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"Do you Nomi?" Klaus Nomi and the politics of (non)identification.

Klaus was a face--elfin and painted as a Kabuki robot. He was a style--a medieval interpretation of the 21st century via Berlin 1929. He was a voice, almost inhuman in range, from operatic soprano to Prussian general. He was a master performer--a master of theatrical gesture. Above all he was a visionary. He said the future is based on the needs of the artist, deciding how to live and living that way every minute. Klaus, the man from the future, lived that way ill the present, and held out his hand saying, "Come with me. You call do it too."

Kristian Hoffman

FOR MANY OF HIS CONTEMPORARIES IN the 1970s and early 1980s, the New York-based New Wave performer Klaus Nomi offered the exhilarating prospect of total freedom--freedom to build one's own identity independently of any models or of any preexisting normative identities. As the obituary cited in my headnote suggests, an important source of this fascination was Nomi's appearance, which, both onstage and offstage, combined seemingly incommensurable elements. Equally significant were Nomi's baritone-countertenor voice and choice of repertoire, ranging from contemporary synth-pop to seventeenth-century English opera--the latter probably unfamiliar to most in his audiences. I would suggest that a third source was (and continues to be) his audience's own desire to identify freely, that is, to create their own identities, in the way that Nomi seemingly did. It is this desire that the obituary writer, pop and "no wave" musician Kristian Hoffman, grafts onto Nomi, interpreting his act and career as a success story in totally free identification.

But the story is more complex than that. Contemporary accounts implying disgust rather than fascination with Nomi's singularity are at least as numerous. One contemporary wrote: "In his brief career, Nomi carried the flag for freaks of many stripes, with retro-futurist performances." (l) Another wondered whether Nomi might be "a tragic slip in Mother Nature's busy assembly line." (2) The tongue-in-cheek humor of the latter author notwithstanding, the notion of Nomi as a "tragic slip" points to a recurring theme in Nomi's reception: many viewed him as a freak, a monster, or an alien, receiving Nomi's singularity with fascination and anxiety.

That mixture of fascination and anxiety is the focus topic of this essay. The discussion of Nomi's reception that follows is an attempt to reconsider the problematic of identification and identity politics. What does it mean to identify? What may be the roles of identification in an emancipatory politics predicated on it? What are identification's perils? What, if any, are its viable alternatives? Asking these questions in relation to Nomi allows me to interpret some of the twists and turns in Nomi's reception and to show that, despite all the well-documented and theorized perils of identity politics, a politics predicated on total nonidentification--on a refusal to identify with any recognizable models--is not a viable alternative.

I begin with a brief theoretical discussion of identity politics, its advantages and perils. I then discuss the mechanics--visual and vocal-of Klaus Nomi as an act in nonidentification, along with the celebratory line in Nomi's reception, illustrated above by the excerpt from Hoffman's obituary. Finally, I turn to the dark side of Nomi's reception, also illustrated above, and offer another brief theoretical discussion, this time of nonidentification and its fatal flaws as a survival strategy against the exigencies of normative identification.

Identity, identification, and related terms figure in a wide variety of discourses--political theory and practice, the humanities, and the sciences as well as everyday speech. Given its wide usage, it is not surprising that identity assumes many different meanings that foreclose any universal or general definition. For present purposes, identity may be understood as an individual's culturally recognized sense of belonging to an already existing social group. The individual's identification with other members of that social group entails the existence of a set of characteristics that he or she perceives as shared with the other members of the group. It is important to note that two or more individuals who share an identity are not thereby required to be absolutely equivalent. Indeed, being so would rob them of their very individuality. In mathematics, by contrast, absolute equivalence is a defining characteristic of identity: if x = y, then x and y are identical and therefore mutually interchangeable. The same does not hold for people, however: one can still identify as, say, a white heterosexual man, even if one differs from many other members of that social group in some important traits, such as political opinions, so-called social values, and so on. Identifying with the members of a given social group will then entail at least a temporary foregrounding of those properties that are perceived as shared and backgrounding of those that are not. Identification is thus only ever a matter of negotiation and compromise and can never be total. As Judith Butler writes, the identifying individual will still see others as "separate, but as structured psychically in ways that are shared." (3)

