“We’re all human and can embody any of the spectrum of gendered behaviors at any time,” argues N.C. Harrison.
Neko Case songs make almost anything better. Pretty much anything, literally, in my experience. I listened to “Maybe, Sparrow” when I had MRSA, in my left shin, and every second felt like when it used to get whacked my someone’s cleats and spears of pain lanced up and down my leg. “I Wish I Was the Moon” was the last song I played on the guitar for my grandmother before she died, in December 2008, and it was the first song I played when I picked up the guitar again after six long months of barely being able to look at the instrument I had always loved and still do. So, yeah… that’s another fiery redhead (along with Florence Welch and Alie Ward) who can make my days a bit easier to get through, even when I feel depressed. A little of this depression cropped up, recently, because I’m unable to get to Birmingham to see her show in six days, but that was alleviated a little by getting to see her (and Kelly Hogan singing, in an extra special bonus) on Austin City Limits last week.
It’s no surprise, then, that the best song I’ve heard about manhood in ages—during 2013 at least—was “Man” from Neko’s new album, The Worse Things Get The Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight the More I Love You. So what that she’s a relatively tiny, straight woman, Neko muses, why does that mean she can’t be a man, too? It’s not what you are born as, necessarily, but something you identify as or become. “I’m a man,” she hollers, “that’s what you raised me to be. I’m not an identity crisis; it’s what I am.” Neko explains further, in an interview, that she was raised a fashion where she was told that she could grow up to be anything she wanted to so why, once again, can’t she be exactly what she wants to be, what she believes she was raised to be? The wild freedom and abandon with which she blares this idea, rather revolutionary even in the non-radio, alt country noir where this beast prowls, is manifested perfectly by her statement, to Rolling Stone, “Everybody wants to remind you that you’re a girl. And I’m like, not if I don’t want to be. I grew up in America, man.”
This idea is developed even further with her notion that “man,” instead of a gender label, is simply the kind of animal that she is. The arbitrary labels which we place on things—masculine or feminine, straight or gay, right or left—don’t matter as much in the wild. “Is a lioness not a lion, motherfucker?” she asks me, you, herself, the world at large. They’re both the same beast with the same teeth, Leo africanus, representing the same dangers. So are men and women. A woman and man can kill you equally dead, kiss you with the same tenderness, solve the same equation or create similarly eloquent and sensitive art.
So, again, what is a man? What is manly, or manliness, or masculinity? I ask myself these questions a lot. Superficially I look like I ought to be a scion of the male and the aggressive, in the popular imagination. I am around six feet tall, hover near three hundred pounds and vacillate between having the wild, longish hair and beard of a Viking or Celtic warrior and being clean-shaven and almost bald. My shoulders have trouble with smaller, old fashioned door frames and allow me to push press more than most people squat or deadlift.
And yet, in spite of this, I usually don’t feel very manly or pursue hobbies and occupations deemed masculine—often much less frequently than some of my more active female friends. I’m much more nurturing than domineering, am pursuing a career as a pastoral and family therapist, and would rather make sandwiches for someone while wearing an apron than weld anything. When I ran across a recent, rather wonderful article here on Good Men Project, “The Top 21 Manliest Stuff on Earth: Gay Edition,” I thought to myself, “You can have the manliness, breddah, with more power and godspeed to you, maybe you can bear it with grace… it’s a lot of stress and I’m pretty sure it gave my grandpas heart attacks.” Most of this list are things I can endorse whole-heartedly—loyalty, being an ally to others, heck, being a bear—but the weight of being “manly” feels like too much standing tall…like Atlas with the globe on his shoulders, or like the time I squatted too heavy and my nose bled.
Which is why I feel perfectly okay, just as when Neko mentioned in her cheerfully profane fashion that the lioness and lion are the same beast, being more associated with the home and hearth—traditionally female places and values—instead of the hunt. If being “manly” is okay for Neko because she can be what she wants to be, damn it, and a lioness and lion are the same animal, then it’s okay for me to be more in touch with my feminine side, Alan Alda style, because we’re all human and can embody any of the spectrum of gendered behaviors at any time. My personal favorite verse in the New Testament, Galatians 3:28, proclaims that slave and free, native and foreigner, male and female are all categories which mankind create, and that none of them mean anything in Messianic eyes, which operate on the level of pure Spirit. I take comfort in that, being all right as long as I’m being the best version of myself that I can—or at least working towards that since I hope I’m far from the best me I can be.
“You didn’t know what a man was until I showed you,” Neko sings in the rocking last verse, after whimsically proclaiming herself drunk on pink perfume and the man in the moon. I knew a little less, definitely, than I know now after learning from her fierce, flaming vision; I feel stronger going forward with the knowledge.