“I only want to die alive.”
—Ariana Grande, “Break Free”
Ariana Grande is totally fake and totally genuine. She also doesn’t wear pants. It’s very 2005—an oversized yellow hoodie, thigh-high boots, a lollipop. Her butt-length ponytail extension is conceivably dry-cleaned, and she wears “vintage” as if the word signified. Her fiancé Pete Davidson’s eyes mirror Pete Doherty’s, but he just has terrible Crohn’s. Did they tumble out of a Deadmau5 show? No, a Barnes & Noble, wearing matching long-sleeved hoodies. Grande sings like Mariah and looks like an airbrushed toddler.
“No Tears Left to Cry,” the teaser single for Grande’s new album Sweetener, is like the anime character Chihiro from Spirited Away, now tattooed across her entire forearm. The tattoo looks good. “To protect her friends and rescue her parents from a spell that has turned them into livestock,” Grande wrote on Instagram, “Chihiro...matures from an easily-scared girl with a childlike personality….to a hard-working, responsible and brave young girl.” “No Tears” is also about resilience and maturity. EDM melodies and balladry mix with UK garage percussion and house. Grande’s diva vocals step into a packed room unnoticed and then—her voice is a soaring angel, an F-15 bomber. “The intro is slow,” she told Time magazine, “and then it picks up. And it’s about picking things up.” Many Ariananators have also claimed “No Tears” as a gay anthem, not least because of the single’s cover art, which features Grande, signature high-pony below the ears and a rainbow-colored light across her eyes.
But a dissociative aesthetic scrapes against the song’s determined buoyancy. The DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) defines “dissociation” as feeling detached from your body, emotions, and reality—the classic “watching myself as if I were in a movie.” Zinnia Jones, writer and creative director of “Gender Analysis,” a series of online articles about trans health issues and experiences, lists “I know I have feelings but I don’t feel them” and “some essential quality is lacking from my thoughts or experience of the world” as common dissociated responses. While dissociation is a PTSD symptom, it is, as Jones points out, also a common expression of dysphoria, a way to separate from a body and world that feel inevitably off. Her descriptions of dissociation resonate with the shot of Grande observing different singing iterations of her own face, but it also aligns with the video’s “upside down” theme, which carries over to the single’s upside-down cover text. The music video begins with a spinning birds-eye view of some sprawling megalopolis before tunneling into a church-like hallway. Ariana leans on the wall, ponytail braided into an airbrushed rope. Then the wall begins to rotate, and she’s walking on the ceiling and floor. A kaleidoscope of the pop star’s face segues into Grande sitting on a ceiling-floor, looking into hand mirrors; she removes her own face as if it were a death mask. This upside-down world (a nod to the horrifying parallel universe in Stranger Things?) is navigable: Grande moves through it with languorous pluck. But stepping flexibly through this congealed dream—the world of the dissociated person—is only feasible because she’s on autopilot. Grande points to the functionality of dissociation in the opening lyrics of “No Tears,” an emotional song about being emotionless:
Right now, I'm in a state of mind
I wanna be in like all the time
Ain’t got no tears left to cry
So I’m pickin’ it up, pickin’ it up
Considering Grande’s upbeat vibe, and that she’s engaged to and totally in love with SNL comedian Pete Davidson—in their first public Instagram post, the couple wears matching Harry Potter costumes—these lyrics about dissociation could feel discordant. But while her bubbly charisma and adoration of Davidson do—despite the month-long courtship—seem genuine, Grande has also suffered from PTSD since 22 audience members were killed by a homemade shrapnel bomb on the Manchester leg of her “Dangerous Woman” tour. Grande has been hesitant to discuss it, not wanting to overshadow the victims. But after Manchester, she got, as she told Elle, “dizzy spells, this feeling like I couldn’t breathe.” Lyrically, “No Tears” reflects this: The song celebrates survival even as it acknowledges ongoing PTSD.
