07_Mitchell_Morris - MITCHELL MORRIS . . . . . . . . . . -...

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Unformatted text preview: MITCHELL MORRIS . . . . . . . . . . - u . . . u a . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . - . - . l . . . a . l . . . . . . . [tie Raining Men The Weather Girls, Gay Subjectivity, and the Erotics of lnsatiability In the Spring of 1980, my second undergraduate semester at Duke Uniycrsity, I began to study music as an academic subject This was a rather sudden decisiorn marked by, among other things, a neardisastrous encounter with calculus; I needed to flee the pre- cincts of science and technology in order to recover a decent grade-point average in the humanities. But the study of music almost immediately seemed to have been whatl had wanted to do all along. In fact, I was so enthusiastic’about studying 1music (especially being permitted and able to talk about it) that I made plans to become a musicologist befOre that term was over. My parents, whom I told as soon as I went home for the summer, were bewildered and not a little concerned at my desire to pursue an activity so abstruse, so seemingly non-productive, but by and by they resigned themselves to my eccentricity. That same semester, I began - very slowly — to take my first steps :out of the closet. This wasn’t a case of acknowledging my sexual difference to myself as much as a case of learning how to be gay in public. But I didn’t tell my parents that for along time. These two beginnings may seem completely different from one another, but for me they really are closely linked — it is only in recent years that l have realized how close they were to identical. If I mention them here it is less because I can’t resist feeding my narcissism, less because of my increasing general interest in autobiographical criticism. than because this project seems to demand such a specific foregroundng of self. Musi- cah'ty and sexuality have seemed on reflection to be quite as thoroughly imbricated as Philip Brett and Suzanne Cusick have claimed they might be.1 Moreover, this aflecfive/ epistemological knot manifests at every level of discourse about music, from the ways our culture helps us to become musicians down to our apparently “private” experience of individual musical pieces or events. Back to my story: I made progress as a musician more rapidly them I did as a gay man, perhaps for the simple reason that the identity of musician constituted a praisewor thy if mysterious role, while the identity of gay man was bound tightly to danger and humiliation. One of the people I was to be was admirable, the other an abomination. But there was another difference between the two roles I found to be even more of a hin- 214 RAINING MEN chance than their place within the social worlds I inhabited: namely, that music sud- denly seemed to be accompanied by an elaborate, subtle vocnbulary that not only de- scribed the acts that produced music and circulated it between performers and listeners, but also seemed to offer at least sketchy ways to discuss how it felt to “do” music and to care about it. The vocabulary available to me as an unacculturated homo, however, cer- tainly described acts, but with connotations that seemed to me hopelessly abject. Except in the bars. There was one (only one) bar in Durham, North Carolina in the early 19808. Like most such bars in areas where gay men and lesbians have to live sub rosa, but are not subject to organized persecution, “Forty-Second Street” (later “The Power Company”) was extremely large in order to accommodate a diverse clientele. People would drive as many as 200 miles to come to Durham, merely to go dancing for the weekend. Whenever we entered the bar, we seemed to serum a sudden accession to freedom; we could speak the languages of our desire without fear of reprisal. Needlws to say, this was addictive. But when l invoke “the languages of our desire,” I don’t want that phrase to be understood to encompass speech and writing exclusively. The practice of desire inCOr porated dress and dance, and especially music. North Carolina in the early 19805 was an outpost of post-Stonewall, pro-AIDS culture: that is, our world as homosexuals was par- tially determined by the knowledge that we lived more openly than had those before us, and that elsewhere in the country, people lived more openly still; and our lives were still uncompromised by incurable disease. What I write about here is a commemoration of that vanished way of life perhaps even more than it is a contribution to a more open musicology. At that time I could not speak of musical and sexual desires together as ways of being; if I try to do so now, it is driven by my fantasies of what once was. One of the most powerful him in gay discos during 1983 was The Weather Girls’ high- energy number “It’s Raining Men.” Though chronologically a part of the 19805, which were by this point actually becoming distinct in the US. as a collective delusion, the song’s 705 — that is, post-Stonewall, pro-AIDS - affinities in the end matter much more than the precise Lime it hit the charts. 