We not only identify ourselves as having certain identities, but we also identify others as sharing the same identities or having different ones. Indeed, Linda Martin Alcoff writes that the category of identity guides the way we perceive and judge others and are perceived and judged by them. (4) Identity and identification, then, are always social affairs; as such, they predicate any concerted political action. In other words, a collection of individuals must recognize--identify--each other as sharing a common set of beliefs or interests or some other type of identity markers if they are to act as a political group. Various theorists have stressed the political significance of identity and identification; Stuart Hall, for instance, discusses "its centrality to the question of agency and politics." (5) Butler similarly acknowledges identification as that "by which political mobilization takes place." (6) Indeed, looking back through history, it would be hard to imagine the breakthroughs of the 1960s civil rights movement in the United States or some more recent political victories without a set of identities around which diverse strata of the population could rally.

That said, we must remember that any such identity remains at best the fruit of compromise. Butler offers an important critique of identity politics, specifically of the reliance of much of traditional feminism on the identity category of "woman." Always implicitly white and heterosexual, the category is therefore uninhabitable for a great many people whose political interests it is supposed to advance. (7) Other identity categories such as "black" and "gay" have been challenged in similar ways. Indeed, because identification is a matter of compromise, our identities are hardly ever a perfect fit and can often feel rather uncomfortable. The main reason for this is that we do not have total control over our identities; in most cases, they precede and will outlive us. This is not unlike the role of language in the Lacanian account of subject formation, which theorizes language as a preexisting structure that circumscribes what the incipient subject may think, say, or do, without his or her control. Paraphrasing Lacan, Butler asserts that the subject must acquiesce to "categories, terms, and names that are not of its own making." (8) The identifying subject must often make similar compromises with the identities he or she chooses to assume, and those compromises may often feel rather constraining.

It is in this theoretical context that I want to situate the reception of Klaus Nomi. For many of his contemporaries, Nomi embodied the exhilarating prospect of a totally free self-invention, especially for those left on the margins of normative identities. Kristian Hoffman's posthumous celebration of Nomi as a "visionary" and "a man from the future" is a case in point. The anonymous writer for the Soho News who speculated that Nomi might be "a tragic slip in Mother Nature's busy assembly line" also asked, "Who is Klaus Nomi?" and answered, "A creature of any state, sex, or sensibility you choose." (9) Describing a 1980 Nomi performance at the Xenon in New York, Madeline Bocchiaro tells us that Nomi "entranced" his audience with his "self-created character." (10) A quarter-century after Nomi's death, the existence of dozens of Web sites, groups, and fan pages on Facebook and MySpace dedicated to his memory and featuring similar responses from people who had never even seen Nomi in the flesh testifies that the fascination lives on? (11)

What is it about Nomi that has fueled this interest? According to John Marino, singer in the power pop band Speedies and a colleague of Nomi's, "No one at that time had ever seen any thing like Klaus Nomi." (12) Thus, the sheer novelty and originality of Nomi's act were certainly important factors in his success. Born Klaus Sperber in Bavaria, Nomi arrived in New York sometime between 1975 and 1978. He worked as a pastry chef by day and took an active part in New York's avant-garde performance art scene by night. He achieved his first break in a 1979 Saturday Night Live appearance with David Bowie. This was not an easy time to be acknowledged as novel and original in New York, where the competition was stiff. Bowie, for instance, had to be carried on and off the stage for that Saturday Night Live appearance because the rigid plastic cabaret suit in which he was encased rendered walking impossible. During the same evening Bowie also performed in drag, sporting a rather somber Thatcheresque business suit. (13)

Of course, Bowie was hardly the only pop musician who was experimenting with gender identity at the time. The popular music scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s was rich with reactions against the somewhat destructive hypermasculinity of hardcore punk, with a renewed interest in glam and visual and theatric experimentation in general. Freddie Mercury's drag performance parodying the British sitcom Coronation Street in Queen's video I Want to Break Free (initially banned in the United States) immediately comes to mind. Equally daring in his experimentation with human versus alien identity, if not as successful, was synth-pop musician Gary Numan, who regularly appeared onstage in his "space vehicle." Experimentation with musical style and repertoire was at least as bold, ranging from the bubble-gum pop of bands such as Human League to the avant-garde experiments of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Pink Floyd, Kraftwerk, and Tangerine Dream, among others.

