by Alok Vaid-Menon, ’13
With Stanford Students for Queer Liberation, I invited Zach Schudson to come and perform in Terra House during Winter Quarter. I stumbled on Zach’s work through Facebook and was immediately inspired by his body-positive, queer-positive message and the way he was using mainstream pop music to communicate radical critiques. In person Zach was just as eloquent and charming. His performance was a bunch of fun! I wanted to interview Zach to hear more about his thoughts behind the music.
AVM: Tell us about yourself. Who is the real Zach Schudson?
ZS: This is always the most intimidating question on online dating sites and so I always make a joke. I guess that’s a good summary of me though. When people ask who I am, I make a joke and avoid the question. I’m totally comfortable with that. I think confidence and clear-cut answers are overrated. Placing excessive value on them privileges a kind dominant, go-getter attitude that just does not work for me. I like spinning my web out of avoided questions and humor-based defenses. My friend Sarah recently described me really well: “You and I are a lot alike – really chill about other people and really neurotic about ourselves.” My Myers-Briggs type is INFJ, for those with some interest in personality psychology.
AVM: How’d you get the wicked cool idea to start these videos? What was your inspiration? Were you nervous?
ZS: I got the idea to make the videos during a period of introspection following some very negative love life events. I realized how much my romantic misadventures were making me feel depersonalized, very disconnected from myself and my own history. I thought back to 11 year old Zach – with his budding queerness and reticence to talk to anyone but himself. I thought about how before I discovered Bjork and Kate Bush and the other incredible women who have made such an impact on my musical and emotional self, my secret enjoyment of Avril Lavigne, Britney Spears, Shakira, and the other TRL darlings were the main outlet I had for real connection with my femininity. And then I woke up with, “He was a boy/She was a girl/Can I make it any more obvious?” in my head, and my project became clear. The only time I was nervous in the whole process was right before I came to Stanford to perform. It’s hard for me to be nervous when I can’t predict what is going to happen to me.
AVM: How do you select the songs you choose and the critiques you make?
ZS: The first handful were based off of suggestions that my friends posted on my Facebook status. All of the songs that I choose are songs that I love (or in the case of Katy Perry, Bruno Mars, and Justin Bieber, I’d say “songs that I have some level of appreciation for”). It’s important for me to pick songs I like because it helps me pick out what is valuable about these songs. I think there’s something really powerful in pop music, and rather than dismiss it, I’d like to mess with it a bit. It’s important for the songs to be legible to people even in parodied form, so they should be those inescapable ones you hear everywhere you go and can never get out of your head.
AVM: Are you surprised by how many views you’ve received? Why do you think people dig your videos so much?
ZS: was very surprised. I never really intended for it to happen. They were just supposed to be fun in-jokes for my friends, but once I put them up on youtube, thousands of people somehow stumbled across them. I now have over 70,000 views for my 8 videos, with the most viewed being “Not A Virgin” with over 22,000 views. I’m still amazed, overjoyed, and very confused as to how that happened. I think these videos connect with people because queer folks get to imagine hearing lyrics like, “Zie was a person/And they was a person/Their relationship is not yet obvious” on the radio. They get to sing less racist, essentialist lyrics in their head when their friends insist they all listen to “Born This Way” for the 50th time.
AVM: Tell us about some of the most interesting responses you’ve received for your work. What’s it like being an internet celebrity?
ZS: I’d probably say “queer tumblr-verse celebrity,” but that’s as much the Internet as any other place so sure, I’ll take “Internet celebrity.” My favorite response so far has been, “When I watch your videos I don’t feel so alone.” That one made me cry. Like, within 2 seconds of seeing it – tears everywhere. (Hah! Take that, It Gets Better!) Many people have said that they have shown my videos to other people to explain certain concepts I cover, which is why I sometimes refer to my work as “Queer Schoolhouse Rock.” The negative responses have been fascinating too. Other than the wishes for me to be injured or killed, the most common negative response is a conjecture that I am some sort of insincere straight guy faux-activist trying to seduce unsuspecting faux-activist women. I think it’s because I have a beard. Also, maybe heteronormativity. I don’t know – just a thought.
AVM: Do you see your work as activist? If so, how so?
ZS: Yes, I do. I usually give weaker answers than that like, “Well, if you look at it this way…” or “In a certain sense of the word ‘activist’…” but I don’t think that sort of side-stepping is necessary. All that these qualifying statements serve to do is lessen the legitimacy of the original project. I’m not claiming that my songs have the same effect as rallies or direct action, so if I’m over-extending the term “activism,” I can definitely use a different term. My project is to claim some space within mainstream pop for queer kids to critique while they enjoy and to enjoy while they critique. Whatever you call that, I think it’s valuable. I can concede “activist,” but I won’t concede “valuable.”
AVM: Why work with mainstream songs, why not create your own songs?
ZS: The easy answer is that I’m not really a musician. I’m not a great singer or a great guitarist and I’m not trying to be. (I mean, I’d love to be, but I accept my limitations and lack of motivation to overcome them.) For me, this is more of a writing/humor project than a musical project – it’s just that the medium I’m playing with is music. I want to give LGBTQ kids lyrics to sing loudly over their favorite songs that validate and celebrate their existence rather than deny or demean it
AVM: Do you have any advice for young emerging queer artists?
ZS: Put your work out there in whatever medium you can. Not comfortable performing in public? That’s fine! Try putting it up on facebook or youtube, if you can – it’s actually less scary than it sounds! (Or at least it was for me.) Also, what you’re doing is important. It really is. If someone tells you otherwise, just smile and nod until they go away and go back to making your awesome art.
AVM: What’s next for you?
ZS: I haven’t made a video in a while, partially due to an intense workload at school, but primarily due to lack of inspiration. Maybe I’ll do that fucked-up-but-catchy “That’s What Makes You Beautiful” song though. If you have suggestions, please let me know! I’m satisfied with what I’ve done, but I’d love to keep making videos too. Other than that, I’ll be working on my senior thesis in neuroscience, figuring out what to do after I graduate, and spending time as much time as possible with my lovely boyfriend (to bring it full circle: his opening line to me on OKCupid was, “You wouldn’t happen to be the person from the ‘Porn This Way‘ video, would you?”)
Zach Schudson is a rising senior at Pomona College in Claremont, California, where he studies neuroscience and gender & women’s studies. He is a staff member at the Queer Resource Center of the Claremont Colleges and is involved with the Pomona College Advocates for Survivors of Sexual Assault. When not queering pop songs (i.e., most of the time), Zach likes to imagine ways of queering neuroscience, psychology, pop culture, geek culture, and common household objects. He promises that his sense of humor is really a lot better than that last joke would imply. Alok is a junior studying queer studies & comparative studies in race and ethnicity. ze can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.