second round game
(7) lita ford, "kiss me deadly"
(15) tnt, "10,000 lovers (in one)"
& lita plays on
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchshredness twitter poll. Polls closed @ 9am Arizona time on 3/12.
beth nguyen on lita ford's "kiss me deadly"
I never learned the difference between heavy metal and hair metal, or any other kind of musical metal, because for years they all meant the same thing: screaming, unattractive white men with unwashed hair, with mouths that formed hideous shapes in order to emit their wails, matched by equally shrieking electric guitar sounds that absolutely had to be played at top volume. Back then, in the 1980s of my youth, I didn’t like anything about these guys. But my two older sisters did, and they had total control of the radio. School mornings, they’d wake up extra early to tease their bangs as high as they could get them. Their music would wear me down until I too knew all the songs by heart.
But every once in a while there would come a song and a singer that made me want to listen. “Kiss Me Deadly” by Lita Ford thrilled immediately with its opening lines. My sisters and I were growing up in a deeply conservative town in Michigan where many of our friends weren’t allowed to go out on Sundays, much less watch MTV or listen to lyrics like
I went to a party last Saturday night
I didn’t get laid, I got in a fight, uh huh
It ain’t no big thing
The first time I heard those lines I was thirteen, old enough to know that I would never in any way resemble a woman like Lita Ford. Not that I wanted to be her, any more than I wanted to be Madonna or Cyndi Lauper. But I was fascinated by these women, who were wild or outrageous in different ways. I loved watching them because—I only understand this now—they were interesting women in worlds that didn’t want them even to be. I could admire them, and root for them, without wanting to be them.
Lita Ford was a rare hair metal women among all those hair metal men. She wasn’t going to be in the background, playing a vacant-eyed sex object in some guy’s video. When Lita Ford sang and performed, you paid attention; she didn’t even have to scream and wail. Sure, she carried the look, with hair that went big rather than shiny, big and so full of spray that I knew if she whipped her head around and her hair hit you in the face, it would hurt. She wore black leather, tight; black eyeliner and frosted lipstick. I understood this was a uniform she was required to maintain. I was more interested in how she took control of the stage, the screen; she played guitar with a bravado I could not fathom, her body hunched, simultaneously concentrating and preparing to spring forth.
Nothing to eat and no TV
Looking in the mirror don’t get it for me, uh huh
It ain’t no big thing
I see Lita Ford at a party, dancing close with some guy. He’s no one special but it’s a dance, a song, something to do. Another girl tries to push her way in, but Lita isn’t going to stand for that. She elbows the girl away. The girl elbows back, using some shoulder. And that’s it. Lita turns and swings and they’re off, pulling each other’s hair and yelling. Then Lita is out on the rain-soaked sidewalk, alone, pulling her leather jacket over her shoulders. She needs a cigarette. She walks alone, angry at first and then—fuck them. She tosses the half cigarette toward the curb. She doesn’t care where it lands.
This isn’t her music video. It’s my devised narrative, starting where I was at age thirteen; it’s how Lita Ford has stayed in my mind all these years.
This is the life she’s ended up in—so what. The hair, the leather, the nights that don’t turn out the way she thought they could. The morning is always too bright. There’s nothing to eat in the house. She has to ask her dad for money and he argues with her. It’s the same thing she’s heard for years: what is she doing with her life, when is she going to get her act together, she’s a mess. He goes right to the edge of what he means to say, what men always end up saying: you look like a whore and you act like a bitch.
It ain’t no big thing, Lita says, to her friends, to herself. She gets another cigarette, puts on that same leather jacket.
Lita Ford finds her own way.
When I google Lita Ford in 2018, I discover that she’s been out of music for years, held back by her now ex-husband; they had a rancorous divorce and she hasn’t seen her two children in years. She says her ex has been keeping them from her, has turned them against her. Before the divorce, they’d been in talks for a reality TV show for E!.
