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Aretha’s ups and downs: a posthumous appreciation

Soul legend transcended erratic chart stats, uneven musical output

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Aretha Franklin, gay news, Washington Blade

An assistant to Aretha Franklin handed out these autographed 8×10 glossies to fans gathered outside a stage door at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Hall during the singer’s ‘The Queen is On’ tour on Oct. 25, 2003. It was billed at the time as her farewell tour, but Franklin continued concertizing throughout the next 14 years. (Photo by Kwaku Alston; courtesy Arista Records)

Aretha Franklin’s career accomplishments were, of course, impressive — 18 competitive Grammys (only Beyonce with 22 and Alison Krauss with 27 have her beat among women), first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and a gravitas in the culture that meant when the U.S. wanted to put its best foot forward — Obama’s inauguration, Pope Francis’ stateside visit — Franklin was the go-to performer (oddly, those two performances were among her less memorable musically).

In a way, Franklin’s accomplishments are a bit curious. She was more a singles-oriented artist, so her various albums (often cobbled together from various recording stints not necessarily recorded with any cohesive statement in mind) never went through the roof. When the 1985 title “30 Greatest Hits” reentered the Billboard chart last week at No. 7 upon news of her death, it was her highest-charting album since her landmark gospel masterpiece “Amazing Grace” made it to no. 7 way back in 1972.

There were also long stretches where Franklin went eons between albums and even when she did release them, they sometimes barely made blips on the charts. Beyonce is, of course, an arbitrary comparison in many ways — she and Franklin are of different eras — but a Beyonce album is always an event. All six of her studio albums have hit the top spot, while Franklin never once had a no. 1-selling album. During her hottest era upon first signing with Atlantic in the late ‘60s, the top spot proved evasive with 1967’s “I Never Loved a Man” peaking at no. 2, “Aretha Arrives” at no. 5, “Lady Soul” at no. 2 and “Aretha Now” at no. 3.

Later releases sometimes tanked for decent records like “Through the Storm” (no. 55) and “What You See is What You Sweat” (no. 153), unthinkable numbers for a Beyonce or a Mariah Carey. Franklin was 47 when “Through the Storm” came out in spring, 1989. Carey was 45 when her last album, 2014’s “Me. I Am Mariah …” made it to no. 3. For some hard-to-pinpoint reason, Franklin never developed the fiercely loyal fan base that ensures veteran acts top 10 album releases even decades after their heydays.

And although Franklin’s overall Billboard Hot 100 chart heft is impressive — she held the women’s record with 73 entries until Nicki Minaj broke it (mostly with a legion of “featured artist” cameos) last year — she only hit the no. 1 spot twice (with “Respect” and “I Knew You Were Waiting For Me,” a George Michael duet) compared to Carey’s 18 no. 1 Hot 100 hits, Rihanna’s 13 and Madonna and the Supremes’ 12 each. Franklin did rack up a bounty with 20 no. 1s on the R&B chart.

And Franklin — friendly with gay men but rarely outspoken about gay rights — had a relatively meager three platinum (1 million copies certified) albums in her whole career (two were for compilations) and just one certified double platinum album (“Amazing Grace”). She never had a monster-selling legendary album like a “Rumours” (Fleetwood Mac, 20x platinum), a “Come On Over” (Shania Twain, 20x platinum), or a “Jagged Little Pill” (Alanis Morissette, 16x platinum). And yet could you imagine Twain or Morissette being called upon to perform for the pope or a historical presidential inauguration? Hardly.

What I’m getting at is that despite an impressive track record in all the usual ways we measure music industry success, Franklin’s stats are not quite what you’d think they would be considering her cultural impact.

There’s no question about it — her output is uneven. Put any of her studio albums on at random and track for track, you’re just as likely to encounter filler as grandeur. There are moments to enjoy on them all — all of which I own — but efforts like “Hey Now Hey,” “You,” “Sweet Passion,” “Almighty Fire” and “La Diva” are erratic. “A Rose is Still a Rose” (1998) was her last great album although 2003’s “So Damn Happy” is underrated and quite good. Later efforts like “This Christmas Aretha” (2008) and “A Woman Falling Out of Love” (2011) are almost painfully bad despite glimmers of magic.

