Hilarie Ashton

(Un)Doing Gender: Laura Jane Grace and the Sonic Transfeminine

Gender is, as Judith Butler teaches, performance and flux, not unlike music. In this presentation, I'm returning to the sonic feminine, a frame I brought to the conference two years ago. I deployed it to think about the performative and powerfully transgressive work of Ronnie Spector and the other Ronettes, pushing back against the strictures of the white male-dominated Wall of Sound by rehearsing in the bathroom and creating an explosively sexy look. This time, I want to expand the theory entirely past the myth that is the gender binary. While trans women artists are certainly included in the sonic feminine, what could the sonic transfeminine look like, and how could it challenge gendered as well as genre myths?

Laura Jane Grace, the lead singer of punk band Against Me! whose fame has probably increased since she came out as trans in 2012, is my central example of a singer who consciously and frequently points to the constructedness of gender in her sonic persona, interviews, and in other aspects of her public personality. In refusing to limit herself to what a woman or a man "should" do, and instead cascading who she is across the options available to her, she opens new possibilities for artists who use their life in their work, writing her transness into her songs and writing a lacerating memoir (and titling it using an anti-trans slur that she hates in order to push on the corrosive power of the word). In all of this, she pushes back both against the restrictive and mythic role of "womanhood" and the similarly imagined and material restrictions of the punk genre.

Hilarie Ashton is an English Ph.D candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center. Her dissertation positions (mostly Black) girl groups, like the Ronettes, the Shangri-Las, and the Chiffons, as creatively and sonically radical. Ashton teaches widely, and her academic work has appeared in Style, the South Atlantic Review, Anamesa, and the Journal of Popular Culture. She has published her essays and media criticism in a range of venues, from NPR to Ms. to The Believer.