Listen Up! Songs for a Thesis

I’ve always worked to music, especially when I’m in a library or archive, because I can’t work to silence. I go through phases of listening to different albums or artists obsessively. Chapter Two is definitely an Amy chapter. Chapter Five is Bowie. It heads across Europe a bit, and takes in a bit of Berlin. Perhaps that really is a shameless Bowie chapter. I’m pretty sure the conclusion will be Damien, whether for good or for bad. Maybe this will be reflected in the style of my writing.

I’ve really enjoyed the musical elements of Matt Houlbrook’s recent posts & influenced by a tweet from Catherine Baker, started thinking about the way that music influences and reflects our work as academics, writers and historians.

Catherine’s point about including a list of songs as an appendix got me seriously thinking about which songs I would suggest compliment the rest of my thesis in some way. I started drafting this post a few weeks ago, but was finishing up on drafting a chapter (the last!) so couldn’t distract myself too much, even though it was refreshing to think about my research in a different way. 

Draft’s done and I’ve returned to the music, so here’s my list. Press Play.

David Bowie, Hallo Spaceboy (Pet Shop Boys Remix)

“Do you like girls or boys? It’s confusing these days.” As much as I hate to criticise Bowie, sexuality has always been fluid. I remember hearing this when I was speed-writing my proposal, and thinking that same-sex/ambiguous sexualities have not just been confusing “these days” (1995), but throughout history, which is a common misconception in public histories and public discourse. And so began the thesis.

Jonathan Wolff, Will & Grace Theme Tune

I’ve included references to Will & Grace and the Moomins in my chapter on international perspectives, which is where Catherine’s comment about including songs came from. The American Museum of National History announced in August that they had a launched a new collection of LGBT artefacts, and the majority of press about the event referenced Will & Grace objects in particular.

Irving Kaufman, Masculine Women, Feminine Men

My research is more or less limited to sexuality rather than gender identity, but as a gender historian I am particularly interested in gendered approaches to the history of same-sex love, and my research looks at differences in the public history of male and female sexualities. I love Masculine Women, Feminine Men and the message it sends us today about historic gender identities and roles. I’ve also found it’s a great source to use in class when discussing perceived roles and gendered performance.

O’Hooley and Tidow, Gentleman Jack

The ‘first modern lesbian’, Anne Lister was called Gentleman Jack by locals in Halifax, where she lived throughout her life, and eventually settled with her ‘wife’, Ann Walker. O’Hooley and Tidow’s Gentleman Jack is about Lister, and focuses on the nickname she had gained from the locals. One of my chapters is on historic houses, so I got to visit Lister’s home in Shibden, Halifax.

Four Vagabonds, Rosie the Riveter

I’ve written about the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historic Park here, and I really can’t recommend visiting enough. RORI is also run by NPS, who are currently working on a huge LGBT Heritage Initiative. They are running their own heritage project, attempting to fill the gaps they have in their collection with the stories of LGBT civilians in WWII.

Fiction, The Apple

I started my chapter on monuments in the UK with Alan Turing. There are statues to Turing in Paddington (which I’ve written about here), Manchester and at the University of Surrey. Turing is one of the few figures who is a reasonably well-known individual in the public history of same-sex love, so the way he is represented and portrayed is greatly significant (looking at you, Cumberbatch).

They said listen Alan

You’ve got a simple decision

a simple choice

but it’s one or the other

This song (and video) are absolutely fantastic – together they tell a simplified, but brilliant, version of Turing’s story.

Al Start, More of a Man (& album I ❤ History)

I can’t find a link to More of a Man by Al Start, a Brighton based singer/songwriter – but I wanted to include it here anyway. Start’s I Heart History album is based on stories found in Brighton Museum’s archives, and is a fantastic example of creative public history. I heard More of a Man on a the Brighton City Council’s Gay and Lesbian trail, which I’ve written about here. The song is about Colonel Victor Barker, who was born a woman, but lived as a man in Brighton in the early twentieth-century. Again, although this is more the history of gender identity and trans* history, it was perceived at the time that Barker, having been born a woman, and later marrying a woman, was in a same-sex marriage.

You can hear part of More of a Man on the VisitBrighton podcast, but also listen to Palm of Your Hand from the same album below. This song was inspired by a photograph of Brighton Pier, which you can read about here.


Public Service Broadcasting, Inform – Educate – Entertain

PSB, in their own words, aim to “teach the lessons of the past through the music of the future.” They use samples of public service announcements, archival footage and propaganda, mixing them with contemporary electronic music. Like Al Start, they’re a fantastic example of how archival documents and footage can be used in an incredibly creative way, bringing history to a new audience in a genuinely original way.

I’m not sure this compilation would challenge Now That’s What I Call 659 (I think it’s at that count now) in the weekly charts, but together, these songs are an audio compliment to my research and writing. Thinking them through made me think about my research from a different angle too, a more creative one, and certainly a more ‘public’ one, so thanks again to Catherine for the idea!


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