1 want to focus on “It’s Raining Men” because, like everyone else who danced that year, I adored it, but also because it seems to con- dense in an unusually pure form some crucial aspects of disco culture, particularly in its gay manifestations. The central issue, I think, is the way that music promulgates, rein- forces, and even actively invents specific styles of erotic desire; but the schemata of such desire in given pieces, however broadly similar they may be to those of other pieces, are so strongly inflected by gender, race, class, and all the marks of the body that they re- MITCHELL MORRIS quire case-by-case explication. Space doesn’t permit a fully developed close reading of “It’s Raining Men” or a thick description of its social contexts, but I want to offer at least the outlines of an account which may suggest ways to think about the role of disco in the formation of at least some gay subjectivities. The Weather Girls helped teach some of us about possible aspects of being gay, and this was true in the image they projected, the lyrics and structure of the song, and its place in the musical texture that defined the culture of the disco. The Group: The Weather Girls were a pair of singers, Martha Wash and Izora Armstcad (née Rhodes), who began as singers in various gospel groups in the San Francisco Bay Area and, in 1976, became the famous back-up singers to the fabulous gay disco singer Sylvester. As his back-up girls, Wash and Rhodes billed themselves as “Two Tons 0’ Fun.” The name highlighted their most inescapable feature as live performers — they were very large indeed. Reportedly, their size is one of the things that Sylvester valued: The two were singing in the gospel group News of the World when Martha audi- tioned for Sylvester, who asked, “Do you know anyone who’s as big as you who can sing too?” Martha enlisted lzora, who coined the Two Tons 0’ Fun name.2 275 Figure 1: LP cover of Success. The women’s transformation into The Weather Girls occurred around 1982, and I as- sume that they were recording “It’s Raining Men” at the time. The rechristening would have helped reinforce the effect of the song that was to become their greatest hit. Con- sider the vanip that occurs in the song right after the 16-bar instrumental introduction (see lyrics and Example 1). l have had to guess at the identification of each speaker, since the individual parts are not Credited on the album jacket 216 a: 1 .. a .- m. I. x 1.. v w... m. u — n— u _. opening. Example 1: The Weather Girls, “It’s Raining Mam” MITCHELL Martha Wash Izora Rhodes Hi! Hi! We’re your weather girls, Uh~huh, And have we got news for you! You better listen! Get ready, all you lonely girls, And leave those umbrellas at home! All right! The introduction of this vamp obviously serves to excite desire for the groove (the danceable rhythm track that will ground the song’s verse-chorus structure) by extending the introduction beyond what might have been expected: nothing could be smoother than to enter the piece’s groove from the regular intro, but suddenly we find it inter- rupted by this new event. Even more important, however, the vamp gives the girls room to introduce themselves, as if for the first time — “we’re your weather girls,” they say — and helps make the terms of their address clearer. What does Wash mean by stressing that pronoun? Who is this we, and how is it that we might be entitled to assume that it’s gay? First, consider the hyper-expressive speech the two women employ. The emphasis of words is already extreme, somewhere between a whoop and a holler, and the setting is extravagant, with its fast notes and storm noises (thunder, the hiss of rain, both plainly artificial). The way the two women relate to one another is clearly a kind of “call and response” patterned on an established African-American preaching style; just as clearly, the flashy stress of the words is derived from characteristic African-American humorous speech patterns.3 This was not surprising, given the kind of material Wash and Rhodes had already recorded as the Two Tons. A song such as “I’ve Been Down.” featured on Sylvester’s eponymous 1977 album, shows Wash and Rhodes carrying on an extended conversation song in the final part of the piece.4 “I’ve Been Down” (final part of song): I been down so low getting up ain’t crossed my mind (I know what you mean, they do it every time) I been chained (uh huh), oh so chained I been chained so long 'MORRIS 277 l T 278 ’ s RAINING MEN Ceding free just don’t seem real (girl) I been running (uh huh) oh running, running running (Y on thought you were) I been running so long I ain’t going nowhere (uh huh) Oh, but if he takes me (now you talking my kinda talk) Yeah you know, I might come across (I know you tried to play hard to get) Ooh ooh, take me baby (that’ll do it every time) I just might not he a total loss (yeah). But there seems to he more than sociability in the context of “It’s Raining Men,” be— cause during most of the song, the two women are not speaking to each other so much as egging each other on in their address to the audience. Surely we are meant to take this exaggerated speech to establish the women as “personalities,” “bigger than life,” and interested in “fun.” That is, their speech is a species of camp.5 Second, consider what a weather girl was likely to have been in the 19705: most likely a young, convenfionally attractive woman (stereotypically a blonde with rather large breasts and a vapid, bubbly manner) placed on television during the news hour in order to satisfy two kinds of viewers: those, probably influenced by the women’s libera— tion movement, who wanted to see women employed on television in positions of equal importance to those of the men on the air; and unreconstructedly sexist viewers who would want the woman on the air in order to ogle her. Television management created the position of the weather girl to speak to both constituencies, but it is important to remember that, although the weather girl pretended to speak to other women (and male sympathizers), she really meant to speak to the men for whom she was a sex object This position was impossible for Wash and Rhodes given their race, class position, and, above