The Phantom Voice
Household and empire converge in the diva’s oratory. For her household, picture a penthouse, profanities cast in gold. New money never had it so gaudy, nor good. You have seen this diva on television, heard her on the radio, or waited in the crowd, baited and breathless. Have admired the tracks of her flatiron, her iron will, or golden legs. Every man knows her name. Every woman knows her face. When she walks into a room, all eyes are on her. She is the daughter or the mother or the mouthpiece of a tyrant. In her wake, the bodies are bagged.
But her voice—O, to possess such a voice as hers! She sings, grown men quake, collapse to their knees. But this voice is beyond just speech or song. Because hers is a 21st century voice, it does more than speak up or out. It’s a platform, control over media and message. The woman who could stop all this, but won’t. She holds the narrative in her manicured hand, and bends and bends.
For those of you who do not read the papers of record, or know anything about the world in which you live, it is perhaps necessary to introduce myself. I am the phantom. My native habitat is the bowels of power. Beneath the legislature, the production office, or the board room—or the simulacrum of the boardroom that sits down the hall from the office, with cameras overhanging its cardboard walls.
To find me, follow the subnetwork of basements that are accessed only by a rowboat. My skin is unblemished, face perfectly fair, yet I don a mask for flair. This mask will be the centerpiece of the diva’s spring collection, for which I have produced all the most notable designs.
The diva is my pupil, I her angel of music, by which I mean rhetoric, her speechwriter and architect, maestro of spin. I march behind her, she sings my happy tune. I mold her. People like her go down in history. People like me create the history. We run this world so that she and the tyrant can lead it.
I tell her, Square your shoulders. Imagine you’re a chimney. Your voice hot air, rising from your diaphragm, through the roof. Mouth each note just so.
Some of my best friends are boys / Touching other boys
Some of my best friends / Want equal pay for equal work
On Sunday afternoons, after a long week of tutelage, I huddle under covers, propped by pillows. While the others, the threatened, take to the square to rally, my shades are drawn.
THE LOSS/THE LACK
Like the diva, I too once had a golden voice. I toured the country in a professional boys’ choir. My solos summoned something pure, the promise of the Nation, under God, guided by angels. I resembled an angel in my white satin robe, cheeks rouged by a natural, boyish blush.
Yet I felt time’s noose around my neck, the inevitable loss of this voice I had come to treasure, my sense of self. I saw it coming—a kind of exile.
Until one night, I took my position onstage, opened my mouth, and out came a croak. Like something fetid from the bowels of me, rank with age and sex and shame.
Let me be clear: I am not the hero of this story, but the villain. I was made to ensure the legacy of this world’s tyrants for generations to come. I am backbone, I am stones. I’ll never be in the history books. My name will never be on an airport or a doctrine. I’m fairly short, not so pretty, and thoroughly homosexual. Being the gears behind the voice is as far as my road goes.
I tell the diva: I am a monster. But I’m your monster.
One day, she too will have her platform stolen. Perhaps when she least expects it, perhaps by the person she least suspects. Such is the curse of the soprano—whether a diva, or the phantom who was once a boy.
There are others, the threatened. They are threatened. They are incarcerated. They are waiting in line to file their paperwork. They are evicted. They are black and brown. They are black and blue. They are targeted. They are warehoused. They are searched. They are raided, then they are fired. They are rehired for less pay, by the service hired by the service hired by the same boss who fired them. Some of them are resisting. Many resisted long before the tyrant and the diva’s reign. On Sundays, they rally in the square. They are of little concern to me—I only mention them because you asked. My concern is taking back what I’ve lost.
Being a phantom, I am an architect, but I am also an inventor and engineer. I am building a contraption.
Its epicenter is an upright stretcher backed by an identical stretcher, framed by an immense decorative armature resembling the pipes of an antique organ. Extending from the stretcher, a tangle of tubes, and a cable that soars toward the ceiling, tethered to an ornate chandelier. And alongside the cable, a trough descending from the ceiling to the stretcher’s peak.
The diva is my victim. I will strap us into the adjoining stretchers. I will pull a lever and loose the chandelier, which will plummet down the cable, crash, puncture into her body a lattice of holes, through which will worm the tubes. They will siphon fluid, gas, her essence. As her mouth opens wide, her song transformed into a scream, molten gold from the walls of her penthouse will ooze from the trough down her throat, fill her lungs and gut. But it’s the steam that will kill her, upon which she’ll choke.
She arrives for her daily lesson, sees my contraption.
I didn’t realize you had such a kinky side—Some of my best friends are freaks.
This is not an assassination—her death is but a byproduct. I aim to steal her voice.
The diva writhes and screams.
Why are you doing this? Please let me go!
Without me to script her, such vomitous, lackluster speech. I ask her, Is it possible that you've confused me with the tyrant and his followers—that gang of backward children you play tricks on?
That I should want her voice at all suddenly strikes me as the height of improbability. But the diva is an improbable person, and so am I—insatiable, ambitious, unable to love or be loved.
Through the tubes that connect us, her power courses. I throb and pulse. Feel the architecture of my platform taking shape. I can already see them, those women and men who adore her, falling at my feet. They cry, Make me great again! And so I will.
And so—will I? So what?
Here is a joke: How many cisgays does it take to build an empire?
Here is a riddle: Outside the basement, where is the ceiling, the limit of subversion?
In the square, the threatened are gathered. In the tyrant’s America, I could choose to relinquish my platform.
I could. Here is an inquiry: Will my faggotry ever be more than whiteness, wit and spectacle? State your answer in the form of a question. What is a high note. What is shattered glass.
The Phantom Voice was sparked by a series of interviews with the author Alexander Chee, in which he discusses the trauma of losing his boy soprano voice while part of a professional boys’ choir. It appropriates, and in most cases transforms or otherwise torques, language and/or other elements from Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera; Wayne Koestenbaum’s The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire; the film All About Eve; Saturday Night Live’s mock perfume ad for “Complicit”; and the television series Scandal.