Flamboyance, androgyny and theatricality have been creative cornerstones of music since the pop era began. For most, it all begins with David Bowie, a truly other worldly performer who managed to capture the imaginations of boys and girls in the ‘70s and beyond with his exquisite personna, magical songwriting and arresting talent. While he wasn’t doing “drag” in the traditional sense, Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust was beautiful, and his electric orange hair, shaved eyebrows, and powdery mask-like face fancied with shimmery eye shadows and glossy lips, served a vibrant visual that embodied art, pansexuality and extraterrestial magnetism. Bowie’s allure was conceptual, but it was clearly accessible too.
His fashion was equally flamboyant: from Kansai Yamamoto’s structural black jumpsuit to Aladdin Sane’s bolt iconography to “Halloween Jack”’s mulletted punky pirate look to sky blue suit and matching eye shadow of the iconic “Life On Mars” video, everything Bowie did stylistically was striking, and it always complemented the music he was making at the time too. Though he favored more traditionally male looks later in his career, a cheeky, and slightly femme feel remained (suits in bright yellow, the bleached out semi-pompador) even when he was singing about and depicting very “straight” behaviors like making out with his “China Girl.”
The glam era had others of course, T-Rex who fancied glitter eye-makeup, and exotic scarves as he crooned about banging gongs and being a “20th Century Boy,” and the New York Dolls, who donned the higgest of heels with skintight pants, big hair and bodciously made-up faces. Lou Reed was similarly gender-bending and his music, more than even Bowie or T-Rex’s Marc Bolan’s, reflected his lifestyle, thanks to his vicinity to Andy Warhol, The Factory and its denizens. “Walk on the Wild Side,” about Holly Woodlawn, Warhol’s transgender “superstar” may be the first mainstream hit to celebrate an LGBTQ icon and it remains one of the best, thanks to its provocative imagery and its catchy and soulful yet dark post-punk feel.
And if we’re talking punk rock we must mention Jayne County who transitioned into her true self while maintaining her punk cred, something the iconic trans performer maintains to this day, thanks to well-deserved shout-outs in pretty much every punk documentary out there. While the CBGBs and Max Kansas City scene celebrated self-expression in all forms, it was still a pretty aggressive atmosphere, and when it came to music, queer audiences soon found more simpatico styles to love. Of course we’re talking about disco. From Sylvester to The Village People, the thumping dance music celebrated life in a hedonistic way that did not discrimate- it didn’t matter if you were black, white, gay, or straight, only that you were open to having fun and that you showed it by bringing a fabulous look to the party. This was of course typified by the Studio 54 scene where, on any given night, the likes of Cher, Liza Minnelli, Halston, Michael Jackson and Mick Jagger might be carousing together and having the time of their lives.
Disco brought queerdom to the mainstream and it brought freedom too. And though they weren’t officially “out” the music and images of both Elton John and Freddie Mercury took it all to new level for rock and pop on the radio. But as the 70s came to a close and the 80s took hold, there was the inevitable backlash to this lustful liberation, reflected as it often is, by governmental intolerance. The Reagan era in particular was one of restriction (“Just Say No”) and bigotry. Even though the devastating AIDS crisis had taken hold, those in power did absolutely nothing to help.
Still, when it came to music, the outsiders and boundary-pushers would not be stifled. Pandora’s box had been opened and a host wonderful weirdos, sexually-ambiguous and spectacle-driven artists burst out in the ’80s and ’90s to rock and peacock: Grace Jones, Annie Lennox, Prince, Madonna, Siouxsie Sioux, Peter Murphy, Boy George, Pete Burns, George Michael, KD lang, Gary Numan, Duran Duran, Adam Ant, Joan Jett… and the list goes on and on. These artists, along with kabuki-inspired KISS, Bowie and the Dolls before them, even incluenced traditionally cock-rockin’ genres, hence the neo-glam resurgence that saw bands like Poison, Motley Crue and Guns n’ Roses don guyliner, spandex and awful amounts of Aquanet hairspray.
Flash foreward to today and rock music does not reign the way it once did. It’s all about pop confection on the music charts these days, and the entire game has changed from how music is made and put out to how it’s purchased. All the artists mentioned above were probably discovered in record stores, on radio and MTV. But these days, making an impression takes something else- connecting with fans through a computer screen, creating an intriguing, eye-catching image via social media that builds a following, and keeping that following with great music, artful videos and compelling live performances.
TV still plays a role too, though reality seems to give potential music stars a heads up over dramatic fare, as is evidenced by the success of contestants from American Idol, America’s Got Talent, X Factor and The Voice, not to mention hip-hop artists who found fame after TV like Cardi B, and the numerous RuPaul’s Drag Race queens who’ve gone on to release hit tracks as well as Ru herself, who’s scored several hits throughout her long career.
This must be noted and celebrated: in the digital age, the restrictions of yesterday are nearly non-existent. Fashion and beauty trends dictate bigger and bolder is better when it comes to how an artist presents themselves, and a more enlightened approach to gender -highlighting and accepting fluidity, non-binary, bisexual, trans and gay identities- means that music is more representtive of its fanbase than ever before. With this in mind, many of today’s pop divas (Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Ariana Grande, Beyonce) have become the LGBTQ community’s biggest allies, recognizing and celebrating this important segment of their fanbases.
So what does all this mean for new music artists hoping to make it in music? It means anything goes in terms of self-expression- from lyrical content to video imagery to stage performance, to how they present themselves and what they share about who they are. Sexuality, whatever it may be, can be highlighted and celebrated, but it can also be beside the point. At the end of the day, it’s the beats, the melodies and the message that are important, but as history has proved, an alluring package that appeals to more than one persuasion sure doesn’t hurt.
Join Lina Lecaro as she discusses these points and more as moderator of ’the”Music Mavens” panel at RuPaul’s DragCon this Saturday at 11 a.m. Panelists include: Blair St. Clair, Leland, Adam Joseph and Milan Christopher.