Performative/Transformative: Performance and Participation in Queer Amateur Community Music

Ryan Lambe

Music Department University of California, Santa Cruz, USA


In US queer open mics—activist, amateur performance communities centering LGBTQ and queer of color experience—participants repeat both “performative” and “transformative” to describe live musical and cultural performances. In this talk, I examine this performative/transformative dialectic used by queer open mic participants to interpret, create, and value performances. This investigation explores the terms used by performers and audiences to talk about performances. While the term “performative” originated in the humanities and made significant interventions in music scholarship, it has taken on meanings in activist spaces that depart from those in the academy. In some activist spaces, having one’s work described as “performative” can represent an indictment of one’s inauthentic intentions. Queer open mic participants favor what they call “transformative” acts over “performative” ones. In doing so, they attempt to differentiate themselves from white feminism, neoliberal cooptation, and open mics in general. Whereas open mics generally prioritize training towards a professional career, queer open mics eschew professionalization as “performative.” Instead, queer open mics value “transformative” sonic acts that build community and facilitate healing through individual expression. Drawing on my fieldwork in US queer open mics, I use thick descriptions of performances to demonstrate how “performative” describes precomposed, success-oriented, and presentational work. By contrast, its supplement “transformative” signals anti-normative, amateur, improvised, and activist-oriented performances. Expanding literature from performance studies and queer studies, this research sheds light on community musical performance practices resisting wide circulation in favor of intimate participation. This talk translates emic queer sound theories for the academy by tracing the changing usages of performativity in performance.

Keywords: Amateur, Queer, Translation


Ryan J. Lambe is a Ph.D. Candidate studying cross-cultural musicology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. His dissertation is an ethnographic study of performance and emotion in US queer open mics examined through queer and critical race lenses. Ryan earned his Bachelor of Music Education at Idaho State University before teaching music to underserved populations in New Jersey public schools. His M.A. in Music from the UC Santa Cruz examined queer musical hermeneutics and mid-century US opera. In his free time, Ryan enjoys cooperative games, cartoons, and playing early music. He teaches music history, theory, and world music using active and inclusive pedagogies derived from queer open mic practices. His forthcoming article in American Music examines how queer open mics use emotional labor in performance. Ryan’s research interests include amateur and community musics, critical race studies, gender and sexuality, critical pedagogy, and popular music.