By: Stephanie Burt
January 3, 2018

One in a series of enthusiastic posts, contributed by HILOBROW friends and regulars, on the subject of our favorite albums of the Nineties (1994–2003). A new installment in this series will appear each Wednesday during 2018.



Is Unisex the first transgender indiepop record? Not quite, but close. “A boy alone/ Is just the same as/ A girl alone/ Sadness/ Is unisex”: so runs the yearning, legato, eponymous track on an album that sounds now — that almost sounded, to me, then, though I did not let myself say it — like the right soundtrack for coming out. (The boy and the girl have the same feelings because they are the same person — and boy, do they feel alone.) Reading, England-based singer and lyricist Keith Girdler “never confirmed if he was singing from his own viewpoint or that of a character” (I quote Michael White’s terrific Popkiss) but the characters in his songs were very fey, and definitely something — queer or gay or nonbinary (as we say now) or confusingly femme, or just trans: he didn’t say.

Framed by Paul Stewart’ intricate semi-classical guitar, and by Gemma Townlet’s aching cello, the people in these songs could be romantic victims, pursuing survival sex work at that London locus classicus, Marble Arch (“I’m young and/ So pretty/ Don’t hurt me”). They could also announce (in “The Joy of Living”) that they had found exactly what made them happy, even if it also made them uneasy: “Of course it’s not love/ But I’m not choosy.” And they could dwell in ambiguity, walking on air, willing to “wait forever/ For some sort of secret sign.” (Sheets of acoustic filigree follow.)

Rock and roll had so-called gender-benders decades before Blueboy, but Girdler’s voice — too thin for anything except indiepop, hyperarticulate in a Home Counties way — was the polar opposite of those confident glam voices. I quote Imogen Binnie’s Nevada: “That stereotype about transsexuals being all wild and criminal and bold… and, like, engendering in the townsfolk the courage to break free from the smothering constraints of conformity? That stereotype is about drag queens. Maria is transsexual and she is so meek she might disappear.”

Keith’s songs made him sound so meek that he might disappear. And then he, and his bandmates, roared back into life, as on this album’s one full-on rocker, “Imipramine,” which sped past Blur and out-Britpop’d Oasis atop waves of heady distortion: “You said that love can break a boy’s heart/ I said there’s no such thing. No such thing!” There is such a thing as a boy’s heart. But I never had one. Unisex helped me see, and name, and learn to love, what I had instead.


WOWEE ZOWEE: Stephanie Burt on UNISEX | Anindita Basu Sempere on UNDER THE PINK | Mark Kingwell on DUMMY | Bill Nericcio on AMOR PROHIBIDO | Sherri Wasserman on HIPS AND MAKERS | Mimi Lipson on THANK YOU | John Overholt on BEN FOLDS FIVE | Jordan Ellenberg on GET LOST | Chelsey Johnson on PERSONAL BEST | Marilyn Snell on MAXINQUAYE | Dan Fox on DIFFERENT CLASS | Devin McKinney on IF YOU’RE FEELING SINISTER | Alice Boone on MTV UNPLUGGED (ALICE IN CHAINS) | Rob Wringham on SPICE | Joe Alterio on BEATS, RHYMES AND LIFE | Jason Loeffler on SECOND TOUGHEST IN THE INFANTS | Rick Pinchera on EITHER/OR | Greg Rowland on OK COMPUTER | Jennifer Krasinski on SUPA DUPA FLY | Sara Ryan on DIG ME OUT | Molly Wright Steenson on I CAN HEAR THE HEART BEATING AS ONE | Luc Sante on MEZZANINE | Libi Rose on AQUEMINI | Franklin Bruno on ENGLAND MADE ME | JC Gabel on DESERTER’S SONGS | Michael Campochiaro on IS THIS DESIRE? | Adrienne Crew on CALIFORNICATION | Drew Daniel on I SEE A DARKNESS | Veda Hille on THE SOFT BULLETIN | Vanessa Berry on TEENAGE SNUFF FILM | Tom Kipp on GET SKINTIGHT | John Hilgart on YORK BLVD. | Deborah Wassertzug on JOURNEY TO THE END OF THE NIGHT | Adam McGovern on INVINCIBLE SUMMER | David Hirmes on DOPETHRONE | Jen Collins on HURRAH | Flourish Klink on THE TEACHES OF PEACHES | Brian Berger on TIRED SOUNDS OF… | Jenny Davidson on TIME (THE REVELATOR) | Jason Cohen on IS THIS IT | Matthew De Abaitua on THE RAINBOW CHILDREN | Lauren Oliver on SOUND-DUST | Josh Glenn on YOU FORGOT IT IN PEOPLE | Judith Zissman on TALLAHASSEE | Dallas Penn on GOD’S SON | Carl Wilson on TEMPTING | Jessamyn West on ALL HAIL WEST TEXAS | Kaleb Horton on STREETCORE | Tom Nealon on BAZOOKA TOOTH | Erik Davis on DOPESMOKER | David Levine on FEVER TO TELL | Deb Chachra on MASS ROMANTIC.


WOWEE ZOWEE (2018 weekly): UNISEX | UNDER THE PINK | DUMMY | AMOR PROHIBIDO | HIPS AND MAKERS | & dozens of other Nineties (1994–2003) albums. KLUTE YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2017): THE KILLERS | BANDE À PART (BAND OF OUTSIDERS) | ALPHAVILLE | HARPER | BLOW-UP | & 20 other Sixties (1964–1973) neo-noir movies. #SQUADGOALS (2017 weekly): THE WILD BUNCH | BOWIE’S BAND | THE BLOOMSBURY GROUP | THE HONG KONG CAVALIERS | VI ÄR BÄST! & dozens of other squads. GROK MY ENTHUSIASM (2016 weekly): THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF LUNCH | WEEKEND | MILLION YEAR PICNIC | LA BARONNE EMILE D’ERLANGER | THE SURVIVAL SAMPLER | & dozens more one-off enthusiasms. QUIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2016): “Tainted Love” | “Metal” | “Frankie Teardrop” | “Savoir Faire” | “Broken English” | & 20 other new wave songs. CROM YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2015): DARKER THAN YOU THINK | THE SWORD IN THE STONE | OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET | THIEVES’ HOUSE | QUEEN OF THE BLACK COAST | & 20 other fantasy novels from 1934–43. KERN YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2014): ALDINE ITALIC | DATA 70 | TORONTO SUBWAY | JOHNSTON’S “HAMLET” | TODD KLONE | & 20 other typefaces. HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2013): “Spoonin’ Rap” | “Rapper’s Delight” | “Rappin’ Blow” | “The Incredible Fulk” | “The Adventures of Super Rhyme” | & 20 other old-school hip-hop songs. KIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2012): Justice or vengeance? | Kirk teaches his drill thrall to kiss | “KHAAAAAN!” | “No kill I” | Kirk browbeats NOMAD | & 20 other Captain Kirk scenes. KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2011): THE ETERNALS | BLACK MAGIC | DEMON | OMAC | CAPTAIN AMERICA | & 20 other Jack Kirby panels.

Share this Post
Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on Tumblr


Enthusiasms, Pop Music

What do you think?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.