Glitter Up The Dark: How Pop Music Broke The Binary by Sasha Geffen

I am always searching for a new lens into music history and music storytelling and I found it with Geffen’s Glitter Up The Dark. The University of Texas Press American Music Series, edited by Jessica Hopper, is a growing library for underground and previously unexplored concepts, stories and scenes.

What caught me were the two first opening lines, the first from the introduction: “The gender binary can never be broken because the gender binary has never been whole”; and the first chapter, ‘Screaming The Beatles: The First Boy Band Breaks The Gender Mold’: “The first sound to hit is the scream.”

They say that the first line of a book is what gets you and they are correct. These got me. Succinct, powerful, direct, purposeful music writing, Geffen is a seasoned music journalist. If you follow the indie music bylines, you recognize theirs. Geffen’s writing for Pitchfork, Steregoum, and elsewhere is not to be missed.

Of all The Beatles history books, tales, accounts, biographies, memoirs of wives, features, etc. etc., The Beatles cottage industry… I’ve never read about The Beatles through a queer lens; probably those who have historically written those histories are straight, cis, white men. (Geffen is trans. This book could not have been written by a cis author.) Glitter Up The Dark opens with the familiar (The Beatles) in music history and turns it. Yes, they are the first boy band, but Geffen dives in to their haircuts (!!) and the fans. I never thought of it like this: “Epstein primed teenage girls to see The Beatles the way a gay man might see them.” The chapter discusses the gaze of the fans and how it helped create the “fangirl” (an increasingly infantilizing and reductive blanket word; although I am guilty of using it to describe myself…there is no other word that does what that word does), how these young women saw themselves in The Beatles and established identities through fandom. This opening chapter is like tasting water for the first time. Geffen had me at the scream.

Geffen walks us throughout music history chronologically, revisiting familiar stories and pulling apart every boundary with both hands: Bowie, Queen Latifah, the Sex Pistols, Eurythmics, Cher, Janet Jackson, Klaus Nomi, Laura Jane Grace, Grace Jones, Missy Elliott, Kathleen Hannah, Frank Ocean, and the late gender- and sonic-barrier-breaking recording artist Sophie, among many, many others. (Glitter Up The Dark was released in 2020. Sophie passed in 2021.) If you are versed in the history of any music genre, be it your favorite or niche or lifeblood, some of these stories and timelines will be repetitive. The chapter on Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain is a bit tired; exploring their gender-defying music, ethos, individual identities and that of their relationship as a very public cis, male-female couple, …it’s been done. (Although I do say that as someone who has read in-depth about both artists and their records.) But it belongs in this book; readers unfamiliar with these 30+ year old narratives will fill in their own gaps. This narrative (and that of popular music’s) is incomplete without them.

DJs, cyborgs, and the future of music–Janelle Monáe!!–all show up and in detail. This book is a fascinating reworking is what is assumed in popular music. Geffen gets in to the lesser known; as an outsider to the sound and scene of Klaus Nomi, and as an outsider to the gay and queer communities, Nomi was a completely new discovery for me. This is what I came for.

For me the best part was learning about the lesbian folk music of the 1970s. I read every music and music history book hoping to find something completely new and Geffen got me here. They tap into the trans exclusionary radical feminism (TERF) backlash that scene unfortunately spawned, within Michfest (the Michigan Women’s Music Festival), and elsewhere in that small, sonic insular community; and the later popularity brought by Tori Amos, k.d. lang, and Tracy Chapman who pulled female folk music into the charts. The mainstream narrative has been slowly changing to include voices and visibility for gay and queer artists across genres. Glitter Up The Dark is a landmark book for popular music’s history and I recommend it for all music fans.

My biggest complaint is small but remains: the chapter on feminist punk and riot grrrl does not mention the landmark English band The Raincoats (and not even when discussing Cobain and Kathleen Hannah’s friendship. Cobain infamously including The Raincoats’ s/t LP on his publicized list of favorite records thus putting their name and sound into the majority of peoples’ mouths for the first time also goes ignored; he is an unsung, landmark feminist although Geffen cements that narrative into history here throughout). We hear a small blip mention of Sleater-Kinney (although what they did to Janet Weiss is unforgivable including hiring a male drummer to replace her; having interacted with Carrie Brownstein in passing as a service employee…eyeroll) and The Slits. Before I finished the chapter, I flipped to the index to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating but found nothing. Where are The Raincoats? Listen to The Raincoats. Jenn Pelly’s 33 1/3 volume on their self-titled debut from 1979 is not to be missed. (Here is an excerpt-ish from it.)

Glitter Up The Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary is absolutely fabulous and I cannot wait to buy it for my closest, unsuspecting music geek fans. Get it, Geffen.

[Review originally posted on my GoodReads, July 2022.]