Who Sings the Revolution?: On Julia Balén’s “A Queerly Joyful Noise: Choral Musicking for Social Justice”

Morgan Woolsey wrangles with the political potential of queer singing in Julia Balén’s “A Queerly Joyful Noise: Choral Musicking for Social Justice.”

Who Sings the Revolution?: On Julia Balén’s “A Queerly Joyful Noise: Choral Musicking for Social Justice”

A Queerly Joyful Noise by Julia Balén. Rutgers University Press. 224 pages.

IN 1996, Julia Balén traveled to Tampa, Florida, to participate in the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses (GALA) Festival for the first time. As Balén awaited the opening ceremony with her 30-some-odd chorus mates and upward of 5,000 other LGBTQIA choristers (in her estimation, two-thirds “G” and the remaining third a mix of “LBTQIA”), she remembers feeling an overwhelming sense of collectivity. She marveled at the size of the crowd and the charged atmosphere: people “teasing, flirting, and calling out to each other […] eager to share their joy in and through queer choral performance.” The experience proved so profound that some 20 years later it would become the subject of her new book, A Queerly Joyful Noise: Choral Musicking for Social Justice.

This moment of discovering a subculture of others like oneself appears in countless examples of queer autobiographical writing across the 20th century, usually describing ambivalent first encounters with urban enclaves and cruising spots where inverts lurk in the shadows doing terrible, sad, perverted things to one another. Samuel Delany’s excitement at coming upon a bathhouse full of naked men — which he describes in great detail in The Motion of Light in Water — is tinged, for example, with fear. There is no such ambivalence in Balén’s description of her joyful encounter with a larger queer choral subculture. She knows queer people exist in large numbers; she even knows that queer choirs exist, having sung in one since graduate school. But she had no idea so many queer people were singing in queer choirs, and it is the apparent critical mass at the gathering that inspired her to write a book about what she calls the “queer choral movement” and the combined erotic (in a broad sense) and political (also, in a broad sense) potential of this music-making platform. Delany, too, describes a feeling of exhilaration at the political and erotic potential that a large group of queer people in one space represents. The two, then, are connected in their personal discovery of — and merging with — groups brought together by the shared pursuit of pleasure: sexual, sensual, social, musical, or otherwise.

Balén draws her method for thinking about music from Christopher Small, who in 1998 provocatively suggested that music, understood both academically and colloquially as an object or thing (i.e., a “piece” of music), was “not a thing at all but an activity, [‘musicking,’] something that people do.” Following Small, Balén approaches music as an activity. She is concerned with trying to understand how that activity produces joy for queer people, and how the production of that joy contributes to broader queer movements for social justice. Balén argues that choral musicking offers queer people a particularly effective method of contradicting harmful narratives and stereotypes that limit what they can do or be, what philosopher Hilde Lindemann designates as “counterstorying.” This queer choral counterstorying consists largely of an in-group affirming or “holding” of identity, of “queering” the straightness of the Western choral tradition, and of presenting accessible, eclectic, and, above all, moving musical performances to “change hearts and minds” in the audience (a troublesome turn of phrase that I’ll return to later). To sum up, she suggests that thing that people are “doing” in queer choirs is liberation, and that queer choirs leverage the formality and respectability of choral music to endow the choral musicker with dignity. Balén’s addition to the body of queer narratives for locating community and joy — academic and popular, autobiographical and autoethnographic — is a welcome one, though I think it would’ve been served well by a little of Delany’s ambivalence. In other words, Balén might have paid more attention to the racial and class dynamics that shape the musical and social practices she explores, and leavened her descriptions with more discussion of the music that produces the joy she celebrates.

In empirical terms — and in spite of Balén’s enthusiastic protestations — very few people sing in queer choirs. Five thousand worldwide is a small number, no matter how you slice it. As a longtime choral singer myself (one who has sung in choirs that would fall under Balén’s heading of queer choral movement and other choirs that would not), I would actually describe queer choruses as fairly niche and, in an interesting way, doubly marginal: too middlebrow for most queer performance cultures, which skew edgier, and too unruly for concert culture, which skews more conservative. With some exceptions, the queer choral movement is aggressively middlebrow, a requirement if we think of it as Balén encourages us to do, as a proselytizing effort to “change hearts and minds” in the concert hall. It would make sense, then, that queer choral movement is not particularly connected to queer social movements directly. Its focus on formality, too, makes it a poor candidate for the kinds of rabble-rousing such action requires. This was perhaps more the case during Women’s Liberation and the AIDS crisis than it is now, but no protest anthems like “Solidarity Forever” or “We Shall Overcome” (associated with the Labor and Civil Rights movements respectively) came out of Gay Liberation, something she points out as interesting, but never explores in any depth. It is more homonormative causes to which queer choral movement tends to lend its support. The Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles’s recording of “True Colors” for Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” Project springs to mind. Why, then, does Balén insist that the queer choral movement is both vast in number and intimately connected to queer social justice work?

