Opinion: How Queer and Trans Artists Captured the Ambivalence of Isolation

Digging into work by Tygapaw, Jasmine Infinity and Loraine James, author Sasha Geffen shows how releases by queer and trans artists captured the essence of isolation.

11 min
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Aug 27, 2021
Sasha Geffen

In the early days of the pandemic, my attention split in two. In one field, I scoured the news, ransacked public data, tried my best to build a picture of what was happening, and how I might move safely in its wake. Thanks to what I had been reading about contagion, I knew that other people carried with them an implicit potential threat. I kept my distance. I was wary.

In the other field, my attention settled inward. I scanned my body for signs of infection. Dull pain ringed my throat, and though I knew that it could be a side effect of the exogenous testosterone I was injecting weekly — a sign of thickening vocal cords rather than an immune response — I still feared I was sick. I convinced myself I felt feverish. Thermometers were sold out everywhere I looked. In this newly paranoid atmosphere, its sudden panics and jarring deprivations, each of the body’s unsettlements ballooned. Each minor discomfort could forewarn disaster, could be evidence that I had become a vector, that my presence alone was dangerous. I watched myself carefully and kept myself inside.

This bifurcation of awareness was newly heightened, but not entirely new. It had certain echoes in trans and queer experience, which harbors a central conflict between the norms and restrictions of the broader social environment, and the desires and movements of the body itself. Both fields demand attention; neither can be ignored. The body screams out for itself, and the world around the body tamps down its calls. And so the queer subject learns to dance between safety and satiation, learns how to become something unusual while hiding the fact of their becoming from the alarm systems designed to signal defection.

“If you are trans, you have an internal narrative, and a lot of people don’t have an internal narrative,” the New Orleans artist Edge Slayer told the New York producer Jasmine Infiniti in a 2020 Talkhouse interview. By germinating a story about gender and selfhood that runs contrary to narratives imposed by others, transness can intensify interiority, turning the murmurings of the body into a lifeline against misjudged external clamor. That pulse between internality and externality courses through both Slayer and Infiniti’s music; it also flickers across many of the most arresting albums released by queer and trans musicians since the first pandemic lockdowns sliced across habitual life.

Watch Jasmine Infiniti’s performance for Community Bread’s PRIDE 2021 takeover of Beatport x Ballantine’s US livestream series here.

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Uncanny voices bloom throughout Infiniti’s album Bxtch Släp, released in the last days of March 2020, just as lockdown rituals began to cement and the pandemic began to assert itself not as a momentary glitch, but an apparently interminable condition. On the song “Nxt2u,” Infiniti extracts vocals from Amber’s 1999 eurodance hit “Sexual (Li Da Di),” pitching them down, shrouding them in echo, and scattering them beneath a murky and minimal beat. She sublimates the giddy intimacy of the original track into a song transfixed by the horror of negative space.

If Amber’s take invoked the spontaneous desire that can sputter across a dance floor — the erotic charge of sensory overload in an environment designed to choke out boredom — Infiniti’s rework redirects the Dutch singer’s voice into the muffled ennui of split experience. Her beats rush close to the ear, recalling the throb of the body in a heightened state of awareness. Her sampled vocals hang far in the distance, suggesting enormous, untraversable space.

On Reflection, an album recorded during lockdown and released in June, the London-based experimental producer Loraine James applies a similar treatment to her own voice. An easy, rhythmic phrase repeats and unravels across “Simple Stuff,” curdling into artificially high pitches against detailed, anxious beatwork. Later on the album, on “Self Doubt (Leaving the Club Early),” James traces the memory of skipping out of a club after performing a DJ set that failed to connect: “There have been times when I’ve performed and I’ve left the club straight after,” she told the Guardian. “I’ve thought that I have been shit or not done as well as I’d wanted, so I’m awkwardly leaving through the crowd.” In one of the track’s spoken refrains, she addresses herself in the second person: “You are in a hurry/Leaving the club early,” she repeats, her voice diffuse and multiplying beneath oscillating treble and towering, structural bass drum hits. A chasm opens between the character of the furtive DJ and the crowd, which she’s darting through to get home. Rather than reach for dance music’s historical sense of communion, James tracks the point where that mutual abandon can falter: where the artist or listener gets ejected from the collective, returned to their silo, re-individuated.

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Queer hyperindividuation can instill the sense that one’s own desire is dangerous — that there’s no safe way to want; no easy, open channel to the desired other. That volatile charge became amplified during the last year and a half of plague, when physical connection and even mutual presence became generally inadvisable, when every encounter carried the potential for lethal consequence.

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That double-bind of wanting someone while simultaneously realizing the danger in wanting lights up “Run 2 U,” a song from New York producer Tygapaw‘s album GET FREE, released in November 2020. “I decided to run to you … My love might destroy you,” the vocals repeat under a blistering techno build. Like Infiniti’s treatment of Amber, Tygapaw’s vocal is layered, deepened, reverberating. It rises like a dozen simultaneous voices from a single source, then peels off and decays into translucent petals, omnipresent and vanishing. The beats pummel the ear; the vocals drift from it. They beckon and warn at the same time, their contradictory gestures generating electric dread.

In the intro, outro, and interlude of GET FREE, spoken word vocals from the poet Mandy Harris Williams cut through that uncertain air. Her voice is similarly multi-tracked, echoing into Tygapaw’s vibrant instrumentals. But it is also clearer than the vocals on “Run 2 U,” hovering in the center of the mix rather than submerged beneath it. She pronounces the album’s revolutionary theses with conviction: “This liberation feels like a crush … I want it more than anything,” Williams says. “When she could no longer sense if the others would keep pace, she found her own, and there was some pleasure in stepping through it.”

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Tygapaw recorded the album last July in the wake of the U.S. uprising against police killings, and the subsequent Brooklyn march for Black trans lives: the moment in the pandemic when purpose, formerly scattered, found focus. People moved in concert again after months of hearing that gathering together could kill. The split focus, which was endemic to the times, momentarily healed; the seam between the individual and the collective grew less pronounced, and people moved together, unified in intention, their despair and their desire pointing for a time to the same place.

“The riots reconstructed an outside of the home as they enacted an outside of capitalist social relations,” wrote Hannah Black in a recent reflection on the summer of 2020. “Before the riots, even before the pandemic, it often felt as if life stopped just before the point where other people began.”

Through its distant, denaturing vocals, certain pandemic-era dance music tracks that gap between life and other people, surveying the space between the immediacy of one’s own body and the far-flung social field with all its uncertain dangers and potential delights. In its urgency and propulsion, this music also aims for flight paths across that widening gap.

How might we move if we knew someone on the other side would move with us? What would it sound like to draw the quivering of that outer rim into ourselves without fear? And what scaffold of power would need to fall for that current to flow, suddenly unimpeded?

There aren’t any instructions in these songs. But in their mapping of the subtle continuum between interior space and the outer world, there may be rehearsals.

Sasha Geffen is a writer based in Denver whose work appears in Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, NPR, and others. Their first book, ‘Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary,’ is out now from the University of Texas Press. Find them on Twitter.

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