May 12, 2018. I’m back in Brooklyn. More specifically, I’m back at Brooklyn Hangar in Sunset Park for another show during Red Bull Music Academy’s annual May residency in NYC. When I was living in Brooklyn from the fall of 2011 through the summer of 2014, we (my housemate, her partner, and I) used to go to Sunset Park to eat tacos. Three stops on the R away from our house, Sunset Park was an entirely different world that we could easily slip in (and out) of from the proximity of South Slope. This night, as I get off the train a little before 8pm, the darkness covers over a lot of the gentrification that my friends tell me is now spreading down here, along the tracks of the R, from our old neighborhood. As I walk by the storefronts on 4th Avenue, red, blue, and green lights shine out of the windows as music with lyrics in Spanish blare out from above the taquerias and bodegas that have been closed for the night. Five blocks away, I will be dancing along… to the sounds of Fever Ray. If only we could somehow stay in this moment of co-existence that always precedes the eventual white takeover of a neighborhood, I think to myself—a process that, even in my queerness and wokeness, I am never not a part of.
Where do you go if you’re queer in the city? This has been the question for me during the past two years in Austin, as I’ve struggled to find any sense of community after two different friend groups dispersed two summers ago; it has just as much been the question in the dozen cities I’ve visited and wandered about (and sat in bars by myself at) during that time. My answer on this night is to return to Brooklyn, where I’ve been hanging (or living) since beginning to come into queerness in 2006—and to music, my lifelong refuge from loneliness. More specifically, I’m headed for Brooklyn Hangar, a space I first visited when FKA twigs did her Congregata shows there back in May 2015. Brooklyn Hangar is a huge warehouse space on 52nd Street near 1st Avenue that has been putting on shows since 2015. In its sheer size and concrete walls, the venue reminds me of other warehouse spaces I’ve gone to many a show in (Electric Factory in Philly, Terminal 5 in Manhattan)—only warmer and more intimate and with considerably better sound. Standing in line with a hoard of white men, I am momentarily worried that this show won’t be the space for queer women, trans people, and nonbinary folks that I’m expecting (needing) it to be. But when I get to the front of the crowd, I learn I have nothing to worry about.
Following an amazing DJ set by Nidia and a short and sweet one by Bunny Michael, Fever Ray take the stage. After percussionists Liliana Zavala and Diva Cruz and synth player Mikaela Hansson take their positions, co-vocalists Helena Gutarra and Maryam Nikandish walk to the front—followed by Karin Dreijer. As described by the press release for the show, this is going to be a six-woman affair. Four songs in, the group transition to a trio of songs with explicitly queer content— “Mustn’t Hurry” (“Baby’s pushing boundaries”), “This Country” (“Perverts define my fuck history”), and “Falling” (“You make me dirty again”). Although there have been plenty of hints about Dreijer’s queerness since The Knife’s 2003 song “You Take My Breath Away” (“I don’t like it easy, I don’t like it the straight way”), this album—and these shows—puts that queerness front and center. After the smoothness of “Mustn’t Hurry,” “This Country” connects back to the use of noise on The Knife’s Shaking the Habitual in 2013. And then “Falling” is simply abrasive and jarring, particularly around the delivery of the line “You make me dir-ty again” (which, before this night, I had been mishearing as “You make me ga-ay again.” Whoops.). The content is queer and the sounds are disorienting (at times). It is a practice in dancing with discomfort—and in being together with one another in that discomfort. This is about making a melody out of discomfort.
About midway through the set, the beautiful strings (accordion sounds in this rendition) at the beginning of “Red Trails” begin to fill the space. As Dreijer and Gutarra sing the lines, “Waiting for your love to happen/ Is like waiting for a drug that never kicks in,” I am reminded of multiple people from these past two (often lonely) years of my life. As the group continue singing, Nikandish appears with a set of wings, which she flaps and twirls in sync with the sounds. This moment gets me thinking a lot about queerness, about the ways in which our openness to different kinds of romantic arrangements can lead us to find attraction in all different kinds of connections in our lives. Sometimes (and this includes some of the time when I’m listening to Plunge), I am very wary of this collapse that seems to be happening, one in which the call to embrace queerness slips into a call to have as many sexual partners as possible. As someone who tends to have a lower “number” than most of my progressive/radical friends, this sometimes feels like an uncomfortable pressure to fuck people to illustrate just how queer you are. In this moment in the show, Fever Ray sound to the multiplicity of possibilities for seeking out queerness on our own terms, of finding love (and/or lust) with one—or multiple—person(s). As Fever Ray close with “Mama’s Hand,” quite possibly my favorite song by Karin Dreijer so far, the group sing of “this little thing called love.” Hardly little at all, it is that love from a multiplicity of sources that defines queerness for me at this point.
