Pansy is a new project from Chicago singer-songwriter Vivian McCall, who meshes classic AM pop songwriting, bleary college rock atmospherics, and lyrics that favor plainspoken honesty over complication.
While “Anybody Help Me” is the second single from her self-titled debut album, McCall has been long active in the Chicago music scene. For years, she played in the experimental pop band Jungle Green. She recorded the band and others (Gold Star Gold Star, Big Mermaid) at her home studio Wild Combination.
McCall also writes for a living. You may have heard her reporting for Chicago NPR station WBEZ. McCall isn’t married, but maybe you can change that.
(Photo Credit: Emma Collins)
I had to scroll far, far back in my voice memos to find the very first demo of “Anybody Help Me.”
“New recording 36” out of 508, recorded Nov. 14, 2018. The anatomical heart tattoo on my left forearm was still bold, black, and peeling — a gift to myself to celebrate my first hormone anniversary that October.
Just two days earlier, I’d returned from my first national tour. Not the rock & roll dream I’d hoped for. Rock stars don’t worry about transphobes or wearing tight sports bras in forgettable interstate men’s bathrooms.
I did have a lot of drugs on me though: estrogen, spironolactone, progesterone, and a bottle of psych meds I lost in Georgia. The cocktail rounded my hardest angles, but only slightly. I didn’t look like a girl, but not like a boy either. I bothered strangers wherever we went, except for the drunk freaks in New Orleans. Especially the lady who hit on me in the bathroom and gave me the beads around her neck. I wanted to kiss her in thanks.
A tour is often a net loss, and when I returned, my bank account was even more in shambles. I was already thousands in debt after a year of excruciating electrolysis hair removal.
The best in town was an old ballroom queen who charged a hundred a session. She plunged an electrified needle into my skin to kill the follicle and then yanked out the dead hair with tweezers. She’d blast Katy Perry and fry my skin until I smelled hair burn while I clasped my eyes shut, screamed in my head, and willed my consciousness into my right hand.
I was a stranger to myself and close friends. An open wound radiating pain. The coming out letter I sent seven months earlier elicited silence from the family’s fundamentalists and the holidays were approaching. A mask I’d worn for years shed in bleeding, pustulating layers.
In truth, one pleading, desperate question pervaded my therapy sessions: “Am I even a woman?”
I buckled under the weight of that uncertainty. I could not cope, I could not hang, I could not touch anyone or feel anything. I wrote psychotic, spiraling journal entries late into the night, waking up exhausted, numb, or in a panic. I binged X-Files (even the bad episodes) and fell asleep without dinner. A terrible year. Nothing to show, I thought. I couldn’t cry, not even when I thought about dogs dying in movies.
All those memories were crystal listening to “New recording 36.”
The searing pain from the electrolysis needle pricking my nerves. The stone of a hungry stomach. There wasn’t a worse time, and I knew it even then. Not as a crying child with vague notions of being “somebody else,” not as a chubby, crossdressing pre-teen cutting jeans into skirts and dissociating into a mirror, not as a heartbroken adult.
Nothing compares. This is a song written while walking the precarity of my own knife’s edge.
The demo is slow. I’m strumming an acoustic guitar, kneeling while singing into my phone. The keyboard drum machine plods from across the room — I can hear the echo.
The unfinished lyrics are a twisted assault on my trans body and include a passage about waking up ill and wishing for death.
I hadn’t heard myself sing that in more than two years. It makes me sick because I know I meant it. Even I feel I’m intruding, like a parent standing at the door of their child’s bedroom, wondering what to say. If there’s anything to say.
I’m not sure what changed when I recorded it for a second time
I turned the lights off and weaved around the room as I sang. I’m breathless, off-pitch. Animated by anger. Sometimes, I think I survived less out of resilience than out of spite toward an uncaring world.
Too many trans women die. I’m writing this the day after SOPHIE, the electronic musician and trans heroine, plunged to death at 34 in Athens, Greece. But SOPHIE was not walking a knife’s edge; SOPHIE was walking the precipice of life and wonder, motivated by the sincere desire to see a big, beautiful moon rising above the Aegean Sea. Over the Parthenon, maybe. I don’t know, I’ve never been to Greece.
I’ve listened to SOPHIE’s “It’s Okay to Cry” 50 times since. That song could be about me today singing to myself then. I’ve been up and down so many times. Never so low, but close to it.
I’m a proud crybaby now.
Tears flow from happiness, sadness, and sexual pleasure. A sad day does not rob me of past joy. I still waffle on my gender, but it doesn’t matter. Transition is not pain but spiritual ecstasy, and I am anointed with surgical scars. I love myself. I care for myself. I cherish my body and want it to live on.
So when I hear myself sing:
Can somebody help me, anybody help me?
I know I’m singing to myself.
— Vivian McCall
(Photo Credit: Emma Collins)