“Torn Sheets in the Rain”: A Fan Missive for the Lovely Kate Pierson
“Carnival is a pageant without footlights and without a division into performers and spectators. In carnival everyone is an active participant, everyone communes in the carnival act… The laws, prohibitions, and restrictions that determine the structure and order of ordinary, that is noncarnival, life are suspended during carnival: what is suspended first is hierarchical structure and all the forms of terror, reverence, piety, and etiquette connected with it… or any other form of inequality among people.”
Mikhail Bakhtin, On Dostoyevsky’s Poetics
The fifteen year old boy that I was . . . a cul-de-sac, catacomb adolescent of a second floor-back bedroom . . . for whom “portable audio” meant a cassette player larger than my hand, and pocket money was always an instalment plan for buying new albums . . . who found in headphones considerable relief as much as enormous pleasure . . . yeah, that teenage mop of myself for whom the mirror was already a veteran opponent . . . that was me, and I adored the B-52s; but especially its fierce crimson diva who was as decadent as a rose in a surrealist’s wine-glass, with me listening in the grim grey of my school uniform jumper décor. Kate Pierson.
The band’s signature sound sequestered me in an out of body experience — one of irresistible post-disco glambop that put the boots in my boogie. No small accomplishment for my perpetually uncoordinated hips and a complete lack of musical depth perception.
And so I thought, manually swapping from Side B back to Side A again — if I ever met Kate Pierson, she would understand me without explanations. Because singing like that suggested a braggadocios voice not attuned to apologies and excuses.
I’m writing this admittedly casual entry — neither a letter nor an essay, but perhaps more a confession in reflection — because Ms Pierson (may I call you Kate? can I be on a first name basis with someone from memorizing liner notes?) has found herself in a patch of bother with the anti-feminist trans activist league of SJ hashtag hobgoblins. And that’s not really the publicity one would like on the release of a new album. I have no doubt Pierson has been troubled by the furious response: as she wrote, “it’s really meant to empower ANYONE . . .”; but of course in transgender narcissism — it’s always, always about the T. Their capacity for self-identification and projection is really prodigious.
But you’ve been in the various communities called queer — or demand to be called queer — for ages, Kate. Much, much longer than those writing these articles of complaint. You lost a bandmate to AIDS: I cried when I heard . . . you’ve sustained yourself in the scene … I have no doubt that you understand the value of dialogue and conversation. But you may not be aware that, in social justice social media, unchecked outrage is a shortcut to professionalization and notoriety. The LGBTQIA+ acronym is acquiring new letters, and adherents are eager to stamp their initials on recent developments.
Let me try explaining it this way: transgenderism is an amorphous political movement that has evolved upon a single principle — antagonism to women; they redefine the realness and women will accommodate the latest draft version of their identity(s).
Because transgenderism has deified gender into an identity, a sanctified innate Presence of personal gnosis that cannot be challenged by materiality or psychology. Elusively, they call this Gender Identity, and it’s so special that it has its own cerebral tabernacle to keep precious this invisible essence (brain sex) within. Transgenderism builds — or half builds — official constructions to enshrine and glorify Identity, huge artifices and institutions of personal worship … but really the bricks they lay down are convenient stones to be chucked at the next window of sinners on display. I’m afraid at the moment, Kate, those stones — better cemented into place to build structures and services for trans people — are being aimed at you . . . by those who supposedly applaud gender non conformity (so long as it has a label that neatly indexes for twitter the updatable status).
Several blog posts have been scathing of your tune — I’m sure you’ve read them — like this one, an “open letter” style of recrimination, to which you cordially replied. Making the rounds as well are listicles of your failings whose contents are best summarized as “ten reasons you suck KP”. Predictably as of today, commentariat has come from Bustle — and I assume by next week Feministing, Autostraddle, and Bitch will follow. Each and every one of these libfem articles will basically say the same thing: Kate, you are bad. You have unwittingly found yourself in a queer fracas of identity machinations.
These are the same trans*+ critics who pen recipes entitled “12 cool things about omnigender pansexual circum-atheists” … and Kate Pierson ain’t singing that party’s official argot.
A broader game exists here of gopher pop-up attacks by trans activists this last year on drag, gender performativity, and homoerotic fashion. I’ve struggled along in these debates myself; but, to put it directly, it seems to me that trans iconoclasts are foolishly positioning themselves against decades of gay culture.
By introducing your song as a “trans anthem”, you did open yourself up to critique, absolutely. We’ve had a sequences of failed “trans anthems” on shuffle — Against Me!, Arcade Fire, Pet Shop Boys … they’ve all tried it recently, the artificial anthemization for a disparate community that has no fucking notion whatsoever as to what it actually wants (other than unchecked validation). Nations write anthems to celebrate wars: gays found them to survive. They picked their lyrics up between the cinders and sparkles of a decaying disco culture and the advent of Reganite smash and grab consumerism. And the B-52s were very much a part of that, in time and place. Your band took antique Baroque engravings and electrified them with shrill neon.
