The Ballad of a Ladyman
Sleater-Kinney's anthem, "Ballad of a Ladyman," describes the allure of subcultural life for the ladyman, the freak who wants to "rock with the tough girls." They sing: "I could be demure like / girls who are soft for / boys who are fearful of / getting an earful / But I gotta rock!" The band layers Corin Tucker's shrill but tuneful vocals over the discordant and forceful guitar playing of Carrie Brownstein and the hard rhythm of Weiss's percussion. This is a beat that takes no prisoners and makes no concessions to the "boys who are fearful of getting an earful. . . ." And while Sleater-Kinney are most often folded into histories of the "riot grrrl" phenomenon and girl punk, they must also be placed within a new wave of dyke subcultures. When taken separately, riot dyke bands, drag kings, and queer slam poets all seem to represent a queer edge in a larger cultural phenomenon. When considered together, they add up to a fierce and lively queer subculture which needs to be reckoned with on its own terms. This essay tracks the significant differences between the ladymen who rock and roll and drag up and slam their way towards new queer futures and the punk rockers of an earlier generation of subcultural activity. My tour of dyke subcultures takes in riot dyke punk by bands like Sleater-Kinney, The Butchies, Le Tigre, Tribe 8, The Haggard and Bitch and Animal; drag kings like Dred, and drag king boy band parody group Backdoor Boys; slam poets like Alix Olson and Stacey Ann Chin. Queer subcultures are related to old school subcultures like punk but they also carve out new territory for a consideration of the overlap of gender, generation, class, race, community, and sexuality in relation to minority cultural production.
I have long been interested in and part of various subcultural groups. As a young person I remember well the experience of finding punk rock in the middle of a typically horrible Grammar School experience in England in the 1970's. I plunged into punk rock music, clothing and rebellion precisely because it gave me a language with which to reject not only the high cultural texts in the class rooms but also the homophobia and sexism outside it. I tried singing in a punk band called Penny Black and the Stamps for a brief two-week period thinking that my utter lack of musical ability would serve me well finally. But, alas, even punk divas scream in key and my rebel yells were not mellifluous enough to launch my punk singing career. Instead of singing, I collected records, went to shows, dyed my hair and fashioned outfits from safety pins and bondage pants. And so I learned at an early age that even if you cannot be in the band, participation at multiple levels is what subculture offers. I found myself reminiscing over my punk past when I began researching drag king cultures for a collaborative project with photographer Del LaGrace Volcano. Through my new subcultural involvement I began to see some specific features of queer subculture as opposed to a larger historical subcultures like punk rock.
After finishing my drag king book in 1999, I received calls every few months from TV stations wanting me to put them in touch with drag kings for talk shows and news shows. Most of these shows would invite the kings on to parade around with some drag queens in front of a studio audience. At the end of the show, the audience would vote on whether each king or queen was really a man or really a woman. A few of the kings managed to circumvent the either/or format and offer up a more complex gendered self; and so, Black drag king Dred took off her moustache to reveal a "woman's" face but then took off her wig to reveal a bald pate. The audience was confused and horrified by the spectacle of indeterminacy. Josh Gamson in Freaks Talk Back has written about the potential for talk shows to allow the "crazies" and "queers" to talk back but most of the time when drag kings appeared in mass public venues, the host did all the talking. Drag kings also made an appearance in HBO's Sex and the City and on MTV's Real Life. On every occasion that drag kings appeared on "straight" TV, they were deployed as an entertaining backdrop against which heterosexual desire was showcased and celebrated. As someone who has tirelessly promoted drag kings, as individual performers and as a subculture, I found the whole process of watching the mass culture's flirtation with drag kings depressing and disheartening; but it did clarify for me what my stakes might be in promoting drag kings: after watching drag kings try to go prime time, I remain committed to archiving and celebrating and analyzing queer subcultures before they are dismissed by mass culture or before they simply disappear from lack of exposure or what we might call "subcultural fatigue," namely the phenomenon of burn out among subcultural producers.