New York's avant-garde scene, nestled in the East Village before its Giuliani-era gentrification, was at least as dynamic. Much of this colorful world, populated by queer-theater performers such as Jack Smith, avant-garde painters such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Nomi's neighbor, friend, and one-time collaborator, Kenny Scharf, is captured in Steven Hager's Art after Midnight. One of the venues that Hager awards a special place in his survey is David McDermott's New Wave Vaudeville Show. The son of a Yugoslav Jewish immigrant, McDermott was born in Hollywood, California, and lived in Teaneck, New Jersey, and Syracuse, New York, before moving to New York City in 1974. Though mostly penniless, he thereafter spent much of his time posing as a Victorian gentleman and lover of the arts. In 1978 McDermott rented from Stanley Stryhaski the Irving Plaza, a defunct Polish veterans' club at Irving Place and East Fifteenth Street, where he mounted his New Wave Vaudeville Show, featuring a medley of mostly young avant-garde performers living in New York. The show was meant as a retort to the then-dominant aesthetic of hardcore punk, "combining elements of pop culture, futurism, revivalism, and gay cabaret." (14)

Bringing all those elements--and much more --together in a single act is what, in my view, enabled Nomi to shine forth against this colorful backdrop. Hager conveys some of the atmosphere during Nomi's first live performance:
   Toward the end of the show, the lights dimmed
   and the room was filled with a thundering
   musical ovation. The curtains opened and the
   spotlight fell on a strange, unearthly presence
   wearing a black gown, clear plastic cape, and
   white gloves. As the orchestral refrain from
   Saint-Saens' Samson and Delilah was played,
   this strange Weimar version of Mickey Mouse
   began singing in an angelic soprano voice. (15)

Like Hager's, most accounts of Nomi's act emphasize three elements--his appearance, his vocal style, and his choice of repertoire. Each one was a crucial factor in the audience's perception of Nomi as "strange" and "unearthly." Nomi's visual appearance typically featured his trademark three-spiked hairdo, his Kabuki-style black-and-white makeup, and his costume. Arguably the most elaborate element of Nomi's appearance, the latter was a cabaret tuxedo made of plastic, with a triangular shape and black-and-white stylized design that nicely matched his hairstyle and makeup. The tuxedo, modeled after Bowie's Saturday Night Live plastic suit and in fact made by the same studio, was the source of references to Weimar and Berlin in Hager's and Hoffman's accounts above. Under the tuxedo Nomi wore a black spandex suit, oversized white gloves (hence the references to Mickey Mouse), and pointed shoes (hence Hoffman's description of the act as "a medieval interpretation of the 21st century via Berlin 1929").

Of course, none of these elements was itself new or original; Nomi's audiences clearly recognized all of them as stylistic (and stylized) borrowings. What was new and original, however, was the way Nomi combined these seemingly incommensurable elements into a strangely harmonious, surprisingly coherent, decidedly otherworldly being, "an elfin creature in exquisite make-up, bizarre hairstyle and costume" who looked "like an alien from outer space" with a "striking puppetlike face." (16) Otherworldly epithets predominate in contemporary descriptions of Nomi's persona, while words like "human," strikingly, do not. Nomi's extremely eclectic costume and makeup worked to deemphasize the artist's human identity. Significantly, many contemporary accounts are conspicuously gender neutral, too, suggesting that the visual aspects of Nomi's act also helped conceal his gender identity. Soho News described Nomi in performance as "a creature of any state, sex or sensibility you choose."