On the one hand, academics are constantly put in the position of having to justify our ever narrowing research projects to publishers and the public, which sometimes makes a necessity of building a mountain out of a critical molehill. On the other hand, Balén’s Sisyphean task — putting into words and analyzing the experience of singing in a choir, which for many people is an indescribable one — performs this intellectual magnification all on its own. In other words, the feelings that queer choral singing inspires in its participants are so expansive that the movement from which they issue is felt by those participants to be similarly expansive, even when the actual numbers are fairly small. I have found the depth and intensity of my own emotions and the emotions of those around me while singing in choirs fascinating, and was happy to see a book addressing the subject. I’ve broken down crying while singing more times than I can count, sometimes for reasons that remain completely unknowable to me, but I’ve also felt alienated by my failure to reach those depths of intensity. Music has long been understood as capable of representing and expressing emotion more aptly than other forms of art, including language, and so verbalizing how music makes us feel can be a challenging task. Musicologist Susan McClary wryly referred to this as “effing the ineffable,” and A Queerly Joyful Noise is one such attempt at effing it.

I’m not saying that queer choral movement is insignificant or unworthy of study because it only speaks to a minority of a minority. In fact, Balén’s book fills glaring absences in ethnomusicology (criticized as recently as 2015 by Deborah Wong for insufficient exploration of sexuality and erotics); musicology (which, to my knowledge, features very little writing on choirs in general, let alone queer choirs); and queer theory (whose explorations of affect and emotion in performance have tended to focus on the laconic, ironic, and distancing aesthetics of camp much to the detriment of many non-gay male-centric practices and orientations). In these ways, I find A Queerly Joyful Noise an important first monograph about a kind of musicking I believe deserves more attention. What I am saying, however, is that Balén’s positing of queer choral movement as speaking to and for a vast number of individuals within the queer community exhibits the same kind of universalizing logic that plagues our discourses of LGBTQIA rights and justice more broadly. In this paradigm, oppressive social structures and practices that are adapted by and for cisgender, white, queer people are expected to benefit and uplift all queer people. For an example of this, one need look no further than ongoing, intra-community criticism of the prioritization of gay marriage when many queer people would much rather work to dismantle marriage as an institution. Getting access to the benefits of these structures and practices is celebrated as revolutionary when, in fact, these institutions perpetuate the structural oppression of the most vulnerable members of our communities. Situating the social justice utility of queer choral music as an attempt to “change hearts and minds” in the audience vis-à-vis the formality of the concert hall seems reductive and erases a huge swath of queer experience.

A Queerly Joyful Noise follows a disappointing pattern of white queer scholarship that invokes a narrative of Black struggle and class struggle to initiate a discussion of struggle around sexuality, suggesting that the one is “like” the other. For example, in her discussion of the Fisk Jubilee Singers — an African-American choir that started touring domestically and globally after the Civil War, performing classical and gospel repertory — she suggests that the place of queer bodies in the concert hall is similar to the place of Black bodies in the concert hall. But the Fisk Jubilee Singers were barred from performing in the formal concert space Balén discusses on the basis of their race. White gay men and lesbians, who to my knowledge still make up the majority of participants in the queer choral movement, have long flourished in formal concert spaces, finding coded ways to make art and communicate queer meanings therein. It’s easy to see that taking control of a socially conservative form like choral singing has drastically different implications for the two groups, an issue Balén leaves unexplored as she brings the groups together time and again. This is unfortunate because Balén’s treatment of the personal experiences of choral musicking described by her informants is so rich and detailed, but rather than give similar heft to consideration of the race and class dynamics that shape the practices and tastes of this musical world, she falls back on generalizations about oppression and the power of music.