May 19, 2015. At the time of writing this post, I’m simultaneously trying to work through what’s turned out to be the most difficult section of my dissertation to write thus far: a section on FKA twigs and voguing. As the last part in the last body chapter in the diss, this section needs to do a lot of work. Why the 1980s? Why voguing? Why blackness? Why queerness? Why synths? Why drum machines? So I go looking for the more explicit manifestation of blackness at the Fever Ray show, even if that’s not the place where it’s most likely to appear. But in between sets at the Fever Ray show, I keep slipping back to the last (and only other) time that I’ve been at Brooklyn Hangar before: the third night of FKA twigs’s Congregata shows back in May 2015. I don’t remember either of the FKA twigs shows I’ve attended well (LP1 tour in November 2014 in Austin + Congregata in May 2015 in Brooklyn), which is almost incredible considering that she’s probably my favorite contemporary artist (and thus hard to write about her). But it’s also not that incredible at all, as I went to each of those shows with someone that I was either dating at the time or had been previously involved with. The music of FKA twigs, after all, is about a feeling; it’s music that you can slip into and lose your sense of self to. And if you’re there with someone, you often just get lost into that person there next to you. Although Tahliah Barnett isn’t queer-identified, the ways that she embraces queerness through voguing and vibration has always moved me to count her with us.
Where do you go if you’re black (and queer) in the city? A few days before the Fever Ray show, I go out and sit on the Christopher Street Pier. Although LGBTQ youth of color still come out here to vogue, it doesn’t look anything like it did in the late 80s in the famous scene in Paris is Burning, one in which Willi Ninja narrates, “But everything changes—and everything’s been changing drastically… New York’s not even the same anymore” over footage of black queers voguing. Sitting out on the pier has become something I’ve tried to do every time I’ve gone home since the Congregata shows. And while much of that night remains a blur in my memory, the moment that all the voguers (Javier Ninja, Derek Auguste, Alex Cephus, Benjamin Milan, Leiomy Mizrah, and Dashua Wesley) took the stage has never left me. It was as if time had frozen—and we had been transported back to something that I had only seen on video before, in Paris is Burning, in my first queer theory class back in fall 2007. FKA twigs had gone back to the source (New York) of where she had first learned to vogue—and from where voguing had emerged in the first place. And by choosing both New York and voguing, she was also spotlighting blackness and brownness—black (and brown) skins, black (and brown) sounds, black (and brown) movements. More than that, she had been spotlighting collectivity—and a collectivity grounded in intimacy that wasn’t contingent on a sexual connection or even a sexual charge but rather in a desire for togetherness.
I’ve (again) been thinking a lot lately about how it was black women (Janet, Aaliyah, TLC, Missy) who first showed me the glimmers of the paths that were veering away from the heteronormativity that is in the process of being passed down to the next generation of my Jersey City/Italian American family. There could be intimacy outside of a relationship on the marriage path—and love with people that you’ve never even been with like that. And, even before that, you still had yourself—and the things that you’ve created. On LP1, “Give Up” doesn’t give way to a vogue battle (as it does at Congregata) but it does give way to “Kicks,” my favorite song by FKA twigs and a contender for my favorite song, period. I love the ways in which this song seamlessly moves between distortion and reverb (those Aaliyah-esque cooing background vocals, the layers of synth stuff) and rawness and vulnerability (lines such as “Time passes by/ Feel it for you” delivered with little else going on besides Barnett’s voice). After a desperate first verse of not knowing what to do when someone she misses is not in town, by the second verse ends with twigs declaring, “I’ll make my own damn way/ My own damn way.” In my own moment of missing someone that I’ve seen after or during the past two shows (visits) that I’ve gone to in NYC, I have to just center myself in myself for a moment—and in the people who are actually here with me.
And so, on the Saturday morning before the Fever Ray show, I hang at Terrace Bagels for two hours with a friend/colleague with whom I was also recently in Seattle for the Pop Conference, talking about friendship and intimacy—and how there are people at this point in life that a new romantic partner could never subsume. I think about how our first year of friendship has unfolded along the contours of different songs and albums, their vibrations points of connection branching outward—and in conjunction with—another friend/colleague who originally introduced us. I jump back to dancing at Hi Ho in New Orleans in March with my two best friends from Austin that I’ve known for four years now, one with whom I’ve been riding out our last semester (geographically) in this place and the other who will be driving my stuff out to New Orleans with me less than three weeks from now. Before that, I go even further back to sharing huge plates of Mediterranean food in New Orleans with two dear friends from Austin the night after New Year’s. Sure, queerness is a loose connector across these groups. But, more than that, the intimacy and the consistency of these interactions is what’s most special to me. This is what I feel reflected back to me at the FKA twigs show that night—and experience all over again at the Fever Ray show three years later. And this is the intimacy that I first learned to hold dear while living in or near New York City.