Sandow Sinai

Uncomfortable Aesthetics: An Interview With Alex Temple


ISSUE 98 | TEETH | JUL 2021


On your hand – I place my hand– barely. In our hands – nothing. by Mithu Sen, 2009

UNCOMFORTABLE AESTHETICS

S: I am here with Alex Temple, a composer and thinker and brilliant aesthetician, and we are here to talk about teeth, transgender aesthetics, and body horror. So, Alex, if we’re talking about trans aesthetics, I want to start by asking about something that is in your bio on your website, and that is that you are “particularly interested in reclaiming socially disapproved of ‘cheesy’ sounds, playing with the boundary between funny and frightening, investigating lost memories and secret histories, and telling queer and trans stories.” I want to ask you how that last thing is related to the other things.

A: Any one of those things can exist independently, I think, but they have tended to overlap in some of my music. Behind The Wallpaper is the most obvious example. It’s a trans story, in that it’s inspired in various ways by my experiences of dysphoria and post-transition alienation. And it’s presented by means of surrealism, which in some cases is more of a direct metaphor—for example, “Fishmouth” is obviously about coming out—and in some cases much more of an oblique one, like the idea of seeing these mysterious tall figures that vaguely hint at some community that you’ll eventually find yourself being connected to at some point after the piece is over (since the last song, “Spires,” is in the future tense). So that’s one connection. I think that piece also plays around the boundary of funny and frightening at times. “Fishmouth” is a great example of that—planning to tell someone something, being caught off guard, and then when you try to speak there’s this—bleugh *mimes vomiting*—these live fish come out of your mouth. It’s absurd, and it’s horrifying if you imagine actually experiencing it, especially the aftermath where the salt water in your mouth starts eroding your teeth…

S: Part of what I have planned for later in this interview is reading you weird lyrics about teeth and letting you react to them, and I have to say that the very first thing I had planned for you to react to is “Fishmouth.”

A: Me reacting to my own song, you mean?

S: Yeah—you’ve already anticipated it for me!

A: Absurdity always has the potential to be funny and scary at the same time. I think a lot about David Lynch’s film Inland Empire. I saw that movie on the big screen four different times in three different towns—Ann Arbor, Cambridge, and New York—and what was fascinating to me was that sometimes people were dead silent during the “BRUTAL FUCKING MURDER!” scene and other times people laughed a lot. And it really changes the way the scene comes across, because it is funny, and it is creepy, and it sort of exists in the superposition of those two states, and I really love that about it. So that’s a thing that I’m definitely interested in in some of my own work.

The reclaiming of the cheesy is something that I’ve been interested in forever. It must have been, god, at least fifteen years ago that I came up with the slogan “cheesiness is the new dissonance”—by which I meant that, in the same way that back in the early 20th century you could make classical traditionalist audiences uncomfortable by using dissonance, in the early 21st century you could make classical traditionalists—and by that I mean the people at new music concerts—uncomfortable by using cheesiness. This is much less true now than in 2005 or whatever, but back then you really could! And “cheesy” just means “considered uncool by whatever particular subculture you’re in.” What that means varies from subculture to subculture. Punk rockers think that prog rock is cheesy, classic rockists think that disco is cheesy. It maps onto various subcultural values in various particular ways. High modernists think that Ludovico Einaudi is cheesy. I don’t think that being “cheesy” is bad—I love prog rock, I love disco, not so into Einaudi but that’s sort of incidental; I love Suzanne Ciani, which is also cheesy in kind of the same way. Admittedly I like it better when she’s doing it on synth than on piano, but that’s just me liking synths. And in 2005, before the 80s revival that started in 2010, synths were not cool unless it was, like, electroclash, you know? And so even just being into synths at that time was weirdly transgressive, or would make you seem “uncool” to people. Then on the flip side, I was on a prog-rock messageboard, and someone gave me grief about being into Andrew Lloyd Weber. They were like, “Ugh, you like Jesus Christ Superstar? I thought you had good taste.” And I was like “I never said I had good taste, what are you talking about?”

I’ve been interested for a very long time in how people use this concept of “good taste” as a means of social control. But at the time when I was exploring this “cheesiness” idea the most, I was very self-conscious about my own taste. I’m really not at all anymore, so I don’t think about cheesiness that much these days. But I’m interested in incorporating things like pop-cultural detritus, commercials, bits of advertising music. I have a piece that I withdrew because I think it might be too problematic—but I was trying to see if I could make something interesting out of the timbral and harmonic features of 80’s faux world music without being exploitative of any actual cultures. And I’m not sure that I succeeded, but that gives you an idea of another kind of so-called cheesiness that I was interested in.

It’s become second nature for me to incorporate these things that other people consider cheesy, but liking these things isn’t stigmatized now the way it was 15 years ago in the classical world. So I think that aspect is becoming less important to me. Also everybody does it now. It’s no longer challenging in the same way, so it’s become a background part of my style rather than an emphasized Thing that I’m doing.

BODIES

S: My next question is to connect the things I’ve asked you about in your bio (“reclaiming socially disapproved of ‘cheesy’ sounds, playing with the boundary between funny and frightening, investigating lost memories and secret histories, and telling queer and trans stories”) to something that isn’t explicitly stated in this bio but is in fact present over a lot of your work: bodies. We have these things, and that’s pretty weird! I think there’s a lot of bodies in your work in all kinds of strange ways.

