Antony Hegarty sings earnest torch songs for the natural world.
Antony & The Johnsons, The Crying Light (Secretly Canadian)
(Jan 2. 2009) -- According to stereotype, people of idiosyncratic genders and sexualities congregate in cities. Their cabarets and fabulous performance events happen indoors and at night. For a variety of historical and cultural reasons, you probably wouldn't expect to stumble upon Marlene Dietrich in hip waders serenading salmon in the midst of a rural waterway. Queer artists—and often, prejudicially, queer people in general—tend to be associated not with naturalness and authenticity but with artifice and camp.
Antony Hegarty—the Antony of Antony & the Johnsons—is certainly familiar with camp. He identifies as transgendered and has done time as a cross-dressing performance artist in New York City. He frames his soaring, throbbing, mannered, and decidedly androgynous voice with complex chamber-music arrangements. And as befits a neocabaret artist, his 2005 breakthrough record, I Am a Bird Now, focuses on gender identity and slippage. As one lyric puts it, "One day I'll grow up, I'll be a beautiful girl/ But for today I am a child, for today I am a boy." Not surprisingly, Antony is a big fan of Boy George, who turns in a guest vocal on one of the album's loveliest tracks, "You Are My Sister."
Spiritually, though, he and his idol are poles apart. Unlike George, Antony doesn't do winking flamboyance or irony—his music is earnestly, languidly, overwhelmingly romantic. In fact it'd probably be more apt to call it Romantic, with a capital R, and his new album, The Crying Light, makes that even clearer: Antony moves away from explicit discussions of gender, instead casting himself as a poet of nature. "Daylight in my heart... daylight kisses everything she can see," he sings on "Daylight and the Sun"; on "Another World" he proclaims, "I'm going to miss the wind, been kissing me so long." At the beginning of "One Dove" he tenderly promises, "One dove, you're the one I've been waiting for," and then at the end, while warbling woodwinds imitate the bird's plaintive call, he sings, "Eyes open/ Shut your eyes." The heightened sensuality of the cabaret is opened up to encompass not just a subculture but the whole world. These are torch songs sung for the landscape.
The original Romantic poets were themselves familiar with what's known as the pathetic fallacy. For them as for Antony, nature seemed to exhibit human characteristics and thus became implicated in human emotions. Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" imagines the poet dissolving into the nightingale's bower in a release that's not even all that elliptical about its sexuality. The effect is to map human relationships onto the world; romance becomes Romance as Keats suggests ecstatic union not with one female but with a transcendent feminine nature. Cabaret destabilizes and shows up the artificiality of gender by displaying idiosyncratic bodies that undermine the Platonic ideals of male and female. The Romantic project is the opposite. Male and female are solidified by unmooring them from individual exemplars; they become universal truths, not merely facts about singular bodies.
So why does Antony avoid camp, in effect making gender seem more real? For many queer theorists, the goal is to cast gender as a performance or a construct—by showing the arbitrary and performative nature of gender identities, you can mock and undermine them, which frees people to behave in ways not sanctioned by straight culture. Camp, in other words, presents everyone's gender as equally fake. It democratizes by flattening masculine and feminine into surface. No one is authentic or natural, so no one is privileged.
A lot of queer people have historically found camp liberating, or at least entertaining. Still, it's not too hard to see why Antony, as a transgender person, might want to look at other options. Trans people are, after all, presupposed to be inauthentic; if they camp it up, it doesn't so much subvert expectations as confirm them. As trans activist Julia Serano put it in one of her performance pieces, "If one more person tells me that 'all gender is performance' I think I am going to strangle them."
Serano goes on to explain, "Almost every day of my life I deal with people who insist on seeing my femaleness as fake." This is because gender is conventionally understood as locked into bodies, when in fact, Serano argues, it is "an amalgamation of bodies, identities and life experiences, subconscious urges, sensations and behaviors, some of which develop organically, and others of which are shaped by language and culture." Only by moving past the body (and its naughty bits) can trans gender be naturalized. That seems to be the impulse behind "Epilepsy Is Dancing," where Antony repeats and repeats, with an intensity reminiscent of Astral Weeks, "Cut me in quadrants, leave me in the corner/ Ooh, now it's passing/ Ooh, now I'm dancing." Through dissolution or castration, Antony finds a kind of Romantic ecstasy. The body is shed and what is left is now "passing." Gender is more real than, and outlasts, the genitals.
For both Serano and the Romantics, gender is discorporated, located beyond the body. Still, their respective visions don't map onto each other precisely. In hot Keats-on-nightingale action, Keats is definitively the male, penetrating feminine nature before dissolving. Nature can be engendered, but for the Romantics, that gender is straightforward... or just straight.
Antony's goal on this record is appar-ently to queer the tropes with which the Romantics naturalized and universalized their own experience of maleness. He does this in part by fracturing the Romantic narrative, breaking down the lines between the poet who understands and the landscape that is apprehended. The disc starts in medias res: "Her eyes are underneath the ground," he sings on the song of the same name, which seems to be for his mother or for her son; it's the album's opening cut, but self and death and earth are all already intertwined. Partway through the song Antony multitracks his voice, harmonizing with himself as perspective and identity dreamily drift apart and then back together: "With my mother and in her garden I stole a flower." As a single voice again, he sings, "I saw six eyes glistening in my womb/ I felt you calling to me in the gloom/ Rest assured your love is pure/ Rest assured your love is pure." He seems to be giving birth to himself, and as he splits, binaries like mother-son, nature-nurture, and male-female aren't so much disrupted as crystallized by his oddly pristine voice. Whose love is pure? The mother's for her son? The son's for nature? That ambiguity never resolves itself, but the emotions that surround it vibrate with a solid clarity, like the string-bass notes that swell as the track closes.
Perhaps the song that most explicitly—albeit most elliptically—fuses the Romantic and the queer is "Dust and Water." Against a hazy, shifting drone that recalls Gorecki, Antony repeats "Dust and water/ Water and dust" in his feyest voice, then trails off into nonsense syllables and pop cliches: "Did you think I'd leave you?" He may be talking to a lover or to the world; dust and water, of course, make up the earth and our bodies alike. This devotional plainchant seems designed to emphasize the Romantic transubstantiation: human love and longing become nature itself. Antony's self, his gender, the uncategorizable androgyny of his voice, all seem as solid as the landscape, as real as the sea. In the open-air cabaret, he is the mask, and nature wears him.