Trans Roots: Barenaked Ladies Edition

Why a bunch of cis Canadian guys are trans icons.

Welcome to Trans Roots, a new series in which I explore various media properties and pop culture icons that I connected with as a young person who didn’t know they were trans. Explicit, high-quality representation of trans people is still pretty rare in our media landscape, but there are a plethora of video game characters, songs, films, TV shows, and books that speak to aspects of the trans experience, often unintentionally. Before we know that we’re transgender, many of us get an inkling that something is “up” with us via our resonant connection to characters who feel uncomfortable in their own skin or their prescribed role in society.

Today’s Trans Root is one of my earliest: the music of Barenaked Ladies. Mostly known as the creators of gag songs like “If I Had a Million Dollars” and “Another Postcard (with Chimpanzees)”, BNL actually produced numerous songs about deeper subjects, including melancholy, addiction, and, yes, gender dysphoria.

Even the band’s name, Barenaked Ladies, suggests an interest in playing with gender and gendered expectations. Every member of the band appears to be, outwardly, a cisgender dude. Yet many of their songs discuss feeling hemmed in by gender labels and social rules attendant to them. The most clear example is What a Good Boy:

When I was born, they looked at me and said
“What a good boy, what a smart boy, what a strong boy”
And when you were born, they looked at you and said
“What a good girl, what a smart girl, what a pretty girl”Got these chains, hang around our necks
People want to strangle us with ’em, before we take our first breath
Afraid of change, afraid of stayin’ the same
When temptation calls, we just look away

This is a very early BNL song, but its explicit frustration with gender roles and the sense of trappedness it explores will come up again and again throughout the band’s oeuvre. And this song is not elusive about its point: it straight-up calls assigned gender at birth a set of “chains” and a “hairshirt”, implements of imprisonment and torture. While some fans like to read a big elaborate narrative story into this song, BNL has always maintained that the interpretation is pretty straightforward: this song is about the perniciousness of gender norms and how difficult they are to escape throughout life and when conducting oneself in a relationship (source: the liner notes of All Their Greatest Hits Disc One).

BNL expanded on this theme with a song literally entitled I’ll be That Girl:

If I were you (and I wish that I were you)
All the things I’d do to make myself turn blue
I suppose I’d start by removing all my clothes,
tie my pantyhose around my neck
I’ll be that girl — and you would be right over
If I were a field, you would be in clover
If I were the sun, you would be in shadow
And if I had a gun, there’d be no tomorrow

This song is very directly about wanting to be a girl, fantasizing about having the body and trappings of femininity, and how that desire has manifested (and metastasized, even) into love and resentment of a particular woman the narrator wishes he could be. The narrator is self-destructive and self-loathing, explicitly suicidal — not an uncommon experience for closeted trans folks who haven’t taken steps towards treating their dysphoria. Trans people often come to view people of their correct gender with a slew of complicated emotions — jealousy, resentment, and overflowing desire. The narrator of I’ll Be That Girl can’t decide if he wants to kill himself, to disappear, to become a field of clover with no human identity, or to become a girl. Becoming a girl seems just as elusive — and as desperately desired — as becoming dead.

We have another whisper of gender dysphoria and self-destruction in the banger, Alcohol:

And would you please ignore that you found me on the floor
trying on your camisole?

Alcohol is a song about a spiraling addiction, and the justifications the narrator presents to maintain his self-destructive habit. And, taken by itself, this lyric might just seem like a one-off goof, maybe even an intolerant joke. A less astute listener might think the drunken cross-dressing was merely a sign of how wasted the narrator had become.

But when read as part of BNL’s overall body of work, which is largely about feeling uncomfortable in your own skin and being perpetually on the verge of drowning in your own self-loathing…well…this lyric comes across as a lot more sincere. And as cliche as it can sound, trying on the clothes you’ve been forbidden all your life in a fit of drunken release is a very, very common trans experience of awakening.

I know people who finally admitted to themselves that they were trans by getting absolutely blotto and trying on new clothing or ordering illegal hormones off the internet. A lot of times, we have to be pushed (or push ourselves) to the brink before we allow ourselves the things we want most. Most of us have been poisoned with shame our whole lives. When we finally decide to embrace who we are, it’s usually messy, and follows a period of trying everything else we can think of as a means of avoidance — including engaging in self-harm, eating disordered behavior, risky sexual encounters, or, yes, drowning our dysphoria in alcohol.

— — -

It’s worth noting, at this point, that all of these songs are by Steven Page, not BNL’s other chief lyricist of the period, Ed Robertson. Steven tended to write far darker, more introspective songs; there was always this sheen of dysthymia and existential longing to them that was resonant and melancholy-producing for me, even when I was a kid growing up with these songs.