A: In my……..body of work?

S: *laughs*

A: That’s a good question. First of all, I didn’t really have a body until 2012, maybe. 2007, when I was in my mid-20s, was when I started writing these narrative semi-spoken-word voice-and-electronics pieces for myself to perform, and I was using that to explore gender even before I came out as anything, particularly through my vocal delivery style. I don't know if you’ve heard these pieces—they’re pretty old. There’s one called The Travels of E.C. Dumonde, and it consists of tall tales that I made up about a woman traveling around the U.S. in the first part of the 20th century, encountering weird stuff. And she encounters people too, and they talk in different voices. I experimented with imitating Laurie Anderson and Jacqueline Humbert and Tom Waits and Miranda July and so on. There’s a character that she runs into in a section called “The Empty City,” in a town where everything has been replaced by an ad for itself—there’s incorporeality going on there, like there’s a car dealership but it’s just billboards for cars, and I have samples of actual radio ads from the period. And she meets this woman there who talks in a very singsongy, detached, high-pitched voice: *does voice* “I live in Montclair, the next town over. It was founded today.” And Dumonde says, “today?” and I use my normal voice for that *back to high voice* “Yeah… I used to live by the ocean, in a town called Colors. It was quiet there.” So, at that time I was kind of experimenting with different forms of embodiment, I was playing with gender recreationally, but when I was performing I had a fucking beard, and deliberately lowered my voice to sound more “adult,” ironically enough. I can’t even do that any more, I’ve untrained those muscles.

I was starting to play around with makeup at that point too, and paying more attention to what I wore. I remember this funny experience when I was in Queens — I went to a CVS or Walgreens or Rite Aid or something, and I bought some makeup, and I was standing there looking like a guy, and the person behind the counter said, “You know this is makeup, right?” and I was like, “Yeah, I’m a musician.” Like that explains it.

S: *laughs*

A: As far as actually writing about bodies, Behind the Wallpaper is a little bit unusual as far as that goes. My piece Switch has all that stuff about left and right handedness. Those are probably the most intentionally trans pieces I’ve written, and I’ve certainly got a lot of pieces that are not about bodies. But I’m also very aware of the performers’ bodies, and that’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot for the last five, six years: that writing a piece for people to perform is, in a way, taking control of their bodies for a while, so it needs to be handled in a responsible fashion. I wrote an article about that, called “Composers, Performers, and Consent.”

S: It’s very interesting because I actually have thought a lot about that. In my current moment in my own work as a composer, I have actually really run into problems with me and my performers being on very different pages and negotiating the kink of that.

A: And that may be a sign that that’s not going to be a successful collaboration, if your baseline assumptions about what you want to do are very different. That article was inspired by a couple of conversations I had with cis women singers who were talking about being pushed to do things that were bad for their voices by cis male composers. But that’s not the only angle I take on it, because I also interviewed Kevin McFarland from JACK Quartet, who explicitly likes to frame his performance of extremely difficult music as an act of subbing. He talks about it as being the puppet of the composers, and how he enjoys that. I met him when he was part of a group called Ensemble de Sade, so no surprise there.

S: *laughs*

A: Which was a fantastic group. It was Matt Marks and Mellissa Hughes. I went to see a performance they did of Pierrot Lunaire which ended with Melly tied to a chair, the other performers having cut most of her clothes off, and she was singing into a dildo like it was a microphone. It was great.

S: I’ve actually thought a lot about a cis woman singer and man composer with the record We Insist by Max Roach.

A: The title sounds familiar, but I don’t remember it.

S: There’s a movement, “Prayer/Protest/Peace,” and it’s just Max Roach and his wife, the singer Abbey Lincoln. It’s free improvisation, and pretty early free improvisation, and in the protest part Abbey Lincoln just, like, screams, is absolutely screaming. It’s really intense and absolutely incredible but then also, like, that was what her husband, who was kind of shitty, wanted her to do.

A: I’ve thought a lot about this with the Berio-Berberian relationship, too.

S: I’ve definitely had this thought about the Sequenzas as a kink thing, and I’ve especially thought of this with the bassoon sequenza, where it’s just circular breathing for like 20 minutes and it’s sooooo kinky. Personally I don’t play the bassoon, but I’m very fond of solo bassoon music for reasons that are not entirely unrelated to the fact that bassoons sound like trans women’s voices, in my onion.

A: Ooh—wait, did you say onion?

S: Yeah.

A: I might borrow that. Another thing I talk about in that article is Ariadne Greif, who’s really into suffering for art. And I think anyone who plays the Sequenzas is also into suffering for art, and that feels like a healthy consensual thing. What bothers me about Sequenza III in particular is how explicitly gendered it is. It defines itself as “some words for a woman to sing,” and then here’s this thing with this male poet collaborating with a male composer, depicting the woman who’s singing it as “mad” and “hysterical,” and it’s just like… I don’t know about this… Obviously Cathy Berberian doesn’t seem like she has any qualms about performing it, and plenty of other women don’t either, but I look at it a little bit askance. I also like to imagine that Berberian’s Stripsody is her response to it. Do you know that piece?

