Hedwig and the Angry Inch is secretly about the ethical use of information

Image source: Wikipedia

One of my favorite pieces of scholarly literature in the library and information science field is an article by Emily Dill and Karen L. Janke called “New Shit Has Come to Light: Information Seeking Behavior in The Big Lebowski.” It is exactly what it sounds like: a study of the information-seeking strategies of the characters in The Big Lebowski.

I think of this article every time I watch Hedwig and the Angry Inch because every time I watch Hedwig, all I can think about is how, underneath all of its other themes, it is, at its core, a lesson about the ethical use of information.

Let me explain.

(The following includes spoilers for Hedwig and the Angry Inch, both the movie and the play.)

If you’re not familiar, Hedwig and the Angry Inch started as an off-Broadway musical that was then turned into a movie that was then turned into a Broadway musical. It’s the story of a character born as Hansel who undergoes a (botched) sex change operation in order to marry his American boyfriend and escape Communist East Berlin in the 1980s. Hansel, now Hedwig, is successful in the escape but arrives in America only for the American boyfriend to leave her (and for the Berlin Wall to fall). She begins to create music in part as a way to deal with everything that has happened to her. Then she meets a younger man named Tommy who she falls in love with only to have him steal her music, pass it off as his own, and become ultra-famous while Hedwig continues to perform in dive bars which always happen to be conveniently across the street from whatever arena Tommy is playing that night.

I first encountered Hedwig in its movie form, where you actually see all of these events play out in flashback. A few years ago, I saw a performance of the stage show in Albany, where Hedwig relates the story of her life to you between songs as if you are an audience member at one of her band’s dive bar concerts.

The issue about Tommy stealing her work is a little more explicit in the movie than I remember it being in the stage show but in both cases it’s clear that the role Hedwig played in writing these songs has gone unacknowledged, largely because Tommy, who grew up in a religious household, doesn’t want it to come out that he once had a romantic relationship with a transgender person(1), much less that she wrote or co-wrote all of his songs.

Of course, there are plenty of real life examples of copyright infringement in the music industry, ones that I’ve shared with classes I’ve taught via the Music Copyright Infringement Resource from the George Washington University Law School. With relatively few exceptions,(2) in cases where a non-famous musician is suing a famous musician for copyright infringement, the outcome seems to favor the famous musician. For one thing, it’s a lot harder to establish that a famous musician would be familiar with the work of the non-famous musician. The non-famous person may be able to prove that they sent their demo to the famous one, but not that the famous person listened to it. In fact, part of Hedwig’s difficulty in getting anyone to believe her is that she’s not able to prove to anyone that she and Tommy ever actually knew each other.

Her other difficulty is in the fact that the person she is up against is a young, good-looking, white, Christian, cisgender guy who has privilege on his side and is the perfect candidate for fame and fortune. As a transgender person, Hedwig would never be a candidate for those things. While Tommy plays to rapturous crowds in arenas, Hedwig (in the movie) is only able to attract one interested audience member on the smallest stage in the remotest corner of a Lilith Fair knockoff festival even though she is playing those same songs. Obviously, everyone who hears her probably just assumes that she’s just doing bad covers of Tommy’s work (rather than that Tommy is doing bad covers of her work, which is actually the case). But the implication is also that the works she created would not have been successful if her name was on them or if they had been sung in her own voice.(3)

Toward the end of the movie, Hedwig has one last encounter with Tommy where she’s able to confront him over what he’s done. He makes a (possibly) empty gesture by adding her name, in marker, to the credits in the liner notes of his CD (ah, the 90s).

Then they get into a car crash that coincidentally outs Tommy and provides the proof Hedwig needs that they do, in fact, know each other. After that, she gains some public recognition, appearing on talk shows and magazine covers.(4) It doesn’t last, but at least she gets a moment of brief vindication.

This vindication doesn’t happen in the play. Your mileage may vary as far as which ending you prefer, but the lack of vindication in the play is probably closer to what would happen if this was a real life case, which is a little sad to think about.

Anyway. I imagine there aren’t many people out there who are interested in the information literacy/copyright-related themes in Hedwig in the Angry Inch but it’s interesting to explore the movie and play through this lens.

*

(1) Hedwig is often labeled as a transgender character but I wanted to acknowledge that the case here is a little more complicated. As Hansel in the movie, Hedwig is pretty game to pose as a woman in order to marry her American boyfriend and escape her home country but it’s unclear to what extent Hansel may or may not actually identify as female. Either way, the sex change operation she undergoes is treated as largely unwanted—she does it because she’s told by her boyfriend and mother that she needs it in order to pass a physical exam to get out of the country. Even after the operation and safely arriving in the United States, she continues to identify as Hedwig both in public and in private but the line between Hedwig as an expression of the character’s true self and Hedwig as a campy, drag queen-esque performance isn’t made clear. So as a character Hedwig doesn’t fit neatly into the (limited) mainstream understanding of a transgender person as someone who identifies with a gender that’s different from the one they were assigned at birth. In the case of this story, I would argue that the question of gender and sex are being used more as a metaphor than as a comment on the actual experience of being transgender or transsexual but I’m willing to be convinced otherwise.

(2) George Harrison comes to mind.

(3) It may also be possible to interpret Hedwig’s anger over all of this as a reflection of the conflict she feels about her gender and sex identities. Like, maybe if she hadn’t undergone the sex change operation, she could have been in Tommy’s place or wouldn’t have to fight so hard for acknowledgement.

(4) Which is really just archive footage of press and media appearances the cast did for the play.  🙂

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