Sasha Geffen writes a captivating musical and social history in Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary. Not only do they* capture the magic of music through the decades, they also explain how a plethora of performers broke through the limitations of strictly binary gender presentation. I am in awe of the courage each performer exhibits in their own time period. Plus, Geffen’s writing style is lyrical in its own right.

They start with 1930s female blues singers who were both queer and Black like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Gladys Bentley. Moving forward through time, Geffen discusses both the sounds musicians explore and the way they present themselves to the world. The list they cover is long and varied including The Beatles to Patti Smith, Prince, Kurt Cobain, Frank Ocean, and Sophie.

A musician with a wide vocal range chooses to use certain parts of that range. When combined with their stage or video presence, that person can nudge the binary boundaries. It’s the musicians who nudge the most that Geffen focuses on here. And as they say, “The gender binary cannot really be broken, because the gender binary has never been whole.” (p. 1) If that is the book’s thesis, then Geffen proves it fully in just over 200 pages. Bravo!

My conclusions

This book made me play nostalgic music, as well as some songs and groups new to me. It often made me shake my head and say, “I never thought of it that way … but makes absolute sense.” We cannot assume that binary simplicity ever had its moment in history, musical or otherwise. People chose nonbinary options in many locations and times. But we focus on our own narrow time, sometimes forgetting that a few decades earlier wildly successful artists broke supposedly unbreakable barriers.

Geffen is incredibly granular about their scope. They focus on the artists breaking binary boundaries. But at the same time, this is a wide-ranging, multi-decade history that spans countless musical genres. Sometimes a particular artist dominates almost an entire chapter, while another might warrant only a small mention. Still, when combined, this is comprehensive and sometimes mind-blowing.

But Glitter Up isn’t all sweetness and sparkles. The stories of inner strength against all odds inspired me. It also makes me mad that people have to fight so damn hard to outwardly reflect who they are in their soul. That they transcend the very real potential societal ridicule gives me hope. But not everyone transcends. Some people never escape the anger and lack of acceptance around them. After we shed a tear, Geffen encourages us to open our eyes and support the artists being true to themselves.

“There’s magic in making yourself, and so often that magic leaks out in the form of music.” (p. 220)

I recommend Glitter Up the Dark to anyone who loves music, especially if you also appreciate the complexities of LGBTQIA+ issues or would like to learn more. It’s a stellar exploration of the intersection of both topics.

Pair with Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming, a memoir about a performer finding themselves. Or try All the Young Men: A Memoir of Love, AIDS, and Chosen Family in the American South by Ruth Coker Burks, which has some fantastic stories about the world of drag.

Geffen’s chosen pronouns are they / them, so I follow that convention here.