UK Gender Bender

Though Andover offers a superior education to its students, the school often forms an insulating bubble around the community. We are frequently a few steps behind the cultural cutting edge, and only regain our footing in pop-culture when we return to our urban origins, plunging back into the avant-garde. During Winter Break, my friend Stephen, a stereotypical Southern California hipster, encouraged me to check out a band named Antony and the Johnsons, which he assured me was “deck as eff,” hipster lingo for very good. Taking his advice to heart, I downloaded, legally, I might add, their new album, I Am a Bird Now, released in 2005. I was submerged into the most bizarre, unsettling, and thoroughly satisfying musical underworld I have ever had the pleasure of entering. Singer Antony Hegarty, a British transvestite and the undisputed star of the band, carries the sound with a thoroughly rich and moving voice. His talents shine on “My Lady Story”, which bears the lyrics “My lady story / Is one of annihilation / My lady story / Is one of breast amputation.” Though I have no ambition to grow into a child-bearing female, “For Today I Am A Boy,” another gem of the album, hopefully laments, “One day I’ll grow up, I’ll be a beautiful woman / One day I’ll grow up, I’ll be a beautiful girl…One day I’ll grow up, I’ll know a womb within me / One day I’ll grow up / I’ll feel it full and pure / But for today I am a child, for today I am a boy”. The album’s masterpiece is undoubtedly its closer, “Bird Gehrl,” which emerges from a gothic bleakness to offer redemption, with Antony elaborating that “I’m gonna be born / Into soon the sky / ‘Cause I’m a bird girl / And the bird girls go to heaven / I’m a bird girl / And the bird girls can fly”. The primary influence for the group is the synth-pop of the mid-1980s, especially the music of Marc Almond and Boy George, who makes a cameo appearance on “You Are My Sister.” Boy George adds to the song’s focus on gender-ambiguous brotherly love. Despite, or perhaps because of the lyrics’ controversy, the songs are thoroughly beautiful, articulate, and sophisticated. The lyrics deal with transgender operations, S&M, death, drug abuse, and despair in a manner which recalls a more self-conscious Lou Reed, who is a big fan of the band. In addition to the group’s collaboration with Boy George, appearances include Rufus Wainwright on “What Can I Do?” and Devendra Banhart on “Spiralling”. The Johnsons ethereal, ambient, often jazzy musicianship, reminiscent of the cabarets of early twentieth century, suits Antony’s voice perfectly. In the end, Antony’s voice proves the band’s driving force. Some may find themselves turned off by the slightly contentious lyrics, as well as Antony’s gender-ambiguous getup, but those able to access the elegant beauty which lies within the music of Antony and the Johnsons will find themselves thoroughly content and possibly inspired.