By Monika MHz, PQ Monthly
In honor of Against Me!’s incredible new album “Transgender Dysphoria Blues,” today we take a look back on some of the most influential trans musicians in music who helped pave the way for Laura Jayne Grace’s dope stylings, and why being trans in music isn’t anything new. In fact, some of the most influential musicians of all time have been trans. Sit back and put on your spectacles, babe, because what follows is five trans musicians who changed the world of music, forevs.
5. Billy Tipton
It’s amazing Billy could focus on playing piano with at least 4 other stuff on his mind.
The Pacific Northwest’s own certified badass Billy Tipton lived his life as a jazz playing, saxaphone wailing, cigar smoking dude with an incredible history of music behind his belt. Word is that there were at least 4 women out there with drivers licenses marking them as “Mrs. Tipton.” But what is most incredible about Tipton’s story isn’t that he was trans, but that he toured and even maintained a residence in the south for so many years. I can tell you that there are few things I’d want to be less than a trans person in the south in the 1940’s before ultimately retiring later in life finding himself in Spokane impersonating Elvis in vaudeville acts. But let’s be real, try singing Elvis songs, dancing, or playing a wind instrument while binding your chest and see if you don’t think Tipton was some sort of trans wizard send down to spy on the population.
His mark might seem so soft here, but his legacy is no slouch. His long term effect on saxaphone in jazz is large. Many jazz students to this day are taught his original works; I know I was, and his style left its mark long after arthritis forced him to retire.
4. Frankie ‘Halfpint’ Jaxon
Jaxon had a trading card. No, I’m serious. This is a picture from his trading card.
Jaxon’s warm contralto/alto voice lent itself to some incredible pieces of jazz history, from dangerously rebellious celebratory jams like “Chocolate to the Bone (I’m So Glad I’m Brownskin)” to important advice in songs like “wet it” or “fan it” or “riff it.” Listen to some of his songs, and I dare you not to imagine a beautiful woman behind that voice. Jaxon, nowadays, is known as the “cross-dressing” jazz musician, but I think it’s interesting to view his use of “female impersonation,” singing in a sultry voice in a feminine articulation, and his shows that were described as “outrageous” juxtaposed alongside modern drag performers.
It was performers like Jaxon that contributed not only hugely to their own genre and the many that came after them, but who formed the culture around which we would build the modern drag performance. From singing both a man’s and woman’s part in songs, to singing as a woman seducing her male doctor Jaxon’s best songs were withheld from being released because of their strong queer themes and racy lyrics. He confronted not only sex, but gender and race on stage in his energetic and charged stage shows in a way that has resonated throughout modern drag and gendered performance.
3. Pete Burns
Pete Burns was Lady Gaga long before she bit his style.
Burns’ trademark style has been the subject of controversy and gossip. He even reportedly dropped out of High School at 14 because the headmaster called him to the office for said style.
Dead or Alive’s biggest hit “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)” based it’s melody from cross-dressing composer Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” But of course, Pete’s biggest contribution to music wasn’t with his hit songs, but instead his rocketing of androgyny further than androgynous pop heroes David Bowie and Iggy Pop could have ever imagined. Dee Snyder and Twisted Sister ain’t got nothin’ on Burns, his style was so incredible that Boy George (allegedly) bit it. Pop music today owes its outrageous visual style to Burns, and you can bet your favorite lip gloss that Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and other modern pop divas would look very different today without the influence of Burns’ out-there style.
He may not identify as transsexual, but trans-ness is embodied somewhere in his experience. And it’s telling that his stint on Big Brother raised money for Mermaids, a UK based charity dedicated to helping trans kids. His stay at the CBB4 house taught us how to stand up and not take an ounce people calling you “he/she,” “it,” or various other hate. And no one else can rock a pirate hat quite like him.
2. Genesis Breyer P-Orridge
Genesis P-Orridge owns her weird.
Brainchild behind Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV, founder of Industrial Records, and art house hero. The world-class pandrogynous P-Orridge is one of the most influential figures in modern noise, industrial, rock, and electronic music. S/he confronted gentrification, riots, racism, genocide, and more through their avant garde mixed media performances throughout the years in Throbbing Gristle in a way that reverberated across music genres. Even Joy Division’s Ian Curtis famously called P-Orridge just before he died to sing h/er a Throbbing Gristle song.
Then Psychic TV s/he left the foundations for Brit Pop, and is the person who brought detroit house back to the UK, transforming it into acid house resulting in the acid house rave phenomenon of the 90’s. When Pete Christopherson and John Balance left the band to form Coil h/er music project went on static until the 00’s. The static music lead h/er to “pandrogynous” with h/er other half Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge marking h/er trans-ness as a sort of political art project.
“Human beings must evolve as a species. And if we’re going to be binary then we’re doomed. It’s symbolizing the absolute need to stop attacking what’s different, and stop being bigoted, and hatred. And to finally to create a new form of human being that does not say the human body is sacred. But says anything that’s possible that makes us change is good. There’s no reason that we can’t redesign ourselves.”
Factory records, trance, progressive, breaks, mushroom jazz, drum and bass, techno, and so much more all owe much of their modern incarnations to h/er influence.
1. Wendy Carlos
Photo by Robert Moog. Yes That Robert Moog. Don’t let your brain explode on your way to freaking out at how much amazing is captured in this moment.
Wendy Carlos is probably most famous for her film scores of “Clockwork Orange” and “Tron.” But what many modern music fans may not know is that she is sort of the mother of modern electronic music. Her album “Switched-on-Bach” was recorded piece by piece on a custom built 8-track recorder (revolutionary at the time) in 1969 from the first Moog Synthesizer, was the first classical album ever to go platinum, won three Grammys and remains one of the most influential albums of all time. It sparked a revolution in not only synthesizers in music, but also brand new types and kinds of synths. A music and piano prodigy, she began composing at just 10 years old in 1949. It’s no wonder her work is so daunting to approach. When Daft Punk got lucky enough to score the gig to score “Tron: Legacy” they cited Carlos as an impossible act to follow, and have continuously cited her as an electronic pioneer.
If you give a damn about where the roots all modern pop music, dance music, house music, electronic music, modern classical, and film scores come from it’s worth noting that they came from a trans woman who’s better at music than any of us will ever be at anything. She is probably one of the single most influential modern musicians, trans shit aside. Take a few minutes to listen to her work, you’ll be better for it.
Monika MHz is a queer trans Latina who makes her way as a Portland-based House music producer, DJ, activist, and writer. Practicing radical love through music, she believes in the transformative nature of music and its real substantive and cultural power to save lives. You can find Monika online at monikamhz.com and @MonikaMHz.