Lady Sings the Blues by Billie Holiday
More than anything, Lady Sings the Blues reads like an oral history project of an elder to the current generation of artists and musicians.
Which is why I feel such contention with the back cover synopsis of the 50th Anniversary edition. The phrasing “scrapes with Jim Crow…ignominious jailings…and tragic decline” do so much disservice to Billie Holiday’s autobiography, framing the narrative as a glamourous musician’s fantasy-filled life. It’s no doubt that Billie Holiday was glamourous, but not in some dewy-eyed starlet’s way. More like Billie Holiday created a space in her music for the allowance of glamour, for a feeling of comfort which sears with pleasure and warmth in a society which steals from Black and Brown poor. More like: are we being aware of how we represent the narrative of a life given to us with such vulnerability?
Growing up in a constant state of financial instability, losing my identity (or having my identity subsumed in) racialized capitalism feels like a constant push and pull. I’ve seen this romanced once as: “Money enters and exits me like air in my lungs.” Or: how my accruance of capital makes and unmakes me as a politically legible subject. Or: when I look like I have money, I am on the verge of womanhood; without it, a racialized trans woman becomes mentally unstable brown thing.
And, stories like Lady Sings the Blues, with all its contention and voices, are ones that I look to for reflections and strategies of survival in the face of the impossibility of artistry. From Octavia Butler: writing on transit, mxnifesting goals (look at the front page of her archives on the Huntington Library Website!). From the panel for the “We Wanted a Revolution” exhibition at CAAM, community support for basic necessities (group meals!).
As in her album Lady in Satin (which I listened at the behest of the curated discography at the back of the book–and actually appreciated quite a bit!) Billie Holiday flows with a longing for bliss beyond a correctness of love or sadness or anger. She begins her life’s narrative with her childhood, so fraught with violence from CPS and various adult figures. All this information written about her childhood violence and abuse furrows a head-spinningly deep green nausea. Is this some kind of extravagance of violence for the benefit of readers wanting to consume her life like one of her songs? Or was it how she spoke, a feeling in between reminiscence and cutting resonance, that exchanged some unresolved processing between her and I?
After the childhood section of the book ended, I left for a few days to find space to hold these experiences. I was reminded of my friends who grew up as club kids and dancers, now musicians and artists in their own right. And those of us who grew into a queer identity watching Tangerine’s disreputable framing of racialized transwomen and drag queens as seeking a fame, beauty, and love forever incorrect to them. I returned, realizing what Billie Holiday had gifted me: feeling an attachment to worthy, luxury, and satisfaction by means of incompleteness.—el李