Rather than resolving tile gender ambiguity of his act, Nomi's vocality reinforced it by means of an equal use of two contrasting voices: a highly "pinched," pop-style baritone (Hoffman's "Prussian general") and a more firmly phonated pseudo-operatic countertenor. (17) His heavily exaggerated Germanic pronunciation notwithstanding, Nomi's chest voice raised few eyebrows among his audiences. Typically for a pop-music singer, when using his baritone Nomi phonated with a very high larynx and small glottal opening. The "pinched" quality of his chest voice suggests that he raised his larynx higher and left a smaller glottal opening than most pop-music baritones, probably on purpose, to achieve that harsh sound, more at home at Irving Plaza than it would have been at the Met. But it was Nomi's head voice that distinguished him with his audiences. Hager's description of Nomi's head voice as "an angelic soprano" is representative of many other similar contemporary accounts. To be sure, Nomi was not the first male falsettist on the pop-music stage (one need only think of the Bee Gees). But Nomi's falsetto was different because it had some of the markings of a classically trained voice: firm rather than "press" phonation, low larynx, and large glottal opening. (18) Firm phonation is hardly ever heard outside opera, and contemporary accounts show that Nomi's audiences recognized it as operatic--hence erroneous references to Nomi as an "opera singer" in some contemporary sources. (19)

That Nomi could approximate an operatic vocal style in his head voice is probably not surprising, because he was taking vocal lessons with Ira Sift, a New York-based singing teacher. (The operatic background he sometimes claimed to have had in Germany was only as an usher at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, not as a singer.) Nonetheless, his high-pitched operatic male falsetto was almost certainly unfamiliar to most in Nomi's East Village audiences, unless they were also aficionados of what was then the very latest trend in "early music." (20) Furthermore, Nomi used neither his baritone nor his soprano voice more than the other, so it was not easy to tell which voice was a put-on and which was the "real" Nomi. In most of his pop performances, ranging from "Total Eclipse" (composed for him by Kristian Hoffman) to his synth-pop cover of Lou Christie's "You Don't Own Me" (both on the record Encore!), Nomi alternated between his chest and head voice seemingly without effort, despite the fact that such switching is for most countertenors the hardest part of their trade. On the other hand, in his operatic and "classical" performances, such as the aria "Mort coeur s'ouvre a ta voix" (Encore!) from Saint-Saens's Samson et Dalila, the airs from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas and King Arthur ("Death," Dido's lament, featured on Simple Man, and "The Cold Song," featured on Encore!), and Robert Schumann's song "Der Nussbaum," Nomi relied exclusively on his falsetto. (21) Although by today's standards of classically trained countertenor singing Nomi's head voice could be described as shaky at best, with a scarcely controlled vibrato and a rather clipped, unsustained quality, most of these tracks show that he could repeatedly initiate and sustain relatively long phrases in falsetto as well as change registers with a relatively subtle break. That much was certainly enough for the patrons of McDermott's New Wave Vaudeville Show at Irving Plaza, whom the impresario apparently had trouble convincing that Nomi's falsetto was the "real thing" and not lip-synching, as in more conventional drag-queen shows.

In such shows, as Carolyn Abbate notes, the voice often serves as the locus of "truth" regarding the performer's gender: most drag queens cannot convincingly mimic female vocal types and thus must resort to lip-synching. (22) Nomi could mimic female vocality, but his audiences could not believe it; in other words, they could not situate the voice they were hearing in the body facing them from the stage. Katherine Bergeron has likened male falsetto to "vocal drag," but drag typically involves the performance of a normatively feminine gender by an anatomically male body, whereas what Nomi's audiences faced was the spectacle of a body whose gender was visually undefined producing voices that could seem male or female. (23) In this instance, then, the voice not only failed as the locus of truth but also exacerbated the visual gender ambiguity of the act.

