I can't think of Sedgwick's title "Queer and Now" (1991) without hearing Luther Vandross. His “Here and Now” (1989) is too easy a phonetic overlap to miss the relation, but when one reads and listens more deeply, the two are also otherwise entangled. Hers is a critical, confrontational, provocative, auto-biographical, visionary essay; his is a lover's anthem, a wedding staple, a declaration, and some of the best of the sappy R&B crossover from the late 1980s/early 1990s. In addition to the dangerously homophonetic titles, the two share time-space, as the song and article appeared within two years of one another and in the wild midst of increased visibility for queer activism and insurgent Black cultural forms, including the likes of musicians Public Enemy and Me’Shell Ndegéocello as well as filmmakers Spike Lee and Cheryl Dunye.
Vandross is, in his own way, a luminary of this moment due to his phenomenal talent and success. His voice, with just enough grain to let you know it was real, melted in your ears, coating them in sugary sweetness and warming the cavities of your chest. Over the course of his career we heard his voice mature and saw his body shrink. What he wouldn't show or tell us, however, is who shared his bedroom. The demand for that knowledge, in a moment when outing was a method within "the irreducible multilayered and multiphasedness of what queer survival means" (Sedgwick 3) was a precarious request that perhaps did not consider enough the unequal promise of violence that met the speaker. That Vandross never gave the public that information is not an omission; it was already present, written into the very material of his sound and displayed in his performances but it could not be interpreted only through a queer frame. He was at once inside of queer—“the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances, and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone's gender, of anyone's sexuality, aren't made (or can't be made) to signify monolithically" (Sedgwick 8)—and in excess of it. His queerness was informed and interpolated by his race in fantastic ways and presented itself in the "minor key sensibilities generated by the experiences of the underground, the vagabond, and those constituencies marked as deviant . . . " (Iton 16). In his seminal text on the Black fantastic, Richard Iton included Vandross amongst a cohort who "would in different ways and to varying degrees provide templates for the engagement of black interiority in opposition to the dominant disinterest in such fluidity and ambiguity, undecidability and uncertainty" (193).
The indecipherability and play in performances of queerness and blackness have sonic qualities as well. The "low-down register" described by C. Riley Snorton (5) is an especially ripe frame that attunes us to the connections between the histories and realities of queerness and blackness. A resident of these crossroads, Vandross used performance to mediate the public's crisis over his sexuality. The "Here and Now" video shows his skill and willingness to live in the "minor key sensibilities" of his deviance.
The music video and song, which begins "One look in your eyes and there I see just what you mean to me," are interested in optics. The set for the video is an art museum. We follow a male character as he imagines and falls in love with a woman trapped in a painting. His passion for and commitment to her bring her to full animation. Vandross is their cantor, singing them into blissful forever with his "Here and now I vow to be one with thee." His critical distance from this public pleasure—loving looks and caresses in full view of witnesses—is complete as he gazes upon the couple but never interacts with them, as if playing the role of fairy godfather. While a hetero couple stars in this representation, "Here and Now" could also be the story of Vandross's love life. There are no gender pronouns used in the 3:55 of song. His love, my love, your love are all welcome, modeling an alternative sonic imaginary in this historical moment that trembled with "the rhythms of early death" (Sedgwick 14).
The relationship between the "queer" in "Queer and Now" and the "here" in "Here and Now" is not so easily decided or placed when one considers blackness as a queer formation of political desire. Like so much of the sloganeering attached to contemporary social justice efforts, the queer chants of the late 1980s and early 1990s—like Queer Nation's iconic cry, "We're here! We're queer! Get used to it!”—streamlined their narratives into near two-dimensionality. The heterogeneity of queer(s) and the diversity of places at which they are located (“here”) remain unregistered in these announcements. What and where are the “punks, bulldaggers, and welfare queens” (Cohen)1 in Minneapolis, Detroit, and Atlanta? The national failure to see that queer in here was Vandross’s opening, his opportunity to be and say what the missing, disappeared, discounted queers could not say or be in public . . . at least not now. This temporality—the “Now”—is unsettled by the combination of these two texts. The Black now is a fiction indelibly tied to a past that some of us have read about but the majority of us have never experienced, except through reenactment. The oft-repeated relation between present police violence and that under Jim Crow, the regular (and important) juxtaposition of imprisonment with enslavement, the successful revivification of Black domestic labor in television and film cultures, and the leadership recycling program that privileges the voices of reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton over those the age of their children or grandchildren are but a few examples to suggest that the Black present—the Black "now"—is always sometime/somewhere else. Ultimately, Vandross too becomes frozen in time-space in the video for "Here and Now," which, at the very end, captures him as installation on the museum wall.
The collage video—in the broken in-between of times past and future, those only partially visible through brushstrokes, overlaid drawings, and images—is where and when Vandross can make his declarations. They may not sound like a queer “coming out” but as Iton argued, “popular culture thrives on, and indeed demands, nuance, dadesque ambiguity, contrapuntality as it resists fixedness in its moves between the grounded and the fantastic" (11). What we might hold onto in these text-scenes provided by Sedgwick and Vandross is not only the necessity of intertextuality but the potential for queer hearing that comes alive in the messy conjuncture of here and now.
My thanks to Sarah Haley.
1This still relevant critique relies on the body of work produced by Cathy Cohen, including her incisive 1997 article, “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens.”
Cohen, Cathy J. “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 3 (1997): 437-65. Print.
Iton, Richard. In Search of the Black Fantastic: Politics and Popular Culture in the Post- Civil Rights Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Tendencies. London: Routledge, 1994. Print.
Snorton, C. Riley. Nobody’s Supposed to Know: Black Sexuality on the Down Low. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014. Print.