S: *shakes head*

A: It’s glorious. The notation is all cartoons—it’s “strip-sody,” as in “comic strip”. And she sings it all herself, and it doesn’t take itself seriously, it’s very humorous. There’s sounds like cats meowing and guns shooting — it’s all done vocally — and Tarzan, and alarm bells and so on.

S: I have to check that out. It sounds really up my alley and fun. It’s interesting to me that we started talking about bodies and then mostly it was about voices, and I think there’s more to be said about bodies, but I think voices feels like it points to something specific to transness.

A: So I guess the question is, to what extent do other parts of the body figure into my work? And the answer is not much, explicitly. I feel like the aesthetic exploration I’ve done of bodies as a whole has been in contexts that are not normally regarded as art, or public… which I’m not going to elaborate on right now.

S: I’m going to make the very bold move of not quite believing you that there aren’t bodies in your work, because I can think of a bunch of them.

A: OK, tell me more. Maybe there are patterns I’m not aware of.

S: I think of some of the jokes in “Viola Joke”…

A: Oh, of course, that’s a really good point, and even the way they’re moving around the stage. God, that piece—I was so not sure if that piece was going to work until it premiered.

S: I totally get that. I would have been terrified.

A: It could have just completely fallen on its face.

S: Well, because you also need reaaaaally the right performers for that not to fall on its face.

A: Yes, definitely, but even with the perfect performers, in rehearsal I was like, “Well, let’s see.” But then when it was premiered, the moment we got to the first bit of the laugh track, and the audience laughed so much they covered it up and didn’t even realize there was a laugh track yet, I knew something was working. So that’s a body, of course — laughter is a bodily reaction, and it’s an involuntary bodily reaction.

S: And laugh tracks are pretty freaking weird.

A: They’re disembodied, they’re a simulacrum of a body in the absence of a body, but in that piece performed for a live audience there are also the real bodies of the audience, who are also laughing, and when the laugh track gets transformed into inhuman things like birds and crickets and thunderstorms, the audience doesn’t, they just keep laughing.

S: Yeah, yeah! And I love the tension between those things—the tension between the real bodies and the disembodies.

A: Actually, the piece I’m revising right now has some pretty erotic stuff in it. It’s called Tactile. You haven’t heard it because I’m still giving it the revision it desperately needs, but it’s for Amanda Gookin’s Forward Music Project. And the text is just a list of physical experiences—oh my god, how did I say there were not bodies in my work? Thank you for opening this can of worms! They’re just descriptions of physical sensations. The first is “the luxuriant softness of his fur”—which is about my kitty—but there’s a variety of different ones: “the unexpected grit between your teeth, like fine grains of sand,” “the bony pressure of her forearm against your larynx,” “the blast furnace of LA during an early September heat wave,” “the sour white-noise tingle of Sichuan peppercorn lingering in your mouth,” “the ovals of dried wax on her back yielding to the pressure of your fingertips,” “the cool, smooth reticulation of a snake’s skin and the immense muscular potential beneath it,” “the pinprick sine waves passing through your muscles where the electrode meets your skin (they ripped a hole in your stocking),” “the stripe of pain down the left side of your chest that sent you to the emergency room at 3 AM (it turned out to be nothing),” and then the final one is “the focal point of your awareness tracking the slow progress of the knife-tip over your flesh, and then their hand slams into your sternum.”

S: Yeah, that rules!

A: Thank you!

S: That kicks ass. There is one more body that I want to ask about in your work, and this is a fairly recent piece, your piece Ah yes, the three genders, where the genders are metal, wood, and skin.

A: That was mostly just me being cheeky, to be honest. I was writing for Spectrum Ensemble, which is a queer-themed group, and at the time I was aware of one of them being nonbinary — it turns out both of them are nonbinary, Jaime Esposito and Stephen Hall. And so I wanted to write a queer-themed piece, and it just came to me: I was thinking about that meme format, which I love, of “ah yes, the three genders,” and I was like, oh, that could be three movements, and they could correspond to three different materials. There’s not really any deeper meaning that was intentional, I was kind of just having fun with words and, I don’t know, signalling group membership, which is usually the kind of thing I stay away from. I say that and yet I’ve had purple hair, so what am I talking about?

S: *laughs*

A: Not only that but my upcoming hair consultation is at a place called “Babydoll Salon,” so. Their website is pinup-themed... it’s adorable.

S: That definitely sounds like the forced fem hypnosis salon. *laughs*

A: Doesn’t it? Yeah, like, did I read this story on the internet in 1999? *laughs*

S: But with Ah yes, the three genders, I almost feel like there’s something here about the approach to substance—the approach to how you relate to material.

A: I don’t know if that’s actually how I relate to gender, though. I don’t think about my gender as being what I’m made of, exactly. I mean, that’s not how I would normally frame it.

S: And certainly I don’t think of my gender as what I’m made of. But what I’m made of kind of does have a lot to do with my gender, right? Because I keep making all these decisions about what I’m made of.

A: That’s true. Also, in mainstream cis culture there are all those rhymes about what little boys and little girls are made of.

S: Yeah… Sugar and spice and everything nice.

