A queer confrontation in the absence of hope: review for Midtown 120 Blues by DJ Sprinkles

Updated: Jul 6

"House isn't so much a sound as a situation.

There must be a hundred records with voice-overs asking, 'What is house?' The answer is always some greeting card bullshit about 'life, love, happiness....' The House Nation likes to pretend clubs are an oasis from suffering, but suffering is in here with us. (If you can get in, that is. I think of one time in New York when they wouldn't let me into the Loft, and I could hear they were actually playing one of my records on the dance floor at that very moment. I shit you not.)

Let's keep sight of the things you're trying to momentarily escape from. After all, it's that larger context that created the house movement and brought you here. House is not universal. House is hyper-specific: East Jersey, Loisaida, West Village, Brooklyn - places that conjure specific beats and sounds. As for the sounds of New York dance floors themselves, today's house classics might have gotten worked into a set once in a while, but the majority of music at every club was major label vocal shit. I don't care what anybody tells you. Besides, New York Deep House may have started out as minimal, mid-tempo instrumentals, but when distributors began demanding easy selling vocal tracks, even the label "Strictly Rhythm" betrayed the promise of it's own name by churning out strictly vocal after strictly vocal. Most Europeans still think "Deep House" means shitty, high energy vocal house.

So what was the New York house sound? House wasn't so much a sound as a situation. The majority of DJ's - DJ's like myself - were nobody's in nowhere clubs: unheard and unpaid. In the words of Sylvester: reality was less 'everybody is a star,' and more 'I who have nothing.'

Twenty years later, major distribution gives us Classic House, the same way soundtracks in Vietnam war films gave us Classic Rock. The contexts from which the Deep House sound emerged are forgotten: sexual and gender crises, transgendered sex work, black market hormones, drug and alcohol addiction, loneliness, racism, HIV, ACT-UP, Thompkins Sq. Park, police brutality, queer-bashing, underpayment, unemployment and censorship - all at 120 beats per minute.

These are the Midtown 120 Blues."

- Selection of accompanied text to DJ Sprinkles’ debut studio album, “Midtown 120 Blues,” released under Mule Musiq, August 2008.

The first time I heard of Terre Thaemlitz (aka DJ Sprinkles) was through watching retired YouTuber ContraPoints’ 2019 video essay “Opulence.” The video mainly explored how themes of luxurious aesthetics reflect upon class dynamics in the United States. At around the 28-minute mark, Contra referenced Sprinkles’ 2004 essay “Viva McGlam? Is Transgenderism a Critique of or Capitulation to Opulence-Driven Glamour Models?” as a rough basis for discussing the function of glamor in a capitalist society, and how “transition glow-up narratives” (aka the “American Dream”) and celebrity impersonations aiming to emulate “authentic” glamor plays into Contra’s social and personal narrative.

Upon reflection, the segment proved itself to be unavailing in its promise of analyzing the connection between transgenderism, class, and glamor. Instead of Contra doing the intellectual heavy-lifting, the majority of the 6-minute segment saw her justifying her path towards the American dream, with the vague acknowledgment of her contribution to this perpetuation of individual class mobility through glamor. The preaching of a successful YouTuber was disguised by the crucial analysis of an underground music producer.

When put into a larger context, we begin to see how her references generally don’t align with her own political beliefs to the point of suggesting that she is more “radical” than she really is. This video in particular substantiates why many people categorize her into the larger group of “progressive” content creators. Given the political climate in 2010s YouTube, the mere willingness to introduce radical politics into liberal commentaries warrants someone’s “lefty” status.

This era of her career saw her moving away from direct anti-fascist content and dialectic theatrics into structured banter with the veneer of radical analysis. It was also then that she started distancing herself from the leftist spaces she inserted herself in while having the resource and reputation to establish herself as the leading (and reasonable!!!) progressive figure in “BreadTube™.”

This obscured juxtaposition between her “anti-establishment” roots and her current frivolous output is something that can only be accomplished through the works of on-the-ground, radical thinkers, and writers like Sprinkles. And most certainly, this contradiction can only be pointed out by leftists themselves, only to be dismissed by a wider liberal audience. Marginalized people are divided into a dispute between rejection and the embrace of a “problematic” YouTube video essayist icon. The class structures that “BreadTube™” aimed to dismantle are once again reinforced, but a problematic figure had fought for all of us, you know? I mean, think about how little flack actual celebrities get for worse things! Oh, ContraPoints, our favorite trans icon, a status forced upon you against your will. You can’t help but let those things be!