Nomi's performances of visually illegible and aurally multiple gender produced considerable anxiety among his audiences. For some commentators, "Nomi's vocals tend to invoke an awful sense of disembodiment." (24) Colin Irwin of the Melody Maker was so unnerved by what he dismissed as the "one joke which is re-told and re-told until it vomits into its own nausea" that he "felt an odd compulsion to throttle the wretched bloke to stifle that disturbing, shrill voice." (25) Although Irwin's aggression sounds somewhat exaggerated, such reactions should not surprise. As I noted above, the voice usually functions as an important marker of the speaker's or singer's gender and other aspects of her or his identity. Richard Middleton acknowledges the voice as "a prime marker of identity in everyday life as well as in song," "as the bearer of a human personality; not a technological extension of the body, more an emanation from its intentional core." "Its sensuality," Middleton continues, "seems to be inextricable from its source in a particular body." (26) The perceptions about voice that Middleton report apply, of course, to much more than popular music. They derive from an intellectual tradition of long standing that Jacques Derrida dubbed "phonocentrism"--the privileging of speech and voice (over writing) as the enunciating subject's self-confirmation of being. Due to its perceived proximity to the enunciating subject's interiority (Middleton's "intentional core"), the voice enjoys the status of the only linguistic signifier that comes directly out of the body, with which it shares an organic bond. In hearing herself or himself speak--Derrida's s'entendre parler--the speaker hears the proof of his or her existence: to paraphrase Descartes' famous dictum, "I hear myself speak, therefore I am." (27)

But, as Mladen Dolar has shown, there is a whole history of other, disembodied voices--voices invariably invested with extraordinary and, more often than not, sinister power. With some inevitable omissions and generalizations, Dolar successfully weaves his narrative from the disembodied voices of God in the Hebrew Testament to the acousmatic voices of modern cinema. (28) This is how we might understand the unease and even revulsion that Nomi's voices provoked in some of his listeners. Even though there was a body clearly visible onstage, because of its gender ambiguity it could not convincingly accommodate the voices it emanated, themselves gender ambiguous by virtue of their contrasting tessituras and their shared origin in the same singing body. If that body could perhaps accommodate the male-sounding baritone, the accommodation was immediately offset by the contrasting high-pitched pseudo-operatic falsetto, and vice versa. For some of his listeners, at least, Nomi's voices then operated as disembodied voices--hence these listeners' disbelief, unease, and disgust.

Put together, then, neither Nomi's voices nor his singing body could sustain a stable and unequivocal gender identity. If in performances identities may be constructed "iteratively, through complex citational practices" (as Andrew Parker and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick have argued), it is interesting to see that Nomi constructed a gender-ambiguous nonidentity that was assembled as a patchwork through the citing of a number of disparate styles, cultural traditions, and products (Kabuki, Weimar cabaret, Mickey Mouse, synth-pop in covers and original songs, and baroque and romantic opera). (29) This nonidentity, in turn, led some to question even Nomi's humanness. Thus, the photographer Anthony Scibelli, interviewed in Andrew Horn's 2005 documentary The Nomi Song, relays that the first thing he was really impressed with was Nomi's "level of androgyny, not just the androgyny of sexuality, but the androgyny of whether you're human or not!" (30) The fact that Nomi did not look any more normative offstage only intensified doubts like Scibelli's; earlier on in the same film, journalist Alan Platt expresses similar responses to Nomi.
   I had no idea who he was. I remember I was
   on West Fourth Street and I suddenly saw this
   wacky little character, just among the crowd.
   And you know, you talk about stopping traffic
   and it was that kind of effect. And it was amazing,
   everybody just stopped and turned, and it
   was like "What the fuck is that?!" ... People
   said "What is that?" not "Who is that?"

While it is unlikely that anyone actually doubted Klaus Sperber's human identity, testimonies such as Scibelli's and Platt's certainly suggest that the level of bewilderment he provoked was high. John McLaughlin (also known as John Sex), another performance artist based in New York, "didn't know how Nomi had the nerve to walk down the street." (31) That some, like Scibelli, were tempted to call Nomi's human identity into question may seem more believable if one stops to consider how important a stable gender identity is in our perception of a person as human. In Bodies That Matter Judith Butler asserts that one's "passing" as human is typically contingent on passing as a "man" or a "woman": "The forming of a subject requires an identification with the normative phantasm of 'sex.'" (32) In other words, in the eyes of the Other one is always human and a woman or human and a man, never one without the other. The fact that for many in his audiences Nomi could not pass as either male or female challenged his ability to "pass" as a human being, too.

