Success in a heteronormative, capitalist society equates too easily two specific forms of reproductive maturity combined with wealth accumulation… Under certain circumstances failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways being in the world. Failing is something queers do and have always done exceptionally well. (Halberstam, 2011)
Last week, I called up Andy Butler, a long time DJ and music producer. I called him up to ask for his wisdom and experience. Since his project Hercules and Love Affair sits at the vanguard of various LGBTQI+ communities’ and their dance scenes and since his new album Omnion will be released this week, Andy seemed the perfect candidate to clarify my own academic interest in queer theory and perhaps assuage my own fear-filled cultural analysis.
After connecting with Andy and without much preamble beyond Halberstam’s quote, I launched into explaining my fears. I explained that from Queer Eye to Modern Family, from Nordstrom’s anti-Trump boycotts to its celebration of Pride Week, there seems to be a shift in how America gazes upon LGBTQI+ communities. But I also see developing the nascent patterns of a very American ethnic paradox. As has occurred in the histories of African and Mexican Americans, the food and musical artifacts of marginalized minority communities being commandeered and capitalized upon by the American nation. This occurs right at the same time as the civil rights and general sense of well-being in those minority groups are devastated. As Hip Hop and certain black styles became accepted and commodified, society doubled down it’s efforts to control, dominate and disappear Black lives. Chipotle is now everywhere, but burritos are called wraps; Justin Bieber sings songs in Spanish but a resurgence of racist, rage and hate is justifying deportation. There is the promise of building a border-wall, protecting good Americans from those “bad hombres, rapists and criminals” down there. There is even a presidential pardoning for a clearly racist Sheriff from Arizona.
The LGBTQI+ communities now embody a new, marketable kind of cultural capital. Corporations can brand the queer community and exploit an image of diversity and pride. They can support gay style and queer aesthetics and corner some market all while they turn a blind-eye to the ongoing injustices and suffering of those people. Of course, none of these histories are new and each are far more complex, but that’s what my fear amounts to. Fortunately, Andy had an answer:
“Advances have been made in certain [areas]. With so much information being so highly accessible and publicized, a lot of light has been shed on pretty terrible situations around the world. In some countries where advances seemingly are made there are still backward steps being made. There is definitely a lot of work to be done to get basic human rights for lots of people on the planet, you know?
If money can be made somewhere, businesses are going to go there. And if they’re aware that a segment of their buyers identify as one thing or another, they will pander to the consumer’s tendencies.
It’s about being scrutinizing and questioning, taking a second to question the motivation behind the companies you’re supporting, the face they might be presenting, the spin they might be putting on things, and becoming as informed as you can before handing money over to people who might not have your best interest in mind, but that are happy to display a rainbow flag or have a soundtrack and put A Tribe Called Quest as a promotion to sell something that is ultimately not good for the planet — that’s not good for the people they’re actually targeting. I mean, it’s a difficult, difficult position. It’s a tricky business for consumers in capitalism.
I feel like on some level, with the band Hercules and Love Affair, I’ve seen a fair amount of success. I’ve seen people give critical praise. I’ve seen people applaud the diversity that the project expresses. But do I feel like I haven’t seen the success I could have if I had been a closeted performer? Not living my truth? Writing pop songs that any old person could appreciate that are kind of low on the substance level when it came to lyrical content? Maybe…
But it just wouldn’t be who I am. I have experienced some frustration, definitely, in my career, where I felt like my music is too gay, my project is too gay, too queer. But I don’t tend to get hung up on that stuff too much because I can easily get lost in a negative thought cycle. It can inhibit me or prevent me from continuing to do what I do. I think the fans that appreciate what I do really get it and sincerely applaud those things that we’re talking about. They don’t just pay lip service to them.
I guess there is sort of a spirit of resistance in my music. There has always been a certain defiance. I’ve put forward from the beginning that the motley crew that I have around me — the people that I love and that I’ve loved since I came out of the closet, since I was able to choose my community, and choose my family — we are powerful, special, significant, important, contributors to the world. There has always been a defiant pride which I’ve moved through the world with my art and my music and with the people who have been involved with Hercules. I’m proud to have had them involved. I feel fortunate to have had them involved.”