So what gives exactly? In some ways I feel Franklin was underrated; in other ways I think it’s remarkable what she managed to achieve considering how up and down her overall quality — admittedly a subjective assessment — was. Franklin, especially in later years, did things her way. She would never have handed over a project to an outside producer the way, say, Loretta Lynn did with her classic “Van Lear Rose” album that Jack White produced in 2004 or the way Johnny Cash did with his American Recordings series with Rick Rubin which gave him a nice victory lap in his final years. Impresario Clive Davis held some sway with Franklin — we can largely thank him for Franklin’s final studio effort, 2014’s solid “Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics,” but only to a point. Even some of the ‘80s work they collaborated on like “Jump To It” (1982) and “Get it Right” (1983) (both of which Luther Vandross produced) are hit and miss.

But while Franklin’s choice of material was often uneven, her interpretive abilities were nearly peerless. She knew how to unfurl her trademark improvised melismas with a finesse that never sounded overwrought as it often does in lesser hands (I’ve heard singers whoop and dip so recklessly they end up in different keys than they began). Were a lesser singer (and many have) to have taken the luxuries of tempo and pacing Franklin did on the title cut of her “Amazing Grace” album, for example, for most, it would sound ridiculously self-indulgent and extreme.

“Would you just sing the damn song already,” as a friend of mine used to say about such musical excesses. It’s just a “thing” in the black gospel tradition, though. A singer I used to work with at the Blade — we’d sometimes goof off watching YouTube clips when we should have been working — would say of this approach, she took a common song and “made it her own,” which is exactly what Franklin does with expert pacing, theatrics and phrasing.

Many of the obits this week have erroneously referred to her as a mezzo soprano, a tessitura usually associated with opera (Franklin, of course, did sing opera a bit later in her career, but always in a very “Aretha” style; she didn’t possess anything like a Leontyne Price-type voice, nor did she pretend she did). Franklin’s range, even in the ‘60s-‘70s was never stratospheric (Patti LaBelle has higher notes at her disposal, for example) but Franklin’s interpretive abilities were so solid, you never really thought much about what her range exactly was. After she quit smoking in the early ‘90s, her range expanded noticeably. Just think of the big finale number of “Natural Woman” from the first VH1 “Divas” show back in 1998. Who was caterwauling (Celine) and who was holding court (Aretha)? And who was relegated to the sidelines (pretty much everyone else)?

I was lucky to have seen Franklin live in concert eight times over 20 years, all but once in the D.C. area. I tried to go every time she was in town and saw her many times at Wolf Trap, at Constitution Hall and other venues. Her shows — like her studio albums — could be everything from head scratching to transcendent. I kept going back because there was never any doubt, even in her later years, that I was in the presence of greatness. As another friend of mine likes to say, Aretha takes your ass to church. Of course, it was always fun to hear “Chain of Fools,” “Respect” and “Don’t Play That Song,” but the moments I enjoyed most were the gospel numbers like “Old Landmark,” “Amazing Grace” or sometimes not even a song, just an extended, black church-style gospel vamp in which Sister ‘Ree would give her testimony.

In recent years it was often a riff on how she’d been supposedly healed from her mystery 2010 illness. Perhaps the pancreatic cancer that ultimately killed her had been in remission for a time. Her pal Stevie Wonder said this week she’d battled it for more than a decade. That it eventually did her in does nothing to sully those cherished concert memories however. Franklin’s testifying transcended creed or denomination. She sort of reminded you that hope — even if you feel life is random — is still a commodity in the world, God is still there at work. “Just wait on him,” she used to say.

Franklin was preceded in death by her sisters Erma (who died at age 64 in 2002), Carolyn (who died at age 43 in 1988) and brother Cecil (who died at 49 in 1989). We’re lucky that Aretha, the one Jesse Jackson famously said “wears the coat of many colors” on her 1987 live gospel album “One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism,” was with us as long as she was. As a journalist, I hate it when people say such-and-such defied words. I make my living with words, so I tend to think there’s a way to say just about anything. However with Aretha’s music — both live and on recording — I would say it touched me in a way that does somehow defy language, emotion and logic. That was her brilliance.

 

The Blade’s Joey DiGuglielmo has written extensively about Aretha Franklin including a review of her last album, a 2014 concert review and critique of David Ritz’s notorious biography and a 2012 interview with Franklin scholar Anthony Heilbut. 

