Androgynous is a term most commonly used to describe articles of clothing, hairstyles, names or an overall outward appearance. The use of this adjective indicates that the subject possesses both male and female characteristics. It’s comfortably understood in the aforementioned terms, but what does it mean when applied to art? To music?
There have been a slew of musicians labeled as ‘androgynous’ and we, as a culture, have become more open in discussing the gender binary. The prominence of these things stretches the meaning of androgyny to include all elements of being — thought, voice, life-choices, etc. While it is easy to assume that obvious androgyny is a product of modern times, it is important to remember that today’s artists who confront the confines of gender would not be able to do so without the bold musicians who came before them.
One of the earlier, and more surprising, instances of gender bending in music came from Black women in the early blues. Singers like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith used their music to present what the life of a woman was really like, and not what the public expected it to be. In “Prove It On Me,” Ma Rainey sings “I went out last night with a crowd of my friends / It must’ve been women, cause I don’t like no men / Wear my clothes just like a fan / Talk to the gals like any old man.” With the song having been released in 1928, it is needless to say that Rainey’s outing of herself as homosexual or bisexual was huge. Ma Rainey’s public ownership of sexuality through her lyrics forged a trail for future musicians to follow and express their individual identities.
Some of these future musicians ended up in the American punk scene. Artists like Patti Smith and the New York Dolls twisted gendered expectations in their music as well as in their appearance. Both Smith and the Dolls can be categorized under one gender or another, but not necessarily under the category that is inline with their sex.
The Dolls are known for their outrageous dress — wearing platform boots, makeup, tight clothing and styled hair. Their androgyny came at a time in rock ‘n’ roll right after The Rolling Stone’s “Exile on Mainstreet” was released and when singer-songwriters topped the charts. Mick Jagger’s famous strut is androgynous in its swishing movements, but it pales in comparison to the Dolls. In presenting themselves so fantastically, the Dolls completely shattered the expectation of how heterosexual men must behave and look. They drew in masses of women with their rock-star personas despite presenting themselves in an entirely feminine manner. The contrast between the Dolls’ heavy proto-punk sound and their flirty-femme exterior reflect a reality that lies within much of the population; one that is not at one extreme of gender or another, but somewhere in between.
Around the same time, David Bowie was introducing Ziggy Stardust to the world. Bowie showed the world that they could be male, female, extraterrestrial or anywhere in between. In being entirely, unabashedly himself, Bowie was able to gain superstardom. His larger-than-life personas gave a point of connection for fans struggling to define themselves, without really defining himself either. Bowie was constantly evolving, changing his outward projection to reflect his inner state.
Artists who are daring enough to express their fluidity of being give their fans the out to live vicariously through their actions. Not all of us can be confident enough to dress like a Starman or strut like Jagger on a daily basis, but we can listen to musicians who are. Mass media often promotes the extremes of gender — male, female, misogynist, feminist — but ignores the spectrum. Taking in androgynous art promotes thought directed at oneself as well as towards our culture as a whole. It can shed light on things that the public doesn’t know is inside of them; it validated their inner conflicts.