On The Kinks’ song “Lola” and the *soft vowel sounds* song “Ray”
“Ray” can be listened to or downloaded (for free) from the *soft vowel sounds Bandcamp site & you can watch a video of “Ray” on YouTube
So I (Julia Serano, performing under the moniker *soft vowel sounds*) have just released a record called Ray Versus Macbeth and the Music Box, *part one*. The long and clunky title is a purposeful reference to The Kinks’ album Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One. I allude to that particular album because it introduced the world to the classic rock hit “Lola,” and my record contains a modern day parody of that song called “Ray.”
Since parodies sometimes generate confusion (especially when listeners are not especially familiar with the original work being referenced) or controversy (especially when the original work is adored), I figured that I’d explain my thought process behind creating “Ray” in this post.
First, I want to say that I am a fan of The Kinks. I grew up listening to their radio hits from the 1970’s and early 1980’s. And I later discovered some of their brilliant (but lesser well known) songs from the late 1960’s. Honestly, I could listen to “Waterloo Sunset” or “The Village Green Preservation Society” over and over again (sometimes I do!). Their signature song is the 1970 hit “Lola,” which famously describes an affair between the protagonist and trans woman of color named Lola. Admittedly, Lola is not explicitly described as a trans woman or with any other trans-related terminology -- Ray Davies (The Kinks’ lead singer and songwriter) seems to have purposefully left her gender status somewhat ambiguous. All we know is that the protagonist is in love with her (albeit with mixed feelings) and apparently unaware that she is transgender (although this too remains ambiguous, as some of the lyrics suggest that he does know or becomes aware over the course of the song).
I personally have ambivalent feelings about “Lola.” When I was a closeted transgender teenager, I was fascinated by the song. During that time (the early ’80s), there were almost no accessible depictions of trans characters. So songs like “Lola” or Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” offered a rare instance of trans visibility and opened my eyes to the possibility that what I wanted for myself might someday be possible. “Lola” was also pretty groundbreaking in that it was basically a song about being in love with a trans woman and it became a huge hit during a time when queer and trans identities were still extremely taboo. And while it was intended to be humorous, it wasn’t outright malicious or mean-spirited (as most references to trans people during that time were).
However, over the years, the song has become somewhat tainted in my eyes. First, it relies heavily on many of the standard tropes that are commonly trotted out when cisgender people depict transgender people: Frequent allusions to any and all aspects of the trans person that seem gender ambiguous or gender-non-conforming -- check. Leave the audience constantly guessing as to whether the character is “really a woman” or “really a man” -- check. If the character is a trans woman, make her more sexually aggressive than the average woman -- check. Use the person’s trans-ness to invoke feelings of sexual insecurity or confusion in the protagonist -- check.
So while “Lola” initially seemed clever to me back when I was a fairly naive teenager, as an adult who has since viewed countless depictions of trans folks (and written about them extensively) the song seems somewhat trite to me these days.
The second issue that I have with these sorts of trans depictions is that they tend to be exclusively concerned with the protagonist’s (and the audience’s) initial assumption that the character must be cisgender, which invariably leads to a trans “reveal” moment (i.e., when they finally realize that the person is transgender). Cisgender writers and media producers tend to use such “reveal” moments as plot twists, and purposefully play them up in order to evoke some of the following emotions: surprise, horror, humor, disgust, confusion, fascination, and of course, feelings of betrayal or deception. The transgender character is rarely portrayed as an actual person with thoughts, feelings, and concerns of their own, but rather simply serves as a prop in order to provoke the aforementioned feelings in others. “Lola” is no exception here: We know nothing about her, why she is interested in this guy, what the two of them have in common, etc. All we really learn about her over the course of the song is that she is aggressively pursuing the protagonist and that her gender is ambiguous. She merely serves as a plot device. And as they say, wackiness ensues...
