4 min

Swan song of a queer decade

Now that echoes of “Auld Lang Syne” have ceased reverberating, I’d like to look back at my favourite queer moments in sound from the past decade.

I had read about Peaches but hadn’t actually heard her music until I was stuck in a traffic jam while driving to a friend’s cottage. A mixed CD was playing when the fuzzy treble-heavy bars of “Fuck the Pain Away” erupted from the car speakers. This was my introduction to the world of Merrill Nisker, aka Peaches. If there was a harbinger of what the post-Y2K world would sound like, it was the 2000 release of The Teaches of Peaches. Whirring bouts of static, sexually arousing bass notes and lyrical content so wonderfully filthy, this album turned heads and dropped pants. Peaches followed this with themes of genderfuck, imagery of female masculinity, the politico-sexual impeachment of bush, instructions on how to rock the shocker, capping off 2009 with I Feel Cream. As Xtra columnist Emily Lam noted, Peaches is indeed a diamond in the muff.

In July 2002, I visited a friend in Toronto, and he suggested we see Pansy Division play The 360 Club. Once inside the venue, I could see down the hallway to backstage. In that corridor was a towering man with cropped platinum-blond hair, a white tank top and a flowing white dress. He was twisting and turning, watching his garments swirl around him like lilies. This was Kelly Clipperton, frontman for opening act Merkury Burn. Once on stage, Clipperton sweated effortless showmanship, his baritone pipes rocking the hall, while stripping down to PVC tighty whities. It was formative and inspiring, as a young queer musician, to learn I could be queer and rock out too. Clipperton went on to create Kelly and the Kellygirls, a larger musical formation with a horn section and swing flavour. The Kellygirls have since released three full-length records and continue to give show-stopping performances.

I admit wholeheartedly that I’m a sucker for morose songs or, as my friends like to say, “sad bastard music.” However, The Hidden Cameras do not belong in that category. Joy! Merriment! Bums! Fronted by Joel Gibb and hailing mainly from Toronto, The Hidden Cameras brought their infectious chamber pop to concert halls, as well as parks, porn theatres, churches and art galleries across North America and Europe. Though a lot of indie rock shied away from sexuality, with titles like “I Want Another Enema” and “Golden Streams,” it was clear Gibb wasn’t taking that route. If I had to pick a favourite album, it would be Mississauga Goddam. From danceable tracks like “In The Union of Wine” and “Doot Doot Plot,” to sweeping ballads like “Builds the Bone” and “Mississauga Goddam,” it’s a fail-proof record. Plus, I’m pretty sure this CD was playing when I lost my virginity.

Formed in Montreal, Lesbians on Ecstasy found a happy medium between practice and play while maintaining a boisterous party politic. At the core of LOE was a quest to take classics from the proverbial lesbian songbook and turn them into dance anthems. Yet, LOE’s pieces are not so much covers as they are electronic mutations of the originals. Furthermore, though loops or samples are often the building blocks of electronic music, LOE have stuck by their mandate of performing their music live, keys and drum pads pulsing kinetic frequencies to rooms packed with dancing revellers. LOE are the rare ilk of musicians who continuously outdo themselves with each show they play. With two albums under their belts and a collection of remixes from groups such as Le Tigre and Kids on TV, Lezzies on X have made an indelible mark on the world of queer music.

Though Antony and the Johnsons released their self-titled debut in 1998, it was their subsequent 2005 I Am a Bird Now, an album dealing with various forms of transformation, which marked the Johnsons as one of the most important bands of the decade. Antony Hegarty, who identifies as transgender, manages to disrupt categories of sex, gender and race, all with the quiver of his rich voice. Hegarty, who is often compared to Nina Simone, sings with a stunning honesty that is quite rare. The Johnsons’ third album, The Crying Light, is a lush masterpiece, with subtle orchestration swelling and ebbing around Hegarty’s serenade. Here, Hegarty is a “curling fox in the snow,” lamenting the death of the natural world, crying for daylight amongst the everglades. To be honest, I don’t listen to this record very often. It’s just too delicate and beautiful for casual consumption. Every note carries meaning.

I have seen Diamanda Galás perform a few times, but having her visit town for Pop Montreal after more than a decade of devouring her music was a momentous occasion. As the lights of the sold-out theatre dimmed, the diva of the dispossessed sat down in front of a gargantuan piano. From the moment she opened her mouth, the night was a spectacular mix of homicidal love songs and requiems for repudiated lovers. Traditional torch songs morphed into incendiary cries. Her rendition of Chet Baker’s “You Don’t Know What Love Is” brought the jazz standard into a stark terrain where the pain of ending stalks endlessly. The heaving sigh of Edith Piaf’s “Heaven Have Mercy” was staggering, a plea to an invisible deity. Galás’s voice was ubiquitous, a spectre moving from strident wails downward across octaves into the bass of a ravenous nightmare growl. I could feel my heart trying to keep up with the knell of her piano. Such a strange feeling, a bewildering sense of euphoria, all the while facing one’s mortality. When the virtuoso closed her set with not one, not two, but three encores, including the execution countdown of Johnny Cash’s “25 Minutes to Go,” it was clear that the ineffable Galás enjoyed playing Montreal and that Montreal couldn’t get enough screams of love.