Queer grief and the secret chord with Kate McKinnon: it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah

It shows how fast and repetitively 2016 has thrown up its global shocks that I can no longer remember which act of political violence or extremist victory in June or July prompted the first set of tweets implying that, as this internet-meme-in-waiting put it:

The same sardonic imagination might make it seem as if Leonard Cohen, whose death was announced two days after the result of the US election, had known after a lifetime of meditating on hopelessness and brokenness and grief what was coming, and couldn’t bear it.

Cohen had died, in fact, on the Monday, his death notice held over to the Friday so that his family could hold a private funeral; still publicised in time for Saturday Night Live, the same comedy show responsible for casting Trump as a figure of fun not a harbinger of hatred throughout the campaign, to cold-open its first show since the election with Kate McKinnon, as Hillary Clinton in a dark Oval Office, giving a piano recital of Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’.

‘Hallelujahs’ are two-a-penny on celebrity TV, cut back to their least savage verses and arranged for harmonised-by-committee talent-show voice, and SNL deserves no credit for providing Trump and his persona with a normalising platform during the campaign.

Yet a rawness in McKinnon’s performance, never releasing itself, still reaches viewers through, or even across the barrier of, the part her show has taken in US public culture. I couldn’t put it into words until I saw these tweets by Aaron Bady:

And when he put it like that – it often takes someone else to put it like that – this, for the first time since Wednesday, was the one that got me.

More than anything else a queer artist has made since the election, except perhaps this strip by the illustrator Molly Ostertag and its devastating last line ‘And you wonder if that was the best it will ever be’:

Ostertag captures what my own gaze reads back into McKinnon. A grief for how much more free you could feel, as a queer woman in America, compared to what you fear might be in front of you even when (especially when) you might have had the privilege of not realising its likelihood before, and compared to how you expected to grow up. It changed in your lifetime, after the struggles of the 1980s, all the tentative steps of the 1990s, under those eight years of Obama; now it’s lashing back. And catching, as it does so, all those younger people, who weren’t supposed to have to have it quite as bad.

Joy and love and art that had to look over its shoulder a little bit less often than it used to, coming to terms with having to do so even more.

Six months ago, McKinnon was its symbol. The makers of the all-female Ghostbusters never said or were never allowed to say that Jillian Holtzmann, McKinnon’s swaggering engineer, was queer; the queer women of the internet started filling in the gaps, as soon as the first trailer dropped and Holtzmann pushed up her yellow goggles to wink to camera, with ’Kate McKinnon’s 10 [or more than 10] gayest “Ghostbusters” gay moments of gay’.

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Everything was about Holtzmann, the way that in 2015 everything had been about Imperator Furiosa, and growing up in the 1990s I could never have imagined – could McKinnon? – such a public, instant, transatlantic moment of sheer queer joy.

(I still missed Ghostbusters when it came out;

(and yes, all this excitement for a white American woman in a scrappy uniform licking the barrel of a gun, even if what it does in Ghostbusters is captures ghosts, and we were going to have to talk about this queer militarism thing sometime;)

and now its present is another past.)

Even on SNL McKinnon had been part of that before: her impression of the machismo of Justin Bieber’s Calvin Klein ads in 2015, channelling half the drag kings in America, made Shauna Miller, in The Atlantic, write ‘McKinnon’s Bieber might be one of the most radically queer images to sneak onto network TV right now […] there’s a gay dog whistle on blast every time she’s on screen’.

kd lang’s Vanity Fair cover with Cindy Crawford, in 1993 (lang dressed in a three-piece suit, Crawford pretending to shave her face in a barber’s chair) – if there’s an early 1990s equivalent at all – must have had an effect like that on queer women who already knew each other and what they were and where they could have space to say so.