I hesitate; I want to know more and yet I don’t want to know any more. I want Lita Ford to stay in mind as she was back in 1987. I suppose, in a way, that’s what we all want, those of us who like returning to another era, to the past that gets deeper, and want to keep it as it is but also let it bend to our own shifting gaze and perspective. I want Lita Ford to be the same but I want myself, my 1987 self, to be different.
What did I know at age thirteen? Almost nothing. I was used to whiteness, sure—raised in its world (this world). But I was also a child of Vietnamese refugees, myself a refugee. Someone who had learned to be careful. My life couldn’t have been farther from Lita Ford’s. I was never going to be someone who got into a fight at a party. Yet I could see her then, as I do now. I see her in the morning hours, that time of rethinking and possible regret. Lita Ford isn’t wasting time on regret. She isn’t waiting for some guy to choose her. If she doesn’t go home with someone it’s going to be her choice. She can hold her own in a fight just as well. It’s not a big thing. It merely exists in a series of continual maneuvers having to do with the body.
I remember saying to my sisters, back in 1987, what does she mean kiss me deadly? The adverb didn’t really follow, didn’t really make sense. It still doesn’t. Sometimes I want it to have a comma as in Kiss Me, Deadly; sometimes I change it to Kiss Me Deftly. Part of the joy of the song is that, like Lita Ford herself, it doesn’t care. It prefers action over talking. Come on, pretty baby. I sing with her every time.
Beth (Bich Minh) Nguyen is the author of the memoir Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, the novel Short Girls, and the novel Pioneer Girl. Her work has received an American Book Award and a PEN/Jerard Award, among other honors, and has been featured in numerous anthologies and university and community reads programs. She directs the MFA in Writing Program at the University of San Francisco, where she teaches fiction and creative nonfiction.
BERRY GRASS ON TNT'S "10,000 LOVERS (IN ONE)"
It sounds idyllic, right? You’d think, I don’t know, merely one dozen lovers would suffice for paradise, but this is hair metal—despite all of the feminized aesthetics it’s a subgenre whose lyrics were so often meant for teenage boys and their hormonal fever dreams. Ten thousand lovers, then! Crucially though, the speaker of TNT’s most notable song yearns for ten thousand lovers in one. A single woman whose passion is legion. Hyperbole is the way pubescence stretches desire, slows time, makes everything there is to want in life both almost within reach (one person to love!) but somehow so far away (who is as good as ten thousand people). But I wouldn’t really know much about how young men desire beyond what they tried to force me into desiring.
This is an essay about how hair metal aesthetics affected me—a trans woman—as a teenager. But like my own coming out, I need to work myself up to it here. I grew up with the music and imagery of hair metal, and I knew enough then to see that the way these bands wore women’s clothing & moved their bodies in such sexual ways was pointing to other possibilities than the normative rural masculinity that was already attempting to enlist me & subsume me. But the only vocabulary I had for this dynamic was that of drag. Biological essentialism constrains the imagination of children. Children in the Midwest aren’t taught about expressing a genuine self or about not conforming to binary gender roles. They’re taught that boys are one way & girls another. Anything that blurs the lines is just drag. Cross-dressing. Fake.
TNT is not like most hair metal bands. They began as a derivative power metal band only to take a turn towards pop, towards the feminine, on their 3rd album, Tell No Tales. Lead vocalist Tony Harnell’s voice is breathtaking in its range & control of pitch and vibrato. He reached Geoff Tate-level high register, & but his band’s music is & look is far girlier, not so much Queensrÿche as just some queens.
The cover for Tell No Tales features the band draped in a lived-in femininity. Some bands of the era performed in bustiers and fishnets and heavy foundation and blush and eye shadow and eyeliner and false lashers and setting powder and lip liner and lipstick—full drag. That’s not quite TNT’s look in 1987. Long, voluminous feathered hair? Yes, of course. But also oversized blazers worn with floral leggings or black denim cutoffs over black stockings or bohemian ruffled garments and Stevie Nicks headbands. But also light makeup. But also practical heels. Somehow this look registers then and now as more acutely queer than drag does. By virtue of its exaggerated performativity, drag takes the feminine (or the masculine, in the case of drag kings) and adorns it onto bodies that are routinely & systemically denied access to it. TNT’s look is more relaxed, less theatrical, and thus more fully realized. Not so much dressing and draping oneself with femininity as much as simply being feminine. Less acting, more actualization.