But you have invited trans condemnation, since you — a “cis” woman — must be either an acquiescing accomplice or an exiled enemy — there’s no middle ground for females with that lot. This is why they are furious that your video featured Alyson Palmer, a tireless campaigner for women, music, and women-in-music. Palmer is constantly harassed, harangued, attacked and abused for prioritizing female space over male desire. And that really pisses males off. Hence why we find this unnecessary play of the misogyny and homophobic card in trashing Palmer and then, apropos of nothing, slurring Cathy Brennan as an extra bonus for a music review. (Incidentally, Cathy is a wonderful woman; and I now hope she considers me a friend!)
I am profoundly sorry for having signed petitions against MWMF in the past. I was wrong.
Anyway, Kate Pierson’s video was far more ‘intersectional’ than anything I’ve seen from Laura “No Cunt in Your Strut” Jane Grace.
I wouldn’t blame you for being surprised by the response; but you’ve tread on the prime directive of trans activism: “shut up and do what we say”. This sentiment, to me, was most apparent in how you were accused of misgendering the title character of “Mister Sister” — that is to say a fictional invention. How do fictional inventions have stable, innate gender identities? Wilful projection by obsessive trans activists. Trans narratology has invested in the jenga-construction of untenable, undefinable “selfhood” that, upon declaration, retroactively memory-holes all prior material facts into oblivion. But, really, how does one misgender that which resists claiming a gender, eschews classification, and runs instead to a celebration of possibilities through improvisation?
“Nothing hurts when you’re a beautiful girl” is not a promise — it’s an impossible pre-transition panacea, really. Perhaps best filed under “it gets better”, one can’t really fault this line given that it’s optimistic counter-text to the script being presented by the mirror. We all know girls — women, adult human females — get hurt by a billion different patriarchal barbarisms. To suggest Pierson doesn’t know that, hasn’t lived that, doesn’t feel that — for a recently transitioned male to point it out — ridiculous.
Mister Sister is fairly typical drag slang from what I remember. I laughed out loud when, on Will and Grace, Jack McFarland “misgenders” Cher with it. This is why Fred Armisen was a fantastically cheeky choice! A gender non conforming bloke who has, let’s be honest, a tremendous proclivity for wearing women’s attire, from the monochrome twinsets of the bored girlfriend on Saturday Night Live to vinyl-encrusted hard femme hipsters on Portlandia. Seriously — once he’s is on the screen, don’t be expecting gender pieties. And really he has more than a shade of peachiness of another Fred . . . that of Mr Schneider, the french-cuffed crooner whose smile could sell a million wedding dresses. This is the carnival of habitual sass, syrupy good in the easy-going shriek of a licentious voice. Owning a B-52s album was a punishable gender crime for 14 year old males, but I indulged in the disgrace with carnivalesque delight. The entire song, to me, is less about discovering an authentic selfhood to be readily constituted into life, but finding living people who don’t mind how awkwardly one dances in invention and experimentation. The mirror betrays, lets one down … but hopefully mates will not.
Perhaps Mister Sister is a lingering insult that the title character must emotionally throw off. Maybe the mirror is singing the whole fucking melody!
I was surprised you were attacked so ferociously for the “mirror” line. Transwomen are mad for mirrors. Janet Mock’s memoir has reflective surfaces on almost every other glossy page. The mirror tells her that she’s a boy, and to stop pretending (81). The mirror affirms she has on a generous coat of lipstick (223). And it’s a mirror that provides the visual evidence of surgical intervention: “I noticed the gap in-between my legs. I had been reshaped” (237).
And, for another example, Casey Plett wrote an entire column about how she went about manifesting all of that feminine internality into a really bitching hair straightener. In another meditation on the psycho-sexiness of popping on tight clothes, Plett describes of herself, “Admire the spot where the skirt meets your shaven knee. Think about going out like this” . . . a moment of reflexively erotic self-optics that’ll provide Dr Ray Blanchard with a future citation for his next book. And yet — amidst all of the frilly frivolity, she also concedes, “Don’t look in the mirror. It’s not helpful.”
Maybe the song is actually a critical dig at the sanctimony of transgender identity politics?
Absolooootly works on that level as well like.
For transwomen, mirrors are the ultimate betrayal or the ultimate endorsement; but if you’re looking for sanctimony in the gay icon carnival of Kate Pierson, you really don’t understand the music one bit. The playfulness of Pierson, its promissory intentions of change and escape, don’t match up with the new trans dogma of “always was” and “always will be”. The dirtiness and debauchery of Debbie Delicious is less an identity and more an enactment. Transwomen are obsessed with ‘discovery’, but the B-52s music has always roller coasted along invention.
There’s really not much more inherently internally transphobic than being unable to accept one is trans, or to erase those historical trajectories upon which transition is motivated.
And as for invention, the portal opened up through possibility, that is what was unleashed to the adolescent me — and now here I am, one month away from sex reassignment surgery, dancing to the resonance . . . emerging from those decades of soothing sonic upbeat vocals converging in the private afternoon concerts of fuzz-padded headphones that shut out teen gossip and volatile parents. Your music lifted me out of the confusing cacophony of who I was being told to be.
(“Deadbeat Club” is one of our songs that put myself and my soul friend . . . a transwoman who knows a thing or two about a crap adolescence; and my family who will be taking care of me in recovery from the op . . . in giggles and raptures that only we understand.)