Oh wait, did you just defend someone with a history of domestic abuse and harm to the trans community?

Amidst the mess, Sprinkles’ stage name, writing voice and provocativeness stimulated my interest. There is something intriguing about him, but I set him off to the back of my radar, only to be rediscovered 2 years later. I must give ContraPoints credit for introducing me to this producer, as well as introducing me to radical and queer politics. Even as she has proved herself to be a controversial liberal figure, she also planted the seed for my eventual radicalization.

To begin with, I want to ask you a simple question:

Remember Madonna’s infamous 1990 single, “Vogue?”

In the third track off of DJ Sprinkles’s first studio album, aptly titled “Ball’r (Madonna-Free Zone),” he closed off the track with a scathing critique of the song that introduced the general public to underground ballroom culture.

"When Madonna came out with her hit 'Vogue' you knew it was over. She had taken a very specifically queer, transgendered, Latino and African-American phenomenon and totally erased that context with her lyrics, 'It makes no difference if you're black or white, if you're a boy or a girl.' Madonna was taking in tons of money, while the Queen who actually taught her how to vogue sat before me in the club, strung out, depressed and broke. So if anybody requested 'Vogue' or any other Madonna track, I told them, 'No, this is a Madonna-free zone! And as long as I'm DJ-ing, you will not be allowed to vogue to the decontextualized, reified, corporatized, liberalized, neutralized, asexualized, re-genderized pop reflection of this dance floor's reality!'"

What did he mean, exactly?

After being inspired by House of Xtravaganza’s ballroom performance, Madonna, and producer Shep Pettibone swiftly recorded the song in a shabby home studio in New York with a $5,000 budget. Originally intended to only be a b-side to the final single off her 1989 album “Like A Prayer,” the execs who saw the song’s hit potential struggled to squeeze the single into album cycles, ultimately landing itself in the soundtrack for the 1990 adaption of “Dick Tracy.” The song ultimately ended being a smash hit, grabbing the number 1 spot in over 30 countries and becoming the best-selling single of the year.

Shimmers of glamor and opulence were infused within the song’s foundation, from mentions of classic film stars, the Hollywood/Art Deco era-inspired music video, to the Marie Antoinette-themed MTV performance from that same year. Under Madonna’s alluring imitations lies the desperation for an existence beyond oneself, an existence plagued with the AIDs crisis, state violence, societal oppression and beyond.

In performing those opulent signifiers, the queens are showing the world within that they can also be a star. Urgent displays of transcendence before they, too, face the void. It was a fight for their lives.

Madonna effectively ascended to be underground queer’s white savior. From the “The Facts about AIDS” card insert that came with every copy of her 1989 album Like a Prayer, to introducing the general public to two men kissing on the big screen through her 1991 tour Truth or Dare, Madonna was and still is, undoubtedly, a gay icon, reaching out her hand to those who needed it the most amidst violent suppressions under the Reagan administration (and Disney-era gentrification).

When Sprinkles uttered his words of frustration, he did not (and could not) negate this widely accepted truth. He likely concedes to the prevalence of that narrative. The simplest way to summarize his perspective is “No matter what, the core economic & material conditions that separate a millionaire pop star and a starving queens remain. Why does this supposed liberation have to be done through a rich, white culture-vulture?”

Like Disney adaptations, Madonna lent vogue dancers her platform at the expense of structural betterment of their material conditions and crucial cultural contexts, things that simply cannot be universally communicated in the current form of globalization. Madonna can’t provide that, no one on top ever will. He takes problem with the way that the radical queer liberation movement had been effectively washed and patted clean and presentable by the same forces that subject them to such economic disparity and physical violence. This is about Madonna, but it isn’t. The fight of deprived groups is once again only legitimized through the approval of media conglomerates and governmental bodies.

Why are the prevalent narratives of gender transitioning and social passing so ingrained in modern conceptions of wealth-driven glamor, high-end beauty ideals, and strict gender binaries?