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Sports

World’s largest LGBTQ sporting event returning to Las Vegas 

Registration open for the largest annual LGBTQ sporting event globally- Nominations are open for the 2nd annual Ken Scearce Leadership Award

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Pickleball competitors (Photo courtesy of Sin City Classic)

By John McDonald | LAS VEGAS – More than 10,000 athletes are expected in Las Vegas January 12-15, 2023 for the Sin City Classic. The event features 24 sports and draws participants from around the globe, said co-executive director Jason Peplinski.

“For a lot of people, LGBT sports are their safe space and they like to travel to be a part of an athletic family,” Peplinski said.

Peplinski is commissioner of the Greater Los Angeles Softball Association (GLASA). His organization created the Sin City Classic back in 2008 as a way to provide a safe space for LGBT athletes to compete and connect.

“Sin City Classic continues to grow and evolve,” Peplinksi said. “This year we see the addition of pickleball, one of the fastest growing sports in the world, and sand volleyball, adding to the diverse lineup of competitions and events that the festival offers. We’re excited that the festival continues to expand and offers ways for all members of our diverse community to participate.”

This is the Sin City Classic’s first year of full operations since the COVID-19 pandemic and the Flamingo Hotel, the oldest hotel on the Las Vegas strip, is the host hotel. Lexus is the presenting sponsor and nightclubs Piranha and The Garden are hosting events during the MLK holiday weekend.

Additionally, nominations are open for the second annual Ken Scearce Leadership Award which honors the memory and legacy of the former executive director who passed away in 2021.

To sign-up or for more information, visit www.sincityclassic.org 

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Sports

Carrying a Pride flag- protester interrupts World Cup game

Qatar’s laws against gay sex and treatment of LGBTQ people were flashpoints in the first World Cup to be held in the Middle East

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Screenshot of news coverage at the World Cup 2022 games from Al Jazeera

LUSAIL, Qatar – During a World Cup match between Portugal and Uruguay Monday, a lone protester ran across the field waving a LGBTQ+ Pride flag moments after the second half kickoff.

Video and still images show the man wearing a blue T-shirt emblazed with the Superman symbol and the phrase “SAVE UKRAINE” on the front and “RESPECT FOR IRANIAN WOMAN” on the back.

Screenshot of news coverage at the World Cup 2022 games from Al Jazeera

Qatari security personnel chased him down and then frog marched him off the playing field. Israeli Public Radio correspondent Amichai Stein tweeted video clips of the incident:

FIFA had no immediate comment on the incident the Associated Press noted reporting that in the first week of the tournament in Qatar, seven European teams lost the battle to wear multi-colored “One Love” armbands during World Cup matches. Fans also complained they weren’t allowed to bring items with rainbow colors, a symbol of LGBTQ rights, into the stadiums of the conservative Islamic emirate.

Qatar’s laws against gay sex and treatment of LGBTQ people were flashpoints in the run-up to the first World Cup to be held in the Middle East. Qatar has said everyone was welcome, including LGBTQ fans, but that visitors should respect the nation’s culture.

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Notables

The death of Irene Cara and the broken promise

Her final professional projects were gifts to other women musicians of color- but her voice inspired my gay generation

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Irene Cara (Photo Credit: Judith A. Moose, CEO JM Media, publicists)

HOLLYWOOD – As I walked down the dark alley towards the glowing light, the opening bridge of the song called to me. “Baby, look at me and tell me what you see, You ain’t seen the best of me yet, Give me time, I’ll make you forget all the rest, I got more in me…” 

The movie Fame had just come out and its anthem theme song was HOT. The glowing light that night was a gay disco, tucked away from heterosexual view, while gay bashers circled in trucks a few blocks away. That safe haven in the dark alley allowed me, a 20-year old youth, a path out of the closet in which I emotionally and sexually had residence. To me, the words of the song Fame, and its overwhelming delivery, was my inner drive and conviction that I could be me, and my own personal superstar.

The young woman delivering the song was barely an adult herself. Irene Cara had been a child performer and was now breaking into the fame she was singing about. She was “instantly” famous thanks to Fame. Amongst other accolades, she was nominated for a Best New Artist Grammy. The song itself won the Oscar that year.

The Grammy nomination put a public trapping on what we all knew: She was a star, and had all the makings to become a superstar, an icon.

For LGBTQ people, her work that year spoke to our souls and our optimism. As “Randy 503” shared on the Joe.My.God site,  “I was a deeply closeted and lonely kid in my early 20s. Not lonely because I didn’t have friends (had tons of them), but lonely because I refused to admit I was gay and kept away from all that. I saw the movie and was transfixed. Bought the album and played it all the time, especially her songs. Her voice was so strong, and so expressive, it really touched me.” 

