“Otherwise: Queer Scholarship Into Song” took place Friday at new York’s Dixon Place, presenting a musical review/book party featuring the unconventional transformation of recently released queer scholarly works into original songs. Notably, a review of the evening appeared in today’s New York Times. The writer seems a bit mystified:
“Queer theory, with its impenetrable jargon and radical utopian politics, may seem to have little in common with musical theater beyond an overlapping fan base. But at Thursday’s event, a dozen scholars and the performers invited to interpret their recently published books proved that even if it lacks a beat, you can still dance to it.
“It’s a really queer version of a book launch,” Kay Turner, the organizer and M.C., said at the start of the show. “Tonight we’re going to eat each other’s words and put them into song.”
“The musician David Driver, whose credits include both Dunkin’ Donuts commercials and experimental opera, captured the evening’s spirit of fond mockery when he asked: “Is anyone else thinking what I’m thinking? Total SiriusXM show — all academics, all the time!”
“Ms. Turner, a petite, husky-voiced woman with spiky red hair who works as the chief folklorist at the Brooklyn Arts Council, got her chops, both academic and punk, in the 1980s at the University of Texas, Austin. There she earned a doctorate in folklore and anthropology while moonlighting in the proto-riot grrrl band Girls in the Nose, which specialized in slipping licks of high theory past an unsuspecting audience.
“At Dixon Place, however, the mostly female sellout crowd of nearly 150 had clearly done the reading. By the first chorus of “Cruising Utopia,” Ms. Turner’s take on Jose Muñoz’s book of that name (subtitle: “The Then and There of Queer Futurity”), people were already singing along.
“The source texts were heavier on words like “interrogate” and “morphogenesis” than on Cole Porter-ready couplets. But the performers wore their jargon lightly, often accessorized with Lycra, leopard prints, tinny drum-machine beats and a jaunty, time-traveling mashup aesthetic. In “Full of Other Times,” a song based on Carolyn Dinshaw’s “How Soon Is Now? Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers and the Queerness of Time,” Gretchen Phillips, sporting an updated Flock of Seagulls haircut, dropped fragments of Madonna’s “Material Girl” into her dreamy meditation on ordinary people lost in medieval texts, picked out on a digital guitar.
“In “Expert Testimony,” an oldie based on “Sapphic Slashers,” Lisa Duggan’s 2001 study of thwarted 19th-century lesbian lovers gone wild, one performer, Liz Snyder, warbled Victorian medical jargon over an ersatz reggae beat while dressed in a long black dress, lace-up boots and feathered hat.
“Too reactive, too restrictive,” she recited. “Erotomania! Hereditary insanity!” Not everyone stuck close to the text. The downtown performance artist Dynasty Handbag, assigned to interpret Ann Cvetkovich’s “Depression: A Public Feeling” (which recommends knitting as a resistance activity against capitalist-induced collective anomie), began by noting that she wasn’t going to quote any actual words from the book.
“I couldn’t understand it, so I’m doing my own thing,” she said, before moving into a manic sendup involving a sad medieval nun sent into ecstasy by a vision involving Rachel Maddow and radical craft.She added, “I didn’t get into graduate school.”