Anyway, I did not set out to make a parody of “Lola.” Rather, two years ago, I had an idea for a song written from a transgender perspective about what we experience when cisgender people discover that we are trans and they subsequently make it all about themselves. Rather than having the encounter center on a surprising plot twist (i.e., a trans “reveal” scene), I wanted it to come off as mundane -- something that the trans protagonist has experienced many times before and finds somewhat annoying. I also wanted the protagonist to be bemused by the cisgender character’s melodramatic overreaction to the news, yet also somewhat concerned about the possibility that the incident might turn violent. These are all feelings that I have personally experienced upon coming out to people, or upon them learning that I am trans.
As I was fiddling with the tune, it struck me that it could be humorous to call it “Ray” (a nod to Ray Davies) and to make references to the song “Lola” throughout. I should say that I am not the first person to imagine such a twist on this song. I remember in the early ’00s hearing a version of “Lola” by Dana Baitz, which I think (if I remember correctly) was a cover of the song with altered lyrics telling the story from Lola’s perspective. (I searched for it on the Internet, but sadly it is nowhere to be found, although it is mentioned here and here.)
“Ray” is *not* meant to be a retelling of “Lola” from her perspective. Rather, I imagine the events described in the song as happening in the present (for instance, it includes the word “cis,” which was not used in this manner in 1970). It takes place in a gay/queer bar in the SoMa district of San Francisco. SoMa stands for “South of Market,” apparently a nod to the SoHo (“South of Houston”) district in Manhattan. This is a bit of wordplay on my part, since “Lola” begins by mentioning a club in Soho, London where the characters first met.
I borrowed the idea of having the encounter take place in a gay/queer bar from the movie The Crying Game. In that movie, the cis male protagonist is pursing a woman (who he mistakenly assumes is cisgender) named Dil. Their first encounters together take place in a gay/queer bar, although the protagonist is oblivious to this fact (at least early on). And Dil (for understandable reasons) presumes that he knows that she’s trans because -- duh! -- they met at the gay/queer bar where she performs diva-style renditions of torch songs. Thus, when the inevitable trans “reveal” scene occurs, the protagonist (and many folks in the audience) may have felt “fooled” or “deceived,” but that is a misreading of what actually happened. The reality is that the protagonist (and much of the audience) was simply naive about queer and trans identities. One could even go so far as to claim that it is the trans woman who was “fooled” by the protagonist, who unknowingly misrepresented himself as queer-identified or queer/trans-friendly by showing up at that bar.
In “Ray,” the female protagonist is at the gay/queer bar because she is a trans dyke. The fact that she is writing in her laptop and this guy just comes over to her and interrupts her stems from some of my personal experiences as a female writer who occasionally writes while in bars (seriously guys, if you are at a bar and see a woman who is engrossed in her writing, leave her alone!).
For the record, the character Ray is not meant to be Ray Davies -- I don’t know Ray Davies personally and have no idea how he might act in such a situation. But Ray (the character) is supposed to be a somewhat naive straight guy similar to the protagonist of “Lola.” There are several allusions to the original song in “Ray” -- for instance, mentions of champagne, an invitation to dance, asking the person what their name is. The background singers sing “Ra-ra-ra-ra-Ray” instead of “La-la-la-la-Lola,” and the trans protagonist remarks that her name, “doesn’t rhyme with the name of a soda.” During the bridge of the song, Ray walks to the door and falls to his knees (as the protagonist in “Lola” does). There is a somewhat meta moment toward the end -- Ray writes a song about his experience meeting our protagonist, and upon learning this, she turns him into a character for her novel -- that sort of parodies Ray Davies writing “Lola” then me writing a parody of his song.
My only explicit appropriation of “Lola” lyric/music-wise is the seven-word refrain (with associated melody) “I’m not dumb but I can’t understand...” I specifically borrowed this because it is arguably the most famous line in the song (other than the “La-la-la-la-Lola” chorus). In “Lola,” this line is followed by “...why she walked like a woman and talked like a man” -- it is meant to convey that the protagonist is confused by Lola’s gender-non-conformity. In “Ray,” I use the line as a vehicle to express the protagonist’s exasperation about how clueless Ray is about queer and trans identities.
