CGWS Summer School Notes – Trans* Bowie, Trans* Prince – Prof. Jack Halberstam

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Image by Anne Graefer

I have to admit that the Cultural Studies nerd in me was more than a little excited to see Jack Halberstam give the keynote speech for the CGWS Summer School in Lancaster on Monday. As I arrived at the venue and was the first to take my seat in the auditorium I was positively giddy and am happy to report that I was not disappointed! 

It was a real privilege to see Jack explain, develop and unpack his Trans* framework and although the content of the talk wasn’t directly relevant to my own research I came away feeling really inspired and full of new ideas about how to approach my own work. Jack is an excellent speaker and took us on a captivating journey from personal investment in the celebrity of Bowie and Prince towards a critical conceptualisation of the possibilities that these artists and their work created through hypotheticals and ‘what if…’ questions. What if there’s a star man waiting in the sky? What if I was your girlfriend? What if there was an apocalypse?

I was also heartened to see that Jack didn’t shy away from, or make apologies for, the very real ways in which both of these artists demonstrated deeply problematic and at times violent behaviours. He demonstrated how we, as cultural theorists, can develop frameworks and responses which are not blind or naive in their claims by suspending certain moral dimensions- not indefinitely, but whilst the frameworks are developed. The problematising is then brought back into the equation such as the transgressions of artists are not ignored or undermined but the cultural impact of their celebrity can still be explored and understood.

Notes below are my lecture notes from Jack’s talk so the work and ideas are his or of those cited by him during the lecture but not referenced fully by myself.


Background

  • Celebrities now don’t do anything – famous for being famous
    • Contrast to the cultural production invested in ‘geniuses’
  • Frameworks
    • Bowie and Prince have become linked due to deaths occurring so close together
    • How can global celebrities maintain any kind of resistance?
  • Ziggy Stardust
    • Meditation on rock and roll and fame
    • Locating Bowie’s ‘queerness’
      • More flexible queerness which is not directly about sleeping with men
  • Prince
    • Complex star site for queerness
    • Maintained his heterosexuality
  • Jack’s upcoming book – Trans* – about why we are currently so obsessed with transgenderism

Framework 2

  • Queer/Trans to describe their celebrity

Framework 3

  • Accept our investment in these topics
  • Deep investment in cultural products

 

  • No recognition of authentic black avante garde production – always seen as an imitation of whiteness
    • Solange discusses this
  • Conference on Bowie and Prince – ‘Black Star Rising and the Purple Rain’
  • Jack’s own investment
    • Less so in Prince in terms of music but spending time in Minneapolis where Prince maintained close ties was important
    • Bowie
      • ‘Devastated’ by death – only a few cases (including Joe Strummer) where the death of a famous person affected
      • Growing up in the Midlands in the 1970s
        • Very gray and bleak
        • Bowie stood out even in the context of glam rock and Marc Bolan etc
  • Trans* (trans asterisk) towards creating other modes outside of hegemonic systems – which is exactly what trans people do
    • There has always been a transitory front at the borders of pop culture which is linked to but not directly about transgenderism
    • Usually this happens via subculture but with Prince and Bowie this was present in mainstream culture
  • Grace Jones – Similar work but less credit is given to a woman (of colour)

Recording – Prince covering ‘Heroes’

  • Temporality – very poignant knowing that Bowie was already dead and Prince would die a week – Heroes ‘just for one day’
  • Queering – feels like Prince singing to Bowie

 

  • Gender ‘oddness’
    • Vocally and visually
    • Kings and Queens feature in music – links to drag and gender specifics
    • Bowie- ‘Bring me the Disco King’
      • ‘You promised me the ending would be clear, stab me in the dark let me disappear.’
      • Stark contrast from Ziggy Stardust
      • 1993-2003 1 album in the making
      • Fame as fleeting
  • Prince is explicitly not locatable
    • ‘I am  something you’ll never understand’
      • An enigma – not male/female/black/white
      • Different through from Freddy Mercury – an ‘outrageous queen’
  • Bowie – space and other worlds
  • Prince – more recognisable gender template
  • Both use hypothetical ‘What if’ questions which act as invitations
    • Rebel Rebel
      • ‘She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl’
    • What if there’s a star man?
    • What if I was your girlfriend?
    • What if we were heroes?
    • Drug culture as portals to other worlds

Bowie

  • Usually seen with women
  • Wanted to be gay/ bi = ‘closet heterosexual’

Prince

  • download‘Go to’ performance for Drag Kings – particularly black kings Small physique
  • Adopts the ‘love sign’
    • Changes his name to the symbol to get out of a contract with Warner Brothers
      • Linkend the contract to slavery – white run labels
      • Created his own label to support black artists
  • Need also to think about Bowie as stealing black culture – from accounts of the people of colour he worked with it appears to be collaborative but this observation is still important

What if songs and Trans*

  • Wonder
  • Longing
  • Conjuring of possibilities beyond trans and queer
    • Imagining other ways of inhabiting bodies before trans was an accessible concept- or something that people could articulate
      • ‘If I was your girlfriend’
    • Beyonce – ‘If I were a boy’
      • Trans* Anthem
      • Beyond aspiration to have male privilege = aspiration to be a boy
  • Fantasy of communion, sexual desire
  • Utopianism
  • What if questions can only be answered by these utopian features

David and Angie Bowie

  • Heterosexual relationship in lager culture
  • Evokes imagery of a lesbian couple

Songs about boy/girl not man/woman = youthful longing

David Bowie – Diamond Dogs

  • Apocalypse/collapse
  • ‘Sweet Thing’
    • Men finding relief from dystopian reality by cruising each other

Transitivity and construction of gender through voices – Use of Falsetto and deep ranges

Trans*

  • Alternating parameters for imagining gender
    • Voice
    • Lyrics
    • Clothes
    • Relations
    • Gendered forms of expression
    • The body

Q&A

Utopianism

  • Flirtations with dystopianism
  • Bowie’s flirtation with Fascism

What might the legacy of trans* be?/ Is it possible today to have such disruptive celebrities when fame is so throwaway and we don’t spend the same amount of time investing in our idols – waiting weeks for singles to come out, buying them, playing them, space for concept albums etc

  • Miley Cyrus
    • Instagram – space where her fans are
      • Social media offers increased ‘intimacy’ and scrutiny
    • Exceeding the criticisms of her sexuality

Problematising Bowie and Prince

  • David Bowie and case of statutory rape
  • Flirtation with fascism
  • Prince’s ‘male gaze’
    • Sexism – purple rain film is explicitly misogynist

Readings are detached from Bowie and Prince as people – they are derived from the ‘icons’ of ‘Prince’ and ‘Bowie’

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