But Grande has also always had anxiety. She’s been in therapy for 10 years, and was back in the studio the day after her 2017 tour wrapped up, propelled, perhaps, by a workaholic’s jitters. If she’s unable to fully recover, it’s not just personal but also because the present is, to gloss theorist Lauren Berlant, a scene of slow, ongoing crisis. “You hear about these things,” Grande told Elle. “You see it on the news, you tweet the hashtag. It’s happened before, and it’ll happen again . . .” In an essay that touched on “I Gotta Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas and Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)”—though it could have also been about “No Tears”—Mark Fisher wrote in the 2014 book Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures about what it was like to party in a crisis present: a buzzed anhedonia. Stripped of its David Guetta–produced hooks, the lyrics of “I Gotta Feeling,” for instance, sound desperate. “I feel stressed out, I wanna let it go / Let's go way out spaced out and losing all control.” On a similar note, while “Last Friday Night” could have been conceived as a way to make Katy Perry seem “relatable,” without its dance-pop soundtrack, the lyrics sound unhinged:
This a hickey or a bruise?
Pictures of last night
Ended up online
It’s a blacked out blur
“It’s hard not to hear these records’ demands that we enjoy ourselves as thin attempts to distract from a depression that they can only mask, never dissipate,” Fisher wrote. “Partying is a job in another sense—in conditions of objective immiseration and economic downturn, making up the affective deficit is outsourced to us.”
Fisher was English, born, predictably, in 1968. He learned about Jacques Derrida from New Musical Express, the first British music magazine to champion punk, and public access television “at a time before we had a VCR, when I had to resort to washing my face with cold water to try to keep myself awake.” When Fisher finally read Derrida firsthand, he was disappointed. “The enthusiasm of NME writers . . . and the formal and conceptual inventiveness it seemed to provoke in their writing, created expectations which Derrida’s own work couldn’t meet.” Fisher was brought up by this “supplementary-informal education system”—a mix of state-funded “experimental” art and pop culture produced when the barriers to entry were lower for white working-class men. He would later dub it “popular modernism,” the genre-pushing inventiveness that he assigned to the European modernists removed, if only slightly, from elite and specialized milieus. Fisher does not note that European modernism was only materially possible because of slavery, genocide, and colonialism; appropriation of black and indigenous cultures also goes unexamined. His iteration of “popular modernism” had ended by 1993 when Grande, who is Italian American but conveniently “ethnically ambiguous,” was born, in Boca Raton, Florida. But public arts hadn’t been gutted to the extent that they are today. Grande learned to sing and act in community theater, performing in plays like Annie and Beauty and the Beast. When she and a local theater friend auditioned for the Broadway show 13, out of thousands of applicants, they both made the cut.
Fisher assumed that popular modernism would continue, but then it didn’t. If his penultimate book, Ghosts of My Life, “knows” why—neoliberalism, initiated by Margaret Thatcher in the U.K.—it’s also a pained coming-to-terms with what’s been lost. The defunding of public arts programs, inflation in the cost of rent and mortgages, and precarization of labor increasingly restrict art to elite institutions and the wealthy. The consequence, for Fisher, is, an overall “culture of retrospection and pastiche.” To see what he means, one only has to look at every TV series launched, at least in part, on nostalgia for a specific period: Mad Men, Empire, and, again, Stranger Things. Conversely, Fisher cites Adele as someone who evokes a generic past wiped of any historical specificity. “Someone Like You” could be whitewashed soul from the seventies or Céline Dion–esque balladry from the nineties, but its power is that it’s both and neither: a not-now, not-here. In Pete Davidson’s appearance on Jimmy Fallon—a more recent instance of “retrospection and pastiche”—Davidson affably sloughs off questions about his own career to promote . . . the new Safdie Brothers thriller starring Robert Pattinson. Davidson isn’t in the film. He just loves it. “It’s my favorite movie! I’ve seen it 30 times!” This totally endearing enthusiasm can’t erase the eeriness of the exchange, which—with Fallon’s manic dad jokes and the Safdies’ tweeness—could have occurred in 2008. If this says something about the continued mediocrity of white (cis male) culture, Fisher’s point would be that, even within the dominant group, “everyday life has sped up but cultural production has slowed down.” Instead of “the futures that popular modernism trained us to expect, but which never materialized—which, for Fisher, meant the eventual abolishing of race, gender, and class roles—we find ourselves stuck in a present that feels static and unreal.