I should say that the events described in the song are not meant to be realistic. In real life, a trans woman who is being pestered by a guy who is aggressively hitting on her would almost certainly *not* come out to him as trans because of the potential danger it could place her in. And even if she did come out as trans, she surely wouldn’t do so by telling him her birth-assigned name (the only reason why I used that particular literary device is because both songs -- “Lola” and “Ray” -- revolve around people’s names). Also, some listeners might misinterpret the line “I let him chat me up” to mean that the protagonist was actively flirting with Ray, when I simply meant that she took a break from her writing to engage in conversation with him. Maybe she assumes at first that he is a gay man (since it is a gay/queer bar) and that it would be a purely platonic conversation. Or perhaps she is a bisexual/pansexual lady who entertains Ray’s advances at first until she realizes how naive he is. Who knows?
Since “Lola” has become such a huge “classic rock” staple, I wanted to parody the genre as well. I grew up listening to classic rock and enjoy much of it, although the indie-rocker in me is somewhat amused by how bombastic many of those song arrangements are -- for instance, how so many rock songs from the late ’60s and early ’70s added orchestral scores, or ended with majestic “Hey Jude”/”Lola”-esque sing-along choruses that seem to last forever. So (via keyboard) I added strings, trumpet, glockenspiel, and tympani to the outro of “Ray.” The tympani part was especially fun to play!
I initially thought it would be funny to add a children’s choir singing the outgoing “Ra-Ra-Ra-Ra-Ray” part (a la “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” by John Lennon). But I had no idea where I might find a children’s choir who would be willing to help a relatively unknown trans woman indie-popster with her parody song. While I don’t have access to a children’s choir, I do live with four parrots. As I was recording the record in my bedroom, sometimes I could hear them squawking from the living room (resulting in me having to re-do some of the vocal parts). Somewhere along the line, I thought that having them jubilantly hollering during the outgoing chorus would be fun -- a nod to Beatles’ songs like “Hey Jude” and “All You Need Is Love,” where the song almost feels like a big party at the end. As the song ends, you can hear my bird Macbeth say “Hey Macbeth!” That is another inside joke, as the song before “Ray” on the record is named “Macbeth” -- it was inspired by my learning that some people of the theatrical persuasion will refuse to say that name aloud because they believe that it is cursed.
I’ve always had a soft spot for records that allude to, or reference, previous records. In my previous band Bitesize, our first release was called More Songs About Cars and Body Parts -- a reference to the awesome Talking Heads album More Songs About Buildings and Food. (We also jokingly made our first CD a fake “Best of. . .” album, and called our follow up CD Sophomore Slump.) Anyway, once I decided that “Ray” would be on the record, it seemed only fitting to have the record title reference The Kinks’ album Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One. For those unfamiliar with that record, it was a concept album about the music industry, and three songs on the album are referenced in the title (i.e., “Lola,” “Powerman,” and “The Moneygoround.” Similarly, Ray Versus Macbeth and the Music Box, *part one* references “Ray” plus two other songs on the record, namely, “Macbeth” and “Music Box.”
Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One has pretty minimalistic cover art, but I decided to reference it anyway. Other than the album title, it is merely a series of concentric circles and diamonds centered around a sketch of Ray Davies (or at least, it looks like Ray Davies to me). Half his face is bearded, the other half clean-shaven -- you get it: half-man, half-woman, just like Lola! Ha ha, how clever, I have never seen *that* trans joke before! (cough cough, sarcasm)...
As you can see, Ray Versus Macbeth and the Music Box, *part one* also has a series of concentric geometric shapes, although they include pink triangles, since the protagonist in “Ray” is a trans dyke. The sketch at the center is of me -- I am not a good artist by any means; I merely traced a photo of myself (the original photo can be found on my homepage). I didn’t draw my mouth for practical reasons (since I am a sucky artist), but I liked the symbolism of it too: We usually don’t get to hear stories (e.g., regarding “coming out”/trans “reveal” moments) told from the trans person’s perspective.
The fact that the sketch is incomplete also leaves it to the audience to imagine what the trans woman protagonist in the song (not to mention the trans woman performing the song) looks like. Does she look like a woman? Does she look unconventionally gendered or “mannish”? If we assume one way or another, what does that say about our own presumptions? Should it even matter to us what she looks like? My hope is that this might encourage people to consider their own expectations about who trans women are.