LGBTQ people, through a desire for a better life, often continue to adopt the aesthetics of the status quo instead of building a true egalitarian form of queerness from the ground up. We return to the story of Contrapoints, where her timing and visual charm landed her to be the force against the alt-right, the incels, the transphobes. The cycle of cancelling then crashes down; more vulnerable groups are hurt and more come to her defense. Do things need to be this way? Does the revolution require figures such as Contrapoints that did so much for mainstream acceptance? Why does mass approval seem to be the only way towards liberation?

He knows the impossibility of democracy. Our unending loyalty to those eroding pyramids, familial, political, or otherwise, laid out the groundwork for his philosophical and musical work ahead. Like her recalling of Madonna’s vogue teachers and their inescapability from mechanisms of major-label distribution, Midtown 120 Blues is a reflection and embrace of house music’s complex relationship with class, identity, politics, and audio production.

One of the joys of music hobby is digging through the crevices of modern music archives. The aforementioned song was also the first song I was able to listen to on QQ music. The ambience presented here differs greatly from the politics that spurred its creation. Rather than purposefully crafting an atmosphere of escapism, Sprinkles encourages meditation; as the wavelengths engulf me, I am also reminded of why I am here in the first place, and I face the truth at hand.

Amidst all of that, the music delivers some of the most humane and warm compositions I have ever heard. Despite her constant reminders of its hopelessness, it seems like Sprinkles poured all of her joy into the music itself. Its tranquility serves as a reminder of the community and the people behind this genre; real people, with their vibrancy and complexities, the ones that made house music happen.

It’s a work of intricacy and mastery, even if it’s merely a product of labor. It’s just her job that aims to subvert established conditions, but it is also a job that entices people to conceptualize our material conditions. If she really is joyless and insufferable, then such fruitions of radical empathy would not exist.

It made me realize the dimensionality of socially defined attributes such as empathy. As I put on the song “House Music Is Controllable Desire You Can Own,” Sprinkles isn’t taking to a higher plane; she is taking me on a car drive into the fading skyline. We both stay silent, yet the roaring wheels themselves are enough to tell me everything I need to know. Maybe the mere pleasure of our humanity is itself uplifting, but the place this album situates in is a world of contradictions, the world that we live in. Sincere reflection coexists with bitter anguish, just as pleasure coexists with tragedy.

As Sprinkles would tell you, any person critically engaging with the nature of modern music production will encounter contradictions within the circumstance at hand and the person’s own position within the system. Unlike so many other albums that so boldly embody its nature of being a product of contractual work, this album is paradoxically passionate in its stance. Oddly enough, its prevailing nihilism is what makes the work so intellectually and emotionally compelling.

Like the artist behind the board, it is confident in its rejection of the institutions that tarnished its community roots. From the shores of Japan, it remains loyal to the context in which it came from, potently utilizing techniques such as sampling and programming to its maximum effect. It does not entertain the idea of innate creativity or unadulterated passion; the woman on the cover with her mouth wide open symbolizes the polarity within all of us, front-facing our lives. It may be viewed as an encapsulation of defeat; I think it is the sound of someone freed from delusion. Those worldviews in of themselves can be draining, and it is; but at times, it’s a clear day out, and it might even reward you with the occasional feel-good.

It’s been a long time since I revisited this project. This period encompassed a merciless awakening in me. That departed hope took me on a detour through the lost time I could’ve spent, the diverging rivers I could’ve swan, the ends of my futile regret…

You know what? Let’s dive into the gutter, shall we?

For 7 years, I lived in geographical and ideological isolation. A plane of non-existence yet so indicative of the ongoing path of neoliberal development. I shall recall its first name by heart: Ottawa. The place rested beneath the trees, grounded in paralyzed time. When the van took me up the hills, I didn’t know that I was entering the world for the first time. I spend those childhood years immersed in walks of nature, drinking the water from the creek, playing in leaves.

In those gaps of time, I found myself venturing into unknown spaces, spaces untouched by an ascension from history. In the absence of a gawking eye I felt alive. I loved moments of physical isolation, passage, an observer looking into the frame of the moment before it inevitably disappears. Even then, I still had a subtle awareness about the reason why I loved being alone: I knew that when I eventually go back to my dorm, I face what it means to be a queer person in western society.

