On this Music Monday: one of my very favourite songs is “Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go!)” by Scottish-American outfit Garbage. It’s positive, it’s energetic, it’s infectious. Its politics also make me deeply uncomfortable. I looked up its history a few years back when I got to playing it fifteen times in a row, but, before I get to that, here it is:
Lyrics here. Description: the band is in a large room, surrounded by electronic equipment. Mostly they are seen through screens or mirrors, but when they are shot directly, the bodies are invisible and only their moving clothing indicates their presence. Shirley Manson, the lead singer, in invisible mode, takes her dress off and dances about. It ends with the invisible lead singer in a bathroom, only her boots and gloves visible, standing and urinating into a toilet.
Okay, keep that in mind for a moment – the song, that is, I’m not going to talk about the visuals in that video; you can draw your own conclusions. Shirley Manson wrote the lyrics in 2001, based on books she had just read by JT LeRoy, while they were becoming friends. What neither Manson nor the world knew until 2005 was that JT LeRoy was a fictional persona belonging to one Laura Albert, and portrayed in public by her then-partner’s half-sister, Savannah Knoop. LeRoy’s books and other communications, which spoke about experiences of being a teenage sex worker, homeless, and, later on, trans, had been understood by the general public as autobiographical fiction. LeRoy’s and Albert’s reputation(s) sunk, stonelike. I was pretty appalled by hearing of some person wanting to appropriate those experiences and wax authoratively, gaining a huge following where people who actually had those experiences had no audience. I hear now that part of this writing was based on Albert’s actual experiences of childhood and figuring out gender, and LeRoy was her way of processing that, but I’m not sure what to believe anymore. It’s been called a great literary hoax, which is something I sniff at; here there’s none of, say, the charm or integrity of James Tiptree, Jr., in exploring gender and self. (See this previous post on gendered literary hoaxes.)
Anyway, to the song. It has some dynamics I’m uncomfortable with, and I’m not sure whether they’re a result of Manson not really understanding what transness is all about, or whether she’s respectfully reproducing how Albert represented LeRoy and LeRoy’s characters. (Just a note in case of confusion: I think the first verse is talking about Sarah, the mother of the LeRoy figure in LeRoy’s first novel, also called Sarah.)
With your cherry lips and golden curls,
You could make grown men gasp when you’d go walking past them
In your hotpants and high-heels,
They could not believe that such a body was for real
This image bothers me a lot. Here’s a crossdressing boy, or a trans girl, depending on the interpretation of LeRoy Albert wanted people to have at whichever point in time, having to perform a very particular mode of femininity for an adult cis male audience. Okay, that’s the deal when you’re an exploited underage sex worker. What gets to me is that there’s this huge joy coming through the music and lyrics both in being able to embody this appearance, only to have it invalidated by the last line, the implication of which is that this body is not real at all. It’s about the flashing blue eyes, being ‘a delicate boy’ who ‘looked just like a girl’ but could never be one, really. In short, it’s about having any kind of feminine or female identity being taken away by the speaker who thinks they see right through the performance that makes up this supposedly false body. And it’s about that performance, that dressing up, that dressing down, being viewed by a fascinated cis audience.
And yet. There’s so much joy and encouragement towards the subject realising who that subject is.
You hold a candle in your heart
You shine a light on hidden parts
You make the whole world wanna dance
You’ve bought yourself a second chance
Go baby, go go, we’re right behind you,
Go baby, go go, yeah we’re looking at you,
Go baby, go go, oh we’re right behind you,
Go baby, go baby, yeah we’re right behind you
It’s a friend wishing another friend well in coming to some kind of self-understanding and comfort in the midst of a really rough life. It’s a great push towards happiness and hope for the future.
This song sweeps the gamut for me, from oppression to deep compassion in the lyrics, from disgust to uncertainty in the background. I think that’s why I keep coming back to it: it’s three minutes of life compressed.