Pazz & Jop: Fighting a Sense of Stuckness

Janelle Monáe, Car Seat Headrest, Boygenius, and the year in queer music


Early on Twin Fantasy, the most recent album from the Seattle rock band Car Seat Headrest, singer Will Toledo recalls the time he came out to his friends. He then immediately contradicts himself: “I never came out to my friends.” Later in the same song, the thirteen-minute “Beach Life-in-Death,” he continues: “It’s been a year since we first met/I don’t know if we’re boyfriends yet.” He sings the lines nonchalantly, like he doesn’t know how upset he’s supposed to be over the ambiguity of his romantic attachment, like he’s afraid of giving too much away.

The song is the second track on the second version of Twin Fantasy Toledo has released as Car Seat Headrest. The first came out seven years beforehand, a sketchy home recording thick with tape hiss. Toledo recut the whole thing, keeping each song’s structure intact but polishing up the production values. Paying such a visit to old material seems like an almost unbearable kindness to a former self. Instead of burying his teenage squalls, Toledo re-enacts them. The two versions of Twin Fantasy came out with the same cover art and the same track list, lending the effect of time folding in on itself, an illusion that suits the record’s recurring themes of queer anguish and adolescent frustration. Then there’s one of the several refrains running through “Beach Life-in-Death”: “We said we hated humans/We wanted to be humans.” The wanting suggests a passage into the future, toward an unclaimed goal; the hating cuts off that trajectory. Toledo moves forward and gets stuck, moves forward and gets stuck, over and over.

If Twin Fantasy articulates the stifling conundrum of being nineteen, miserable, and queer, it also speaks to a larger sense of stuckness among LGBTQ Americans as a whole. Toledo’s refurbished blast from the past joined a host of records last year that promised hope while granting space to the sinking feeling around this country’s uncertain future. In 2018, the United States moved both backward and forward on its muddied track to queer liberation. The Trump administration made motions to effectively outlaw trans people by fixing the sex on one’s birth certificate as an irrefutable legal fact. At the same time, a handful of states began issuing driver’s licenses with an “X” printed in the sex field, as opposed to M or F. Gavin Grimm, the trans high school student who had been fighting for the right to use the boy’s bathroom since he was fifteen, saw a district court rule in his favor, a development that will likely make life easier for trans kids in years to come. We saw progress, and we saw its opposite; we saw a way forward, and we saw it barred by malicious actors.

In music, we heard queer artists dare to shoot for the moon with their boots stuck in the mud. Sophie, the experimental electronic producer known for snappy singles built on rubbery sounds synthesized from scratch, released her debut full-length LP, Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides (tied for 33 on the Pazz & Jop albums list). It boasted some of her tightest and most aggressive work to date, while hinting at an extended narrative through the murk and uncertainty of transition — from one’s assigned gender to one’s true gender, from hesitation to action, from silence to scream. The record moves from a chain of singles — “It’s Okay to Cry,” “Ponyboy,” “Faceshopping” — into an impressionistic reverie. It feels as if we have been submerged, and then, with the utopian climax of the album’s closing tracks, like we’ve come up for air. Choruses of voices demand a “whole new world,” declare themselves “immaterial girls” and “immaterial boys,” a nod to Madonna that cries out against the gender-determinist fantasy of materiality-as-destiny, marrying transgender experience to transhumanist ethos.

Janelle Monáe, with Dirty Computer (number two album), similarly adopts the language and imagery of science fiction to trace a vision of queer survival. She sets the musical film in a bleak future where androids must maintain untarnished fealty to their corporate creators. Any androids that abandon their servile post to, say, form a queer biker gang in the outskirts of town are recaptured, their memories wiped. Monáe plays one of these “dirty computers,” and each song’s music video is a memory, or a dream, that the corporation must delete. Its standout clip, for the single “Pynk,” includes a dance routine performed by women wearing bright-pink “pussy pants,” and served as a kind of preemptive coming-out party for Monáe, who told Rolling Stone she identifies as pansexual two weeks after the video’s release. In the album’s larger narrative, Monáe’s character is restored to factory conditions, having forgotten her girlfriend and the group of outlaws she calls friends. Only she hasn’t; somehow, Monáe and her girlfriend evade the digital lobotomy, and together with a fellow rebel, they escape the processing compound. A colorful, elastic album accompanied by playful visions of queer utopia within dystopia, Dirty Computer posits the idea that even under the most dire of circumstances, queers can find each other and make our own paradise.

Other queer and gender-nonconforming artists last year worked toward a similar vision: Elysia Crampton, the trans Aymara producer whose self-titled record unstitches colonial conceptions of time; Yves Tumor, who paired crystalline pop melodies with tumultuous noise on the stunning and thorny Safe in the Hands of Love (number 49 album); Christine and the Queens, whose drag persona Chris (tied for number 19 album) playfully dipped into gleaming masculine bravado; King Princess, whose breakthrough single “1950” (number 66 single) epitomized the uncertain territory of the lesbian crush with a wobbly electronic bassline and the ragged contours of an electric guitar. Troye Sivan, who appears on six singles that earned votes in Pazz & Jop, delivered an ode to bottoming called “Bloom” that came with a stylish video of the young gay singer adorned in lipstick and florals. Robyn, one of the gay club’s patron saints, returned with Honey (number 5 album), a simmering collection whose title track teetered on the edge of unfulfilled need and painful desire. A darkness chased all this music, and the music acknowledged the darkness, then found a way to glint all the same.

The debut EP from Boygenius (number 26 album), the indie-rock power trio of Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus, and Phoebe Bridgers, encapsulated the uneasy truce that marked life in 2018. As solo artists, all three women make powerful music about deep loneliness, about navigating a world that feels like it was not made for you. As Boygenius, they sing lyrics that despair similarly to those of their solo work. “I wanna be emaciated,” goes a striking line on “Me and My Dog.” “I wanna hear one song without thinking of you/I wish I was on a spaceship/Just me and my dog and an impossible view.” They sing of an alienation so powerful it threatens to launch them into space, and yet there are three voices singing these words. A full band rings out around them. The members of Boygenius are not alone. Their lonelinesses braid together, and while they still bear that name — loneliness — their shape has suddenly changed. They are not desolate, not a cell without light, but something else.

At one point during Car Seat Headrest’s “Beach Life-in-Death,” which sounds like half a dozen songs stitched together with steel wire, bleeding at the seams, Will Toledo’s voice breaks like a fever. “It’s not enough to love the unreal,” he shrieks, “I am inseparable from the impossible.” He welds together negatives like he’s trying to disappear beneath them, like he’s trying to assert, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, that he is not here, that he’s not singing this song, that the song does not and cannot exist. He sings and despairs and tantrums, and the more he vocalizes the feeling of his own absence, the more his presence is felt. “We wanted to be humans,” he sings, his voice multitracked as though there are many of him. Like Sophie, Boygenius, and Monáe, he sings in his own chorus; he is not alone.