anna Calvi belts astounds me still today after discovering/becoming obsessed with her my freshman year of college. Sparse in lyrical variety, this song presents an intense bond (at least as perceived from the narrator’s position) between two women. Because of the very noir tone, I can ever only imagine Suzanne and the narrator as two criminals on the lamb. Or, depending on my mood, related in a Notes on a Scandal way, replete with delicious voyeurism and rigid relativism.
If “Suzanne and I” is noir, “Annmarie” is the intimate closeness and unspeakable queer desire encoded in devotion and “mercy” of the Victorian-era. It is the blurred lines between platonism and romance in a rustic time or place where the exacting, concretizing term ‘homosexual’ does not exist.
“A Case of You” — James Blake
James Blake’s voice is like a pristine river on which I want to build a house in which I live out the rest of my days serenaded by the emotional swellings and decrescendos of Mr. Blake’s wrenching tunes — like a really, really emotion Snow White. In this song, Blake covers Joni Mitchell, which turns a song of heterosexual coupling into one of gay love. What I love about this transformation is the way in which the song’s gendering of the couple remains latent. “I met a woman,” he croons, “she had a mouth like yours.” Here, we expect him to use this woman as a substitute for his (assumedly female) lover. However, this woman commands the singer to “Go to him,” to return to his male partner. Something about the way in which the unnamed, nondescript (male) partner can be embodied by a woman, who then reveals the partner’s gender intrigues me. If not just because it points out how immediately and implicitly we view such songs through a gendered lens.
“o0O0o0O0o” — Oberhofer
There are certain songs that accumulate the tonality of a period of one’s life, and this one immediately evokes the unsettled (in not-a-bad-way) of moving to LA from a fairly rural town, growing accustomed to the college experience, and coming out first to myself and then to my friends. “And the cities feeling queer and crass / With beer cans growing blazing grass / To look like something new” struck me at my core. It’s the same feeling evoked when walking through the apartments in Westwood (or any college town) early on a Friday or Saturday morning, when the sordidness, vivacity, and waste from the previous night are fading fast but still evident in the crushed red cups covered in dew. Waste and renewal don’t seem so far apart.
And as resonant as the lyrics in the song are to at least my queer experience, the formal quality of the vocals are marked with a queer theatricality that bolster the verses’ poignancy.
“Normal Song” — Perfume Genius
Perfume Genius, stage name of Mike Hadreas, crafts delicate, cobwebbed and misty songs about such social taboos as sexual abuse and gay pornography. I puzzle over why this of all songs is the “Normal” song, other than that perhaps it doesn’t represent a narrative voice from a super situated position, but rather one preparing for his absence (death?) — something we must all face. In any case, this is just one of an entire album of gorgeous little (dare I say Emily Dickinsonian) gems.
“Cosmic Dancer” — T. Rex
Can’t explain my obsession with this song, but perhaps its due to its associations with the films Velvet Goldmine and Billy Elliot. Dancing, devotion, and queering codes of masculinity through ones composure and unabashed performativity (a prescient insight into one of glam rock’s effects).
“The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us!” — Sufjan Stevens
This song seems to encapsulate one’s first same-sex love — perhaps in a uniformly gendered space like summer camp — when one is too young to be aware of the labels or stigmas or identitarian politics of being queer. One only feels an intimacy for another so intensely (“he was my best friend”) that one can’t help to “tease him,” to “[touch] his back” and kiss him. The ebullient symphonic bursts reconjure the pre-linguistic excitement, the uncomplicated joy of exploration — an emotion that even in Sufjan’s masterful hands can’t quite be replicated whole (I can tell you, the telling gets old”). In this, the song is perfectly nuanced — happily cherishing this moment never to be replicated, with only the slightest shadow of regret in its permanent remoteness.
“Bermondsey Street” — Patrick Wolf
Celebratory, explicitly gay happiness by Patrick Wolf.
“Hey Jane” — Spiritualized
Worth it simply for the music video — one of the most radically, grittily queer I’ve seen in a long while (NSFW).