Cara’s second song in the movie also resonated with the gay audience. While Fame spoke to the sassy optimism of embracing our outstanding selves and taking the world by storm, Out Here On My Own spoke to the dark loneliness of the closet. “Sometimes I wonder where I’ve been, who I am, do I fit in… when I’m down and feeling blue, I close my eyes so I can be strong and be with you…I dry the tears I’ve never shown, Out here on my own.”

Randy points out,  “Out here on my own always left me in tears. It hit so close to home, and I could feel sadness on it. It’s a great song sung by one of the best.”

After the success of Fame, Cara ventured into a sitcom pilot and a freshman album, “Anyone Can See.” Neither caught the world on fire, as apparently only some of us could actually “see” her real worth.

It was not long after however, where Cara’s apparent life mission to deliver culture changing anthems, came calling again. She was recruited to help out with the new Flashdance movie, and to work with iconic gay producer Giorgio Moroder for its theme song. Cara was reportedly reluctant. She had already been criticized as a second tier Donna Summer with Fame, and was hesitant to get into that musical lane. Later she would work with John Farrar whom she credited as being responsible for ALL of Olivia Newton John’s hits. It seems that her superstar aspirations were more to be Pop Princess than another Queen of Disco.

She did sign on board with Moroder and Flashdance, and made history. Her song Flashdance… What a Feeling went to #1 for six straight weeks. It affected American culture in style, attitude and substance. On Academy Awards night, Cara made history again. (She had already made history in a minor way a few years before as the first person to ever perform two nominated songs in one evening.) This time, she became the second African American woman to win an Oscar – the first being Gone With the Wind’s Hattie McDaniels. 

Cara was the first African American woman to ever win a non-acting Oscar ever.

The anthem Flashdance…What a Feeling spoke to LGBTQ audiences of the 80s, in a way that Fame had. “First when there’s nothing but a slow glowing dream that your fear seems to hide deep inside your mind. All alone, I have cried silent tears full of pride in a world made of steel, made of stone, Well, I hear the music, close my eyes, feel the rhythm wrap around, take hold of my heart. What a feeling, being is believing I can have it all..”

Online, Joe.My.God reader BearlvrFl shared, “LUV the song “Out Here On My Own” I call “Flashdance: What A Feeling” my coming out song, popular on the dance floor very close to the time I finally came out at the age of 22. I could relate to “Take your passion/And make it happen.” Super simple lyric, but it’s timing was everything for me, having been closeted for so long.”

This time, AIDS had brought a very dark cloud over the community, however. Its ravage was starting to take widespread hold. It made the line in the song “now I’m dancing for my life” even more poignant and relevant.

The darkness that was falling over the LGBT world was on a parallel track in Cara’s own life. As she picked up Oscars and Grammys, there was a sadness in her eyes above the smile on her face. She shared later that the public glory was matched with a behind-the-scenes horror story. Her record company was keeping her from garnering any success from her accomplishments. Columnist Liz Smith stated in a 1993 piece that Cara earned only $183 in royalties.

Cara inspired women of her generation. Patti Piatt shared on Twitter, “I am from a generation of women who thought anything was possible because of Irene Cara. She gave us so much joy. We all danced to her songs, didn’t matter if we could dance, we danced because she made us want to dance.” 

In spite of singing THE anthem of women empowerment, Cara became an example of a woman destroyed by the male dominated music industry. As she fought back for earnings due her, she became black-listed, and her trek to superstardom halted. They made her all but disappear. A decade later, she won, but by that time, the damage had been done. 

Her final solo album subconsciously called out her professional demise with songs titled “Now That It’s Over”, “Get a Grip” and the ultimate defeatist title “Say Goodnight Irene.”

“I know well enough this is going nowhere… Might as well say goodnight, Say Goodnight, Irene.”

In the end, she seemed to find peace. Her final professional projects were gifts to other women musicians of color. She comfortably settled into what she called “semi-retirement” and her Florida home with a steady stream of funds from her hard-earned residuals.

The promise of becoming a superstar eluded her, but she busted the ceiling so it might not elude others. Painfully for fans, the promise from the song Fame, “I’m gonna live forever” also did not come true. 

Let’s instead, think of her making “it to heaven” and lighting “up the sky like a flame.”

