NBC’s high school theater drama Rise debuted last Tuesday (March 13) and it’s already gaining attention for its LGBTQ-inclusive storylines. In the pilot episode, we meet Michael Hallowell, a transgender student who auditions for the school production of Spring Awakening and lands a role as one of the prominent male leads. Not only is the character transgender, but the actor behind the role, Ellie Desautels, identifies as gender non-binary.
Desautels explained their character as a natural musician: “At his core, he’s an artist and very sensitive. But being transgender makes him strong. He knows himself very well and stands up for himself. Most importantly, Michael is unapologetic in living his truth. He doesn’t let anything or anyone get in the way of being himself.”
They also explained how seeing a character like Michael might have affected their own process of self-discovery in their coming out as non-binary.
“When I was growing up, there was no truthful representation of a trans person on TV, let alone a major network,” Desautels said. “If I had a character like Michael to relate to and if there had been a show like Rise that doesn’t shy away from queer vocabulary, I would have found out that I was trans at a younger age. I never got to know that person that I could have been.”
To celebrate their groundbreaking role, Billboard asked Desautels to create a playlist of songs that capture the essence of Rise. Check out their selections, including classics like Prince and Pearl Jam, as well as songs by queer artists like Shawnee and LP, below.
Brightly, “Preflight Nerves”
After the end of my first queer relationship, I wandered Crane Beach in Ipswich, MA and blasted this album in my headphones for hours. I was feeling lost but full of potential at the same time. Those hours were a lonely but empowering little window of time between heartbreak and independence.
The Shins, “Australia”
This is probably my favorite song ever, by my favorite band ever. I discovered it a long time ago when I was in high school. The Shins create such a beautiful, unique sound in all their music. This song makes me think of Rise because it reminds me of being a teenager.
I came across this song while brainstorming for this playlist and I didn’t know it existed. In a world where people constantly see me on the binary, I sometimes get discouraged and frustrated. This song reflects that angsty part of me that I don’t often share openly. Sometimes it’s good to feel angst and let it all out.
Shawnee, “Warrior Heart”
I picked this song because two-spirit musician Shawnee wrote it, and I think queer indigenous people need a much bigger voice in the world. The proceeds made from this song went to the We Matter Campaign in effort to end aboriginal youth suicide. The power of this song cannot be ignored, and its sound and feeling remind me of Rise.
Trixie Mattel, “Mama Don’t Make Me Put on the Dress Again”
I love singing this song created by one of my favorite drag queens, Trixie Mattel. I feel like it’s a very queer, feel-good folk song and you don’t get very much of that from drag queens. She’s one of a kind, and in a time when queer people are struggling for basic human rights, we need amazing songwriters and hilarious personalities like Trixie Mattel.
LP, “Tokyo Sunrise”
I fell in love with this song when I discovered it a few years back. LP has this incredible, chilling, haunting voice that gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. The sound of this song is authentic and truthful and reflects the authenticity in Rise.
Prince, “Raspberry Beret”
For a couple years in college I was a drag king and performed as Otto Matick. I’d say that’s when my gender exploration started, and after a couple years I began to understand and define my gender identity, so I started using Otto as a way of gender expression. When I listen to Prince, I see the complexities of gender expression in colors, and his music helped me learn that femininity can be masculine and masculinity can be feminine and that you can exist as neither.
Suburban Legends, “Bright Spring Morning”
My older siblings and I all love ska music, so I had to include at least one ska song in this playlist. I’ve loved this band since I was in 6th grade, so it’s quite a coincidence for me that the lyrics relate so well to the story we’re telling in Rise. There’s more to life than this dusty town, let’s do something worth doing, and live a life worth living.
Pearl Jam, “Just Breathe”
Having a solo song in the pilot for Rise was momentous for me. I did not know what to expect when we learned Tom Kitt’s arrangement of “Just Breathe.” After a couple hours of fully learning the music, I discovered I was a part of something so much bigger than myself. It was the most beautiful piece of art I had ever contributed to.
Oh Wonder, “Lose It”
You know when you meet someone who is just so easy to have fun with? That’s this song. And that’s my fiancé. We figured out our gender identities together and always had each other for support. Without them by my side, I wouldn’t have discovered my true self.
Tune it to watch Rise on NBC Tuesdays at 9:00pm ET / 8:00pm CT. Follow Ellie Desautels’ playlist on Spotify below.