There are two music videos for “10,000 Lovers”. The original video is conventional for the genre: footage of the band is interspersed with a comic narrative about a teenage boy working a menial fast food job, daydreaming about sticking it to his boss & running away with a couple of hotties. The band enters the narrative’s physical space at the end in order to perform some slapstick (in this case, serve an exploding chili dog to the grumpy boss figure). It was made to play on Headbanger’s Ball. But I am much more taken with the band’s more obscure, minimalist second attempt at a video [embedded above].
Each of the members of TNT are standing on a tall black platform, their personal obelisks close enough to each other to perform as a band, but far enough apart to rule out touching each other. Between and around these lonely stages? Darkness. It’d be entirely black if not for the stage lights attached to lighting rigs aloft in the air. Gaps of nothing between each platform, a plummet into certain doom. The video contains just this single scene. The impact of such staging is immediate and obvious: the speaker of the song feels isolated by their desire.
This is the gut punch of “male socialization” for trans girls: that your entire adolescent and young adult life is about other people telling you what your desire “really” is and what your desire is supposed to be. For someone who is coercively seen as a boy to desire the feminine is an act only understood by normative society in the capacity of sexual conquest, of healthy heterosexual drives. Desiring closeness to the feminine is seen as a misdirected form of those impulses. “You don’t want to be a woman, no, you just love women so much that you want keep ‘em all for yourself! You’d love to have 10,000 women around wouldn’t you, you dog!” Toxic masculinity gets placed upon us as with normative boys but we actually do experience that socialization quite differently. If there’s any substantive form of male socialization experienced by trans girls who are closeted, or who haven’t quite figured out the extent of their gender nonconformity just yet, it’s one that isn’t felt or internalized or understood the same way as it is in cisgender, heterosexual boys. Normative boys are socialized to delight in sexual conquest. A young trans kid like me? I knew what was expected of me but instead of delighting in it I found it repulsive. And more to the point I found that the gendered expectations just didn’t understand me. I didn’t want to take a lover, let alone a bunch of lovers. I wanted to be the lover, yearned for. I wanted to pursue my ambitions as a woman, not pursue women. I wanted to be feminine, not control the feminine.
Alone on his dark tower on the soundstage, wearing a velvet jacket and light foundation, Tony Harnell sings a song about desiring this woman who contains multitudes. This woman who is fractional by thousands and thousands but who is also whole. But I’d like you to think as best you can how a young trans girl might feel about these lyrics. Placing herself into the role of the speaker, how the song hits a young trans girl who is herself isolated by what she desires.
She desires herself. Not possession of herself but actualization of herself. She is the multitudinous woman. “Seems like I've known her a thousand years./ We've been together all through our lives./” Great chasms & pitfalls between the boy she’s seen as and the girl she is. To reconcile the two would be to fall, fall. But the two are always together, just out of reach. Stuck, alone, in a body and a social role that doesn’t work, the spotlight of it all leaving your skin singed. “Just a kid on a highway to nowhere./ Wishin' for my girl to be real,/ she would satisfy my soul.” The knowledge that your desire can save you but the suspicion that you could never make it real. That desire was first for you not about sexuality but about self-actualization. That you are the locus of your own desire, that you are what you desire, even, and that you are to blame for not attaining your desire.
