Words || Jack Stanton
‘The house nation likes to pretend that clubs are an oasis from suffering . . .but suffering is in here, with us’.
Contemporary cynics will tell you that music has lost its integrity as a platform for activism and meaning. For many artists, this depressing state of affairs has been realised by the colossal music industry, which values commodification over substance.
However, people like transgender deep house musician Terre Thaemlitz (AKA DJ Sprinkles) believe a world still exists where music can signify more than sound. Terre’s musical productions infuse philosophies on gender and identity with deep house, often characterised by sadness, personal anecdotes, and atmospheric soundscapes.
Throughout the 80s and 90s, Terre struggled in New York to establish herself as a DJ. In 1997, disenchanted with the 1990s underground queer community and frustrated by the rise of the industry’s commercialised brand of high-energy vocal house, Terre left New York and moved to Kawasaki, Japan, where she currently resides.
Terre was awarded Resident Advisor’s Album of the Year in 2009 for Midtown 120 Blues, a melancholic portrait of her experience that ultimately confirms that music is not universal but rather hyper-specific. Midtown 120 Blues is widely acknowledged as a deep house masterpiece. It delves into the crux of Terre’s disappointment with the New York house scene, including her condemnation of the Madonna ‘Vogue’ conception and the hetero-sexualised reinvention of the foundations that once stood as an oasis for queer activism.
I interviewed Terre about her views on gender politics, and how witnessing the bastardisation of the world she loved fostered her experiences of disaffection and vilification as a transgender DJ.
‘What is happening today resonates with the commodification of gay disco, and what had to happen culturally for the scene to end up with stadiums filled with heterosexual women fantasising about fucking The Village People,’ Terre said.
Terre describes her gender as non-essential transgenderism, which rejects the assumption that gender is confined to biological disposition and birthright. In other words, gender cannot be signified through a solely genetic and scientific lens; we must consider personal, psychological, and emotional qualities as well. She is also non-transitioning, meaning she doesn’t feel the need for any kind of clinical or formal sex change to occur in order to validate her gender position.
Despite all these signifiers that confirm Terre is comfortable and proud in her own skin, her evolution as a DJ and activist arose from suffering. ‘Even the history of DJ Sprinkles as a “male” character (I DJ almost exclusively in male drag) comes from the fact that I started DJ-ing in a transsexual club where the queens were quite hostile towards non-transitioning people such as myself.’
I discussed with Terre the current relationship between gender politics and the house scene. ‘For me, queerness in the more useful, radical, and specific sense of the term – as something that relates to gaps between identities, including dominant LGBT identities – involves an interrogation of the functions and dangers of visibility,’ Terre said. Visibility is meaningless, therefore, if it exists without empathy or understanding. Why try to reach an audience that isn’t paying attention?
‘There is a tendency within politics, as well as music, to believe that the ultimate goal is to reach as many people as possible . . . but some things will not catch on’.
Terre acknowledges that her message is niche and caters to a minority. Therefore, no real juncture exists in her aims as an idealist because she is pursuing the same objective – to speak from a position of panic and try to analyse the present, saying ‘Hey! This shit is fucked up and harmful. Stop and think for a moment about what is happening NOW! Stop trying to change the “now” by dreaming of a brighter tomorrow, because that’s likely how we got into this mess. Get into the here and now!’
She strives to combat the erasure of minorities by voicing their struggles through numerous platforms, including audio production, academia, and art – basically, devoting herself to becoming a freelancer in these realms, never a full-time contractor.
Activism within clubs was born organically out of necessity. In the past, gay clubs represented a space where people could convene, often in secret, to engage in harshly demonised non-heterosexual acts, sexual or otherwise. Thus, the enormous LGBT underground community proliferated. This scene was associated with its own collection of troubles, requiring the distribution of things like free condoms and needles – IV drug use was rampant at the time – and information sharing about the potential harms and risks involved in their activities
Even though it seems as though these clubs shared the aims of Terre, it was sadly not the case. ‘The rhetoric of transcendence, shelter, and love may sound like generic liberal bullshit about universalism,’ she said.
In my contemporary eyes, many of these terms have recoiled back into meaninglessness, and do indeed sound like bullshit. I know it wasn’t always the case, especially in the 80s and 90s. But the house scene community is a thing of the past.
In Sydney, for example, hetero-centric clubs devoid of personality and community have become ground zero, the status quo. Our establishments, frequently run and owned by thirsty money vampires, quite simply do not value the now elusive and romanticised ideas of acceptance and camaraderie.
People drift in with the allure of alcohol-and-adrenaline-fuelled-funtimes, consequence free, in a momentary void of responsibility and sanity, living the elusive ‘good life’. These are not generalisations. There are our times. We have irrevocably imprisoned ourselves with the drugs promised to bring everyone closer together. The blindfolds are fastened; a black hole sits in front of our faces, sucking in any knowledge of the depressing reality: there is suffering on the dance floor. Suffering is in here, with us.
When I asked Terre what the future holds for house music, her answer was unsurprisingly grim.
‘I assume a continued regurgitation of familiar samples and reference points, with few people interested in investigating those references, even fewer having experiential entry points to their content, and all the while money being made and lost. In other words, business as usual’.
If you’re interested in Terre Thaemlitz’s music and writings, check out her website www.comatonse.com