When Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote “Is That All There Is?” for Marlene Dietrich—she quite rightly turned them down—Leiber imagined a narrator who was left nonplussed by a trip to the circus. I wish I could start a story that would end quite differently, by testifying that when I was twelve years old, my father took me to a gay bar, the genuinely greatest show on earth. But that would be to tell a lie. (My mother, however, did take me to see the Indigo Girls and Melissa Etheridge when I was eighteen. Those were pretty great shows.)
Nonetheless, I still associate gay bars, and especially gargantuan gay dance clubs, with awe. I have fond memories of the music playing in the single gay bar in Charlottesville, Virginia, when I met my first fiancé in the spring of 1994. And by the spring of 1996, after I had been a regular habitué of the cavernous space of Rich’s in Houston, my sonic palate had become permanently realigned. One of the reasons must have been that the eroticism before my eyes—what seemed like miles and miles of glistening skin—made me fall in love with the house music booming into my ears. Fine, I admit it . . . there most likely was no other reason.
Can such a realignment, or anything invoking that great conversation-stopping word “awe,” be narrated? (How does eroticism work, anyway?) Contemporary scholarship in religious studies suggests some options. Since I had been supplementing my graduate-school stipend with gigs as a substitute church organist, and in my spare time listening to dozens of lesbians with acoustic guitars who had managed to wrangle record contracts, perhaps one might speak of the mid-1990s as a time when what had been noise to me became music, with the dance club becoming a site where new experiences of awe were mediated to me. One might even speak of the pleasure felt by clubgoers as an implicit rebuke to the emptiness of the world outside.
Yet as valuable as borrowing such strategies might be to talk about the experiences of clubgoers, they say little about the music itself, or the processes through which certain songs came to be played for gay male audiences, or how the UK music press marketed music made by African Americans to gay white men. The music was, and remains, strange. Certainly, it was not all strange. There were paeans to the body and its erotic possibilities. Especially after the success of the film Paris Is Burning, there were bitchy putdowns. And on the pop charts, there were anthems of what journalists called “handbag house,” worthy heirs to the sublimely ridiculous single-entendre anthems of the disco era.
It would raise eyebrows to describe house music as secular, however. As it was proclaimed to be “a spiritual thing,” the genre was capacious enough to include songs that somehow arrived from the church, or refused to acknowledge that they had ever left it. Joe Smooth’s “Promised Land” was a denationalized utopian messianism, a covenantal commitment to unlimited nameless others steeped in pain. (“Promised Land” was of a piece with other late-1980s classics of house music that expressed utopian desires.) Later in the 1990s, the dance floor became home to gospel tracks, tracks that rose up the club charts, such as Donna Allen’s “He Is the Joy” and BeBe Winans’s “Thank You.” More recently, the circulation of sacred music into the dance clubs, and from there into popular culture, has been head-scratchingly complex. Two very truncated and simplified stories:
- In the mid-1980s, onetime disco diva Candi Staton, who was at that time recording only gospel music, authorized a remix of a song she had recorded entitled “You Got the Love.” In this and other remixed forms, the song met with some club-play success over a few reissues in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Today, the song is best known in the form of a remix from late 1996 that, in the version for radio airplay, omits the verse in which Staton belts, “Occasionally I call out ‘Master, make me new!’” and went Top 5 in the United Kingdom. Even later, in 2004, it was famously the soundtrack to the ending montage in the final episode of Sex and the City, a montage that substituted friendship between women for God.
- In 2003, a remix of “Stand On the Word,” originally written by Phyllis Joubert and sung by a children’s choir from the First Baptist Church in Crown Heights (where Joubert was the music director), began to circulate among record distributors. It was credited to the famed disc jockey Larry Levan, one of the most important New York DJs from the late 1970s until his death in the early 1990s. (Just like Barry Manilow, Levan had gotten his start working at the Continental Baths.) But there was no such remix; someone had pressed the choir’s original track onto vinyl and attached Levan’s name to it for the purpose of giving it authenticity among DJs.