A: And then something and snails and puppydog tails. Snakes, maybe? Ridiculous to pick snails as an example of boyhood when they’re all literally hermaphrodites, but. Those are almost like if you were making a potion that was gender.

S: This is the plot of the Powerpuff Girls, right? The conceit of how they got their powers is that this lonely professor guy wanted to make himself daughters in a lab. He wanted to solo parent, and so he made a bunch of daughters in a lab with sugar and spice and everything nice as the ingredients.

A: That’s weirdly akin to the premise of Despicable Me.

S: *laughs* Well, what happens to the Powerpuff Girls—I never thought until now exactly now how fuckin’ weird this show is—is that when he’s doing this he accidentally spills his container of “chemical X.”

A: Oh, I see. Isn’t that the origin story of every cartoon from the 90s, though?

S: Well, that’s how they got their super powers.

A: Is that where Freakazoid came from? I don’t really remember. I feel like it is, though. Not the Warners, though. They were drawn by animators in the 20s. And then escaped and went boingy boingy boingy boingy. Anyway.

S: But with Ah yes, the three genders, what I’m noticing is that, in a certain way, the piece is actually “ah yes, the three sexes.”

A: *laughs* I see what you mean, because of the way it’s grounded in the raw physical materials. And then the first movement, on top of that, has three genders itself, which are haunted music box, cool jazz, and Very Fake Early Music™. The other movements not so much. There’s also mouth sounds in the last movement because it’s called “Skin,” and the whole premise of that is questionable because most drums aren’t made of skin. But mouths typically are, sort of. And the other thing is that those descriptions only apply to what one of the performers is playing, because the other is just playing vibes the whole time.

S: So, you’re saying the two genders are the three genders and pure vibes.

A: Yes!

S: That’s the gender binary.

A: I can’t believe I didn’t think of that. But I’m so glad you did. Or, alternatively, the two genders are cis people and the three genders. Or the three sexes.

S: *laughs*

A: I don’t want to put Stephen in the cis box just for playing vibraphone.



FISHMOUTH

S: Let me get your reactions to some things. The first one I spoiled early on—you know what you’re getting here—but I’m going to read it anyway for our wonderful readers: it’s from your own piece “Fishmouth” from Behind the Wallpaper:

All over the city, you’d noticed people spitting on the sidewalks. You’d always just thought of them as rude, but then you wondered: did they try to explain a disconcerting situation too soon and end up with the ocean in their mouths?

You could still taste the salt two weeks later. You could still feel the friction of the scales in your throat, and your teeth were slowly dissolving. All the dentists you saw shrugged their shoulders. They couldn’t figure out what was happening. And bit by bit you retreated from your daily life.

A: For some reason, the horror imagery of “something is wrong with me and nobody knows what it is” is a very, very compelling thing to me—in that it’s a thing that really scares me a lot. And of course it’s a thing that a lot of people I love have been through with rare diseases and so on, which makes it extra powerful. And to an extent I’ve had that feeling myself earlier in life, trying to figure out gender stuff. It’s also the subject of my nightmares. Frequently. I’ll find out that something is wrong with me that everyone else was aware of, usually with my memory or self perception or voice. Voices again… Maybe it’ll be that I can’t speak above a whisper, and I’ve always been doing that and never realized it. Maybe it’ll be that I can’t see other people around me and I’ll think that I’m alone when there are other people there. This was something that I explicitly incorporated into my piece Liebeslied, both in the final section and also in my reinterpretation of the lyrics of “I Only Have Eyes For You,” which was one of the inspirations for the piece: “You are here, so am I. Maybe millions of people go by. But they all disappear from view, ‘cause I only have eyes for you.”

So those are perceptual things wrong with me, in my nightmares. Other times it’ll be memory, or that I don’t know where I am, or that I’ve been wrong about a huge part of my life, or there’s some quiet, quiet sound at the edge of my hearing, and if I could just detect it, it would reveal something profound about how I’ve misinterpreted the world. And then, yeah, body horror. It happens in a lot of my dreams. I’ve had nightmares about people who’ve meddled in something they shouldn’t and they end up being this kind of just like floppy heap of flesh on the forest floor, or being ripped to pieces by some mechanical something-or-other.

The thing about spitting on the sidewalk is true, people do that all over the place and I always think, “Dude, what’s wrong with you?” It’s always dudes, pretty much. I took a history of medicine course in college and I learned that that one of the things that stopped the spread of tuberculosis in the 19th century was normalizing not spitting on the ground, so whenever I see people do it, I think “Aaah, you’re spreading diseases!” Especially now.

S: This is very interesting to me personally because—I don’t tell people this often, and I’m so happy to publish it. When I was a kid, as a lot of autistic children tend to do, I had various stims, right; I always had my stim that would be my stim for a while. Like, I would carry around a tennis ball, and I’d bounce a tennis ball everywhere. Or I’d carry around a deck of cards and I’d be shuffling it all the time. Or I’d carry around a Rubik’s cube to fidget with. But there was a phase I had for several months when I was probably 11 or 12 where my stim was spitting on the ground.

A: Really?

S: Yeah! And it started as a thing I did outside purely by imitation. I thought it was cool and edgy when people did that. I was like this 11 year old closet trans woman.

A: I wonder why it’s considered edgy. I wonder if it’s a habit left over from an era when people did chewing tobacco a lot.