Andy’s strong and intelligent response assuaged me some. He remains hopeful and committed to his task of making his music and speaking his truth. But I wondered out loud to him, wouldn’t it be better if we just failed the system and ignored its false offerings? Shouldn’t we know better that they’re only tempting us into their temple that they might sacrifice us to their exploitive and ugly system to reproduce their own success? I asked him for assurance that there was hope in queer failure. I needed to hear his agreement with Halberstam’s theory and aesthetic promise. He seemed to understand all that I was scared for (I’m sure more viscerally than my safe, straight academic position confers). He acknowledged the value of caution and paranoia, but he also pushed through, maintained his pride and defiance all while promising a kind of hope in family.
“Value can be attached and answers found through frustrations, failures, disappointments and roadblocks. This way of thinking is very true and wise. It’s been the case of my life. It’s very counterintuitive. It doesn’t make sense on some level, but in moments of flat out failure sometimes complete opportunity and truth can be revealed. When you say a gay or queer person on some level has fundamentally failed the system, that they are not necessarily biologically predisposed, or by their choices, have contributed to this notion of creation, procreation and wealth accumulation in the same way, I find it actually to be quite destructive and counterproductive. In my personal thoughts around having a family and raising a child, for instance, adoption would be the only way. That would be what I feel is the most socially responsible and personally fulfilling. That would be something I think everyone should be doing — queer or not. There are so many children. We already face overpopulation on this planet. I feel blessed that I am put in a position where that is my option. I could offer a solution here as opposed to potentially contributing to the problems that this planet faces.
On one of the songs on the new album called “Fools Wear Crowns” there is this notion of admitting your shortcomings, errors, mistakes and failures. There is a real power to be found in that.
It’s kind of the same way that I was called a sissy for so much of my life. I turned to look at that experience and realized there is something powerful there, something I can reclaim. There is something there that makes me special. In the eyes of others it’s a shortcoming. But for me it’s going to work. And, you know what? It’s going to work beautifully…
From the very onset, the name Hercules And Love Affair was a nod to this notion that I find beautiful and that I’ve romanticized and applied to my life in general — and it’s a very queer perspective. The name comes from a story about the strongest man on Earth who wandered around saving people’s lives and killing monsters that were terrorizing villages. Well, it just so happened that the strongest man on Earth also happened to have romantic feelings towards men. Specifically one that was very, very dear to him, Hylas. When he loses Hylas, Hercules is ravaged. He cannot function. He wanders the Earth for years like a shell of a human being. I thought this was a very interesting notion: the physically strongest of legends actually left his most bereft and vulnerable because of the love he had for a younger man.
There is this notion that there is a strength in vulnerability. You can open up and reveal yourself and the world isn’t going to take you down. You have a better chance through all of this if you’re real. If you have a front, or if you lead with bravado and machismo you have less credibility. I don’t need it; the world doesn’t need it. What we need is real people walking around. I always write from that place.
I find inspiration in people who embrace their femininity, people who embrace the world to the fullest, people who have experienced gender dysphoria, who are not in the right body and who make the brave decision to inhabit other ways of being by living their truth.”
Calling Andy a role model of queer failure might not sound like much of a compliment, but if success in the American system is what those men in Charlottesville demand, I’m sure Andy will proudly and defiantly celebrate his failure. Through Hercules and Love Affair’s failures to live up to certain exceptional and unfair demands on reproduction, career and sexuality, we too might imagine new, more creative and more cooperative ways of being in the world.
We could consume Hercules and Love Affair’s new album like we have rap and wraps in the past, ignoring the cultural debt owed to the Black and Mexican bodies we simultaneously see suffering at the front lines of today’s civil rights struggles, or we could look to the project as something we should support and love more deeply. We could listen to the new album, Omnion, not only as something exciting, cool and queer, but as representing a lot of hurting people out there, people we can help and who can help us imagine new ways to fail and free the world from such ugly success.