Take for example one of BNL’s earliest hits, Brian Wilson. It’s a song all about feeling helplessly uncomfortable in one’s own skin, and detached from reality because of it:

I had a dream
That I was three hundred pounds
And though I was very heavy
I floated ’til I couldn’t see the ground
I floated ’til I couldn’t see the ground
Somebody help me, I couldn’t see the ground
Somebody help me, I couldn’t see the ground
Somebody help me

This song always resonated with me as someone who dissociates from my body a fair amount, and as someone with gender dysphoria related to my body’s shape and features. When your body doesn’t quite feel “right”, your brain can play all kinds of strange tricks on you — including making you think your body is larger than it is, or a different shape than it is, while detaching your sense of self from your body at the same time. A lot of trans people, myself include, dissociate from our bodies in various ways — we come to see our bodies as objects, or as featureless, indescribable, unseeable things that have no bearing on who we are. I’ve often wanted to turn into a dark, shapeless mist rather than acknowledge my body and its gendered features. The narrator of Brain Wilson, similarly, feels his body is strange and inconsistent in its size, both heavy and floating far away.

Many of Steven Page’s other songs are about having a deep desire, but not being able to fulfill it— this is also a really common trans experience, pre-transition. Take for example the song Upside Down:

Nothing’s good enough for me
To shake me from complacency
I made my mind up and I’ll never be
The kind of man who’d make a choice
For if I hold my tongue I’ll never lose my voice
If each attempted act of sabotage destroys all hope
I won’t be needing a rope
I’m gagged and bound
And I will not turn my whole life upside down
And if the genie were set free
And by the laws of things like that, he’s indebted to me
I’d bury my three wishes deep down in the ground
So I will not turn my whole life upside down

Again, on its face this song is not about transition, or refusing to come out, it’s about deciding not to embark on an affair. The song begins with a line about a “lover’s kiss” tempting the narrator away from his familiar, complacent life. But that framing really only holds for the first verse of the song, and even then it’s tenuous. The lyrics become far more general from then on, exploring the desire to change, the fear of losing what one has, and the pain of inertia. Again, the song discusses self-destruction as a means of avoiding change.

This song is about holding oneself back, choosing not to step into the light of others’ scrutiny, hiding from attention, and refusing to not make a sound…that fear of exposure and change is not a feeling isolated to trans people, of course, but it’s damn common for us when we’re in the process of questioning and doubting our identities. Many many trans people, especially in the past, declared like Page’s narrator — “I’ve made my mind up, I won’t make a sound / and I will not turn my whole life upside down.”, and chose not to come out or transition despite how desperately they desired it.

The fear of changing things up — and the terror and boundless despair of not making a change — is a subject also discussed in Page’s song Too Little Too Late:

Record and play, after years of endless rewind 
Yesterday wasn’t half as tough as this time
This time isn’t hell
Last time, couldn’t tell
This mind wasn’t well 
Next time, hope I’m
Going to be good, and I would
If I knew I was understood
And it’ll be great, just wait
Or is it too little too late?

Again, this is not a trans-specific narrative, or even a gender-specific one, but it is all about trying to switch up one’s life, and suspecting that the time for such switches has long since passed.

You don’t have to talk to many trans people to encounter this narrative — we are constantly having to remind one another that it’s not too late to come out/transition/be authentic. I’ve heard 22-year-old trans people worry it was too late for them, and I’ve heard countless 30-year-olds, 40-year-olds, and 50-year-old trans people feel concern about the same thing.

Even in 2010, shortly before he left the band, Page was still circling this topic. See the lyrics for Indecision:

I was born between the tracks
I left home and turned around and came back
One day you and I will be intertwined
If I could only make up my mind
Be prepared for indecision
It might make me disappear
But then again, my addiction
To indecision keeps me here

There’s a lot to unpack here! First, notice again how Page has returned to the idea of becoming unified with a woman he loves — as I wrote above, he writes a lot about either switching roles with a woman, or becoming one with her, in his songs. This kind of fascination can mean a lot of things, of course, but it reminds me of how closted trans people can tend towards obsessive, yearning love for people of the gender they wish to live as.

Casey Plett’s short story collection, A Safe Girl to Love, is an amazing read on this topic, by the way. The final story in her book is all about a young “man” who loves his girlfriend so utterly and desperately that he wants to disappear into her, and be subsumed by her. In the context of the rest of the book, it’s pretty clear this dude is actually a trans woman who hasn’t figured herself out yet. I relate to the character’s obsessive devotion to their girlfriend quite a bit. I used to feel that exact way about men that I adored (and wanted to look like).

This song, naturally, returns to some of Page’s favorite subjects — the desire to stop existing, or to detach from his present reality to such an extent that he might as well not exist anymore, a refusal to make a bold move that could fix his ennui, and addiction issues. Again, none of these are experiences restricted to trans people, but they are really common among us. Dysphoria makes you want to stop having a physical form. The fear of coming out is paralyzing and self-loathing-inducing. Many of us self-medicate with substances.

Now, none of this is to say definitively that anyone in Barenaked Ladies is trans, or that their music is intended to communicate that they’re trans. Just that it’s highly resonant with trans experiences. And the music was always deeply meaningful to me as a kid, long before I knew I was trans, or had any inkling that my feelings of detachment, obsessive love, body dysmorphia, and indecisiveness “meant” anything about me, gender-wise.


Is there a media property or pop culture item that helped you realize you were trans? Let me know in the comments!