Many of Nomi's contemporaries found it difficult to classify him into any preexisting identity category. For some his somatic and vocal nonidentity in performance offered a liberatory potential to be admired, while for others it was little more than an unnerving freak show. In fact, the word "freak" appears in Nomi's reception remarkably often. Thus, a relatively recent review of a posthumous recording commends Nomi for carrying the flag for "freaks of many stripes." (33) Even the painter Kenny Scharf, speaking in The Nomi Song, describes his erstwhile friend and neighbor as "the freak among the freaks." Unfortunately, the consequences for those who are pronounced freaks are often dire: as abnormal and therefore unidentifiable, they are frequently deprived of their most basic rights. One's recognition by the other is contingent upon his or her sufficient adherence to already existent identity norms, such as human, male, female, and so on, through which that recognition can only occur. This is because one can only be recognized as something, as a member of a species or a set, in other words, as sharing an already existing identity (or any number of such identities). Those who remain outside all such categories are denied recognition and therefore may be denied existence as well. In Undoing Gender Judith Butler thus summarizes the problematic: "If we are not recognizable, if there are no norms of recognition by which we are recognizable, then it is not possible to persist in one's own being, and we are not possible beings; we have been foreclosed from possibility." (34) Those who are unable to persist in their own being, who are foreclosed from possibility, are typically abjected and often destroyed. As Stuart Hall has shown, identities are formed through exclusion, so that whatever is excluded from a particular identity may serve to delineate it and thus give it being. Abjection ensues in order to legitimize the exclusion and may ultimately result in the destruction of the excluded Other, only to trigger further exclusions. (35)

Despite his early death from AIDS, it could hardly be argued that Nomi suffered such a fate in any literal sense. Yet I would argue that the reception of his death suggests that in a symbolic way he did. Presumably in line with his reception as unidentifiable and otherworldly, many biographical accounts of Nomi aestheticize his death as his "departure." Page Wood and George Elliott, the "living authors" of Za Bakdaz, a Nomi-themed opera, talk of August 6, 1983, as the day when "Klaus Nomi left the Earth." (36) The British periodical Attitude summarizes his career as a heavenly event: "Like a shooting star, he exploded into the world then fell from the heavens after a glittering, all-too-brief career." (37) The Nomi Song, Andrew Horn's documentary, presents a more elaborate version of the same narrative. The film, whose subtitle reads "He Came from Outer Space to Save the Human Race," opens with a clip from Jack Arnold's 1953 science-fiction picture It Came from Outer Space, which features the landing of aliens on Earth. The clip is then reinterpreted as Nomi's "arrival" on Earth and followed by his contemporaries' descriptions of him as "alien," "artificial," and the like. Jack Arnold's film does not return until the very end of the documentary, when another clip, this time showing the aliens' departure from Earth, serves to allegorize Nomi's death.

In this way Horn's film achieves a neat formal closure and an overall elegant arc structure, but only at the price of aestheticizing Nomi's death and presenting it as logical, even inevitable, while the voice-over in Arnold's film informs us that the aliens are leaving because humanity was not yet ready for them. But, of course, Nomi's death was neither logical nor inevitable, nor was there anything in it worth rescuing through aestheticization. Because he was suffering from an unfamiliar disease, most of Nomi's friends were, perhaps understandably, too afraid to visit him in the hospital. One of the few who were not was his friend and collaborator Joey Arias, whose written account of Nomi in his last days focuses on the visible manifestations of AIDS on Nomi's body rather than on the man himself:
   He developed kaposis [Kaposi's sarcoma] and
   started taking interferon. That messed him real
   bad. He had dots all over his body and his eyes
   became purple slits. It was like someone was
   destroying him.... Then he got real weak and
   was rushed back to the hospital. He couldn't
   eat for days because he had cancer in his stomach.
   Herpes popped out all over his body. He
   turned into a monster. (38)

Unfortunately, such dehumanizing accounts of people suffering and dying of AIDS were by no means rare at the time. In a penetrating study of the Western biomedical discourse on HIV/AIDS, Catherine Waldby demonstrates that this dehumanization was pervasive in the public's view of those suffering from or living with the disease as well as in its workings on the microbiological level. (39)

In a visualization of that dehumanization, Horn's film ends with footage of a visibly emaciated, dying Nomi's performance of "The Cold Song," an air from Purcell's King Arthur, in Munich shortly before his death. As though to confirm my critique of the film's treatment of Nomi's death, the footage is combined with an interview with Tony Frere, another Nomi collaborator, who comes dangerously close to rationalizing and justifying Nomi's death:
   It was definitely a very dramatic ending, and
   you don't wanna say it was appropriate, but--at
   the time it was extremely surprising--but
   now, thinking about it, it was perfect, you
   know, sort of like a perfect coda to everything.
   You know, just like "Wow," it was like an ending
   to this crazy, lavish opera in a way.

