Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Clockwise from left: Klaus Nomi (Photo: Ullstein Bild/Getty Images), Little Richard (Photo: Tim Graham/Getty Images), David Bowie (Photo: Colin Davey/Getty Images), Grace Jones (Photo: Colin Davey/Getty Images), Genesis P-Orridge (Photo: Jim Dyson/Getty Image), Janelle Monáe (Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images); Graphic: Allison Corr

Sasha Geffen’s Glitter Up The Dark shines a light on pop music’s queer history

Clockwise from left: Klaus Nomi (Photo: Ullstein Bild/Getty Images), Little Richard (Photo: Tim Graham/Getty Images), David Bowie (Photo: Colin Davey/Getty Images), Grace Jones (Photo: Colin Davey/Getty Images), Genesis P-Orridge (Photo: Jim Dyson/Getty Image), Janelle Monáe (Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images); Graphic: Allison Corr

While her biggest claim to fame remains her colorful fruit headpiece, camp icon Carmen Miranda deserves respect as one of rock ’n’ roll’s earliest muses. Miranda’s performance of “The Lady In The Tutti Frutti Hat” in the 1943 Busby Berkeley musical The Gang’s All Here inspired Richard Wayne Penniman to craft one of rock’s most enduring hits. Penniman, reinventing himself in the ’50s as the flamboyant piano-pounder Little Richard, named his big hit after Miranda’s hat. “Tutti Frutti” captured ears and hearts around the world, teaching the young Paul McCartney the power of a well-placed “Wooooo” and becoming a staple for modern music supervisors who needed an aural shorthand for America’s poodle-skirt-wearing past.

It was also, in its original form, an openly queer anthem. “Tutti Frutti, good booty,” Richard sang in its earliest not-ready-for-radio form. “If it don’t fit, don’t force it / You can grease it, make it easy.” Little Richard’s piano vamp may have redacted the lyrics about anal sex when it made it to wax, but his unhinged, caterwauling voice—like a Southern belle shrieking at the sight of a mouse—kept its queer spirit intact.

The power of the human voice to embody and express queer desires is a recurring thread woven throughout Sasha Geffen’s fascinating new book, Glitter Up The Dark: How Pop Music Broke The Binary. “The voice makes reality, even if that reality evaporates, like a dream the second the tape stops rolling,” Geffen writes.

Geffen’s book covers the history of those taped dreams, drawing a through-line from Little Richard’s era all the way up to contemporary artists like Perfume Genius and Janelle Monáe. Glitter Up The Dark explores how queer artists have used pop music and recording technology as tools to imagine new realities and become who they really want to be. “Inside a song,” Geffen writes, “every singer is exactly who she says she is in the moment her voice passes through her throat.”

While Glitter Up The Dark begins in the ’50s, it also briefly touches on how gay sensibilities and content have been present for centuries in music: from the castrati of 16th-century Italy to early blues artists like Ma Rainey, whose song “Sissy Blues” praises “Miss Kate,” a feminine gay man who “shook that thing like jelly on a plate.” Most of the book, though, focuses on the decades where artists like Prince, David Bowie, Wendy Carlos, Grace Jones, and Laurie Anderson used recording technology as a form of “audio drag”—transitioning into new identities and genders through synthesizers, vocal effects, and other forms of studio magic.

“I wanted to do the entire 20th century,” Geffen said in an interview with The A.V. Club, reflecting on their original vision of the book. “There’s a lot of stuff that’s really interesting that I could only touch on in the intro: the first drag balls, the early blues, the Harlem Renaissance. Gender transgression has very deep roots in the practice of popular music. There’s so much of it, more than what can fit within the scope of 60 to 70,000 words.”

Geffen’s volume is far from the first to explore this territory. Martin Aston’s Breaking Down The Walls Of Heartache and Simon Reynolds and Joy Press’ The Sex Revolts also take deep, comprehensive looks at how pop and rock music were influenced by gender roles and alternative sexualities. What makes Geffen’s take unique is its focus on how technology played such a pivotal role in queering pop music.

