Róisín Murphy Against Glampunk

The swirling backlashes kicked up around the “cancellation” of Róisín Murphy have been predictable and sad. As always happens when someone lands themselves in the daily news cycle for being transphobic, the TERFs of Twitter have been out in force to declare that #IStandWithRoisinMurphy. We all know the drill by now.

As ever, most of her new supporters had no idea who she was before she used her personal Facebook account to parrot misinformation about puberty blockers. Ironically, I can imagine her act being denounced by many of them if she’d come on their radar just a few weeks ago, as her public persona has long stood contrary to their growing crusade in defense of “family values”. She’s called herself a “drag queen” before, after all, and we all know how TERFs feel about drag queens.

This is probably the most significant part of the story, which has been rapidly memory-holed by her new defenders, if they were even aware of it at all, but it speaks volumes with regards to the extremity of the u-turn that Murphy’s comments constitute. She has seemingly turned wholly against her own act and the lineage she was once a part of. Murphy hasn’t only betrayed her fans but also herself.

With all due respect, Murphy has always been something of a cult icon — she is hardly a household name — and so it is somewhat surprising that a singer of her relative stature would cause this much of a ruckus. That is why it must be remembered that Murphy hasn’t simply said the wrong thing but spread misinformation about her own fanbase. Indeed, this whole thing blew up because Murphy played up to queer audiences for years — something she went on to strangely deny in her public statement on her comments — and so it is wholly understandable that her queer fans have expressed their disappointment.

This is worth emphasising because it truly takes the steam out of the TERFs rallying to her defense. Is it really a “cancel culture mob” when the person has perpetuated misinformation about their own fanbase? It would be so much stranger if people stuck around and let it slide.

But there’s more to this disappointment than transphobia. It is a betrayal that runs so much deeper. Though Murphy has said little about the extent of her beliefs — although her Facebook comment suggests she’s fallen for a few of the classic lines (“TERF is a slur”; “puberty blockers are a readily accessible crime against nature”) — they signal a profound dissonance between the person she has seemingly been for decades.

Murphy’s queer fanbase does make “absolute sense”, as she said to Gay Times in 2020, because she has long produced a kind of politicised disco that Mark Fisher placed firmly within “the glampunk art pop discontinuum”. (He wrote about her a couple of times in 2004, in fact, and I also wrote about her relationship with Fisher back in 2020.)

Fisher always wrote about glam(punk) as a kind of auto-erotic gender-fuckery, a queer deconstructivism that takes aim at all gazes and socio-psycho-sexual expectations. Take the following comments made about David Bowie as the crown prince of glampunk:

In many ways, and leaving aside his fashion statements and his gender ambivalence (both much more radical, much more important, than most of his music), Bowie functioned — sonically — as a force of reterritorializion. Before I get leapt on, this wasn’t to do with his popularizing of the avant garde. On the contrary. It was to do with his fixating upon the most deterrorialized, most intense elements, and ushering them back into the fold of r and r and melody. Compare his pedestrian and, for me, surprisingly plodding productions of Reed and Iggy with the fissile, molten rock Cale wrought for the Stooges, or the glacial volk he created for Nico. But those very moments of incorporation couldn’t help but inspire a movement in the opposite direction: listeners sent off on voyages of discovery, flights from the self, invention of artificial identities…

This is the core function of glamour (or what Fisher called “glampiricism”): “listeners sent off on voyages of discovery, flights from the self, invention of artificial identities…” Murphy has taken from this lineage, this aberrant “discontinuum” — a triple entendre for the force of disco, its political discontent expressed through dancefloor joy, and its frustrating of any rockist attempts at respectable canonisation — in order to carve out a quite singular niche for herself, securing a career with a surprising longevity, itself assured thanks to an errancy borrowed from the flows of queer time.

She has somehow reneged on that, caught up in the proliferating brainworms of a “gender critical” movement. It is a real shame, since glampunk has long been critical of gender in a far more positive sense. It may shock the TERFs now crowding around her that one comment would derail her career so certainly and suddenly, but they misunderstand how her “bravery” has yanked away the core foundation on which her whole career was built. Murphy is not just another TERF caught up in conservative conspiracies. She has instead enacted a far more pointed and poignant kind of self-destruction. She has betrayed an entire ethos in a single Facebook comment.

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