A particular moment I recall was during my first year in Ottawa, I was taking a shower when my first housemother’s grown son pulled the shower curtain and splashed a bucket of cold water on me. As he left in giggles, I was left with the barren question of “why?” The reason was just as pointless as it is dangerous. I no longer recall the harassment that ensued over the next 3 years, along with other forms of mistreatment that I shall not mention here.

When I retell those tales to others, they gasp at the fact that my first housemother punished me to go to bed early for crossing my legs. I used to gasp with them to its absurdity, but now, my response is: “This is the same society that you live in, and it is the same society that actively allows this to happen.” It was not a surprise to find out later that the neighborhoods I lived in was all suggested under the reddit post “What are the neighborhood(s) most friendly to, and culturally-defined by, ethnic northwestern Europeans?”

Places perfect for those that prefer the preservation of white supremacy and segregation. As I later learned more about black and indigenous history, I grew appalled by the devastating presence of police brutality, far-right politics, and state suppression for the Inuits and indigenous people merely wanting their land back. This is the same country that I, a Chinese person, swore allegiance in order to get my citizenship paper, and it is the same country that exploited migrant Chinese workers for their cross-country railroad, only to ban them from immigrating with a “Head Tax” after they are done with them.

Canadian textbooks paint it as a distant past. A friend teased me for my subconscious participation in this cycle of comfort at the expense of others’ suffering and told me “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I watch him putting this self-awareness to the side like everyone else when he walks back home.

I shall recall the second name through muscle reflex: British Columbia.

After the widespread LGBTQ rights movement of the late 1960s - 1980s, as well as marriage equality movements of the 20th century in large part prompted by the failure of socialized healthcare, we have reached an age of neoliberal acceptance. The “dead & buried queer generation,” many of whom died of AIDs, murdered or went into hiding, effectively vanished from liberal conscience. What replaced the slaughterhouse is our current Pride™ movement, an acquisition of the more radical movement that gave birth to it.

DJ Sprinkles purposefully adds a TM trademark behind the word Pride in her writings regarding the movement, and it’s not hard to see why. As corporations understood the bigger importance of heteronormative assimilation and equal participation in neoliberal capitalism, rainbow logos, flags and sidewalks began to appear across the globe. In the eyes of your average Joe, Pride™ simply means rainbow flags and gay men in thongs during pride parades. Mutual aid is slowly dominated by consumer donations. We are told to tackle this unfolding through even more reform. The Pride™ movement has now been corporatized.

When my old high school’s LGBTQ club began discussing some initiatives for early pride month celebrations, the first things that came up were making pride-themed drinks at our school café, and pronoun tags. I immediately took an issue with the normalization of using business as an avenue for queer acceptance, but I had to swallow that bitter pill. I then filmed a video for a bunch of openly queer people that introduced the premise of pride month, which was posted on the school’s social media platform. When it came down to it, our school hosted a Pride™ float competition contest in our school’s small lake. As a mandatory attendance, the school gathered around the lake dressed in their brightest colors, waving their cheaply printed pride flags around while each group kayaked into the lake. The boat float fought against each other’s brilliance and decors, and a guy next to me talked about how the school matched several criteria for a cult.

All judges were white, heterosexual teachers and my headmaster (also a judge) stood by the top, smiling as he took delight at the positive direction the school was heading towards under his skillful guidance. To this day, it remains one of the most alienating experiences of my life. Like the country that shaped who I am, their acts of generosity only encourage feelings of detachment. I can’t control my laughter. Laughing at Canada, at British Columbia, for their brilliant acts of dehumanization without once crossing legal and social boundaries.

This is the newest, most advanced way of calling someone by the f word. Queer staff in hiding perpetuating the suffering of his fellow young brothers and sisters. Years of ensuring my isolation and vulnerability. Mistreatment so subtle to the point where support websites can’t even help me. Adults figures around me thinking that they really know me. I get it, I get it now.

