goth trans music
A re-analysis of a classic goth rock song that reveals liberatory trans themes and supports my trans goth agenda.
Siouxsie and the Banshees are among the original goth rock bands that kickstarted the genre as an emergent and distinct one from post-punk. Their 1978 debut album, The Scream, originally featured Switch as its final song. Music reviewer Kris Needs writes that Switch is about "different people who swop jobs with terrible results - scientists, GP and Vicar" (Needs 1978). This was confirmed by the band members themselves, with Siouxsie Sioux herself quoted in a Melody Maker interview as saying, "The vicar becomes the scientist and he applies his religion to science and the doctor becomes the religious person and applies his medicine to religion" (Birch 1978).
I argue instead that Switch contains trans themes, is an anti-disestablishmentarian war cry against the scientists, doctors and vicars who police the bounds of transness and gatekeep transition, and that this song should be re-analyzed and revived as a goth trans anthem.
Switch opens by depicting transness through incongruity and miscategorization, and transition through metaphors of both divergence and fusion. These metaphors have clear parallels to transness but simultaneously, the ambiguousness of the specific terms used allows us to read multiple narratives or stages of transness in the first verses, that support a pluralistic view of trans existences.
"Different lives in different places" speaks to the sometimes fractured nature of living while trans - having contexts of safety, community and deep understanding, versus... everywhere else. The beauty of this specific wording is that it applies to several ways of being "out" as trans or visibly trans: even the most flagrantly gender-noncompliant of us feel and perform and engage differently in different communities and societal contexts depending on how our gender-noncompliance is read. Extending the idea of "place" beyond physical locations, even those trans folks who are out to no one and have different lives externally versus internally (in the "location" of the bodymind), they are also included in this metaphor.
Here in the words "wrong categories," we see the most explicit reference to misgendering or otherwise being constrained by society's boxes. This of course does not refer simply to gender labels, but rather all the consequences of how Gender as an institution categorizes and confines, including the ways our dressing and communicating and interests are often policed.
These two lines represent transition, with "crossing wires" indicating a sort of divergence or mixing up, and "fusing humanities" as a sense of combination - broad ways of describing transition without necessarily limiting it to medical aspects, and in fact providing us with a much more accurate metaphor for what transition actually looks like.
Without specifically referencing anything like dysphoria or the "wrong body" narrative, we do not see Switch replicate these transmedicalist requirements, while still leaving room for bodily dysphoria as a potential feature of people's transness. Similarly, the expansive range of interpretations we can read into abstractions about "crossing wires" and "fusing humanities" means that transition can be conceived of and constructed in a myriad of creative ways, through transformative deletions, additions, woven patchworks, blended cocktails, or however else we define it.
The next three verses describe the switched professions of scientist, general practitioner, and vicar, as indicated in the band's explanation of what the song was about. All three are characters who hold power in mediating various aspects of transition and trans acceptance and inclusion in society: scientists study transness and trans people, GPs are the gatekeepers of various aspects of transition (medical, first and foremost, but often even aspects of social transition), and vicars uphold and correct perceived deviations from values they uphold as Christian (which queerness and specifically transness have historically been - and in many sects still are - in conflict with).
The descriptions of the characters reveal their underlying biases and ways of viewing the world. I take these characters as representatives of the larger institutions of Science, Medicine and Christianity - institutions that, similarly, represent and replicate cisnormative attitudes towards transness and trans people.
The scientist in the role of the GP sees patients who are compared to "guinea pigs," an apt metaphor for the way trans science has historically viewed trans people as freaks of nature. It is a cruel irony that transphobes today compare trans surgeries to lobotomies, saying that they will soon be a thing of the past and that we will be horrified we ever did them, when lobotomies actually used to be used as a "treatment" to "cure" transness. Conversion therapy and electroshock therapy, too. The scientist here in Switch reduces trans human beings to a lower level, to animals, and even causes them to have "drastic side-effects."
The doctor plays the role of a vicar/rector and is described as "condescending from on high," as doctors do even in matters of reporting on our own bodies - as numerous trans, disabled, chronically ill, Black folks and women can attest. The doctor's view of believers as hallucinators and their god simply as a druggist further emphasizes the inability to take someone else's point of view about something without condescension or disbelief.
The vicar in the role of the scientist cannot experiment without considering it "blasphemy." Any thoughts of progress are simply dismissed as "the mark of devilry," which I analyze as many Christian sects' conception that gender deviance is against god. The vicar and indeed the larger institution of Christianity view transness, in its violation of assigned gender roles, as anti-Christian and therefore blasphemous.
In their 1978 interview about The Scream, Steven Severin and Siouxsie Sioux declare that the song Switch is about "the hypocrisy of it all" (Birch 1978). About the characters, the band members say: "These people, whatever the given situation, they will apply their same standards to it and won't change." Here their explanation lines up nicely with the trans angle I am arguing; the overwhelmingly cis gatekeepers of trans care and acceptance apply their cis standards to transness - the scientists who view us as strange guinea pigs, the doctors who condescend to us, and the vicars who conceive of our existences as deviant and unacceptable. They will apply their same cisnormative standards to us and, lacking the same epistemological frame of identity, find us failing. These lyrics point to the flaws and gatekeeping of these individuals (and the institutions they represent), and the fact that they will not change. I read this as an urgent call for trans solidarity and for us to take care of each other when no one else will.
