“You move with a motive / But you can’t have control / Miss me if you don’t got a check / Don’t got time for you or your lack of respect,” grunge-pop artist Zoë Moss sings in her debut single, “The Operator.” The song appears on her debut EP, Stories, which comes out later this year, and serves as Moss’s reclamation of the sexism she’s experienced while working in the music industry.
“My household growing up was very agendered — we didn’t really think about gender roles in a traditional sense — so when I got into the world, I was a young, driven person getting into the music industry,” she recalls. “I had a rude awakening to the fact that the first thing society sees about me is that I’m a feminine female. The connotations of that are things I’ve been pushing and pulling with.”
Moss is inspired by artists like Madonna and Prince who presented themselves in both feminine and masculine ways. “The Operator” in particular is about her taking up space and having pride in who she is, especially when someone’s trying to bring her down. “When I am put in a box, I always want to push myself to find a way to surprise the listener, so that’s a bit of how I came into writing ‘The Operator,'” she says.
Another song on the EP, “The Mood,” is about the subtle sexism Moss experienced during a meeting with a publisher. “I thought he was understanding me and getting my perspective,” she remembers. “Then my manager had a followup meeting with him, and the only feedback he had was, ‘She needed to be more excited. She wasn’t excited enough.'”
Moss describes Stories as “a memoir of seven songs” with an overarching theme around gender and sexuality; she sings about love, heartbreak, and being pansexual. “All of these things explore human connection and the lifestyle of a songwriter or an artist in Brookyn,” she says.
As a songwriter, Moss has written for artists including Andy Grammer and Tate Mcrae. In addition, she sang on three songs from Grace VanderWaal’s last album. She found herself among very few female songwriters — one study found that only around 12 percent of songwriters were female from 2012-2018 — something that she hopes to see change, not just for women but for LBGT people and other marginalized groups as well.
“It’s more about putting less emphasis on female vs. male and just gender in general,” she says. “It’s about just being inclusive with perspective, whether it be a man, a woman, someone who’s non-binary, whatever their sexuality is, however they present themselves — it’s just about bringing in perspectives different from the norm.” She sees this happening more and more, with LGBT artists like Sam Smith, Halsey, and Troye Sivan gaining more attention, and thinks it will only continue, as people want to see something new.
“It’s another reason I call the EP Stories,” she adds. “There are so many different stories out there, so many things that aren’t covered enough, and when they are covered, people eat it up because it’s different and it’s fresh.”
ONLY NOISE explores music fandom with poignant personal essays that examine the ways we’re shaped by our chosen soundtrack. This week, Jason Scott embraces their genderqueer identity with a little help from pop icon Britney Spears.
Britney Spears’ …Baby One More Time turned 20 years old in January (talk about a punch in the gut to remind you exactly how old you are). But I remember the first time I held that shiny pink compact disc in my hands like it was yesterday. I was a squeaky, pimple-riddled 13-year-old coming of age right at the turn of the century. I was standing on my best friend’s front porch, the sun glistening at the edges of the record, and I kept turning it over and over in my fingers. Her eyes pierced right into my soul, and her dazzling white smile struck me as that of someone just coming into her own as a strong, fiercely independent and confident young woman. She was me. I was her. It was one of those transformational moments with music that changed the entire course of my life.
A teen growing up in rural West Virginia, nestled among shimmering Appalachian hills and rows of steeple-topped churches, I felt suffocated by tradition and a deep-rooted helplessness to understand who I was. Gender hadn’t yet been broken down. The world still operated predominantly within gender normativity then – but such queer icons as Elton John, Freddie Mercury, Melissa Etheridge, George Michael and Tim Curry in a transcendent binary-busting performance in Rocky Horror Picture Show certainly moved the needle in the right direction. Then, there was Will & Grace, a smartly-written primetime comedy that spotlighted queer characters in a way that had never been done before. Will, Grace, Jack and Karen immediately became beacons for the changing face of America and pop culture; their hilarious antics propelled the conversation forward and truly shifted how the world saw queer folk. The stigma around AIDS was lessening and the dawning of a new millennium stoked the flames of a social revolution.
Meanwhile, I still didn’t quite feel like I was seeing my true self up on the screen or stage. The blackness in my heart was all-consuming, and I would carry this around with me for 18 more years. Sometimes, it’s hard to put it into words, exactly, but when I look back on my first experiences with Britney Spears, the emotional gravity of her impact on my youth comes into clearer and more profound focus.