I would love to see a book about this topic that unfolds without recourse to analogizing, one that makes space for understanding the experiences of queer people of color (who are also participants in queer choral movement) and gives more consideration to the ways in which the historically gender-segregated nature of queer choirs affects bisexual, trans, and gender nonconforming people. If refusing to disavow one’s queer identity while performing is so important to gay and lesbian participants in queer choral movement how might one think about queer choral movement participants for whom this is not a primary concern? Apart from brief mention of a bisexual informant’s reluctance to come out to her chorus mates, and discussion of certain choirs’ practice of degendering voice parts, Balén gives us no clues; her comparative method makes it challenging for her to do so. She does provide a useful context when she relates the queer choral movement to the “queering” of other conservative social institutions such as sports, religion, and Pride events, but this section leaves the reader confused as to how Balén is using “queer” as a verb. Inserting queer people into a historically conservative social institution like religion does not necessarily “queer” that institution. Many would describe this not with the verb “queer” — which has connotations of dismantling, destroying, deconstructing — but “assimilate.” Unlike the previous comparison between Black and queer bodies, though, this institutional comparison deepens the reader’s understanding of the particularities of queer choral musicking: its structures, its functioning, its mainstream politics and middlebrow aesthetics, its investments in homonormativity.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the national anthem and what a refusal to participate means. US nationalism demands docile bodies, bodies that are demonstrative in their compliance with the sexist, white supremacist structures that make up our cultural heritage and underpin our present condition. I’ve been thinking about the scene of a stadium full of people listening to a single individual with a microphone (Jordin Sparks, with Bible verses Prov. 31: 8-9 written on her hands) sing solo, a cappella, while some in the stadium may sing along or mouth these well-worn words soundlessly. Political theorist and historian Benedict Anderson describes these moments with his neologism “unisonance” (unison + resonance), which he defines as the rising up of collective voice, the merging of oneself with a group during moments of social/civic performance or recitation. His main example of this is the singing the national anthem:

How selfless this unisonance feels! If we are aware that others are singing these songs precisely when and as we are, we have no idea who they may be, or even where, out of earshot, they are singing. Nothing connects us all but imagined sound.

Such musicking encourages one to imagine oneself as part of a vast, unknowable collective that Anderson calls an “imagined community.” This can be likened to the imagining of the erotic and political potential that stimulates such strong emotional responses to scenes of collective queer performance for queers like Delany and Balén. As a mode of imagining community, queer choral musicking surely fuels social justice work for some people. Finding a community and singing with that community is an undeniably powerful thing. I know this. Singing together can conjure an intoxicating feeling of connectedness, involvement, and urgency. But those moments of unisonance can also occasion the most terrifying and painful feelings of exclusion and repulsion, and the varied individuals who make up this amorphous thing we call “queer community” have struggled, and continue to struggle, within the narrow lines these moments of collective imagining tend to draw. Sadly, as in the fracas around the national anthem and the right to protest around or through it, these lines tend to be drawn racially. Sometimes those lines are drawn through direct bias, but more often than not they are drawn through an uncritical celebration of the institutions that perpetuate oppression. The unmarked subject is always white, always cisgender, and academics invested in social justice must strive to (re)mark those subjects, to understand how even something as seemingly universal and joyful as choral singing creates spaces in which the lines between exclusion and inclusion in a collective body are drawn sharp and hard.

My feelings — musical and political — about the world described in the pages of A Queerly Joyful Noise are a complicated knot of ambivalence, tenderness, intergenerational frustration, embarrassment, and yes, joy. Queer choral music’s goal of “changing hearts and minds” is not in itself a bad thing, though its invocation as a sentiment of various of the United States’s ideological conflicts deemed unwinnable by military force alone, a sentiment that signals a recourse to propaganda and proselytizing a normative and idealized vision of our “way of life” should give us pause. Queer choral movement’s goal of holding oppressed queer people in their identities and improving their quality of life through collective, creative activity is vital. Both goals are valid and worthwhile. But if we continue to leave the structures that frame our experiences of joyful unisonance in place, uninterrogated, nothing will get better.


Morgan Woolsey’s work focuses on issues of music and identity, and the use of music in disreputable genres of film.

LARB Contributor

Morgan Woolsey’s work focuses on issues of music and identity, and the use of music in disreputable genres of film.


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