You, longtime reader of The Immanent Frame, may think that you know where this story of the blurred boundary between the church and the club, the sacred and the profane, is going. After all, if non-Christian and nonbelieving persons are dancing to sacred music, and if a woman in a black church can morph into Sarah Jessica Parker without needing a shred of CGI artistry, isn’t this evidence that secularity is open to something outside of itself, that the apparently most profane spaces are anything but profane? Aren’t clubgoers just contemporary versions of the narrator of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Pied Beauty”? Despite what they might say to an interviewer, aren’t they really saying, “Glory be to God for dappled things,” or that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God” and watched over by a benevolent spirit “with warm breast and with ah! bright wings”?
For if the realm of the secular cannot be delimited always and everywhere—if it cannot come to presence as itself #BlahBlahDerridaspeak—who is to say that its porousness is not evidence of some kind of transcendent agency? We could then shout to the top and proclaim that this is not all there is. There is something else, something beyond, something above, and it is up to us scholars to at least narrate the holes in secularity, and perhaps it is even up to us scholars to pick up our axes and create more holes.
Feh. We should resist such instincts. It is not obvious that the story of gospel on the dance floor is a story of transcendence revealing that the walls of the secular are not as solid as we secularists thought they were. It could just as easily be a story of transcendence domesticated and profaned by some combination of watered-down spirituality and cultural appropriation, whether that of white gay men of African American culture, or male music producers of women’s voices. (Also to be added to the combination: glistening flesh. How could I have forgotten that part?)
Telling that other story, or some variation on it, could be a story of a different kind of redemption, one closer to Walter Benjamin’s claim that “the messianic is nature in its eternal and total transience,” a claim that appears near the close of his exceedingly dense 1921 “Theological-Political Fragment.” Recently, Judith Butler has clarified Benjamin’s claim as follows:
The embrace of transitoriness implies the loss of the very first-person perspective that would make the embrace; to hear or sense the rhythm of transience is precisely to allow one’s own loss, even the loss of one’s own finite personhood, to become at once small and iterable. Happiness seems to follow from the vacating of the anthropocentric conceit, the focus on what I lose or have lost . . . Happiness, rather, is that rhythmic movement or sound by which each and every living process is washed away, thus linked with one another in their vanishing.
As soon as I decide not to take my ego as the ground of my relationship to the world, my sense of alienation disappears. As soon as I decide not to take the ego and its concept-mongering as the ground of how the world appears to me—as soon as I decide no longer to see the world solely in terms of my take on it—the world can appear differently. But that is not to let transcendence in; it is only to be redeemed from the sense that I am fated to suffer, to always get it wrong and to pay the price for getting it wrong. There is no need to feel caged by the sense that my sins need to be washed away if I myself have already been washed away.
If every living process vanishes and is fated to fall prey to later processes that seem (for awhile) to be better, and if every take on the world vanishes and is fated to fall prey to later interpretations, then the power to name something “this” is a very weak power indeed. Scholarship in (or adjacent to) the study of religion that takes up the connection between messianism and transience would say that all there is does not even amount to a “this.”
To be sure, in the story I have briefly told here, there is this club, this vinyl, this montage, this skin—demonstrative adjectives that do little more than separate this object from that one. But the stories by which these things come to be taken as sites of meaning-making are more complex than the things themselves betray, and those stories complicate all the claims to know something as “this,” as this thing that I have spent hours or years trying to know, and now actually know. More than this, we storytellers are also on the scene, losing ourselves to those who listen to us and correct us, to those by our sides without whom we would have no selves to lose. A truly messianic community of scholars would tell stories, all the while cultivating the skill of helping one another un-tell them, rendering one another lovable because the desire for mastery has been put to the side.
One of the places where egos have happily died in collective effervescence—at least for a comforting moment or six—has been the dance floor. And so there is no reason not to respond to the question “Is this all there is?” by quoting Leiber as innocently and jubilantly as possible: let’s keep dancing.