The discussion of these institutions reveals their role in the ideological construction of gender and in enforcing the bounds of these constructs in the name of societal order, and examining their existence is important in the context of current trans realities for many reasons: the legitimacy they grant or take away, the transmedicalist definitions and requirements of transness, and the actual resources trans people are prevented from accessing because of this larger system of biopolitics.
When I argue that these verses are a call to action for trans solidarity there is a broad range of actions and viewpoints that this could include. I do not see the mere discussion of institutions in these lyrics as incompatible with the transhumanist, anti-transmedicalist, anarchist vision of transness that I currently prefer. Abigail Thorn sums up my point of view nicely in her essay on why she dislikes the word dysphoria:
Since there is nothing in my interpretation of the lyrics that imply dysphoria as a hard requirement for transness, there is room for transition stories like mine and Thorn's.
The final part of the song highlights the real societal consequences of structural and institutional transphobia and the lack of trans care - violence and death. It ends on a high note by reinforcing our desire as trans people to transition and to do transness.
I analyze the "people" in the first line as referring to trans people and the "people" in the third line as referring to cis people. The trans people's "walk" and "talk" is viewed by cis people and it gives them pause. There is an act of perception here which mediates how we can analyze the words walk and talk in this context. The trans people's "talk" could refer to literal communication of their transness using language, but the combination of "walk" and "talk" could also refer to a broader set of visual and linguistic cues (certainly not limited to spoken languages or ambulatory movement). These are read (clocked) by the cis people as being deviant or deficient for a particular gender, making them bad gender subjects.
The next two lines state that something "blows up" and won't come down, which I take as implying violence from the cis people towards the trans people. This violence could be on a spectrum from an inability to accept someone's transness all the way to the very literal explosion of a bomb or a gun. This is not an exaggeration, as violence against trans people happens at alarming rates around the world - overwhelmingly to transfeminine people, sex workers, migrants, trans people of colour.
The idea that it is "too late" to switch leads me to interpret the following line's "dying" to switch as literally implying death. This would line up with many stories from trans folks in the UK who are dying in the face of wait times of several years before gender clinic appointments. Goth culture is often characterized by a fascination with death and mortality. These themes are discussed openly and there is less of a fear of confronting this reality. This is why, within the context of Switch as a song by a goth rock band, I am comfortable reading a literal implication of death into these final lyrics rather than simply an idiomatic implication of excitement and desire.
The song closes with repetitions of the phrases "They're dying to switch," and "Switch," which I analyze as the latter sense - desire and excitement to transition, to embrace and celebrate transness, not as a destination but as a continuous journey of making and doing our genders.
The word "switch" needn't be analyzed as a binary swapping of gender in the way a lot of transmedicalist writing and systems still do. I analyze it instead as "a shift from one to another" or "a change from the usual," as Merriam-Webster defines it.
Nothing in the lyrics indicate a binary switch - Sioux sings of "different" not "opposite" lives, and of "wrong" categories, not "the wrong" category. Dying for "a brand new switch" includes expansive possibilities of gender and transition that include everything from man to monster, and even dynamically changing genders. Goth culture embraces the monstrous rather than relegating it to the sidelines, making it about the only cultural niche where my personal gendergoal - to be a gender-treacherous trans abomination - fits quite naturally alongside others.
There are additionally no requirements that imply that medical transition is a requirement for transness as I analyze it in these lyrics. Siouxsie and the Banshees discuss "lives" and "humanities" rather than bodies or organs - lives are "different" and "shuffled," and humanities are "fused." This leaves much room for flexible interpretation - everything from social transition and presentation to surgery could come under this, including other forms of transhumanist body modifications.
In sum, Switch is a trans goth anthem that tackles the serious issues of medical and societal gatekeeping and prejudice, directly confronts the serious consequences of this on trans people, all the while allowing for a range of possible meanings and manifestations of transness, and arguing for liberatory, transhumanist, powerful queer futures.
This is an elaborate shitpost dedicated to J Calder, my new personal trans goth academic idol.
Here are my disclaimers:
- It's entirely possible someone has made this connection before but a cursory search didn't turn anything up and I desperately wanted this to exist so I wrote it.
- Goth still isn't a label I use for myself, just one that others call me. This may shift in future, though, particularly as I ponder something amusing J told me: that it was very goth of me not to ID as goth.
- I made the choice to have the character of the vicar here represent Christianity as an institution and not simply Religion as a whole, because not all religions have as much of a fraught history with accepting transness as Christianity does, nor are other religions as instrumental even today in promoting moral panics about gender (I am thinking specifically of the Christian right). My wording choices around this are most likely to be where I'm missing nuance since these are not histories I am personally familiar with. This is why I had Maureen Kosse be my sensitivity reader for Christianity, as a queer ex-Catholic who studies gender, language and fascism. I welcome further feedback/criticism about this from people who have my phone number and/or have ever had a meaningful one-on-one meeting with me.
- Needs, K. (1978) "Siouxsie and the Banshees: The Scream". ZigZag.
- Birch, I. (1978) "Scream and Scream Again". Melody Maker.
- Sioux, S. (1978) "Switch" [Recorded by Siouxsie and the Banshees]. On The Scream.