The alien, the unrecognizable, the unidentifiable then simply had to go, the film seems to tell us; as such, he was never sustainable anyway. Frere's words, heard over the last chords of Purcell's somber air and Nomi's leaving the stage bedecked in a seventeenth-century aristocratic costume, provide for a suitably poignant operatic exit.

The most useful conclusion that I have been able to draw from studying the reception of Klaus Nomi is that such a radical refusal to identify with any normative identities cannot ultimately rescue us from the exigencies of identification. Having to identify with already existing identity norms in order to achieve both a recognized identity of our own and the cultural recognition of others can and often does feel stifling. Yet the radical alternative that Nomi embodied is not a viable answer, because cultural recognition will be withheld from those refusing to sufficiently adhere to a recognizable identity. What is needed for a more livable life is probably a third way, winding between a slavish identification with normative identities and a radical nonidentification that results in the loss of recognizability.

One such survival strategy has already been theorized as disidentification in Jose Esteban Munoz's eponymous book. As a survival strategy, Munoz explains, the disidentifying subject uses disidentification "to resist and confound socially prescriptive modes of identification." She or he accomplishes this by remaking and infiltrating a "toxic identity" and making it his or her own, in other words, subverting it in order to render a previously unlivable identity livable. At the end of his book, Munoz urges us to "continue disidentifying with this world until we achieve new ones." (40) While we must, as the performance artists discussed in Munoz's book successfully do, disidentify with this world to create more livable ones, we cannot afford to emulate Nomi's total refusal to identify with at least some of its norms. Only through a strategic (dis)identification with these norms might we be able to change them from within, making them more inhabitable to those whom they currently oppress.


I was introduced to Nomi by my advisor at Cornell University, Professor Judith Peraino, who also provided generous feedback to this paper in its many incarnations, as did Professor Amy Villarejo, also of Cornell; I am grateful to both. I am equally indebted to my colleague Rachel Lewis for her careful engagement with my work and flawless organization of the "Queer Vibrations" conference at Cornell, which resulted in the present publication.

(1.) See resident-alien-klaus-nomi-is-back-from-outer-space-25 "years-after-his-death-with-a-wondrous-new-disc/"

(2.) "From the Soho News circa 1979," archived at Bouras, the Klaus Nomi Tribute Page, evb/nomi/sohonews/.

(3.) Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004), 32-34.

(4.) Linda Martin Alcoff, Visible Identities: Race, Gender, and the Self(New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 5.

(5.) In Linda Nicholson, ed., Social Postmodernism: Beyond Identity Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 116-41.

(6.) In Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, and Slavoj Zizek, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left (London: Verso, 2000), 4.

(7.) See Judith Butler, "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory," Theatre Journal 40, no. 4 (1988): 519-31; and "Imitation and Gender Subordination," in Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories, ed. Diana Fuss, 13-32 (New York: Routledge, 1991).

(8.) Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997), 21.

(9.) "From the Soho News circa 1979."

(10.) Madeline Bocchiaro, "Klaus Nomi--Riding the New Wave," Roctober 19 (1997), roctober/greamess/nomi.html.

(11.) See; http://; http://keepkey.yochanan .net/nomi.htm; usnomiland/;

(12.) E-mail interview, October 30, 2008. I am grateful to Mr. Marino for agreeing to be interviewed for the purposes of this article.