Ghosts of My Life’s central point is that we are haunted by these futures that failed to occur. Without them, “it doesn’t feel as if the 21st century has started yet.” These unrealized futures are the book’s titular “ghosts.” They’re unreal because they didn’t happen, but real because of the pressure that they continue to exert. Citing artists like Burial and Tricky, who use playback, crackle, and spectral vocals to evoke this “hauntological” music, Fisher writes, “Not only has the future not arrived, it no longer seems possible. Yet at the same time, [this] music constitutes a refusal to give up on the desire for a future. This refusal gives the melancholia a political dimension, because it amounts to a failure to accommodate to the closed horizons of capitalist realism.” Grande’s “No Tears” is also ghostly, but in an updated way. The song doesn’t sound like a literal ghost (Burial, Tricky), nor does it sound like unhinged party music (Perry, Black Eyed Peas), in which “real” psychological truth is intentionally half-hidden beneath upbeat exteriors. Instead, the alienation and exhaustion—that for Perry and the Black Eyed Peas would be restored by going out—has been normalized. Detachment from yourself and your surroundings no longer has a conceivable endpoint. Instead, it’s a positive. “Ain’t got no tears left to cry / So I’m pickin’ it up, pickin’ it up,” as Grande sings. Being drained of tears feels less indicative of recovery than of depletion, the very depletion that allows her to “move on.”
For Fisher, these haunted aesthetics stemmed from “capitalist realism,” which was also the title of his breakout book. Published in 2009, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? argued that postmodernism and post-Fordism had, in a phrase attributed to both Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek, made it “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” For Fisher, capitalist realism stemmed from Francis Fukuyama’s thesis of the end of history, from grinding and rapidly increasing precarity (to which I would add the expanse of the prison-industrial complex), and partly from postmodernism’s aesthetic of rapidfire “pastiche and revivalism.” Postmodernism and post-Fordism thus operated in a mutually productive loop: Postmodernism made it harder to believe that change was possible, which made people less likely to resist post-Fordism. But while capitalist realism made change seem impossible, it couldn’t quell a desire for change. As he pointed out in an interview with Crack Magazine, “despondency, or disavowed despondency, is a sign of a craving or hunger to actually belong to something and capitalism not only can’t meet that, it doesn’t want to meet it.” That a desire for change stems from whiteness, not just (post)modernity, is a lacuna in Fisher’s argument.
I’m interested in footnoting Fisher by arguing that, from the 2010s onward, which is when the “trans visibility wave” started, white nonbinary people emerged as one (of many) false solutions to white people’s capitalist-realist anxieties that newness and change are impossible. Transness of course existed before the 2010s, but trans people mostly appeared as “freaks” or as a niche issue within the context of the gay community. Now, they were in mainstream culture and news. Nonbinariness was also not new, although it seems anecdotally true that many people found out about nonbinariness during the first wave of “trans visibility.” I am not arguing that white nonbinary people are not or cannot be trans. As a white nonbinary person, this claim would be hypocritical and strange. But I do want to argue that identifying as this “new” gender, nonbinary, allowed white people to see themselves and thus whiteness as a renewed source of difference and change.