I had already hit puberty by the time I heard my first Britney song. With its slurpy-thick beat and Britney’s playfully-coy vocal lines, “…Baby One More Time” still to this day evokes a sense of power and sexual command that I’ve never managed to find anywhere else. At the time, I often masqueraded around in high heels and smeared on lipstick – there is a photo floating around on the internet of my sister and I caked in a cool, vibrant-red hue, and we’re holding a sign that says “Don’t hate us because we’re beautiful” – or pretended to be Kelly Kapowski from Saved by the Bell or T-Boz from TLC. Truth be told, many a fight broke out between my girlfriends and me on who’d play those parts. I was unapologetic even then.
That first record also hit hard with other glitter-pop bangers like the disco-inflected “Deep in My Heart,” “(You Drive Me) Crazy” (featured prominently in one of my favorite Sabrina the Teenage Witch episodes, complete with a Melissa Joan Hart cameo in the song’s neon-splashed video) and the criminally-overlooked, late-night fizzer “Soda Pop.”
Elsewhere, the Queen of Pop tore down the facade and really plucked the heartstrings. Hits like “Sometimes,” which gives me goosebumps every time I let it wash over me, and “Born to Make You Happy,” another absolute stunner, flexed the full extent of her potential. The chewy “Thinkin’ About You” and the piano-based ballad “E-Mail My Heart” made me want to grow up, fall in love, get my heart broken and then cry on my bathroom floor with a bottle of rosé. “When you need someone, you just turn around / And I will be there,” she crows on “I Will Be There.” And oh my stars, does that lyric hit me even harder today than it did two decades ago.
Her music made and still makes me feel alright in my own skin.
Later that summer, Britney made her debut on the MTV Video Music Awards with a sizzling performance of “…Baby One More Time.” She had to share the stage with that year’s other hit newcomers, a group of men called *NSYNC, but the school room setting gave her the proper arena to prove to the world that she was worth it. That two and a half-minute explosion cemented what I had already known: a superstar had been born and pop music was never going to be the same.
I would never be the same either. In fact, summer ‘99 was the turning point I’d never forget. I knew I was attracted to guys. I mean, gym class always made me hyper-aware of my surroundings and totally uncomfortable. I always waited for everyone else to change before slinking to the furthest corner. I never told anyone how I was feeling, but I assumed all other queer boys felt the same: teetering on the edge of masculinity and femininity. Socially, terms like “non-binary” or “genderqueer” were far outside of our understanding of identity markers, so I felt even more alone and isolated from the world and myself. I looked to Britney to satiate some need that I couldn’t quite figure out on my own, and her ability to command the attention of the entire world was inspiring and gave me hope that someday I might be that confident, too.
I’m not sure when it started, but my feminine energy began to inhabit most of my being. I started to dream, imagine, think, and act as a girl, and so, I gave her a name: Britney. Britney Spears, the pop icon, almost became ingrained within my bones. Her magnetism, her charm, her style, her prowess, her humor, her personality, all soaked into who I was becoming. She fueled me to think beyond an ordinary life, because I knew I was special. I was extraordinary, coated in a thick layer of sass. And it was as if the singer was the only one in the entire world who could understand the Britney I held within.
In the coming years, I followed Britney’s career as any loyal, avid pop fan would and should. Each step of the way, I grew as she did, and sometimes, dipped to her deafening lows as she did. When the media made fun of her mental health in 2007, my heart was both broken and empowered by her, seeing her somehow endure such disgusting ridicule. It was still years before the idea of non-binary identity broke into the conversation about gender, so I came out as a gay man one year prior and had my first sexual encounters. But even that huge step in naming what I felt inside didn’t quite go far enough; I was still troubled by something far deeper. Along the way, though, Britney was my haven, and I watched the starlet climb out of unimaginable darkness to release more albums, including 2011’s Femme Fatale and most recently, 2016’s absolutely astounding Glory, both among her greatest artistic feats.
It was actress and producer Natalie Morales (of Parks & Recreation fame), not Brtiney Spears, who finally completed the puzzle for me – she wrote a powerful essay on her own journey with gender, and that’s when I knew once and for all who I was. I came out as non-binary (or genderqueer) in the summer of 2017.
I am here. I am queer. I am Britney.
It’s certainly been a long, winding road, as they say, and I am eternally grateful for Morales’ fearlessness to proclaim her truth from the mountaintops. But it was and forever will be Britney Spears who first unlocked that mysterious door for me so many years ago. Her humanity, her truth, her daring and her music have and will always be there in the darkest of hours.