(13.) Nomi and Bowie are also featured in "Showdown at Cremation Creek (Part 1)," an episode of Venture Bros., Cartoon Network's animated series targeting adults. Nomi is coupled there, perhaps oddly, with an animated Iggy Pop, both of whom appear as Bowie's bodyguard henchmen. The coupling may seem odd, given how dissimilar the two artists' acts were. On the other hand, it might make sense as a juxtaposition of two opposite paradigms of late 1970s and early 1980s popular music--punk and New Wave. At any rate, both Nomi and Iggy Pop collaborated with Bowie at some point during their careers. In the cartoon "Nomi's" special weapons include his famous outsized bowtie, spun and ejected as a battering weapon, and his ear-splining soprano. The latter, though, proves to be "Nomi's" undoing when, during another attack with his voice, "Bowie" puts his hand across "Nomi's" mouth, at which point the latter inflates and explodes like a balloon.

(14.) Steven Hager, Art after Midnight" The East Village Scene (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986), 22.

(15.) Hager, Art after Midnight, 30.

(16.) Bocchiaro, "Klaus Nomi"; Roberto St. Orm, "Biography of Klaus Nomi, 1944-1983," archived at Bouras, the Klaus Nomi Tribute Page, http://www.psychotica.neto/ evb/nomi/bio/; Hager, Art after Midnight, 30.

(17.) I am grateful to my colleague Gary Moulsdale of Cornell University for helping me understand and assess the vocal aspects of Nomi's act.

(18.) For a more detailed discussion of the mechanics of operatic staging see James Stark, Bel canto: A History of Vocal Pedagogy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), 26-49.

(19.) "Random Note," Rolling Stone, March 20, 1980, 37, Colin Irwin, "Klaus Nomi: Klaus Nomi, RCS PL37556," Melody Maker, March 13, 1982, 20. The latter reviewer introduces Nomi as a "well-regarded French opera stager [!] with an eccentric approach to life, and a colourful, off-the-wall attitude to music."

(20.) The trend to cast virtuoso countertenor-sopranists such as Drew Minter and Randall Wong in operatic roles originally conceived for castrati began, perhaps coincidentally, in the early 1980s.

(21.) Many of these can been seen on YouTube, =Klaus+Nomi&search_type=&aq=f.

(22.) Carolyn Abbate, "Opera; or, the Envoicing of Women," in Musicology and Difference: Gender and Sexuality in Music Scholarship, ed. Ruth Solie, 225-58 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).

(23.) Katherine Bergeron, "The Castrato as History," Cambridge Opera Journal 8, no. 2. (1996): 167-84.

(24.) Text by Spencer Tricker at http://www.popmatters .com/pm/review/klaus-nomi-za-bakdaz/.

(25.) Irwin, "Klaus Nomi," 20.

(26.) Richard Middleton, "Voice," in Continuum Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World, ed. John Sheppard et al., vol. 2, Performance and Production, 455-57 (New York: Continuum, 2005).

(27.) Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), esp. 11-12.

(28.) Mladen Dolar, A Voice and Nothing More (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), esp. 40 ff.

(29.) Andrew Parker and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, "Introduction: Performativity and Performance," in Performativity and Performance (New York: Routledge, 1995), 2.

(30.) Andrew Horn, The Nomi Song (Palm Pictures, DVD3 110, 2005).

(31.) Hager, Art alter Midnight, 69.

(32.) Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex" (New York: Routledge, 1993), 3.

(33.) dent-alien-klaus-nomi-is-back-from-outer-space-25 -years-after-his-death-with-a-wondrous-new-disc/.

(34.) Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004), 31-32.

(35.) See Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay, eds., Questions of Cultural Identity (London: Sage, 1996), 4-5.

(36.) http://zabakdaz.corrd.

(37.) Rupert Smith, in Attitude i, no. 3 (1994), archived at Bouras, the Klaus Nomi Tribute Page, http://www.psy

(38.) Hager, Art after Midnight, 119.

(39.) Catherine Waldby, AIDS and the Body Politic: Biomedicine and Sexual Difference (London: Routledge, 1996), 19.

(40.) Jose Esteban Munoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 28, 185, 200.
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Title Annotation:THEORIZING GENDER, CULTURE, AND MUSIC: "Queer Vibrations"
Author:Cvejic, Zarko
Publication:Women & Music
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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