The never-ending remixes of disco, the childish asexual whine of punks, the vocal manipulations that can turn a Prince into a Camille; like Little Richard’s diva screams, these are ways for artists to escape the gender binary and become something else. Recording technology takes the body out of the equation: An artist no longer needs to be standing on a stage, playing an instrument in front of people and singing with their natural voice. “The listener cannot locate a body behind the sound of a synthesizer,” Geffen writes. You can transcend your corporeal nature. Decades before the internet offered a brief window of anonymity where people could pretend to be anybody with ease (at least, before Facebook started insisting that everyone use their real names), Geffen posits that music offered queer artists a chance to “dance between genders without having to confront the material reality of transition.”

Reflecting on the work of electronic music pioneer Wendy Carlos, who used the success of her album Switched-On Bach to transition in the 1970s, Geffen points out that some of these queer pioneers may not have been fully conscious of what they were doing at the time. “She kind of resisted that interpretation for a long time—that being trans had anything to do with her music,” Geffen says. “But I can’t help but hear a parallel: the desire to go beyond the body, to go beyond hegemonic interpretation.”

While Geffen casually drops phrases like “hegemonic interpretation” in conversation, it should be noted that Glitter Up The Dark is written for a general audience. Reading the book won’t give you flashbacks to the traumatizing semester you tried tackling Judith Butler and Derrida back-to-back. Geffen makes their case through accessible language and neatly crafted, sometimes hilarious turns of phrase that nail down exactly what an artist sounds like (which should be expected, considering how long Geffen has been in the music writing game). Consider their perfect description of X-Ray Spex frontwoman Poly Styrene’s vocal style: “She yells every song on the record as if trying to give directions from across an aircraft hanger.” And like any music history book worth reading, it’s full of neat bits of trivia; a particular highlight is the explanation for how operatic weirdo Klaus Nomi came up with his iconic plastic half-suit (it turns out that plastic tuxes are very expensive to make).

If there is a flaw in Glitter Up The Dark, it’s that it tries to do too much. By cramming in over half a century of music history, Geffen tantalizes the reader with interesting characters and scenes that are sometimes sped past to get to the next point in the timeline. With so much having been written about the punk and glam era, it would have been great to learn more about how queer music affected hip-hop, or delve into the intriguing world of D.C. music label Olivia Records, a pioneering distributor of women’s music until a TERF controversy over their trans woman engineer Sandy Stone pushed them down a more conservative path. The chapters on those respective subjects are some of the most engrossing parts of Geffen’s book. By focusing on big names like the late Genesis P-Orridge, it also means that genuinely interesting and influential artists like Coil’s Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson become footnotes in the narrative. But considering that the book clocks in at under 300 pages, it’s understandable that Geffen couldn’t dig too deeply into any one scene or figure.

What makes Glitter Up The Dark such an invaluable read is that it offers a road map for all the secret trails that wind in and out of pop music history. We may not be able to spend much time at any one spot, but Geffen gives enough names and sign posts to give you an idea of who to look up and what to seek out if you want to explore those areas further.

Early on in the book, Geffen shares an illuminating quote by experimental composer Pauline Oliveros: “How you’re listening is how you develop a culture, and how a community of people listens is what creates their culture.” It speaks to the way queer artists have radically transformed popular music over the years in a sort of game of cultural telephone: Clandestine transmissions about alternative lifestyles and gender have spread from artists to fans, who then become artists themselves. Little Richard wooing about good booty in 1957 eventually leads, 60 years later, to festival headliner Frank Ocean crooning that his guy is “pretty like a girl.” Each new message in the chain is more bold and out-in-the-open than the last. Glitter Up The Dark shines a light on both the artists who first shared blueprints for new cultures, new bodies, and new sexualities, and the people who heard them and continue to bring those dreams to life.