all, body type. Then whose weather girls could they be? Literary critics Michael Moon and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, in an essay analyzing the fiequently strong bond between gay men and fat women, claim that part of the appeal of the stereotypically ideal opera singer comes from the fact that the diva’s body has never lost its representational magnetism for many of us [that is, gay men] as an alternate body—identity fantasy, resolutely embodying as it does the otherwise almost entirely anachronistic ideal, formed in early nineteenth-century Europe, of the social dignity of corpulence, particularly that of the serenely fat hour geois matron.6 MITCHELL Of course, dignity is hardly the position that a fat woman is likely to occupy in our recent “hard—body” culture. Abjection is instead the almost universal experience of “women of substance” in modern life, and the most successful pattern of coping with or even resist- ing the social stigma against fat depends on a woman’s assumption of an attitude of defi- ance. A dream Sedgwick recounts in the article, where she is standing in a department store wondering if anything will fit her, only to be directed to a rack of beautiful clothes labeled with the sign of the pink triangle, encompasses several important links between gay men and fat women. Most crucially, perhaps, there is a generalized anxiety about “fitting”; the desires marked within and by the body are taken to overflow the accept- able. F at women are held to be food—crazed in the assaultive stereotypes; their desires overflow propriety. Gay men are held to be equally sex-crazed, ready to molest any man at all they encounter. Both groups seem to have a historical pattern (in the modern US. and to some extent in Great Britain, at least) of falling in with one another as allies.7 More specifically, however, it is a simple fact that almost any man who wants to do drag will have trouble finding things that fit. Lee’s Mardi Cras, a successful longtime New York drag boutique, liked to use the advertising phrase “For heels that will fit a queen!” And speaking of drag queens, it is impossible not to note that besides the slim and beautiful drag queen who approaches the status of “real girl,” there is also a long and durable tradition of outrageous fat men in drag. Moon and Sedgwick call the “inter- face between abjection and defiance” that preoccupies them “Divinity,” after the actor Divine, whose large and heroically abject characters were the centerpiece of John Wa- ters’ early films. Another instance that comes to mind can be found in Harvey Fierstein’s drag character “Virginia Hamm” in the film Torch Song Trilogy/.8 Moving from film to a more local incident from gay culture in San Diego, California, I remember seeing in several drag shows a huge, fabulous drag queen who billed herself as Marilyn and per formed an extraordinary transmogrificafion of la MOnroe herself. The crowds loved her. I think that the concept of divinity takes us part of the way toward understanding the appeal of The Weather Girls. The numinousness of their size makes it most likely that when they say “we’re your weather girls,” the part of the audience that will hear the remark as directed at them will be gay men.9 And a further inflection is added by The Weather Girls’ race, in that in the modern Euro~American eye, at least, large size has historically seemed to translate better on a darker person. On the one hand, this can lead to the racist stereotypes of Aunt Jemima, of Mammy with Scarlett O’Hara: the bodies of fat black women can be seen as the comfortable record of a sexless maternity that trivializes any power they may wield.10 On the other hand, even the stereotypes thus portrayed are more free of the assaultive regard meted out to their white counterparts. Add to this a certain record in AhicaneAmerican traditions of refusing to regard a woman as less appealing because of size — the charming blues line “built for comfort, MORRIS 219 220 5 RAINING MEN not built for speed” comes to mind - and here is the material for a powerful reversal of dominant fictions about women, fatness, and sexuality. A digression: to be sure, here is a strong element of sentimentality in the kind of relationship I am setting forth here. For a man, even a gay man, to idolize women, espe- cially African-American women, in this way seems to threaten to replace any kind of awareness of differences of power with a single-minded focus on style; or appreciation may be reserved for special occasions without affecting everyday life in the slightest. This has always seemed to be a danger in certain kinds of camp aesthetics, as seen in Manuel Puig’s novel Kiss of the Spider Woman; on the other hand, it is also a danger in certain kinds of “butch” gay aesthetics, as most of Jean Genet’s career shows. It is cer tainly probable that many white gay men who adored The Weather Girls did so without it affecting their lives in any significant way. I have no real answer to this, except to suggest that sometimes it actually does make a difference. Most of the Southern gay men I happened to know were somewhat less prone to the virulent racism that infects our home culture, and most were a bit less sexist as well. And among my contemporar- ies, they. seemed to discard bigotry the more thoroughly they were gay-acculturated and the more fully they were out I believe that this was the result of deliberately moving beyond the strongly convenfiomoriented mores of old-fashioned Southern society. But back to my main point: The Weather Girls were large in person and in video, or as photographed for their record jackets — to an extent they even sounded