White nonbinary people were encouraged to feel like they “invented" nonbinariness, and yet, as Black feminist theorist Hortense Spillers argues in “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book”—written in 1987, three years before Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble—gender that was “fluid” or unclassifiable originated with transatlantic slavery. Slavery, she argues, was “a theft of the body—a willful and violent (and unimaginable from this distance) severing of the captive body from its motive will, its active desire. Under these conditions, we lose at least gender difference in the outcome, and the female body and the male body become a territory of cultural and political maneuver, not at all gender-related, gender-specific.” Humans can be gendered. Property cannot. Spillers drives this point home further by describing a well-known rendering of the Brookes, a slave ship that allotted six feet one inch by one foot four inches per man and five feet ten by one foot four inches per woman. For Spillers, a three-inch difference is not a gender difference: “Under these conditions, one is neither female, nor male, as both subjects are taken into ‘account’ as quantities.” For Spillers, this process of “ungendering,” as she calls it, is horrifying, and achieved by horrifying means. It is, however, also the origin point for “undifferentiated identity,” neither male nor female—or, in current terms, nonbinary.
Despite Spillers’s arguments, whitewashed nonbinariness continues to operate as a means of rehabilitating whiteness; one way this plays out is white nonbinary people who try using their transness to absolve themselves of white privilege. Or, to quote Twitter user @rattoof, “white people in the lgbt community stop clinging to your marginalized identities to distance yourself from the privilege you do have as a white person challenge.” As manuel arturo abreu pointed out in their 2016 piece “Transtrender,” “queer-nationalist oppression olympics draw their pathological power from the subsumption of trans of color narratives: just as white ‘Men’s Rights activists’ leech off statistics about men of color to give import to their cause, the mainstream, whitewashed image of the suffering trans person gains much of its traction from sociological statistics about trans of color circumstances.”
The second consequence of whitewashed nonbinariness that I would like to look at is how it has contributed to the conflation of wokeness and transness more generally. Whitewashed nonbinariness first reached the mainstream via woke social media during the early aught-teens, a period of relative optimism about social media. Occupy was over, but wokeness was nascent. The signifiers of whitewashed nonbinariness could be reduced to visible commodities—clothes, makeup, surgery, written or visual coming-out stories—even as they promised liberation from capitalist gender and capitalism more generally. Legibility was promoted as a universal good. Black trans scholars such as Che and Tourmaline Gossett have repeatedly critiqued this iteration of white nonbinariness and white transness more generally, arguing that it increases violence against black and brown trans people and especially black and brown trans women. Instead of mobilizing these critiques, a strain of left edgelord transphobia increasingly conflates the ills of wokeness—narcissism, individualism, a prioritization of optics—with all trans people, and transness itself. The problem with this is that, in seeking to abolish wokeness, the left edgelord implicitly or explicitly seeks to abolish transness as well. Mocking pronouns and surgery becomes fighting back against “neoliberal identity politics,” reducing transness to an iteration of aughts indie, which assumes that one’s personal quirks can solve collective ills.
Trans people have, of course, fought back against being utilized in this way. In a recent Twitter exchange between Andrea Long Chu and Masha Gessen, Chu pointed to the common assumption “that the ‘point’ of trans ppl is to resist gender norms. it’s a common view, even among trans ppl. it’s also, forgive me, just wrong. no one’s gender is a politics; no one’s gender should have to be.” Chu’s point is that trans people should not be expected or asked to be more radical than anyone else; oppression does not imbue people with special wisdom, fortitude, and capacity to labor for their oppressors. The irony of Gessen’s demand for trans people to be or do too much feels especially strange when read against Jones’s work on the high correlation between dysphoria and dissociation. Trans people are expected to provide “depth” despite feeling that they themselves are entirely surface, an avatar, “not there.”
As for Ariana, she (at least at the time of this writing) recently redid Titanic in five minutes and 13 songs—including Hall & Oates’s “Rich Girl”—on British late-night TV. The video for “God is a Woman,” Grande’s grandmother’s favorite track on the album, feels so crammed with woke symbology it’s painful. Grande hurls a gavel through the ceiling of the White House, which smashes like a glass ceiling before birthing a woman’s legs. The legs are wearing black heels, professional and hot. Some parts of the video don’t cohere: the gopher puppets, emerging out of holes in a cracked desert floor to scream; Grande rimming an anus/galaxy whorl (printed on a long-sleeved crew sweatshirt as part of Sweetener’s merch collection). But perhaps these moments are blips. Maybe “No Tears” was, too.