As the talk show phenomenon vividly illustrates, mainstream culture within postmodernism should be defined as the process by which subcultures are both recognized and absorbed, mostly for the profit of large media conglomerates. In other words, when TV stations show an interest in a dyke subculture like drag kings, this is cause for both celebration and concern: on the one hand, the mainstream recognition and acknowledgment of a subculture has the potential to alter the contours of dominant culture (think here of the small inroads into popular notions of sex, gender and race made by the regular presence of Black drag queen Ru Paul on cable TV); but, on the other hand, most of the interest directed by mainstream media at subcultures is voyeuristic and predatory. The subculture might appear on TV eventually as an illustration of the strange and perverse or else it will be summarily robbed of its salient features and the subcultural form: drag, for example, will be lifted without the subcultural producers, drag queens or kings. In an essay that tracks the results of precisely this process, Marco Becquer and Jose Gatti examine the contradictory effects of the sudden visibility of Harlem drag balls and their drag practices. In their analysis of the cooptation of gay vogueing by Madonna's hit single "Vogue" and by Jenni Livingston's acclaimed independent film Paris is Burning, Becquer and Gatti show how the counter-hegemonic knowledge articulated in vogueing meets with "the violence of the universal." Becquer and Gatti write of Madonna's video and Livingston's film: "Both partake in the production of newness, a process which purports to keep us up-to-date as it continually adds on novelties to a relational system that absorbs them; both contain vogueing beneath the pluralist umbrella of hipness." And so, while the queens in Paris is Burning expressed a desire for precisely the kind of fame and fortune that did eventually accrue to vogueing, the fame went to director Jennie Livingston and the fortune went to Madonna. The subculture itself, the gay Black and Puerto Rican children of the Houses of Channel, Extravaganza and LaBeija, disappeared back into the world of sex work, HIV and queer glamour and within five years of the release of Paris is Burning, five of the queens in the film were dead.
The mainstream absorption of vogueing highlights the uneven exchange between dominant culture scavengers and subcultural artists: subcultural artists often seek out mainstream attention for their performances and productions in the hopes of gaining financial assistance for future endeavors. Subcultural activity is, of course, rarely profitable, always costly for the producers and it can be very short lived without the necessary cash infusions (in the words of Sleater-Kinney: "This music gig doesn't pay that good, but the fans are alright. . . ."). Some subcultural producers turn the subculture itself into a source of revenue and as Angela McRobbie comments: "Subcultures are often ways of creating job opportunities as more traditional careers disappear. . . ." So while the subcultural producers hope for cash and a little exposure, the dominant culture scavengers are usually looking for a story and hoping for that brush with the "new" and the "hip" described so well by Becquer and Gatti. In my experiences working with drag kings however, we found that while big media reached their "hipness quota" quickly with the addition of a few well placed drag kings, in return, they almost never paid for drag king services and when they did pay, it was always a pittance. Obviously the pay back for the subcultural participants cannot come in the form of material benefits; what seems more useful then, in this exchange between mainstream attention and subcultural product, would be to use the encounter to force some kind of recognition upon audiences that what is appealing about mainstream culture may very well come from subcultures that they do not even know exist or that they have repudiated.
As George Lipsitz's work has shown in relation to ethnic minority cultures, cultural producers often function as organic intellectuals, in a Gramscian sense; as such, minority artists can produce what Lipsitz terms "a historical bloc" or a coalition of oppositional groups united around counter-hegemonic ideas.While in Gramsci's formulation, the organic intellectual undermines the role of the traditional intellectual who serves to legitimize and authorize elite political interests, in subcultures where academics might labor side by side with artists, the "historical bloc" can easily describe an alliance between the minority academic and the minority subcultural producer. Where such alliances exist academics can play a big role in the construction of queer archives, and queer memory, and, furthermore, queer academics can and some should participate in the ongoing project of recoding queer culture and interpreting it and circulating a sense of its multiplicity and sophistication. The more intellectual records we have of queer culture, the more we contribute to the project of claiming for the subculture the radical cultural work that either gets absorbed into or claimed by mainstream media.