Monday, October 1, 2007

Absolut Buttcrack

One rainy night in 2000, I sat in a gay bar in Chicago having a glass of wine and watching music videos. It was a weeknight, so the Closet was busy but not packed: there were people sitting on either side of me at the bar.
Two videos stand out for me in memory of that night. One was of Taylor Dayne, a woman whose music I knew very slightly. It was a big production number, with Dayne slinking and lip-synching through a horde of dancing couples, and being the Politically Correct old prune that I am, I suddenly noticed that though the choreographer had paired males with females and a few females with females, there were no males paired with males. This, although in a cast full of dancer/model types, there must have been a few gay males, and although Dayne’s target audience was presumably not homophobic teenaged boys. I leaned slightly over and mentioned this to the young man sitting beside me. He said, “Oh, really? I hadn’t noticed, I just love Taylor so much!” I grunted, probably only inwardly, and took another sip of my wine.
Not too much later, another video started, Madonna’s “American Pie”, a song she’d recorded for the soundtrack of The Next Best Thing, her movie with Rupert Everett. I hadn’t yet tried to watch the movie, though I’d read reviews of it. The video, however, surprised and delighted me. Madonna, in a tank top and rather grotty jeans, with a prom queen’s tiara on her long thick hair, lipsyncs to the song while prancing about in front of a large American flag and showing off her buttcrack. But intercut with her antics are short film clips of anonymous Americans, also posed in front of the large American flags. They range from industrial- strength rednecks in denim and adipose tissue to black folks in front of a mausoleum in New Orleans to a large woman in a wheelchair to a drum corps to cheerleaders. Some appear individually, or in couples, or in families or other groups. They are filmed in color, but the often harsh lighting and the people’s looks call up memories of black and white photos by Richard Avedon, Diane Arbus, and Larry Clark. Because my own background is rural, working-class Indiana, I recognized those people, and I felt an ache of love for them.
Good enough, but (again probably only inwardly) I sat straight up when two young women kissed each other onscreen: their style was punk/goth, with tattoos, black clothing, and chemical-looking dyed hair, blonde for the butch and reddish-brown for the femme. Having kissed, they smiled sweetly (and a bit slyly) out at the world. A few seconds later, two young men posed in front of a flag hung in front of a little country church also kissed, then smiled too, squinting under the lights as if they were the sun. These guys were very whitebread, with short neatly trimmed hair, though dressed in clothes that most resembled k.d. lang’s prairie look on the cover of Absolute Torch and Twang. Those clips left me feeling warm through the rest of Madonna’s parodic patriotism. I’m not exactly a fan of La Ciccone, but I do appreciate that she knows she lives in an America that includes gay people.
Later I found that the DVD of The Next Best Thing included the “American Pie” music video, but didn’t buy it until I found a bargain-bin copy several years later. I got it out tonight, as I do from time to time, to watch the video again. Partly because I never get tired of watching it, and partly to check something a gay boy had once claimed online: “I could have sworn that Midge changed the lyrics of American Pie from ‘With a pink carnation and a pickup truck’ to ‘With a green carnation…’ I really don’t know if she’d go as far as to make that change to the song. (Hist. Note: Green carnations were used to signal who was gay in 19th C. London)” (Hist. Note: Green carnations were a fad among “aesthetics” like Oscar Wilde in nineteenth century London, not all of whom were gay. Though if you wore your green carnation on the left side...)
I played that part of the video several times, and couldn’t tell if “Midge” did indeed change the lyrics: it sounded as if she were singing “pring carnation,” so perhaps she fudged it. Leaving aside the humor of the notion that Madonna would respect the artistic integrity of a True Classic like “American Pie”, what haunted me was that someone would get so excited about what might have been a hint in a song lyric attached to a movie where male homosexuality is overt and explicit as a plot and character element. (For those lucky enough to be ignorant, the premise is that Rupert Everett, as a gay gardener, and Madonna, his straight best friend, get so drunk one night that they don’t know what they’re doing, and end up having a baby together. They go on to form relationships with other people, and we see Everett with at least one boyfriend – this I’ve gleaned by fast-forwarding through the DVD.) Even younger gay men, it seems, are still living in the 1950s, where pinky rings, yellow ties, and other in-group signals were common among homosexuals; they’re so firmly embedded in that mindset that a possibly dropped hairpin on the soundtrack of a dreadful movie is more significant than an openly gay lead character in a dreadful movie. I have the impression that most gay boys to this day would rather worship straight divas (Leave Britney Alone!), identifying with them as they sing love songs to men, than hear a man sing a love song to a man.
Not that I’m one to talk, I who got teary-eyed because a diva included some queer kisses in her music video. But I’d rather see two boys or two girls kiss, or (better) hear a man sing a love song to a man, than watch a female female-impersonator like Taylor Dayne who doesn’t live in a musical world with gay people in it.
P.S. December 29, 2007: I embedded the "American Pie" video from YouTube. I've also tried to track down the Taylor Dayne video I saw (and dissed) in The Closet that night, but couldn't find it. The closest I could find was much smaller scale: TD and two male model/dancers. Maybe my fading memory just inflated them into a crowd? I don't think so, but I don't know which song or which video it was.