American Culture Studies Ph.D. Dissertations


True Loves, Dark Nights: Queer Performativity and Grieving Through Music in the Work of Rufus Wainwright

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Culture Studies

First Advisor

Jeremy Wallach (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Kimberly Coates (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Katherine Meizel (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Christian Coons (Other)


This dissertation studies the cultural significance of Canadian-American singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright's (b. 1973) album All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu (Decca, 2010). Lulu was written, recorded, and toured in the years surrounding the illness and eventual death of his mother, beloved Quebecoise singer/songwriter Kate McGarrigle. The album, performed as a classical song cycle, stands out amongst Wainwright's musical catalogue as a hybrid composition that mixes classical and popular musical forms and styles. More than merely a collection of songs about death, loss, and personal suffering, Lulu is a vehicle that enabled him to grieve through music. I argue that Wainwright's performativity, as well as the music itself, can be understood as queer, or as that which transgresses traditional or expected boundaries. In this sense, Wainwright's artistic identity and musical trajectory resemble a rhizome, extending in multiple directions and continually expanding to create new paths and outcomes. Instances of queerness reveal themselves in the genre hybridity of the Lulu song cycle, the emotional vulnerability of Wainwright's vocal performance, the deconstruction of gender norms in live performance, and the circulation of affect within the performance space. In this study, I examine the song cycle form, Wainwright's musical score and vocal performance, live performance videos, and fan reactions to live performances in order to identify meaningful moments where Wainwright's musical and performative decisions queer audience expectations. While these musical moments contribute to the already rich and varied lineage of the gay male artist in both classical and popular music, I argue that Wainwright's queer performativity and nontraditional musical choices speak to larger issues important to American culture in the contemporary moment. These issues include the visibility of male public mourning and the healing power of artistic expression in the face of traumatic loss.