Photo via Getty Images, Art by Leila Ettachfini

How I Discovered a Secret Collection of Transgender Pop Hits

When I listened to translowmo, I didn't hear the modulated voices of Christina or Miley. Instead, I let myself hear new voices—different, but no less authentic.

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Aug 9 2018, 3:28pm

Photo via Getty Images, Art by Leila Ettachfini

I’ve been fixated on slowed-down pop classics ever since I heard the electronic musician Shlohmo’s super-slow remix of "Genie" playing in a New York secondhand clothing store. With the vocals slowed way down, Christina Aguilera's sensual song about being a “Genie in a Bottle” becomes a dark, legato ode to desire and isolation. The altered voice stops sounding like Christina at all. It becomes a contemplative elegy for a life of isolation and desire, the vocalist—someone new to us—haunted by “a century of lonely nights, waiting for someone to release me.”

If you slow a song enough, the singer’s pitch changes, altering the gendered sound of their voice. This sort of modulation of a cisgender woman’s voice bends her toward a vocal spectrum more familiar to people like me. Playing the remix of “Genie” on repeat, I visualized the person behind the voice, and they were transgender.

“The music's fading and the light’s down low,” this new entity told me. “Just one more dance, and then we're good to go. Waiting for someone who needs me.” Listening, I am taken to the darkly lit nightclubs where trans women dance for a living, looking for love, a saving grace.

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Though pop largely lacks trans representation, I’ve found my people’s voices in a genre I call “translowmo.” I was fascinated to discover an entire collection of translowmo music on YouTube labeled with the artist’s name followed by the parenthetical “(male version)”. I hadn’t thought that other people would be listening to these slowed songs and thinking about the gendered aspects of the voice. The fact that people label them with the term “male” is not at all surprising, but it seems obvious to me that these are the (trans versions) rather than anything else.

This is not to say that any slowed music “sounds trans,” or that it’s possible to generalize the sound of a trans woman singing. Trans musicians have always existed, and of course there are real trans pop stars to admire today—people like Sophie and Kim Petras. But my internet introduction to virtual transformations of major mainstream hits tapped into the way that transgender culture has been hidden within mainstream society throughout the 20th century and today; these trans songs are invisible, but all around us. Translowmo needs to be modified to be realized, and trans people often require modifications in order to be realized, too, whether that’s a change of name, or medical intervention.

In each song, I met a new artist: someone without a name, or even a body. She exists only virtually. Sometimes, transgender identities can feel more virtual than real, too. Because society constantly invalidates us, we are told that our true selves do not exist in any material way. It was on the internet where I first altered the way that my gender was perceived by other people—why shouldn’t an oeuvre of transgender music also be buried here online, in code as mutable as my own?

This isn’t about taste; when it comes to music, I have none. I have no judgement on Taylor Swift, but I know I like her trans doppelgänger that emerges when you slow her music down. The slowing of pop music hits is about the magic of perception and the power of transformation to breathe life into something otherwise invisible. Part of appreciating translowmo requires looking beyond your understanding that the vocals have been modified. Instead of hearing the modulated voice of Christina or Miley, let yourself hear a new voice—different, but no less authentic. That’s good praxis for understanding transgender people at large. We’re all modified—alterations of our original selves, changing names and pronouns and body parts.

I have no judgement on Taylor Swift, but I know I like her trans doppelgänger that emerges when you slow her music down.

When translowmo Katy Perry asks, “Do you ever feel so paper-thin, like a house of cards, one blow from caving in?” I don’t see or hear Katy anymore. I take in the sound of a trans voice speaking directly to trans people. “Do you ever feel already buried deep? Six feet under screams, but no one seems to hear a thing?” Life can apply overwhelming pressure on trans people, leaving you burdened with shame and fear. As our translowmo vocalist reminds us—“there's still a chance for you.”

Lady Gaga has a trans twin, whose ode to “Bad Romance” becomes an epic about transgender desire—an honest, gut-wrenching story of love, death, and revenge. “I want your ugly,” she tells us, unable to parse the brutal from the intimate: “I want your disease. I want your love.” I hear someone singing about the acceptance of their partner’s ugliness—the parts of them that don’t fit in. At the same time, Gaga’s trans twin candidly exposes herself to the risk of “disease,” inverting social stereotypes about trans women being tainted in some way.

Listening to translowmo, I feel like I have gained access to an alternate universe in which trans women narrate the world. The genre itself is akin to gender transition: Just as undeveloped breast tissue lays dormant in trans women until hormonal intervention causes those breasts to grow, the prototypical pop icon is a transgender sleeper cell that, with the right treatment, will be awakened.

Most meaningful to me in this way is a slowed version of Miley Cyrus’s "Wrecking Ball." The melody is deeper; more patient. The lyrics “Don’t you ever say I just walked away, I will always love you” are spoken like a command resonating from the gut of a trans woman who knows the pain of trying to make a relationship work when their cis partner can’t stick it out and endure the difficulties of dating someone different. The words, sung with the confidence of a pop icon in the voice of a virtual singer I envision as transgender, so aptly recalled how easily transgender women’s experiences of love can be destroyed by social factors beyond our control.

When the singer tells me how she “came in like a wrecking ball,” my heart sinks: The chorus evokes the narrative that plagues too many real-life experiences of love for trans women: When you’re trans, no matter how patient you are, or how much effort you give to someone you love, your identity can feel threatening—like a wrecking ball that could shatter a man’s reputation. But, like this faceless trans artist sings, trans people just want the social barriers that keep us from love to fall: “All I wanted was to break your walls; all you ever did was break me.” In other lines, I recognized how transgender identity can seem dangerous to the people we love because we threaten their understandings of gender and sex: “It slowly turned, you let me burn, and now we’re ashes on the ground.”

“I can’t live a lie, running for my life,” the voice in the translowmo version of “Wrecking Ball” sings, reflecting another essential component of the trans experience: We transition when the lie isn’t worth it anymore, knowing the decision is a race toward life. I find it striking that I only found this meaning in the music when it was performed by a voice that sounds like it came from someone like me.

Hearing trans voices in slowed songs is a niche interest. But it has made me cry before. Tracks that I would have once thought nothing of suddenly render me silent, my eyes closed as I listen to this person who doesn’t exist sing a song that I can’t stop hearing—but have never heard this way before.