Let me tell you how a single web search set me back a decade. I grew up in a modest rural town in Missouri. My mom was raising me & my little brother by herself on a teacher’s salary. We were too poor to have a computer in our home until the early 2000s, when I was in high school. But without access to the internet, a rural trans kid like me is not going to have any information about what they are experiencing. There’s no books in the library system that explain what gender dysphoria is. There’s no resources at school on feminist thought. Sex education at a Midwest high school was the heteronormative cage that you’d expect. There’s no community of queer elders in town. The only information on trans people is what you get from popular media. In the 1990s & early 2000s, all depictions of trans women on TV were ribald stereotypes of sex-crazed men in dresses getting into verbal spats on Jerry Springer and being asked about “the surgery.” Trans women were the plot twist in movies; mostly they were killers, & even when they were depicted with femininity they were always outed as the fakes that the camera’s lens (which is to say, society’s normative gaze) saw them as, occasioning grossed-out faces & lots of pantomimed vomiting.
The first time that I worked up the nerve to do a web search for “how do I know if I’m transgender?,” I didn’t find any info on gender dysphoria. I didn’t find the narratives and experiences of trans people that would give me the vocabulary I desperately needed to make sense of myself. Instead, I got information on the scientific-sounding pathology called autogynephilia—love of one’s self as a woman. This concept was theorized by sexologist Ray Blanchard, and developed further by J. Michael Bailey in his well-read pop science book, The Man Who Would Be Queen. That book came out in 2003, which was coincidentally the year I was 17 years old & realizing that something felt very very wrong about my body & the expectations placed upon it. Which is to say that autogynephilia was in the news & was being championed as a legitimate diagnosis.
I will try to quickly break down Blanchard’s absurd theory of autogynephilia. His thinking is that trans women are certainly not women. They are instead either 1.) very homosexual men, who want to be with normative straight men so they feel more comfortable being seen as a woman in order to fit into that normativity, or 2) they are perverted heterosexual men who fetishize the idea of looking like or being seen as a woman. Seventeen year old me, inclined toward science, read all of this & deeply internalized it. I had to reckon with myself: was there sexual fantasy involved in my emotional experience? The answer was yes. All of the fantasies that I would masturbate to, all of the images of desire playing in my mind, were of me as a woman. Literally all of them. Instead of trying to find counterpoints to the autogynephila theory, I just accepted that it was hard science & therefore correct. I didn’t have the maturity or the resources then to realize that, duh, it’s completely normal for women to think of themselves AS women when it comes to sex. I lacked the ability to see that I wasn’t the perverted man that I was scared of being or growing into, but rather my subconscious was giving myself a glimpse of the freedom that I needed to pursue. Autogynephila is bunk science that medical & psychological fields have come to nearly universally reject, and yet the cultural stigma of it still exists. I wouldn’t let myself search for other information or experiences for many years. I wouldn’t come out as transgender until 10 years from that first web search.
So I did not want to consider the exploding chili dog. I did not want to think about the comic triviality of TNT’s initial video for “10,000 Lovers” (though, even within its generic normativity, I spot a bit of eyeliner on our central figure of the all-American boy). I wanted to think about that stark second video, which captures for me the perilous feeling of being trans and mixed up by everyone else’s confusion about trans people. To be told that I wasn’t a woman at all, just a man who was turned on by the thought of being one & to see on TV the performative feminized aesthetic of hair metal musicians—whose lyrics and swagger scream masculinity in spite of the lace and the hairspray and the smoky eyes—reinforce that message & to have those same rock stars in drag be the closest thing to trans people I’d see for years. How[ ]alone I felt. Surrounded by great chasms, finally, ill-fatedly, I was told that I did not desire to be feminine. Really, says Blanchard and Bailey, I just wanted to possess the feminine to satisfy my urges. I was a sex pervert. A seventeen year old freak. A kid on a highway to nowhere. But through that pseudoscientific shame, part of me still knew the way life could be. Part of me still burned endlessly.
Berry Grass is a trans writer who lives & teaches writing in Philadelphia (before that: Tuscaloosa and Kansas City). Their essays and poems appear in DIAGRAM, The Normal School, The Wanderer, Barrelhouse, and The Tiny, among other publications. When they aren't reading submissions as the Nonfiction Editor of Sundog Lit, they are embodying what happens when a Virgo watches too much professional wrestling.