Kate Pierson, long a member of the seminal new-wave group The B-52s, is releasing a new album called “Guitars and Microphones” in early 2015 — and the first single was released this month. The song — a catchy tune with a great beat and memorable hook — is what one might expect from an artist known for hits dating back to late 1970s.
While I am a longtime audiophile with hundreds of vinyl records and compact disks to my name — not to mention MP3s and other digital releases — this column is not a music review. While it is as solid a track as one might expect for a musician with Pierson’s pedigree, it’s the lyrics this time that raise an eyebrow.
The song in question is named “Mister Sister,” a title that should already raise some red flags for many who are transgender. Pierson herself has high hopes for the track, telling the Huffington Post, “I hope it becomes a trans anthem, but it’s really meant to empower anyone who feels ‘betrayed by the mirror.’”
Much like reducing transgender people to someone “betrayed by the mirror,” the lyrics read like a virtual smorgasbord of transgender clichés and tropes. For example, lines about, “They make you play with toy soldiers,” or “You raid her closet for fishnets.” The whole song reads as a simple story of someone who escapes the tribulations of life to blossom into “Debbie Delicious” and end up on “everyone’s party list.”
Then there’s the chorus: “You hear the words, ‘you make a beautiful girl, a beautiful girl.’ Nothing hurts when you’re a beautiful girl, a beautiful girl.” It’s hard to take this in any way seriously, given that a whole lot of things can hurt for transwomen — “beautiful” or otherwise — and to make such a light message of this all feels hollow at best.
Now I’m not expecting something deep out of a pop song, and there’s decades of vapid, clichéd tunes out there. Honestly, it would be silly to expect great depth on such a song. I do, however, expect that when someone claims their tune is a “trans anthem,” that it is not quite so problematic.
For one, this “trans anthem” seems blind to anything but male-to-female identities. You’ll find no equally clichéd lyrics about young transmen getting stuck with Barbie dolls or trying on their dads’ ties. There’s nothing beyond a fairly simple notion of transforming into that “beautiful girl.”
At the same time, I can hardly say that the tune treats male-to-female gender identities in a very affirming fashion — and that starts from the very title of the song. “Mister Sister” sounds like “She-Male” or “He-She,” both of which are considered offensive by many in the transgender community. Likewise, lines about digging in closets for fishnets make this sound like artifice, not identity — a disguise one is putting on to end up on those party lists.
I cannot talk about the song, too, without discussing the video. It largely features Pierson singing against a white background, as well as comedian Fred Armisen and a number of others such as Alyson Palmer. Armisen, known for his roles on “Portlandia” and “Saturday Night Live,” spends much of the video admiring various items of traditional feminine attire, including some large drop earrings and a slinky, too-small red dress. The others mime into mirrors, spread makeup on their faces or simply dance about.
As another transgender activist notes, the inclusion of Palmer is also problematic, given her response to transgender activists who called for a boycott of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival in 2013. I doubt Palmer’s inclusion was a deliberate slap in the face at these transwomen and others, however — more that she is probably a friend of Pierson, and wanted to lend her support and have some fun in front of the camera.
This has been a year where great divisions have crept up between the transgender movement and drag culture. The battle over “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and its use of “she-male” on the show — and RuPaul’s vehement defense of it, as well as the word “tranny” — still stings for many. Both sides of this particular kerfuffle are not yet willing to give the other much ground.
This song may do a lot to reignite this debate, intentional or not. In short, a “trans anthem” that treats transgender people as those who only want to be called a “beautiful girl” and be on party lists is no anthem at all.
This is the problem with the whole track in a nutshell. I feel as if everyone was, in their own way, well-meaning. I suspect that Pierson wrote a catchy anthem and used what she felt she knew about trans people to fill in the lyrics. I really do feel she did this with good intentions, but lacked even the foresight to think that maybe some of her choices were bad ideas.
I’m not going to say that Pierson should have left making a “trans anthem” to, oh, actual transgender people. You don’t have to be transgender to understand where we’re coming from. Yet you cannot pen an anthem without at least understanding those you are supposedly writing it for.
The song itself, musically, isn’t bad. At best, she may have made a great song for the drag community, replacing some very scratchy old recordings of “We Are Family” in the process. Heck, lyrically the song could work well in drag circles.
It is not, however, in any way, a trans anthem.
Gwen Smith thinks Laura Jane Grace could be an anthem writer. You can find Gwen on twitter at @gwenners.