S: That could be it. Well, then it really became a problem, because I started doing it indoors. Like whenever there was no one around and I thought I could get away with it, basically. Which is all to say that the carpet in my former bedroom at my parents’ house is disgusting to this day.

A: And nobody knows why except you?

S: No, they know why. I did get in trouble for this at a certain point. I got caught.

A: Mouths are just such a thing. They’re so overdetermined, meaningwise. If that’s the right word. When I was a kid, I made little clicking noises, I don’t know why, I just did it, maybe it was a tic. My parents took me to a neurologist, who was like “eh, beats me.” And of course mouths are sexualized in various ways. Sex, eating, speaking — that’s a lot of things to do with one part of you. And the image from “Fishmouth” has a certain eroticism, a certain overwhelming of the orifice. Because that’s a lot of stuff to come out of your mouth, right? There’s a “too-big-ness” that’s heavily eroticized in a lot of contexts, phallic contexts. Which I’m not sure I was thinking about consciously, but I think it’s in there. It’s also a blockage of speech, it’s a replacement of speech with something physical rather than sonic. You could interpret that in a few ways. Either it’s a kind of censoring, or the fishes are speech. Or they’re something more primal than speech, they’re like a cry of distress.

S: This is fascinating. I think maybe the word for it is Freudian slip. Right? It’s a symptom.

A: Yeah. Now we just need to figure out what “fish” is a pun for in German. Like a Glanz auf der Nase.

S: Like the return of the repressed, right?

A: I guess it is, yeah! Although “return” suggests you weren’t aware of it. In this case the protagonist is aware of the “it” but isn’t expecting it to manifest in this way. It’s also suggestive of a barrier between the internal and the external. Communication is translating the internal to the external, and that can go awry.

S: I wouldn’t say it’s the state of being like this that’s being repressed. What’s being repressed is the desire to have that be recognized.



SHE GETS INSIDE

S: I have more things for you to react to. Let me do the horny one. This is from the song “With Teeth” by Nine Inch Nails.

She comes along
She gets inside
She makes you better than anything you’ve tried
It’s in her kiss
The blackest sea
And it runs deeper than you dare to dream it could be
With teeth
With teeth
With teeth
With teeth

A: Hmm. I always thought it was funny how... as, you know, aggro as their music is, Trent Reznor is so sensitive. And one of the manifestations of that is multiple songs about kissing. Of course the line “with teeth” mitigates the sensitivity somewhat, but also not that much? The idea of being reshaped from the inside is intriguing, and very transable of course. And the idea of being in a relationship with somebody who reshapes you genderwise is of course an old fantasy trope.

S: It’s interesting, because you’re sort of reading this, then, as Trent Reznor as the trans person in the situation. And I mean certainly I don’t disagree about that about Trent Reznor. Actually, something I think people get wrong about Nine Inch Nails a lot is that they hear Nine Inch Nails as this edgy guy talking about really intense, gross sex and power, like songs like “Closer,” and they read it as, like, this is a toxic daddy dom man, which is absolutely the opposite of Trent Reznor’s gender.

A: I mean, just look at him in the video for “Closer.” He’s not putting himself in a dominant position there. He’s literally blindfolded with his hands chained to the ceiling.

S: So submissive.

A: For sure.

S: But what I do think is interesting about this is “she gets inside.” She gets inside—who are you sleeping with, Trent? What’s your type, Trent?

A: Oh, you’re reading it as an anal thing — or not something so specific? Because I was thinking that’s still referring to the same kiss.

S: Oh, right, right. So I guess I abstracted away from the kiss.

A: You may well be right. I think I need to hear the lyrics again.

She comes along
She gets inside
She makes you better than anything you’ve tried
It’s in her kiss
The blackest sea
And it runs deeper than you dare to dream it could be
With teeth
With teeth
With teeth
With teeth

A: Yeah. I imagine that as her kissing him and putting something in him via the kiss, which is altering him.

S: Right. I’m immediately abstracting from the kiss and being like oh he’s a chaser.

A: I mean, it could be. Which might just be me being more interested in kissing than other things.

S: I definitely skip a lot of steps. What’s the Janelle Monáe line, everything is sex except sex which is power?

A: Right. I was thinking about the opposite of that recently, which is “everything is power, except power, which is sex.” Which is like a demisexual kink envisioning of things.

S: I have to think about this inversion of the power and the sex. I think I might like mine better.

A: I’m not sure that I even agree with what I said. It’s just a thing that I was thinking about. And I’m always kind of skeptical of assuming that wordplay is necessarily deep, which is a problem I have with a lot of poststructuralist writers.


FEELING LONELY

S: I have one more lyric that I’m going to have you react to. I’ll give this some context. This is in fact from one of the classic cartoons of my childhood, which I think may have been at a time when you were not watching a lot of children’s television: Fairly Odd Parents.

A: I know that it exists, but that’s about it.

S: There are a couple of episodes featuring a boy-band-type teenage heartthrob parody, and his name is Chip Skylark. So I’m going to read you from the Chip Skylark song, “My Shiny Teeth and Me.”