When you open up the record, in the CD tray there is a picture of the same sketch of me with a cartoon speech bubble saying, “assume!” This references the refrain toward the end of “Ray”:
and his name was Ray
but i would never assume
he spelled it R-A-Y
because when you assume
you make an ass of yourself
not to mention me...
This is always a fun joke to reference, but it also makes a serious point: Most people assume that everyone they meet is straight and cisgender, unless they receive information to the contrary. There wouldn’t be “reveal” scenes (and the associated surprise, horror, humor, disgust, confusion, fascination, etc., that they are intended to provoke) if people simply didn’t automatically assume that every person they meet is cisgender and straight. Just something to think about...
A lot of people adore Ray Davies as an artist (as stated above, I am one of those people). I am sure that some of these folks will assume (there’s that word again!) that I am trying to “mock” or “take down” Ray Davies with this song. I do no such thing. I am simply sharing my perspective on how trans people are depicted in the media and art, and how this differs from our own experiences of the same situations. I think that one can appreciate songs like “Lola,” or movies and novels that hinge around trans “reveal” scenes, while at the same time acknowledging that the trans-person-as-plot-twist trope both complicates trans people’s lives, and has also been done hundreds of times before -- it is stale and derivative, and perhaps we should finally retire it.
I am sure that some people who hear “Ray” may try to portray me as an “angry trans person” who is “too sensitive” and “is taking the song too seriously.” These, of course, are accusations that those in the majority often make of minorities who voice their opinions or perspectives on things. But in addition to that, I actually do not think that “Ray” is an angry song. Personally, I intended it to be charming and humorous, and I had a lot of fun creating all the plays-on-words, inside jokes, and references to the original song. “Ray” is certainly a parody of “Lola” (in that it references the original song in order to make a broader cultural critique of trans depictions in the media and art), but it was also forged, in part, out of my own appreciation of The Kinks, and classic rock more generally. If you don’t see the humor in “Ray,” then perhaps you should take comfort in the fact that what seems funny to people who share one set of experiences may not seem so funny to people who do not share that experience. And vice versa.
p.s., for those interested, a YouTube clip of “Lola,” with its lyrics can be found here. you can also listen to “Ray” here, and its lyrics are listed below.
p.s.s., I just uploaded “Ray” (with lyrics) to YouTube. Here it is:
i was in a bar in SoMa
writing in my laptop when this guy came over
he asked me what i was doing
i looked up somewhat annoyed and said “I’m working on a novel”
normally i’d blow him off, but i had writer’s block
i couldn’t come up with an adequate plot twist
so i let him chat me up
it was an innocuous conversation until he asked me to dance
it was weird, the DJ hadn’t even set up yet
then he placed his hand on my knee
he smiled and suddenly our brief exchange became a little bit creepy
now i’m not dumb but i can’t understand
why straight boys always hit on me when it’s so clear that i’m queer
he offered to buy me a drink
i said i was fine nursing my Racer 5 but he came back with champagne
he told me that his name was Ray
he asked me mine and i replied “it doesn’t rhyme with the name of a soda”
(but he didn’t get the joke though)
he kept pestering me
so i told him what my name is now and what my name used to be
now i’m not dumb but i can’t understand
why cis boys are always so surprised to find out that i’m trans
Ray headed for the door
and fell to his knees
it was so melodramatic
i almost wanted to laugh
but i know better than that
because you never know when a surprised cis guy
might suddenly turn violent
a few weeks after the fact
i was writing at the same gay bar when Ray came back
he said he had something for me
i was concerned at first until he handed me a home-burnt CD
he said he wrote a song about me
i asked “does it come with trigger warnings?”
but he didn’t get the joke though
as soon as he gave it to me
i got an amazing idea: a new character for my story
and his name was Ray
but i would never assume
he spelled it R-A-Y
because when you assume
you make an ass of yourself
not to mention me
life isn’t a movie
and people aren’t plot twists
please consider this
this is a parody
so please don’t sue me
please write more songs
like “waterloo sunset”