In the words of YouTuber Renegade Cut, “the system is functioning as intended.” Capital remains the only deity in this deplorable terrain. I remain a walking doll as people with power use the rubber to their liking. I could lend my queerness out, and I shall be my school’s next neoliberal gay icon. And if they just let themselves hurt me a bit gentler, I would’ve embraced their spiked arms. If only they were a tad bit more self-aware, more conscious, I would not be writing this right now, nor would I do find solace in Sprinkles’ politics.

In the end, even those who seemed to be cushioned by money cannot escape neoliberalism’s destructive power. The only difference is that its intensity is turned down just enough to escape any form of accountability. I think back on the figures that were destined to fail me, the same figures that continued to grip me while the good ones left one by one. I laugh at its villainy, and I concede to the meaninglessness of suffering.

There is no possible “good” ending. Going there was a mistake and I made that choice, and I must take it. When I realized all of this, I came back to this album and danced alone to my newfound nihilism. No more the delusion of finding hope in a place that refused my humanity. There was only the door that opened as I closed the door of delusion. I had now left. As I sat by my desk at home, a realization poured its chilling blues down my precocious body:

Reality less so envisions the glitchy utopia of SOPHIE, but more so illuminates the grounded beats of DJ Sprinkles.

I acknowledge that I now situate myself in a place of relative acceptance, a privilege that is not afforded to the majority of queer people worldwide. When I discuss queerness with my peers, some subconsciously expect me to have pride because of that of my openness around them. In truth, I am still in the closet - at times. I rely on a lack of context to barely pass as straight to my family. A reliance on ignorance. The outcome of this is the ambivalence I feel towards my own identity. Human reflexes and synthetic morals wrapped into one. Don’t get me wrong – I have also benefitted from the pride movement, but I have also been disillusioned with how I won’t fit the image that they portray. It lacks specificity, precision, and plays into the same systems of domination that I wish to distance myself from. Acts of resistance against heteronormativity is now deemed anti-social – and all queer people that are considering their next path must understand that it’s a not one of self-actualization and triumph, but one of “unbecoming.”

Similarly, when I tell people about my citizenship, I hold no pride. Only ambivalence. Scoffing at an entire nation’s collective delusion at their inherent, gruesome contradictions. A level of cultural gaslighting even more cunning than the American dream. But alas, I am a child of capital, and thy father holds no mercy. I see people gassing the country up for its seemingly ideal policies, its healthcare, how Canadians are nicer. I want to look into their eyes and tell them that Canada is exactly where neoliberalism is heading. A discourse so devoid of apparent conflict yet so dependent upon the collective suppression of the third world population in order to keep that wretched façade going. This post-modern landscape also happens to be where music discourse situates.

The thing that some causal critics of Sprinkles fail to realize is the position they occupy within the socio-cultural sphere. Like the religious men that tormented a transgendered body, the people that comfortably situate their beliefs in socially acceptable frameworks can call Sprinkles insufferable. He knows this, and she had accepted the fact that she will forever lie at the edge of the modern cultural zeitgeist. His work does not hold the space for mass acceptance. but he knows it’s important work.

Amid those Marxist critiques, I think she found a lot of solace within the disillusioned silent majority battling against the worst the world can offer. Sprinkles is not merely speaking on behalf of the queer folks of late 80s New York; when the Filipino migrant workers or the millions of children born under the cruel conditions of colonialism, familial patriarchy and child labor exploitation have time to think about the world at hand instead of actively dying, DJ Sprinkles’ nihilism no longer sounds radical. There is only so much you can do, but an intrinsic power we all have is to refuse to engage. Leave. If you can.

She is speaking out the voices of the cultural taboo, the culturally suppressed; the vast seas of queer people that inform their identity through shame and invisibility, parents that regret having children, the intuitive unease in sits in one’s stomach but falls deaf to their own ears. Even if I find her bluntness hard to approach and think that some of her points are outdated and bounded by an older perspective, I have to commend her for remaining queer in a world of shrinking possibilities. From one queer to another, thank you for connecting me with what was once there, and what’s left now (even if I think that Sprinkles would hate me).

Remember comrades, keep fighting.

(If you ever wish to access her music, read this first to understand why it’s not on online streaming platforms)

You can either buy her CD directly from the comatonse website or use SoulSeek. An instruction video is attached here.)

Jerry Chen (CAS '25) is an international student from China. He majors in political science and minors in philosophy.

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