When I’m feeling lonely
Sad as I can be
All by myself, an uncharted island
In an endless sea

What makes me happy
Fills me up with glee
Those bones in my jaw!
Don’t have a flaw
My shiny teeth and me

My shiny teeth that twinkle
Just like the stars in space
My shiny teeth that sparkle
Adding beauty to my face

My shiny teeth that glisten
Just like a Christmas tree
You know they’d walk a mile
Just to see me smile
My shiny teeth and me

A: That’s adorable. Obviously a big smile is a celebrity thing, in American culture anyway. I don’t know about elsewhere, maybe elsewhere. They say that people in the U.S. smile more than in other countries. I don’t know that I have that much more to say about it, but you might have an angle that would inspire me to. I mean, the fact that he’s talking about his teeth as if they’re not part of him is kind of interesting, I guess.

S: Yeah, it’s very weird, and actually in the visual bit, you see disembodied person-sized teeth dancing with him.

A: Oh! What that makes me think of is dentists’ offices whose logo is a tooth brushing its own teeth. And I want to know if the smaller teeth also have mouths. Or is the tooth that’s brushing its teeth itself from a mouth that also gets brushed by a larger hand? I mean, you could recurse it forever.

S: It’s the horror of boundarylessness and the ouroboros and cannibalism.

A: And the Hasselhoff infinite crotch zoom.

S: Maybe we’ll put a gif of that.

A: There’s also one with Xzibit, based on the “Yo Dawg” meme, with the swirl of his hair—it zooms in on it and there’s another copy of him in there.

S: Forgot about that one! An ancient classic.

A: It’s an ancient classic that specifically exists to call attention to meta-humor, so of course I love it. The other thing is the Ink Spots: (*sings*)

We three
We’re all alone
Living in a memory
My echo,
My shadow,
And me.

There’s a certain affinity there, right? Because it’s taking something that’s part of you and separating it out into this distinct entity. But there it’s specifically a metaphor for loneliness.

S: Yeah, that’s weirdly similar. Which then makes me wonder, because my impulse—and this is definitely a Freud and Lacanian impulse—is to, faced with that kind of disembodiment, look at it as a “there are two wolves inside you” kind of vibe. But I’m wondering, what are the two wolves inside of Chip Skylark so that he needs to abstract one to just teeth?

A: The thing about teeth is that they’re inside, but in the context of a boy band, it’s their visibility that matters. It’s about other people’s perception of your smile.


BAD GIRL MEAT

S: What you were saying really reminded me of the next thing for you to react to, the song “Teeth” by Lady Gaga.

A: This is revealing that my pop music knowledge is weirdly scattershot.

S: Don’t want no money
That shit’s ugly
Just want your sex
Take a bite of my bad girl meat
Show me your teeth
Got no direction
Just got my vamp
Take a bite of my bad girl meat
Show me your teeth.

A: I’m assuming her bad girl meat is that dress she wore that one time.

S: Right, of course.

A: That is such an unsexy way of putting that! Good god!

S: I think it’s sexy when she does it.

A: I mean, she is pretty hot! I don’t generally find her lyrics sexy, though. Again, it’s the artifice—wearing a hat made out of telephone pieces while displaying captions about poisoning people, that’s hot. And ridiculous 20-million inch heels.

S: I think it’s even maybe the dissonance between the artifice and the fact that also, despite all the hype, Lady Gaga puts her bras on one tit at a time like the rest of us.

A: I’m thinking about the line from “Bad Romance” too—“I want your Psycho, your Vertigo shtick.” Pointing to Hitchcock is artificial, but those are not sexy examples. One of those movies is about a guy who kills people because gender, and the other is about toxic masculinity. If you’re going to pick a Hitchcock movie to seduce somebody with, how about Notorious — the movie that got around Hays Code restrictions on how long a kiss you could show by having them break it off and start kissing again over and over? I love Vertigo, but it’s not sexy. It’s not handled in that way, it’s just Jimmy Stewart being a control freak. It feels like a confession from Hitchcock himself about how he liked to treat his lead actresses.

S: I actually was having a conversation with someone recently about “Bad Romance.” We were really stoned and they had the stoner galaxy brain thought to read “Bad Romance” as an AIDS metaphor, actually.

A: Oh. “I want your loving, I want your disease…” Oh, yeah.


TEETH AREN’T TEETH

S: OK, so one last song lyric for you. I think you’ll like this. This is a Rodgers and Hammerstein classic.

A: Oh no…

S:

When men say I’m cute and funny
And my teeth aren’t teeth but pearl
I just lap it up like honey
I enjoy being a girl

A: That’s nightmarish! Oh my god! I mean, of course “pearly whites” is a standard phrase, but “teeth aren’t teeth”? That’s—.... Or maybe that’s just having dentures. Wow, I did not remember that line was in there.

S: What I thought of with this, that I thought you might have some insights about, is that this seems to resonate with the stuff you do in Liebeslied.

A: Oh, you mean the taking of—yes. It’s a metaphor that’s horrifying if you take it literally. And from the same period, too.

S: I think it’s a racist one.

A: Yeah, god. What’s the race of the character who sings “I Enjoy Being a Girl”?

S: I think it’s a Chinese immigrant girl. Back in China, gender was so regressive and restrictive, but here I get to be all sexy.