My Britney has certainly morphed and blossomed in various forms through the years, often mirroring personal breakthroughs and turmoil that could have swallowed me alive. I sometimes wonder how my life would have turned out had we not been blessed with Britney Jean, one of the most prolific pop creators of our time. I don’t think I ever would have been sent down this path on which I now stand.
Britney, if you’re reading this, from the bottom of my broken heart, thank you.
Sporting an ecstatic mane of blond curls and heart-shaped sunglasses, it’s easy to mistake Neon Music for a living Barbie Doll and not the trans Lil’ Kim. She’s five-foot-four-inches of teased-out Hollywood glamour that stares down the blond bombshell archetype, then dropkicks it. But rhymes come just as effortlessly as fierce-femme style to this up-and-coming artist.
Neon’s vicious-glam stage presence has made her a staple of the underground disco scene, but she’s always loved pushing the boundaries of genre as much as gender. Her experiments began as a middle-schooler in Boston, when she would make what she called “one-twink recordings” in her bedroom with a microphone, guitar, and beat machine. In high school, she was in a band that toured with acts such as the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and H20. For two decades, she’s borrowed from influences as diverse as ’70s punk, ’80s industrial, and ’90s rap.
Now the East Coast native is making beats in LA. In her latest project, she steps out as Mz. Neon, a nimble-tongued rapper who’s grabbing the mic to confront ideas about her body, her sexuality, and her experiences as a trans woman. On Friday, March 1, she dropped her first rap track, “Pussy Stick,” a catchy celebration of being a self-described “chick with a dick.”
Audiofemme sat down with Neon to discuss her transition into rap and why she considers Mz. Neon her most honest project to-date.
AF: Your song “Pussy Stick” is very tongue-in-cheek while confronting a lot of taboos about trans women. Can you explain what a “pussy stick” is?
Neon: Maybe people want language that, like, feminizes a penis. I still say “dick” a lot, but a woman’s dick is her own thing. Having a dick does not make you a man. “Pussy stick” was something I heard on this really great show on YouTube called T-Time with the Gurlz. It was like a DIY version of The View with trans women from New York talking about trans issues really unfiltered. They would use that word a lot, and it just stuck with me.
AF: What does it mean to introduce this vernacular to a mainstream audience?
Neon: We keep reinventing trans language. When I moved to New York and was finding my trans community, people still used the word “tranny” like it was no thing. Then time went by, and the word “tranny” became unacceptable. People within the the trans community were divided about it. Like the N-word to Black culture — if that word applies to you, you can use it, but if it doesn’t, you can’t. So “tranny” went in that direction where certain trans women, mostly of a certain age, kept that word going as a thing that you could talk about among yourselves, but it wasn’t okay for people outside your community to use it. That goes into things like “chicks with dicks” or “she-male.” Personally, I always really loved the word “she-male” because it seems exotic. And the word “she-nis” — I think it’s cute. But it’s something I can say and my community can say. If a guy says it to me, then it’s a different thing.
AF: Your song “Pussy Stick” is irreverent and fun, but it also feels like it has an urgency. What made you think now is the time for this track?
Neon: People project a fantasy onto me, partially because I’m a performer. Being trans on top of that, I’m often fetishized. [Porn featuring trans women] is one of the most searched porn categories on the Internet. Porn is how a lot of men learn about sex and certainly about trans women, so we lose a lot of our humanity because of that. Navigating the dating world as a transitioned woman, I’m meeting a lot more guys that I used to be attracted to as a boy but were never interested in me. Now they’re very interested in me, but a lot of them see me as something that’s even more objectifiable than women already are. So this music plays on that. Men project fantasies onto me, and I use music to reclaim the power in those fantasies and to live out my own fantasies.
Every trans woman identifies in a different way. Trans women are entitled to do whatever makes them most comfortable in their bodies. But when it comes to a chick with a dick, it’s still seen as a fetish-type thing or something that’s supposed to go unspoken. I want to speak to girls that specifically may not know how to feel comfortable with having a dick or feel like having a dick is submitting to some guy’s fantasy. It’s sexy on your terms, not his.
I have no hangups about [my penis]. I really celebrate that about myself. I don’t want to pretend like that’s not a part of me — that’s a very big part of me – no pun intended! I want to get it out there and make it a non-issue. You can be a woman and have a dick.
AF: Rap music is a traditionally Black music form. Many white performers have been called out for using their racial privilege to advance in a genre by and for Black people. Being white, did you have any hesitations about rapping?