For those trying to find final meaning from her life, and the un-fulfilled promise of what could have been for her and for us, may do so in the words from her lesser-known anthem. Here we swap out a promise instead for The Dream

“We can all be free, we hold the key, if we can see what we want to be. Life is never easy, you get no guarantees, why not give your all and see what you can find?”

And, yes.

Irene Cara, we will always remember your name.

The Dream

*************************

Rob Watson is the host of the popular Hollywood-based radio/podcast show RATED LGBT RADIO.

He is an established LGBTQ columnist and blogger having written for many top online publications including Parents Magazine, the Huffington Post, LGBTQ Nation, Gay Star News, the New Civil Rights Movement, and more.

He served as Executive Editor for The Good Man Project, has appeared on MSNBC and been quoted in Business Week and Forbes Magazine.

He is CEO of Watson Writes, a marketing communications agency, and can be reached at [email protected] .

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Travel

Sydney WorldPride just 3 months away – & the time to book is now

The massive LGBTQ+ gathering will mark multiple important firsts and anniversaries, including the first WorldPride in the Southern Hemisphere

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Sydneysiders created a human Progress Flag on the steps of the Sydney Opera House (WorldPride/Getty Images)

The global Pride extravaganza known as WorldPride is heading down under to Sydney, Australia in less than three months, and the scramble is on to secure the best flights, accommodations, and tickets to the enormous 17-day celebration. More than three hundred events will take place over the full WorldPride calendar, which spans February 17 to March 5 and includes a star-studded Live and Proud opening concert set for February 24, headlined by iconic native Aussie pop darling Kylie Minogue and British superstar Charli XCX.

The massive LGBTQ+ gathering will mark multiple important firsts and anniversaries, including the first WorldPride in the Southern Hemisphere, the 50th anniversary of the first Pride Week in Australia, the 45th anniversary of Sydney Mardi Gras Parade, and the 5th year anniversary of Australian marriage equality.

With travel demand already high for this once-in-a-lifetime event, Sydney WorldPride organizers are urging international visitors to book their voyages as soon as possible, ideally through an official approved travel provider to ensure access to genuine WorldPride event tickets. For a limited time, these travel agents will have access to an exclusive allotment of tickets to sold-out events, which they can bundle with flight and accommodation packages to make for a more streamlined and less expensive WorldPride experience.

Approved providers for American travelers include Down Under Answers, which has two complete travel packages on offer, a Sensational Sydney bundle that includes seven hotel nights in Sydney, and an Absolutely Fabulous WorldPride Sydney package that expands to ten nights. Both include round trip airfare from Los Angeles.

Out of Office is offering a variety of WorldPride packages with Australian travel add-ons to places like Hunter Valley in New South Wales’s wine country and to the legendary natural wonder Uluru (also called Ayers Rock) in Central Australia. 

For those who may want to book their Sydney flights and accommodations on their own, Planetdwellers has a package that includes tickets to the four most coveted WorldPride events (the Live and Proud opening concert, the 10,000-person circuit event Domain Dance Party, the 12,000-human Bondi Beach Party, and the seven-hour closing concert Rainbow Republic), plus two days tours to the Blue Mountains, the South Coast, or Hunter Valley.

Goway is offering separate packages for the first and second weeks of WorldPride events, as well as an extended 12-day trip that includes special roundtrip Pride flights from San Francisco to Sydney and an additional visit to the Great Barrier Reef. 

StudentUniverse has a booking portal on its website for a variety of flights combinations and Sydney hotels. After booking those by November 30, travelers will have access to purchase exclusive tickets to WorldPride’s main events, some of which are already sold out.

Los Angeles travelers will have the unique chance to get their Sydney WorldPride party started even before boarding the plane. Australian air carrier Qantas is offering a special Pride is in the Air flight from Los Angeles to Sydney on February 22, which includes pre-flight entertainment for all passengers in the Qantas First Lounge, queer-themed inflight fun and entertainment, special edition “Rainbow Roo” pajamas, curated LGBTQ+ inflight movies and music, an exclusive menu designed by Australian chef Neil Perry, and a general admission ticket to the Live and Proud opening concert.

Beyond the myriad parties and concerts that will be taking place during Sydney WorldPride, a dizzyingly diverse lineup of other happenings is also in store, including a WorldPride Arts program with nearly 70 events (some 50 of which will be world premieres), a WorldPride Sports program with 17 different sports, and the largest LGBTQIA+ human rights conference ever held in the Asia-Pacific region.

