April 21st, 2020
Words by Annie Howard· Art by Femimutancia
As strange as this month has been, it’s been disarming to consider how much harder it would have been pre-transition
In winter 2015, I lived briefly in Washington D.C., taking a political reporting class. While the days were lively, there often wasn’t much to do at night, and so, to escape the drudgery of being persistently surrounded by the low hum of careerism which suffused my days, I found myself at plenty of shows during those few months.
One show which stands out in my mind was Mitski and Hundred Waters. Though I wasn’t particularly invested in either band before the show, I left the venue distraught. While it seems that tolerating a degree of amateur cellphone photography is a prerequisite for any band today, I’ve rarely seen an audience so disinterested in the music in front of them. Despite a dazzling light show, Hundred Waters lead singer Nicole Miglis had to ask the audience multiple times to quiet down, their banal chatter drowning out what should have been a captivating set.
I remember storming out of the venue, frustrated about the experience to a degree I’d never felt about a concert before. As I trudged through the early-March snow, I pulled out my phone, starting a mini-rant in my notes that rather ineloquently summed up my emotions: “You, filming the entire concert on your iPhone? You’re a dick. Stop it. Stop it now.”
The rest of the missive is no more thought-out, bemoaning my young age and lack of access to a pre-cellphone era, convinced that “concerts used to draw in every person in the venue, completely at one with the music. If nothing else, the audience didn’t have a tool sitting in their pockets that let them show off to the world how exciting their lives are 24/7.” Reading it now, I’m reminded of the palpable anger I felt, the conviction that other people’s cluelessness was the reason why I was unable to enjoy the concert.
For years, I held onto this ragged dogmatism. As overblown as my emotions were, there were still moments that seemed to prove my point: the concert-goer at an Animal Collective show who, during their performance of “Bees,” snapped a quick video and then could not decide how many e’s to affix to the caption, a dilemma which occupied the rest of the song. Still, despite my protestations, I couldn’t shake the sense of alienation I felt at shows; in retrospect, it’s clear that cell phones were merely my scapegoat, occasionally responsible for an obstructed view, but hardly the root cause of my misery.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this era of my life recently, particularly in relation to the large number of live-streamed performances popping up. In theory, some seem enticing: I’ve been intrigued in particular by Arca’s effort to start a Discord and Twitch, through which she’s been making music (and playing Animal Crossing) a lot recently. But I still have yet to sit down for a single virtual show. As I tried to figure out why that was, I couldn’t help but think of the bodily alienation I’d experienced before, and the ways in which my past emotions informed my current uncertainty.
Only in the last year or so have I really begun to understand my previous distain towards the distraction of concert filming, brought into clarity after I began transitioning in November 2018, which coincided with my 24th birthday. Although I’d gained some level of control over my body and my ability to fulfil its basic needs before then, it’s only been in transition that I’ve become resonant within my own emotions, a shrinking distance between what I’m thinking and how my body feels it.
I still have yet to find a better description of this phenomenon than Julia Serrano’s Whipping Girl, where she writes: “In retrospect, when testosterone was the predominant sex hormone in my body, it was as though a thick curtain were draped over my emotions. It deadened their intensity, made all of my feelings pale and vague as if they were ghosts that would haunt me.”
This vagueness touched every aspect of my life, but I noticed it most acutely during concerts: my desire to lose myself in blissful abandon, stubbornly foreclosed by my body’s refusal to feel the pinpricks of hair-raising communion with the sounds that enveloped it. Before I understood the possibility that it could somehow be different, I took the distractedness of concert videography as my enemy. Already embodied at a distance from my surroundings, I couldn’t tolerate another layer of mediation between myself and the musicians on stage.
That’s not to say that there weren’t moments in which I broke through the barrier between body and sound. But it’s telling that the most memorable experiences were when I’d found my bodily sense most dissolved, undone in the acid wash of a chemical fix. I think particularly of Pitchfork Music Fest 2015, the potency of a half tab bringing myself out of my skin enough to simply be with Brian Wilson and Sufjan Stevens, for a passing moment unconcerned with the body’s inability to engage.
Snap back to a few weeks ago. Thursday, March 12: perhaps my last normal day, already suffused with the coming shift into the unending present suspension. That night, I saw of Montreal for the sixth time, though the first post-transition. Of all the bands which have comprised my self-discovery, of Montreal is paramount, the first to touch a sense of gender dissonance deep within me. Now, sharing a room with Kevin Barnes and company, I felt myself wholly embodied. Running my fingers through my hair and down my body, I felt giddy in the joyful embrace of music at once disarmingly familiar and newly textured. I lost all sense of the gloom which would soon take root, pure presence overriding ambient anxiety.
In the days and weeks since, I’ve watched beloved concert venues like the Hideout close their doors one by one, shuttering what was poised to be a busy month of concert-going. (Pre-covid, I had no fewer than ten shows lined up for April--a bit more than usual, but hardly anomalous.) Already, many of the acts I love most have already hosted or will soon host live digital performances, making a stage of wherever they’ve currently found refuge. Yet for every livestream announcement, I’ve felt a diminishing sense of enthusiasm, even for acts I might not have been able to see otherwise. While this reaction surprised me originally, the gradual connection I’ve made to my previous struggles with concert embodiment have crystallized my uneasiness, helped me make peace with the sensation of interruption hanging over this moment.
For as strange as this month has been, it’s been disarming to consider how much harder it would have been pre-transition. Though the temporary loss of shows, one of my main social and emotional outlets, has been tough, my ability to move through each day with physical presence has only been heightened as of late. In registering the absence of shows in my body, I feel a longing for their return in a way that I probably wouldn’t have before, an acceptance that I can make do without for the moment, content enough to absorb music through long bike rides and endless neighborhood walks.
In a sense, I’m reminded of an essay by Simon Reynolds on the youthful rhythms of waiting on weekly British music magazines, the lack of instant gratification making the eventual reconnection that much sweeter. “Waiting heightens the intensity, the weight of an event when it finally occurs,” Reynolds wrote in “Worth Their Wait.” Quoting Delta 5, he captures just what I’m feeling right now – the languid release of forward motion, a recognition of suspension, future pleasures as yet unexperienced: “anticipation is so much better.”
Annie Howard is a writer, urbanist, and historian based in Chicago. Should the world come to an end, catch them biking to the gay beach with a book in hand. You can follow their work on Twitter @t_annie_howard.
Femimutancia is a nonbinary illustrator of stories of mutants.