Neon: Well, it’s a misconception that I’m white. I’m half Dominican and half French Canadian. But to me, music is music. Rap began as a voice for a marginalized community. Rap, like punk, is very lyrical and very DIY. I listened to a lot of rap music growing up. I know I’m coming into it as an outsider, but I’ve come into a lot of music and a lot of spaces as an outsider.
AF: Does rapping help you express things you haven’t been able to in past projects? In what ways?
Neon: This project is very lyrically different from past projects. Before, lyrics were always the last part, and it would take me a long time to write them because they were so contingent on fitting into a certain melody or something. The themes were more broad and generic. Rapping makes me focus on the written aspects. Now I’m writing lyrics first, and then making a beat around them — or people are sending me beats. The lyrics’ content is a lot more specific. I’m really saying something, not just singing along, and I’m feeling a wide spectrum of emotions while I work. I’m cracking myself up. I’m getting myself horny. I’m making myself terrified. I’m really writing content that’s shocking to me, which makes it exciting because it’s really real.
AF: You’ve mentioned having more songs on the way, though you’re unsure if you’ll release a mixtape or a full-length. What can listeners look forward to when those tracks drop?
Neon: I’m definitely expanding on the themes that I talk about in the opening track. I explore themes of female domination, misogyny, dealing with tranny chasers, being fetishized. I go more hardcore, but I also get more esoteric and spiritual. Where did we come from? Where does gender begin and end? And I give men a taste of their own medicine.
Follow Mz. Neon on Facebook for upcoming appearances and future singles.
Jenny Lewis has had a long and fruitful career since she began singing as the lead vocalist for Rilo Kiley back in 1998. After putting out five albums with the band – Take Offs and Landings (2001), The Execution Of All Things (2002), More Adventurous (2004), and Under The Blacklight (2007) and rkives (2013) – Rilo Kiley called it quits. During this time, Lewis moonlighted with The Postal Service, providing the female vocal counterpart to Ben Gibbard’s rather infamous electronic project on their debut album, Give Up (2003). Lewis also formed her own band with Johnathan Rice, appropriately named Jenny And Johnny, releasing their debut album I’m Having Fun Now in 2010. Jenny Lewis has also had a successful solo career, and has released two solo albums to date – Rabbit Fur Coat (2006) and Acid Tongue (2008), as well as a soundtrack for Very Good Girls starring Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen in 2013. Once a child actress herself, Lewis is now set to release another solo album, Voyager, via Warner Bros. Records on July 29th. She’s been performing teasers from the record at live performances, but now she’s officially released “Just One Of The Guys,” the first single off of the upcoming album.
Produced by Beck (who also provides the background vocals), the track is reminiscent of the floating and relaxed country/indie/folk blends that both artists are known for. “Just One Of The Guys” rolls through each verse and chorus with accented 2nd and 4th beats (on a steady 4/4 metre) that acts to keep the song moving while the slow tempo relaxes the mood. The drums actualize this rhythm as an electric guitar lazily strums over the beat. While the bells in the background add to the charm, nothing is more charming than Lewis’ vocals. While she rests in her middle range for the majority of the tune, she stretches into her soprano towards the end of the track, and the breathy beauty in her voice is fully realized – a fragility artfully counteracted by Beck’s lower, grumbling vocals.
Regardless of its musical pleasantness, “Just One Of The Guys” is actually a pretty angry song. The frustration and dismay inherent in the narrative are mapped out plainly in the opening lines: “All our Friends, they’re getting on, but the girls are still staying young.” Lewis goes on to tackle the particular nuances of gendered double standards, in particular society’s approval of older, single, bachelors and subsequent disapproval of unwed, motherless women of a certain age. It’s not just societal faults that plague Lewis; as the chorus continues into the second verse, she wonders at the thing inside that won’t let her be as disaffected as her cooler male counterparts. And it’s not just her feminine emotions getting the best of her, but also that pesky biological clock. While her honesty is nearly cringe inducing, the last bridge of the song reflects a shoring up of resolve and a recognition of the strength of the so-called “weaker” sex: “I’m not gonna break for you, I’m not gonna pray for you, I’m not gonna pay for you, That’s not what ladies do.” The simplicity of the song belies the potential complexity of its content, and while it’s not clear if Lewis is really attempting to buck tradition or desperately give into it, it is still, in its way, astute and astoundingly relatable. It’s not quite “Just A Girl” but it’s got all the makings of a successful indie pop hit.
Jenny Lewis is currently in the middle of a national tour; Voyager comes out on July 29th. In the meantime, check out the lyric video for “Just One Of The Guys” below:
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