I had no community like that to know what media images did excite queer women most in 1993. I didn’t know the story about Vanity Fair for years, and tried to know as little as possible about kd lang. What I did do, in 1993 through 1995, was watch a lot of women with short-but-unthreatening hair and trouser suits singing sad ballads and try to read queer meanings into and around their lyrics, not that I had any idea for years more that I was doing that.

McKinnon’s voice catches on a line about touch, and with decades of gay dog whistles to guide the ear, it sounds like queer desire back in the closet.

The first time, it’s ‘baby, I’ve been here before’ so close to ‘I used to live alone before I knew you’; the second time, knowing what comes next, it’s that very first line, ‘I’ve heard there was a secret chord’, when for so long a secret chord was all that queer music on television could ever be.

There isn’t even a line about touch for McKinnon’s voice to have caught on. I don’t know what I heard. A clip of Sarah McLachlan’s ‘Adia’ is getting in there; except, through an archive I could only have imagined as a far-off fantasy in the mid-1990s, I can establish in seconds that the darkness and the piano probably mean it’s ‘Angel’, not ‘Adia’ at all, and the date and a few other things mean –

– what they mean, which were my fault, and which they shouldn’t have had to.

The song runs to three minutes, just right to fit into a Eurovision Song Contest in the mid-nineties from Norway or Sweden if the song wasn’t by Cohen and if they lit the stage up bright blue; and already it indexes so many secret chords that I have trouble seeing a Hillary Clinton in that scene at all.

And this is all in a period of cultural production, or one we’ve just come out of perhaps, where queer creators have been going back to that past of closeted viewers watching closeted performers as a past. The meanings of the silences and hesitant glances in Carol, released last year, echo their fifties originals, carrying their double meanings through the screen for queers, but assume a straight audience, as well as a queer audience, that understands how to read them and knows what unhappiness it caused.

Their equivalents in The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith’s novel, were like that because they were on the bounds of what it was permissible to print, with the author’s name herself concealed as ‘Claire Morgan’.

Reading The Talented Mr Ripley, a few months after seeing Carol, I was struck by a reading – galling but true to its time – in which what triggers the murder that Ripley spends the rest of the book trying to cover up is perhaps itself an incident of deeply sublimated queer desire, which Ripley can’t acknowledge and his friend – so successful a performer of straight upper-class masculinity that his name gets to be Dickie – simply can’t accept.

Ostertag’s comic and McKinnon’s song, through my interpretive filter but perhaps for others, both tug at the fear of potentially having to take that fear back into your own present. That suddenly, for four years, for eight years, under whatever circumstances the president’s fundamentalist and white supremacist advisers in the White House choose, you will have to think much more carefully before making a declaration that might just have been becoming everyday, that need not have been a declaration at all.

The clampdown on social media that writers like Masha Gessen or Sarah Kendzior have feared could manifest in an assault on the virtual spaces where radical and progressive social movements organise – or the swarm harassment that a hostile White House could allow to have the same effect – would take away an everyday space that queers not familiar with the history of state repression of radical movements had come to take for granted; where the first thing you could expect to log on to in the morning was a gifset of McKinnon’s Holtzmann, not a swastika.

(Remembering: Americans are not the first people this has happened to.)

Back to the video to write this post and there is McKinnon’s wink right there, I thought it was, the first time, but there was so much else to hear.

The wink, in the armoury of queer signalling, is the throwing star. An instant flicker of the eye, stealing the moment of safety or bravado, to say unambiguously yet deniably: I’m saying this thing and I’m also saying something else. You catch her wink in time to recognise it, or you don’t, and then the rest of the encounter becomes Was that my imagination? A magic from a time when you couldn’t just play it back, let alone count on being able, not just once every few months but daily, to seek, find, celebrate, name, share.

One wink with swagger, one wink with grief, and all in the same year.

There is McKinnon’s second, on such a loaded line, ‘I used to live alone before I knew you’, heavy with queer solitude and history; a signal from a time that the men in the White House call paradise, when the gay dog whistle could never be louder than a secret chord.

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