“If you think I’m a young boy singing these songs,” the R&B singer Syd told The New York Times in 2016 when asked about her gender-transcending presence onstage, “dope. Run with that.”
The Internet frontwoman and former Odd Future DJ, who played the Phoenix last Thursday, November 9, on her Always Never Home tour in support of debut solo album Fin, couldn’t care less about how her tomboy style is perceived. She wears clothes traditionally ascribed to men. She cuts her hair in a manner traditionally not prescribed for women.
Donning either one or both of those things is not revolutionary. The list of musicians who’ve played in the spaces between the gender binary is long: Boy George, Grace Jones, Annie Lennox, David Bowie, Prince, Madonna, Lady Gaga, Adam Lambert and on.
But the operative word here is “play.” When those artists adopted gendered personas, it was largely a performance – social commentary meeting artistic expression as played out on arena-sized stages.
Syd plays moderately sized stages and stands out as the most recognizable name in a generation of gender-non-conforming and queer artists who are offering something a little bit different and a lot more progressive.
Namely, Syd’s not making her queerness or her tomboyishness into an issue of the day – or, more accurately, she’s not transforming either of those things into a selling point.
Not that she necessarily could profit from it. In the 2016 Times article, writer Jenna Wortham noted that “female artists who give off an even slightly masculine air, like the rapper Dej Loaf, are hounded about their orientation.”
In the world of hip-hop and R&B, it hasn’t been as easy for Black women to capitalize off of a queer orientation as it has been for their white counterparts.
For every Alicia Keys, who throughout her career has rigorously and repeatedly denied that her early tomboy look equated to being a lesbian, there’s a gender-fluid Miley Cyrus who stays in the headlines with anecdotes about being the woman Katy Perry sings about on her 2008 hit I Kissed A Girl.
Maybe that’s partly why Syd is so matter-of-fact about her identity. She can’t treat it as a performance because, within the parameters of the traditional music industry, there’s nothing for her to gain from it. If anything, what she could gain has to fall outside of the mainstream.
In a 2012 interview with LA Weekly, she spoke of the possibility of starting a “whole spur of dyke music.”
“I can’t try to say that riot grrrls and all that shit didn’t exist, but most people don’t know what that is… because it’s not even around any more,” she said of the early 90s feminist punk movement. “And even those women were feminine. You know, look at me. I’m wearing men’s jeans and I have a mohawk.”
So why is it important that Syd simply is Syd, wearing jeans and a mohawk and not making an issue of her perceived masculinity?
When artists have turned gender into performance, the emphasis has been on commentary. An artist’s gender-bending must always be seen as commenting on something larger: a comment on non-conformity, a comment on gender stereotypes, a comment on the heteronormative patriarchy.
Gender is a talking head that must always be saying something.
In 2010, Lady Gaga famously transformed into male alter ego Jo Calderone for a fashion editorial in the fall/winter issue of Vogue Hommes Japan, and later for a performance at the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards.
Gaga’s intent behind Calderone, as told to V Magazine, was a mouthful: “How can we remodel the model? In a culture that attempts to quantify beauty with a visual paradigm and almost mathematical standard, how can we fuck with the malleable minds of onlookers and shift the world’s perspective on what’s beautiful? I asked myself this question. And the answer? Drag.”
Syd being Syd strips gender of the spectacle. By not bothering to even register how her gender identity is being perceived, she sits comfortably within a space where her gender expression stands fully on its own.
It doesn’t exist in opposition to the binary, it doesn’t serve as a paradigm-shifter, and it isn’t commenting on issues larger than itself.
It just is, and anything that could be said about gender doesn’t get anymore progressive than that.
Source: Lady Gaga