By Mizy Clifton.
My self-curated Spotify playlists include one entitled “AMAB with feminine features”. The acronym AMAB stands for “assigned male at birth”. The playlist contains a rather eclectic array of songs and is thus somewhat genre-defying – a little bit like my own relationship to gender. As such, it reveals something about the complexities of my own trans-masculine self-identity.
I’m not, in fact, trans-feminine, as one could reasonably expect. That being said, it is worth reminding that describing a trans-feminine person as “AMAB” is, at best, poor trans etiquette, and at worst, a transphobic dogwhistle. I’m trans-masculine, so my use of this term is largely ironic, even flippant. It captures something about the kind of maleness with which I most identified at the time I made the playlist: maleness intersticed with femaleness to the point that you can’t be too sure of what the doctor’s order (“it’s a boy!” or “it’s a girl!”) originally was – and that troubles your very hazarding of a guess in the first place.
Music is, of course, very personal. But when put together in their eclecticism, each song signifies something about the complexity of my gender identity. “Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy,” for instance, is surely a song about the fantasy of bourgeois chivalry (‘Dining at the Ritz we’ll meet at nine precisely/I will pay the bill you taste the wine’), parodic to the point of camp. In this way, Freddie Mercury gave me a nugget of wisdom about how to do heterosexual masculinity well: make it gay. These days, I joke I’m less a man trapped in a woman’s body – as the well-rehearsed trope goes – and more a gay man happily trapped in a straight(ish) relationship.
Somewhat further afield, “Jessie’s Girl” is, contrastingly, a song about straight male lust – though frankly, I fancy Jessie much more than I fancy “his” girl. I understand it as a song about male fragility which, with our contemporary vocabularies, could be said to border on incel-dom (‘And I’m looking in the mirror all the time/Wonderin’ what she don’t see in me/I’ve been funny, I’ve been cool with lines’). If I can attempt to redeem myself for liking it, I also believe it to be about the crippling tendency to compare oneself to others, to see oneself through the eyes of an imagined other – and always finding oneself lacking. Trans-masculinity can feel like this. Sometimes, I convince myself that I’m somehow a vanguard of feminist masculinity – a self-defeating conviction, since it reflects precisely the hetero-masculine posturing for supremacy that feminism has rightfully sought to challenge, except the competition now concerns which of us treat women better. More often, though, I feel small, like I will never measure up, and like no one sees me in quite the way that I wish I could be seen. It’s risky to admit, but this song provides an outlet for those “bad trans feelings” – some of which overlap with “bad men’s feelings” – that cannot necessarily be willed away by better politics or better therapy. By “bad trans feelings”, I mean feelings that endure, sometimes in spite of transition, and cannot necessarily be reduced to structural transphobia at large.
Perhaps I’m a bit like the somewhat hapless bloke addressed by Paris Hilton in “Stars Are Blind”. Ostensibly, this is a song about a woman who is trying quite desperately to convince a man to be with her, because she thinks he will treat her better than all those other boys who just ‘wanna take [her] for a ride’. But I’m left wondering if she, too, is a little blind, and if that guy might like to be left alone. Maybe he’s not (always) all that, and maybe that’s OK. I do know, though, that if you put this song on at a party, I’ll ditch my characteristic gruffness and let out my inner, though admittedly not very repressed, twink.
I do fear dissecting my favourite music will somewhat ruin its charm. But I do think that it is an open question – by which I mean, anyone who enjoys any kind of music will have something interesting to say about it, even if they are understandably somewhat reticent about the thought of academics coming to prod at their preferences – why we are pulled to the music we so enjoy. You can try your best to pull me off the aux, though.