Academic journal article Women & Music

"Do You Nomi?" Klaus Nomi and the Politics of (Non)identification

Academic journal article Women & Music

"Do You Nomi?" Klaus Nomi and the Politics of (Non)identification

Article excerpt

Klaus was a face--elfin and painted as a Kabuki robot. He was a style--a medieval interpretation of the 21st century via Berlin 1929. He was a voice, almost inhuman in range, from operatic soprano to Prussian general. He was a master performer--a master of theatrical gesture. Above all he was a visionary. He said the future is based on the needs of the artist, deciding how to live and living that way every minute. Klaus, the man from the future, lived that way ill the present, and held out his hand saying, "Come with me. You call do it too."

Kristian Hoffman

FOR MANY OF HIS CONTEMPORARIES IN the 1970s and early 1980s, the New York-based New Wave performer Klaus Nomi offered the exhilarating prospect of total freedom--freedom to build one's own identity independently of any models or of any preexisting normative identities. As the obituary cited in my headnote suggests, an important source of this fascination was Nomi's appearance, which, both onstage and offstage, combined seemingly incommensurable elements. Equally significant were Nomi's baritone-countertenor voice and choice of repertoire, ranging from contemporary synth-pop to seventeenth-century English opera--the latter probably unfamiliar to most in his audiences. I would suggest that a third source was (and continues to be) his audience's own desire to identify freely, that is, to create their own identities, in the way that Nomi seemingly did. It is this desire that the obituary writer, pop and "no wave" musician Kristian Hoffman, grafts onto Nomi, interpreting his act and career as a success story in totally free identification.

But the story is more complex than that. Contemporary accounts implying disgust rather than fascination with Nomi's singularity are at least as numerous. One contemporary wrote: "In his brief career, Nomi carried the flag for freaks of many stripes, with retro-futurist performances." (l) Another wondered whether Nomi might be "a tragic slip in Mother Nature's busy assembly line." (2) The tongue-in-cheek humor of the latter author notwithstanding, the notion of Nomi as a "tragic slip" points to a recurring theme in Nomi's reception: many viewed him as a freak, a monster, or an alien, receiving Nomi's singularity with fascination and anxiety.

That mixture of fascination and anxiety is the focus topic of this essay. The discussion of Nomi's reception that follows is an attempt to reconsider the problematic of identification and identity politics. What does it mean to identify? What may be the roles of identification in an emancipatory politics predicated on it? What are identification's perils? What, if any, are its viable alternatives? Asking these questions in relation to Nomi allows me to interpret some of the twists and turns in Nomi's reception and to show that, despite all the well-documented and theorized perils of identity politics, a politics predicated on total nonidentification--on a refusal to identify with any recognizable models--is not a viable alternative.

I begin with a brief theoretical discussion of identity politics, its advantages and perils. I then discuss the mechanics--visual and vocal-of Klaus Nomi as an act in nonidentification, along with the celebratory line in Nomi's reception, illustrated above by the excerpt from Hoffman's obituary. Finally, I turn to the dark side of Nomi's reception, also illustrated above, and offer another brief theoretical discussion, this time of nonidentification and its fatal flaws as a survival strategy against the exigencies of normative identification.

Identity, identification, and related terms figure in a wide variety of discourses--political theory and practice, the humanities, and the sciences as well as everyday speech. Given its wide usage, it is not surprising that identity assumes many different meanings that foreclose any universal or general definition. For present purposes, identity may be understood as an individual's culturally recognized sense of belonging to an already existing social group. …

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