In One Track Minded, we pick a select cut from a chosen act and delve beneath the surface. Mark Conroy looks at The Replacements’ sweet embrace of genderless love and the fashion struggles of a wild generation.
When you look back at mainstream rock of much of the 1980s, it can sometimes be hard not to see these years as anything more than a hyper-masculine haze of heavy metal. The airways were filled with the AC/DC’s and the Def Leppards; bands of lads ,who performed at sold out arenas full of lads, and sung about girls so half-naked that must have been up for it. It was a time when it was acceptable for sweaty, leather bound crotches to be thrusted at the front row. The guitar was now such a vehicle of overblown riffs and solos the length of ‘Freebird”s entirety that the neck of the instrument became a phallic symbol in its own right.
In 1984, this is the environment in which rowdy rockers The Replacements would release their now seminal Let it Be. The album is now widely considered as an All-American alt rock staple but it’s one of its tracks in particular, Androgynous’, that in retrospect feels most like the antidote to the cis-gendered, meaty manliness of the era. Gender-bending wasn’t exactly an anomaly in these days either; the aesthetic had of course been championed in the late ’70s by Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust character and by the ’80s it had become a very á la mode trend among pop stars like not-so-Boy George and Adam (minus the Ants). In the world of rock at this time, however, it wasn’t the coolest material to cover. But the Replacements were never really about being ‘cool’ and based on their oft-drunken stage antics and utter indifference (to put it lightly) shown to their audiences at early gigs, they clearly didn’t care what anybody – even their own fans -thought of them.
The music of The Replacements is the kind that’s conceived by Misfits and for Misfits. These are the guys who liked to sing songs about the ‘unsatisfied’ youth, misunderstood artsy girls and self-destructive pub regulars. ‘Androgynous’, a rally cry for atypical love if there ever was one, is yet another anthem for the outcasts. Still, it would be hard to call this a quintessential Replacements song. As a playful piano ballad, it sticks out like a sore thumb amidst not only the punchy post punk of Let it Be but also the majority of the band’s back catalogue. Lyrically, however, it’s frontman Paul Westerberg through and through. The words may seem silly and semi-serious, but there’s also still a genuine pathos that can be extracted from them – a Westerberg hallmark.
This is not really a song about transsexual love, but rather just a celebration of genderless love and the fashion struggles of a generation. Our couple is already endearingly set up in the opening two lines with our “Dick wearing a skirt” and our “Jane sportin’ a chain”. The two are a product of the messy mismatched clothing and emerging neutrois of early 1980s youth culture. In the uncertain ‘anything goes’ landscape that arose from the ashes of punk, our marginalised heroes find comfort and assuredness in each other. They refuse to display to any visual synecdoche that denotes male or female identity. Dick “may be a father, but he sure ain’t a dad”, Westerberg croons in his raw, raspy voice that sounds like it was recorded on a Sony TC-110A.
It’s almost as if the two share this singular, neutral gender. Due to “revolution and evolution”, the couple share a hairstyle and a build respectively. Westerberg goes on to envision a future that’s both free of the everyday gendered materials like “urinal stalls” and “Kewpie Dolls” and when matters like this are seen in a less regressive, binary fashion. Even if tomorrow’s Dick and Jane will go back to adhere to the gender norms they rallied against, as the song suggests, Westerberg doesn’t condemn them for ‘going through a phase’. Instead, he sees being different as something that always has to be dared.
This is a track that, at its most basic level, shows us a band that can be as haplessly romantic as anyone, even if they wouldn’t care to admit it. ‘Androgynous’, if nothing else, pays tribute to the notion that there really is someone out there for everyone. And even if you think that adage has always been hoary and unfeasible, Westerberg subverts it enough to keep it from being in any way trite. The Replacements (and the ideals espoused here) may not have got the mainstream recognition they deserved in their day but really they’re the ones having the last laugh, if the latter-day appreciation of this song is anything to go by. Not only is agender parenting now a thing, but we’ve seen covers of the track from the likes of Crash Test Dummies to even one involving Miley Cyrus. The dynamic has changed and The ‘Mats got it right.
As the song says; “Tomorrow, who’s gonna fuss?”