I Fell in Love With a Dead Boy

ANOHNI’s 2001 track channels timeless, doomsday romance.
Josef Astor, "Dead Boy / Girl" (1998).

For Howie.

I find you with red tears in your eyes
I ask you what is your name?
You offer no reply

When Sébastian Lifshitz made Wild Side in 2004, quiet films about trans life were out of the ordinary. His begins with a performance in a small Parisian café. a snow-white singer with a platinum pixie crop, moves through her audience. She’s angelic, appearing as if out of sync with the world. Performing her track, “I Fell in Love With a Dead Boy,” her voice pulses with lush, agendered operatics. It ripples through the crowd, which is composed mostly of trans women of varying generations and ethnicities. Some close their eyes to listen deeper. Others gaze intently. A few look to one another to register the performance that passes before them. The scene carries real heft, though we know next to nothing about this particular community of women.

Should I call a doctor?
For I fear you might be dead
But I just lay aside you
and held your head

Less than a minute into the recorded CD version, everything just stops cold for 6.58 seconds of silence, by my count, leaving the listener to panic, worry, search for the receiver. Until…

I fell in love with you

The song is an outlier for ANOHNI, a singer who first rose to prominence as the lead vocalist of Antony and the Johnsons. Released in 2001 as a standalone CD single—and seemingly relinquished to that format—“I Fell in Love With a Dead Boy” appeared between their eponymous 2000 debut album and their breakthrough, 2005’s I Am a Bird . Featuring a roster of well-known guests, that album would explode the band’s visibility as ANOHNI articulated her gender dysphoria and transition in public, from the recording studios of NPR to concert halls around the world. Eventual collaborations with Björk, Lou Reed, and Hercules and Love Affair would further broaden that reach.

“I Fell in Love With a Dead Boy,” however, was firmly rooted in the theatrics of ANOHNI’s early years with the Blacklips Performance Cult, a theatrical collective she co-founded in the early ’90s out of the East Village’s legendary Pyramid Club. The track teases as a swooning gothic romance, a rumination on communal loss in the time of the HIV/AIDS crisis. The recent publication of a beautiful new book on Blacklips and ANOHNI’s early years has prompted me to give “I Fell in Love With a Dead Boy” some airtime. Lyrically cradling a corpse in her gloomy ardor, ANOHNI’s lyrics beg questions that make meaning swell, encompassing deeper deaths and personal journeys. There was nothing quite like it when the song came out. A transitional object of real potency, “I Fell in Love With a Dead Boy” should be considered for the ways in which both the song’s resonance and the world itself have changed since its release.

The song is rooted in Blacklips’s urgent club theater, which evolved out of the Pyramid’s DIY fabulousness, shot through with the agony of AIDS. What was once a playground for artists like Tom Rubnitz, who created the vibrant Pickle Surprise, suddenly felt like a tomb in their wake. So, Blacklips went funereal. Pressing thumb into thorn, they sought catharsis through entropy: dressing up as Frankensteinian monsters, maggots, and David Lynch Girls. Dark plays for dark times. Their Monday night schedule honored the legacy of “Whispers,” the legendary goofball cabaret organized at the Pyramid by den mother Hapi Phace in the 1980s. It also synched up with Manhattan ACT UP meetings. Something new was born.

Now you're my one and only
All my life I've been so blue
But in that moment you fulfilled me

I can speak to the thrill of ANOHNI’s voice overtaking me. The drama, the androgyny, the perversity, and the beauty that overfill the cup, so that the thresholds of human emotion—bodies, even—suddenly can’t hold. Antony and the Johnsons echoed the maudlin fantasias of Blacklips shows. Compositions combined blisteringly insider queer symbology (read: tranny, faggot, and dagger) with a sonic terrain of baroque velvet. Divine and Dietrich, Hitler and Mr. Muscle, Starfish and Cripple-Pig are the characters and their sound is rhapsodic. These were masochistic cabaret songs, love letters coded in camp. They brim with Jean Genet-ian brutes, John Waters-y gallows humor. Discovering these songs online, I heard her and recognized what those words meant, embracing them deeply upon my very first ANOHNI was writing to her immediate and imagined community (lucky

