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TRAP: transgender subjectivity in digital music production

TRAP: transgender subjectivity in digital music production

 

"TRAP"

 

What to make of this shift from the human to the posthuman, which both evokes terror and excites pleasure? - N. Kathleen Hayles, How We Became Posthuman (1999)

 

 

TRAP is an experimental music installation that probes how transgender subjectivity can be (re)shaped and (re)formed within postdigital contexts. Previously, in my work, I conceived of TRAP as T*RAP: a reclamation of trans humanity through the transing of rap practices in Iceland, as Mykki Blanco has done in the U.S., based on my interest in music performance and hip hop. When I did so, I was the first performer to discuss transgender perspectives in Icelandic, often using multiple languages to cross lingual and geographical borders, as much as to intentionally misspeak, to be misheard, so as to create new ways of engaging in art practice and political justice. Now, though such was not my initial aim, TRAP performs a trapping of its listener, ensnaring trap genre aficionados mislead by the seemingly erroneous title. To trap through vocal manipulation is much like the killer Ghostface’s common strategy of teasing and entrapment through phone calls in the Scream trilogy (1996-2000), often employing this deception on the basis of gender trapping. It does, and doesn’t, “trap” like the 4chan-generated TRAP imaginary of trans women or futunari as traps, deceivers or make-believers, depicted as dicked and full-breasted, as Talia Mae Bettcher has stressed. In particular, building on this particular transfeminist history, it instead builds upon the correlation between a perceptual cis logic of ascribing responsibility and blame to trans women for their disembodied identities, without recourse to the institutions that have historically sustained the medicopsychiatric cultural fantasy of sexual difference that contains their oppression. Similar to Janet Mock in her recent memoir, TRAP seeks to digitally redefine realness.

 

TRAP is not solely trans-centered; instead, it affirms criticisms of binary sex/gender systems as articulated in intersex and gender nonconforming dialogues. It sees sexism as the same, though differently manifested, source of concern for women and femmes. Unlike most trans-oriented critical production, I chose to pursue this project through digital music, in part because so much emphasis is placed on our skin: ‘born in the wrong body,´ switching skins like Ted Tally’s Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs. Rather, I wish to focus on the gendered framing of vocal exposure in a sonic culture of misogyny that deems higher pitches and voice types feminine and oft therefore more superficial. Sadly, like in so much trans representation, we are routinely muted, distorted, paraphrased, sidelined, cast away; part of TRAP's aesthetic is emulating these tropes in our everyday treatment while displacing them. In the case of Venus Xtravaganza in Paris is Burning (1991), her voice is heard while her dead body is only given cursory mention: such is not the project of TRAP, although it seeks to manipulate distortion as an aesthetic tool. While not seeking to replicate this violence or abet what Laverne Cox considers the “cultural trauma” of being transgender, it seeks to play on the cisheteropatriarchal figurations of the TRAP, just as Frankenstein’s monster retaliated against his creator. Duplicitous, monstrous, abject, unknowable--we seek a new transfeminist mystique devoid of any particular complacency towards an assimilationist politics of pathos, not bound by the confines of what Jos Truitt terms the “tragic trans narrative.”

 

TRAP samples multiple trans and gender nonconforming voices, with violence and distortion being the primary focus in this work: to be trans is to be subject to increased structural violence daily, corporeal violence statistically. Most of the samples feature trans women/femmes of color, those most precarious of gender nonconformers, overlaid and dispersed with other forms of women-voiced critique. While the current demo track is sparse in its sampling, the purpose of this first segment of TRAP is to begin to think through trans digitality in music media. I chose to pursue this project because of my interest in the capacity for digital music production to radically unsettle the psychoacoustics of gender, and because very little music production is trans-produced (vogue ball music from the likes of Kevin JZ Prodigy and B. Ames being pertinent exceptions), let alone critically transfeminist work (like that of Mykki Blanco and Cakes da Killa and other prominent nu-queer hop artists). Musical contemporaries like PC Music, SOPHIE and Holly Herndon strengthened my desire to work with the digital voice, as much of their work shows how the digital absolves oneself not only of one’s body, but also of one’s voice. Like N. Kathleen Hayles, I'm invested in analyzing how "information lost its body", or, in this particular work, how gender lost its body (but not its voice?) in digital technologies.

 

LAYOUT OF TRAP

TRAP begins with an excerpt from the trans/queer of color documentary, Paris is Burning (1990), featuring Dorian Corey (a drag queen of color). In this segment, she says, "When they're undetectable and they can walk out of that ballroom, into the sunlight, and onto the subway, and get home, and still have all their clothes and no blood running off their bodies- those are the femme realness queens.” The “femme realness queens” of which she speaks are those who pass, who are undetectable. Dorian Corey’s voice is distorted and rendered more masculine because Dorian breathes this sentence with mild contempt for the “young queens” who can embody “femme realness.” I chose this clip to foreground TRAP because it elicits a discussion of passing and trans-affirming culture, where the concept of “realness” comes to define trans livability--to not pass it to be subject to violence. Thereafter, I sample “Friday Night,” the 2nd single by GFOTY (Girlfriend of the Year) for the PC Music record label, originally released in 2011. The artist, GFOTY, uses pitch-changes in her vocals to render what would otherwise be a hard body #YOLO club culture anthem into a darkly sinister critique of said culture. This sample runs through the first portion of the track, and was chosen because of the manner in which PC Music’s female artists are creating postdigital art that uses the digital to elevate an otherwise disempowered femininity/gender when it comes to pitch in voice. Akin to europop of a “chipmunk” pitched variety, I chose this work because despite the façade of female submission in GFOTY’s work, the narrative voice of “Friday Night” succeeds in criticizing both sexist culture around music and a typology that ascribes weakness to high-range voice types. I chose this sample because many trans women are overtly sexualized and pornified, often being the primary medium in which straight men consume our identities (and often smother them). It plays over two trans women’s narratives, that of Venus Xtravaganza and Laverne Cox.