A: My teeth aren’t teeth but pearls…. I’ve got a connection for you. I’m gonna find it.

S: Hit me, hit me.

A: It’s from—what is this, The Tempest?—yes.

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea nymphs hourly ring his knell.
Hark, now I hear the ding dong bell.

Incidentally, that “sea change” line was used by Laurie Anderson in “Blue Lagoon.” So, full circle. And a pearl is also a circle. And apparently Laurie Anderson’s early critics said her use of a circular lens represented femininity, to which she responded, “Well, I’d never heard of a square lens.”

S: *laughs*


INSIDE OUT

A: I can’t believe we didn’t talk about Insides from the point of view of bodies in my work. I mean, the audience is literally blindfolded.

S: We can talk about insides! I think cis people really hate thinking about insides and outsides. Like, I remember the very first time I listened to the late, great SOPHIE—of course, bodies everywhere in SOPHIE—on the first track of Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-insides, It’s Okay To Cry. There’s “I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but I think your inside is your best side.” And I think cis people always take it the wrong way.

A: When I was a kid I had these three books of weird stories [by Paul Jennings] with titles like Unbelievable! and Amazing!, or something like that. And one of them involved this guy who learned a magic spell to turn things inside out. He would go “inside out, kerpoffle!” and then make this gesture. And he turned, like, a hotdog inside out, and a person at some point gets turned inside out too, and that was horrifying to me. To this day, I’m a little bit unnerved whenever I hear the German word “Kartoffel” [meaning “potato”] because it sounds like the “inside out, kerpoffle!” That story was geared towards kids, but I also read a short sci-fi story from the 60s or 70s which was geared toward adults, called “Warp” [by Ralph Norton]—which is about somebody who gets flipped through the 5th dimension and gets turned inside out, and he’s just described as this monstrosity of organs and veins and shit like that. Insides are creepy.

S: In the Hypocrite editors Discord server, we’ve replaced all of our heart emoji use with anatomically accurate heart emoji use.

A: Nice. I have that on Discord as well, but I’ve developed too much of a vocabulary about what the different hearts mean. I’m not always consistent with it, but blue heart is for sympathy, sparkly heart is for romance, green heart is for “I appreciate how much you like plants,” black heart is “I appreciate your goth aesthetic,” and so on… [The ensuing anecdote has been redacted for Alex’s privacy.]

S: You could do a lot of psychoanalysis about that.

A: [redacted]

S: I would have done the same thing.

A: [redacted]

S: In French?? Whoaaa

A: [redacted]

S: [redacted]

A: [redacted]

S: Wittgenstein?????

A: [redacted]


TRANS ART

S: To get us gracefully out of here, I want to ask—we’ve pointed to a lot of very disparate things about trans art, especially music and bodies and weird things about them. And so I want to ask, what is your impression of the state of trans aesthetics in music? We’re do you think it’s going, where would you like to see it go?

A: I feel like it’s splintered into a lot of different directions currently. Which I like. I like that much better than there being a single unified Trans Thing.

Obviously the hyperpop / artifice / autotune / synth-voice thing is one of them. And there’s a whole stream of, like, literal confessional stuff, which is good too. It’s such a big question. I teach a trans music seminar, and there are sessions about each of the two things I just named. I also have one about transness and EDM, where I talk about Wangled Teb and then, going back to the late 80s, early 90s, Jordana LeSesne—do you know her? It turns out the first US drum and bass album ever was by a Black trans woman, and nobody talks about it! She recorded under the name “1.8.7” at the time, and it’s great stuff. Her new stuff’s good too. So I talk about that. There’s a whole realm of music with black metal influences that I haven’t fully explored yet — Sage Pbbbt for example—and I’m currently following a lot of trans women on Twitter who are doing black metal and dungeon synth and related genres.

S: Oh, like Liturgy.

A: And Feminazgûl, and then, like, whichever of the million names Mave/Abigail Netzach is recording under, and Jenn Taiga

S: Do you know Fire-Toolz?

A: Yeah, that’s great stuff, and that hits right in the intersection of Vaporwave and black metal.

S: Intersection, but you didn’t know there was a Venn diagram to be drawn.

A: Exactly, I love that. And that’s genre-queer. Vaporwave is not so much a Thing anymore, but it has all these offshoots, synthwave and futurefunk and all that stuff, which I am very fond of, and which seem pretty closely tied to hyperpop. There are also trans musicians whose music isn’t necessarily “aesthetically trans” — I’m thinking of somebody like Mari Valverde. There’s the noise thing, of course, which has almost become kind of a cliché: Natalie Braginsky, but also Goth Girl and HARM POLYCULE—I think HARM POLYCULE is a trans person; with a name like that it must be. The vocal artifice thing really does run through, too. I think about when I did my contribution to that Songs to Wash Your Hands To compilation. I worked with a vocalist, but Isaac Schankler’s piece used Hatsune Miku. Which connects with the whole “tranime” thing.

S: There’s an Ashnikko song that has Hatsune Miku. She makes like really horny NB lesbian femme top music for Tik Tok teens.

A: Her visual aesthetic reminds me a little bit of Ginny Di, whose pinup calendar I have right here. It’s all her as different D&D classes. Nerdiest fuckin’ thing. She’s not trans, though, it’s just cute.