Now I'll tell all my friends
I fell in love with a dead boy
I tell my family
I wish you could have met him

After seeing ANOHNI for the first time on tour for I Am A Bird Now, everything was about to change. Though she performed in a frumpy chestnut wig at an auditorium piano in LA’s Barnsdall Art Park, months later she would take the stage as the surprise recipient of the UK’s prestigious Mercury Prize. The album featured appearances by Lou Reed, Boy George, Rufus Wainwright, and Devendra Banhart, and became an overnight sensation, catapulting her to the alt-mainstream.

I write letters to Australia
I throw bottles out to sea
I whisper the secret in the ground
No one’s gonna take you away from me!

The lyrical quality of I Am A Bird Now had pivoted, too, from her queer coded in-speak to melancholic confessionals. Early songs like “The Cripple and the Starfish” never held much crossover appeal. But this new introspection rubbed me wrong at the time, when I was in the punky zeal of my early twenties. It felt like a betrayal (fandom is so fickle), and many of us read this music as no longer for our community, but rather about it. Representing us, elsewhere. Other forms of Otherness were used for my mirrors. Though, when a new ANOHNI project was announced, I always checked in.

I fell in love with a dead boy
Oh such a beautiful boy

And I always had “Dead Boy.” This perfect slice of in-between. Soaring to registers of emotion that would spread ANOHNI’s voice across the globe, there’s still a heaping dose of goth camp and queer allegory at play. Humor and heartache are unlikely bedfellows, made all the more resonant if you get the balance right. Even the CD slipcase gets it. Featuring a photograph of ANOHNI by Josef Astor, Dead Boy / Girl (1998), the singer lies prostrate upon the floor, while above her rise Blacklips co-founder Johanna Constantine and trans Japanese Morse Coding performer Dr. Juliana Masuda. Constantine wears signature Blacklips costumery: she’s an ornate wood nymph dripping in blood. Masuda is nude and levitating with her arms outstretched, a transgender deity. Occult literally means to hide, and this image works to both lay bare something undeniably extreme, while also somehow offering just a glimpse of a larger ritual.

Oh such a beautiful boy
I ask him are you a boy or a girl?
Are you a boy or are you a girl?

I can also speak to the manner in which objects such as this seem to blossom after a watershed moment in culture, like films that enthrall a previously lukewarm audience. I’ve witnessed this with multiple artworks since “The Transgender Tipping Point,” a moment marked by the release of the TIME issue featuring Laverne Cox on its cover. The material hasn’t changed; we have. We caught up. And it’s a spooky feeling: peering into the love object and knowing it knew better than you did. ANOHNI clearly knew what she had when she continued to include “I Fell in Love With a Dead Boy” as a performance staple. On Cut the World (2012) it was recorded with the Danish National Chamber Orchestra, and it was included in the Charles Atlas multimedia performance work Turning (2006). Now, “Dead Boy” has come into clearer focus for me. While I had always interpreted the titular boy as a literal corpse-groom, there is Masuda on that cover, floating above the scene and I realize, when ANOHNI commands,

Are you a boy or are you a

my youthful quest for bad romance melts away in favor of self-love. To die and be reborn. To love the boy inside enough to release him. It is, perhaps, a maturation from the work of Blacklips because the ascension comes from acceptance (in lieu of agony), but therein lies the beauty: to step beyond their performance pain and forge a pathway forward that is celebratory, extolling who ANOHNI is and might cosmically become. In her terminology, I think it would go from maggot to swan. But as transgender laws are suddenly weaponized in the U.S. court systems, clawing back hard-won gains in equality, such an emboldened anthem of self-acceptance and transcendence couldn’t be more dire. Or, divine. ♦

Change the frequency.
Subscribe to Broadcast