“Friday Night” overlays another sample from Paris is Burning, which features Venus Xtravaganza (a Latina trans woman). Venus is an exemplary “femme realness queen.” Venus embodies the notion of a TRAP as a body who is in-between sexes, eliciting mixed responses from others: “Some people say that we’re sick, that we’re crazy, and some of them think that we’re the most gorgeous special things on Earth.” She opines about how white women are afforded comfort before saying, “I don’t think that there’s anything mannish about me...except maybe what I have down there [giggles].” Pitch shifts and pastaggio are employed particularly in this sample to recontour Venus’s vocal exposure, aligning or diverging from her identification with a certain gender ideal. For example, “I guess I want my sex change to make myself complete” is repeated with different pitches to not only convey her self-perceived femininity but also adds a sense of elegy on the final repeated sampling to memorialize the fact that she did not receive a sex change, for she was too quickly lost, strangled and stuffed under a hotel bedroom in NYC. Meanwhile, when she envies and disidentifies with rich white women who “don’t have to really struggle,” the pitch is lowered to buttress her own sense of alienation. It further utilizes a somewhat common move in TRAP to produce indistinct pitches, so as to confuse the listener of the specific pitch and assumed gender of the voice.

 

 

After Venus’s monologue stops, a segment of a keynote speech given by Laverne Cox for Creating Change ‘14 plays. Initially, I completely distorted Cox’s voice, to wonderful effect: however, with time, I found it unsuitable because it sounded like it whitewashed her voice and this file was lost. In this segment, she discusses her struggles as a trans woman, trapped in a world that would rather have #GirlsLikeUs. Afterwards, her line “When a trans woman is called a man is an act of violence” interposes GFOTY’s “Friday Night” and a track by a PC Music affiliate, Hannah Diamond’s “Every Night.” Playfully toying with her status as audiovisual avatar, the track continuously speaks to someone who sexualizes her “look,” without avowing any particular requital: he likes the look of her avatar, and it looks like she (supposedly) likes the listener too. There are keen parallels to her playful femininity as a performance of passing with that of the trans voices. Immediately, Faye Dunaway’s line as the monstrous mother Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest, from a scene that demonstrates Crawford’s visible defiance of a male-dominated corporate culture. Later hypothesized to have struggled with mental health concerns amidst her alcoholism, like trans women she is depicted as monstrously deviant; I employ this sample to bespeak the courageous defiance of similar trans women. Thereafter, the introduction to The Powerpuff Girls (1998-2005) plays, where a narrator describes how the show’s Professor Utonium made the three supergirls: sugar, spice, and everything nice (with the accidental addition of Chemical X). As this clip is foregrounded by trans concerns during “Friday Night”, a parallel can be seen between Chemical X and hormones like estrogens and antiandrogens. At the utterance of “Chemical X”, the pitch is lowered as well, evoking a sinister aftershock that supersedes the sampling in the cute-and-cuddly introductory part. Finally, the lyrics of “Every Night” begin. Turns of phrase like “And I know that you think, you like what you see, I want you too” take on new meaning in light of TRAP’s project. At last, “It’s a trap!” from Return of the Jedi (1983) repeats four times, setting the stage for a 2nd component to the TRAP project in the future.

 

DEVELOPMENT & CONCLUSION

Above, I discussed the specific rationale for TRAP and a number of specific instances of its development. I developed the track through Garageband as a primary digital audio workstation and music sequencer. I utilized Ableton for some aspects of vocal manipulation. Unfortunately, a large portion of the original circa 250 MB file was lost, so my use of microphone and self-made vocals was lost. Much of the work involved choosing samples, acquiring the files, reworking them for quality (if possible), and then laying out these samples on GB. Thereafter, most of the work involved manipulation of the samples. I was immediately invested in the project, and found GB incredibly easy to use. With time, I felt comfortable with pitch-manipulation and technical layering aspects. While I do not feel that TRAP in its current form will be the eventual final cut, I am glad with the results after the loss of my initial work. With further time, I intend to crispen the editing of the samples like in the first edit, and to extend TRAP to a greater length. Initially, I spent hours manipulating single lines from artists like Shania Twain, Britney Spears, Rihanna and Donna Summer to trans femme pop culture, but had to forgo these inclusions due to the loss of files and time constraints. I'd also like to build more on Venus's narrative voice, as well as include Octavia St. Laurent. Instead, I had to focus more heavily on a few samples. I’d like to add more trans voices as samples, and I’d like to redo Laverne Cox’s sections as in the first cut to distort her voice without whitewashing it. I also would, as I had done before, used my own voice as an instrumental addition to the production value. Overall, I am excited with the work I’ve begun to do in rethinking gender through the digital, and will continue to toy with the manifold concept of TRAP.

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