Sydney WorldPride will mark the eighth incarnation of the international event, and the first since the pandemic-challenged WorldPride 2021, which was jointly hosted by Copenhagen, Denmark and Malmö, Sweden.

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Books

New book explores impact of family secrets

Her father was hiding his sexual orientation

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(Book cover image courtesy HarperOne)

‘The Family Outing: A Memoir’
By Jessi Hempel
c. 2022, HarperOne
$27.99/320 pages

Don’t tell the children.

For most families in America in the last century, that was the maxim to live by: the kids are on a need-to-know basis and since they’re kids, they don’t need to know. And so what did you miss? Did you know about familial philanthropy, rebellion, embarrassment, poverty? As in the new memoir, “The Family Outing” by Jessi Hempel, did secrets between parent and child run both ways?

“What happened to me?”

That’s the big question Jessi Hampel had after many therapy sessions to rid herself of a recurring nightmare. She had plenty of good memories. Her recollection of growing up in a secure family with two siblings was sharp, wasn’t it?

She thought so – until she started what she called “The Project.”

With permission from her parents and siblings, Hempel set up Skype and Zoom sessions and did one-on-one interviews with her family, to try to understand why her parents divorced, why her brother kept mostly to himself, how the family dynamics went awry, why her sister kept her distance, and how secrets messed everything up.

Hempel’s father had an inkling as a young man that he was gay, but his own father counseled him to hide it. When he met the woman who would eventually be his wife, he was delighted to become a husband and father, as long as he could sustain it.

Years before, Hempel’s mother was your typical 1960s teenager with a job at a local store, a crush on a slightly older co-worker and, coincidentally, a serial killer loose near her Michigan neighborhood. Just after the killer was caught, she realized that the co-worker she’d innocently flirted with might’ve been the killer’s accomplice.

For nearly the rest of her life, she watched her back.

One secret, one we-don’t-discuss-it, and a young-adult Hempel was holding something close herself. What else didn’t she know? Why did she and her siblings feel the need for distance? She was trying to figure things out when the family imploded.

Ever had a dream that won’t stop visiting every night? That’s where author Jessi Hempel starts this memoir, and it’s the perfect launching point for “The Family Outing.”

Just prepare yourself. The next step has Hempel telling her mother’s tale for which, at the risk of being a spoiler, you’ll want to leave the lights on. This account will leave readers good and well hooked, and ready for the rest of what turns out to be quite a detective story.

And yet, it’s a ways away from the Sherlockian. Readers know what’s ahead, we know the score before we get there, but the entwining of five separate lives in a fact-finding mission makes this book feel as though it has a surprise at every turn.

Sometimes, it’s a good surprise. Sometimes, it’s a bad one.

A happily minimized amount of profanity and a total lack of overtness make “The Family Outing” a book you can share with almost anyone, adult, or ally. Read it, and you’ll be wanting to tell everyone.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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Television

Trans trailblazer helps queer the sci-fi genre in ‘The Peripheral’

Alexandra Billings on increasing representation in Hollywood

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Alexandra Billings in ‘The Peripheral.’ (Photo courtesy Amazon Prime)

Alexandra Billings has been a pioneering trans performer several times over, but she tells us that her recurring role as Inspector Ainsley Lowbeer in “The Peripheral” – Amazon Prime’s series adaptation of William Gibson’s 2014 book of the same name – is a more personal first for her.

“I love science fiction! This is really my bag, and I’ve never done anything like it before!”

Created by Scott B. Smith, who co-executive produced the show alongside “Westworld” creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, the show is a mystery-thriller set not just in one future but in two. Beyond the depressingly prescient dystopian one inhabited by protagonist Flynne Fisher (Chloë Grace Moretz) lies another, from which the surviving remnants of humanity employ advanced computer technology to reach back and alter the past. The stakes are high – there’s an apocalypse involved — and a complicated, “Black Ops”-style secret war going on between factions struggling for control makes them even higher. Even for someone who doesn’t look for these things, the allegorical comparison with our own world is impossible to miss; but then science fiction, done right, has always been a prime genre for making social, cultural, and political commentary – and author Gibson, widely credited with creating the whole “cyber-punk” sub-genre, knows how to do it right.