S: I don’t know if Ashnikko has publicly IDd as trans, but Ashnikko has released a song that goes,

Fuck a princess, I’m a king
Bow down and kiss on my ring
Being a bitch is my kink
What the fuck else did you think?

A: There’s also the trans high-femme horror thing. Like Jazmin Bean—have you seen this shit? It’s so disturbing. Their aesthetic is, like, kawaii clown corpse, and the video for their song “Saccharine” is a very, very high-artifice, extremely bloody dentistry-kink scene with a lot of latex and a lot of torture. It is fucked up. It’s fascinating. Their EP is called “World Wide Torture.”

S: *watching* wow.

A: It’s really confrontational in a way that not much is—in any art medium, I feel like.

S: What I actually think is unique to this generation of trans artists is, like, being kind of uncomfortably too into it. Cause when I think back a few years to something like G.L.O.S.S, there’s a violent sentiment but it’s always an appropriate amount of violence? Whereas with these there’s like this obsession, this performative too-into-it-ness that makes it really uncomfortable, makes it toxic and violent and dark. Like, I’m crazy, but don’t let that fool you—I’m actually crazy.

A: I wonder how much of it is that there’s only become space in the culture recently for trans people to feel safe being messy. When there were so many fewer of us out, everybody much more felt like they had be a representative. And one of the things that’s helped start to change that, I think, was actually [Imogen Binnie’s book] Nevada, although that’s not nearly as messy as some of the stuff that we’re talking about now. But also there’s been a shift toward cis women being able to be portrayed more messily too, particularly in TV. I look at Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, I look at Fleabag, Russian Doll, even—there’s a lot of disaster characters. The concept of the disaster bisexual, too, is kind of in right now, and I wonder if that’s opened up more space for trans disasterness as an aesthetic.

S: On the one hand, it opened up more space for it, but on the other hand, as I think probably most trans people will tell you, that’s actually been there the whole time and is much closer to what we are actually like than the other thing.

A: Yeah, I’m talking about for, like, putting it out there into the world where cis people can see it. I mean, that’s also an issue with ContraPoints—like, “NO, NOT IN FRONT OF THE CIS” is sometimes my reaction to her stuff, and I think that’s what a lot of people object to about some of her videos. It’s very much like something I said about The Boys in the Band: it’s taking the community—in that case the late 60s gay male community—taking that comunity’s dirty laundry and putting it in a museum for curious passers-by to mull over. I said it better in my Letterboxd review.

S: Yeah, and I think of Andrea Long Chu.

A: I knew you were going to say that. I really don’t think she should have published that thing in the NYT. I think that was a bad idea.

S: That’s the thing! I was like, I understand that you feel that way, but—

A: And she extended it to making claims about what all trans women who get bottom surgery experience, and it’s just—her claims are false.

S: Yeah, like, one, that’s just you, honey. Two, keep it between you and your therapist. Three, definitely don’t put it in the New York fucking Times.

A: I was fine with “On Liking Women.” There was controversial stuff in there, but the only people who are going to read an article in n+1 magazine are people who are already going to be reading that kind of article. That’s very different from putting it in a place where the mom of a six-year-old who just came out as trans is gonna read it and say, “Oh my god, transitioning is going to ruin my kid’s life.”

S: I think maybe something I’ve noticed in trans aesthetics of late, especially with the rise of the alt right and such, and honestly before even that, is just how piss poor pop culture was in the 2000s in so many ways, especially in comedy.

A: I think the 2000s were way better for Top 40 pop music than the late 90s!

S: Comedy was really bad. Golden eras of South Park, Family Guy sort of shit—this sort of edgy humor—and what I think we’re seeing now is almost like and actually the Dorian Electra thing this is the trans reclamation of that and it’s a trans reclamation of that where it calls the bluff of conservative edge. Because the conservative defense of edge is that it’s “just humor”—it’s not about the rules of society. It’s about being transgressive and breaking the rules.

A: I don’t believe that for a fucking minute! All you have to do is say one (1) bad thing about cops and all the sudden they’re retreating back into their inner Tipper Gore.

S: Yeah, and when that happens it turns out actually edge is great because it’s perverse.

A: So maybe the problem with the 2000s wasn’t the edginess, but that the people making all the “edgy” stuff were the people who were the least affected by anything.

S: Right, and it was in fact not edgy.

A: Right, because it was reinforcing the status quo, some of it. Some of it was just gross, which wasn’t really my thing either. Jazmin Bean’s version of gross is interesting to me. A Family Guy scene where everybody throws up for two minutes is not interesting to me. On the other hand, if Cronenberg did it ... I don’t know, maybe not though. Of course Cronenberg is not a marginalized person either, in any way that I’m aware of. But I do love his work.

S: Okay, that actually feels like a very satisfying conclusion. Do you have anything that you want to promote on the way out the door?

A: I do have performances coming up. Such as a piece for Chatter with Katie Doyle, tentatively entitled “Everything is named after something lost.” That’s gonna be performed at SITE Santa Fe on August 14, and at Las Puertas in Albuquerque on August 15.

S: I’ve taken notes on all sorts of things that I’m going to check out.

A: Yes, me too. I’ll see you on the other parts of the internets!

A&S: Bye!

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