December 3, 2022
Ithaca, NY | 43°F


New Music: How do We Listen to Antony & the Johnsons?

If there’s one thing I love about Antony & the Johnsons it’s that in between their exquisite full-length albums they give us equally exquisite and thoughtful EPs. Otherwise, just how could we hold on? Thank You For Your Love is certainly no let down, beautiful, delicate and spiritual all at the same time. But I have an additional contention, for the music contained in this artist’s work. One that brings up serious contradictions for me as a reviewer and as someone who enjoys music. My contention is that we would not know how to listen to Antony & the Johnsons if we were not able to identify the group’s lead singer and songwriter Antony Hegarty within certain categories of gender and sexuality.

Most biographies (except for the one written by Hegarty on the group’s website) seem to function as a kind of genealogy of sexual ambiguity, tracing the singer’s music and, I think, identity itself, back to Boy George and his band Culture Club. This is not simply, “what are Hegarty’s influences?” It’s an intentional look to try to understand something.

What is that something? We are all secretly (or not secretly) fascinated by sexual ambiguity. We need to know. Jeffrey Eugenides, who recently gave a reading here, may be able to attest to this better than anyone. He won a Pulitzer for his novel centered around an intersex character of Greek heritage. A Pulitzer. And we may be able to have arguments of style versus substance, but we all know that they are interconnected. And let’s face it, I don’t know if a Greek migration story would have satiated (tantalized?) our nation’s hunger for the exotic quite so well. That Pulitzer might be better seen as the mark of the zeitgeist (collective wet dream?) of the nation’s literary intelligentsia, just as another kind of intelligentsia was poking and prodding the Hottentot Venus not so many decades ago (p.s. they were white, the Venus was not).

In order to make musical sense out of Antony & the Johnsons we have to be able to categorize that voice. Where exactly is it coming from? Until we make that connection we have no reference, we aren’t quite sure how to compare it to what we already know about music. To throw some more into the mix, what race do we think the singer is? Does it help to know that Hegarty sang back up to Lou Reed with the soulful Sharon Jones who fronts a funk band?

But, matt, you might say if this weren’t a written medium, shouldn’t this be about the music? No, because the fact is that it’s never just about the music. In fact, the direction of the Johnsons over last couple releases has been to push the music further and further out of your knowable genre categories. Thank You, for example, bears a certain similarity to, say, a record of Gregorian chants. A more complicated question might be, but matt doesn’t this discussion just contribute to the proliferation of commentary and fascination with Antony Hegarty’s sexuality and gender. There is that danger, but I would rather hope that this contributes to your speculation and fascination with your own gender.

Eugenides said that he wrote Middlesex as a way to imagine what it would be like as someone of another sex. I think that wonder of what it would be like to embody someone different lurks even in the hearts of the kind of “straight” white men that seem to proliferate at Ithaca College. Perhaps those categories we think ourselves in are not so secure. What part of us might reject Hegarty? What part seek out?

As a friend of mine reminded me, the body lies beneath it all, before our desire to know ourselves and others. Hegarty sings, “When we were children in the hay/we felt your eyes were upon us/my lord my love/help me to remember.”

Gender? Sexuality? Music? The point of it all?