Billings recently spoke with the Blade about the show, among other things. Our conversation is below:

BLADE: It’s refreshing to see you in something like this. We’re not used to seeing such strong representation in these kinds of stories.

ALEXANDRA BILLINGS: Usually, if trans characters were in sci-fi in the past, we were plugged in – they were cisgender characters that trans people played and then they turned trans. But Lowbeer is written as a trans woman. That was extraordinary, and it was thrilling to me.

BLADE: She’s a very strong presence.

BILLINGS: She’s kind of a guide, and she also has great power – not mystical power, or magical, but intellectual. And that’s one of the wonderful things about this show that I want to stress – it’s very female-centric, very female-heavy. There’s gender identity that is addressed, there are women of color that have great power and great strength and intellect. These are smart, witty, competent, capable women. No female depends on any other power except their own to be able to survive in the world of this story, and I think that matters, too.

BLADE: Did you ever imagine you would be playing a part like this in a mainstream Hollywood project?

BILLINGS: Oh no, God, no. When I first came to Hollywood, there were five of us, basically, me and Candis and Laverne and Trace Lisette, and a couple of other people, and that was it. Every time there would be an audition for a trans person – which was usually one of us in the hospital, or going to the hospital, or getting ready to go to the hospital, or something that had to do with the hospital – we would always meet each other. We finally just formed a little brunch club, we were like, ‘Let’s just get together after the next audition and go out. We might as well have food.’

Back then, there was just no concept of the transgender experience, because trans people were not writing any of these shows. You can’t have someone who’s never been through a lived experience pretend that they’ve lived that experience, it doesn’t make any sense. Now, with more trans writers, more trans producers and showrunners in Hollywood, things are starting to change. But this was a shock. I was shocked when I heard about this character, and really shocked when I read the script. It really is brilliant.

BLADE: That’s just one aspect of the show that feels forward-thinking. Don’t you think the whole concept of a future world influencing our present day really strikes a chord with the rise of a younger generation that is primed and ready to take the wheel?

BILLINGS: I think what this show does is that it shines a light. It’s a reflection of a human experience that is happening politically, globally, which is the takeover of righteousness, of our idea of what is helpful to the community – and what isn’t.

We have a whole shift that is happening in the United States right now, which is a younger generation – the Gen Zs – saying ‘I don’t like the way a lot of the country talks about female empowerment, I don’t like what you’ve done to take away autonomy for female bodies or choices, I don’t like the way you talk about gender. There’s a whole bunch of stuff that I don’t like, so I want you out.” It’s why this ‘blue wave’ happened – because of them. There was this whole conservative movement before the midterms that was supposed to, like, take over, and it just fizzled out and died. I think this is just the tip of the iceberg.

BLADE: Let’s all hope you’re right. There’s such a disheartening backlash in some pockets of our country over queer rights in general. We still even have fight to preserve marriage equality.

BILLINGS: We have this whole group of people out there talking about ‘traditional marriage.’ That means nothing. I want to tell them, ‘Nothing exists inside that container – how far back do you want to go when you say ‘traditional’, do you still want to be able to vote? Stop being an idiot.’ 

BLADE: As someone on the battle lines, what would you like to see for the future of trans representation?

BILLINGS: We need to begin to have conversations that are so normalized about the transgender experience that we no longer talk about the transgender experience. We need to have an over-abundance of trans and nonbinary stories, of trans and nonbinary writers, producers, directors, creators, innovators, telling their own stories – so many of them that the cis-white-heteronormative patriarchy finally needs to step aside. That’s what needs to happen.

BLADE: That seems like a hard sell to the people still holding onto the reins of power.

BILLINGS: When I say things like that, all of Hollywood takes a huge intake of breath. They think it’s impossible. They can’t conceive of that to be true because they think, ‘What about MY stories? What about me?’ As if there was a shortage of those.

Look at Candace Cameron, who quit Hallmark and just came out and said, ‘I’m going to honor traditional marriage on my new channel, and those are the stories I’m going to tell.’ What she’s saying is, ‘These two heteronormative cisgender people are the norm, that’s what we’re going to draw a circle around. Those are the only people that are going to be represented, that’s what we’re telling every single queer youth on the planet is the thing to be.’ That’s the message? So everybody else needs to move aside? That doesn’t make you a trailblazer, it makes you a coward.

BLADE: There’s another “C word” that comes to mind.

BILLINGS: (Laughing) That too.

You can watch “The Peripheral” on Amazon Prime.

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