large, since the gospel-style singing that dominates “It’s Raining Men” is durably associated with the plush bodies of singers like Mahalia Jackson and Ethel Waters —~ but their size was not presented as barring them from sexual desire and fulfillment. In fact, many aspects of “It’s Raining Men” demonstrate them to be sexually voracions.11 This might suggest the danger of an oversexualization which would disallow any real agency; The Weather Girls might become nothing more than personifications of sexuality, subdued under the power of the male gaze as objects rather than genuine subjects. But then, there are two of them, and they are responding to each other as they speak to the audience. The Weather Girls are the emblems of an intersubjective desire, asserting what they want. In the back-and—forth of Wash’s and Rhodes’ singing, it is men who are objects under the power of their erotic attention. The Lyrics: A few key passages horn the lyrics of “It’s Raining Men” are shown below. Crucial to each one of these moments is an almost delirious expectation of erotic pleni- tude. The first and third passages look forward to saturation in promiscuous contact: being drenched in men, having immeasurable numbers of partners simply dumped on the bed. The second passage, while suggesting a more decorous pairingwff, emphasizes that there is plenty to go amund, and that everyone has what s/he wants. But at the same MITCHELL time that the text projects a kind of completion, it is weird to give no hint at all how much will be enough: more likely, there will he no limit whatsoever. a) Chorus, part I It’s rainin’ menflhallelujah It’s rainin’ men—amen! I’m gonna go out, I’m gonna let myself get Absolutely soakin’ wet! b) First Bridge, part I God bless Mother Nature— She’s a single woman too- She took on the heavens, And she did what she had to do; She fought ev’ry angel, And rearranged the sky, So that each and ev’ry woman Could find the perfect guy. c) end of Intro, Recap into Second Bridge In the thunder, don’t you lose your head— Rip off the roof and stay in bed! Oh, God bless Mother Nature..- The Weather Girls preach an ideal situation best described as more men of more types, and the strong presence of gospel language in the lyrics suggests an outrageous situation in which human desire (represented by Mother Nature) can successfully coerce official morality (the angels, and by extension God) into providing an abundance of satisfactions. The objectification of all those nameless men provides a powerful gay subtext,” enough so that reading wherever the words “gir ” and “woman” appear in the text, it is nearly impossible for a gay man not to hear them as campy gender-inversions. And although different dancers/listeners would be likely to hear radically different proportions of the lyrics, it is nearly certain that the crucial “hooks” - the lines repeated often enough and clearly enough, by many of the dancers singing along with The Weather Girls w would have provided enough for this general story to get across to the disco as a whole. The Music: The lyrics of “It’s Men” construct an image of erotic insatiahility that supplements the very same structure in the music. This is apparent in the song’s MGR RIS 227 222 5 RAINING MEN placement of sections and climaxes (see Figure 2). Though the song is built around 8- har phrases, many of them are extended by a measure or two in order to intensify the piece’s harmonic drive. The primary exceptions to this are found in the second occur rence of the Chorus, in which the shortening is the result of a phrase overlap, and the second occurrence of the Verse, which is lengthened considerably by a process of phrase by phrase variation. The curves above the bar grocping represent the climax structure of “It’s Raining Men.” Strikingly, there are three (or five, depending on indi- vidual reaction) large climaxes of close to equal strength occurring in the song. \ s \ ‘ a x ‘ \ \ ‘._ X ' ‘ ‘ - ~ - \- 8+8 ~ 8 8+9 9+9 8+10 8+3 8+10 8+10 Intro Vamp Verse Chorus Bridge Chorus Intro (Recap) Bridge _____________ __ 6+4+6+10 8+8 (fade) Verse (variation) Chorus Ouhro Figure 2: “It’s Raining Men,” section and climax structure. The first climax arrives with the introduction of the Chorus and the principal lyrical hook, “It’s rainin’ men”; this climax is associated with the introduction of the Bridge and the return of the Intro. The second (or fourth) climax occurs after a drop in tension through a complexly decorated “Amen” back down to the music of the Intro and a sec- ond build~up to the repetition of the Bridge. This intensification is accomplished by the addition of words to the music of the Intro; the climax which follows this is the largest in the song because of the excitement created by overdubbed antiphonal thickening of the voices in the section “In the thunder don’t you lose your head...” and because of the protracted gospel wail that concludes the phrase “stay in bed!” But the third (or fifth) climax perhaps stakes as great a claim to being first among equals. It occurs after the return and extended variation of the Verse. The process of extension leads to a breakdown of the characteristic phrase structure, as Figure 3 shows. MITCHELL # of bars in expansion verse Text # of bars in original verse 2 + “Humidity’s risin’...” 2 4 + + “Barometer’s gettin’ low...” 2 4- + + “According to our sources...” 2 4 + + “The street’s the place to go. . .” 2 2 + + “For tonight for the first time. ..” same same Figure 3: “It’s Raining Men,” comparison of Verse and Expansion. We can regard the expansion verse as containing 2 bars of extra material before the “Humidity’s risin’” phrase (itself expanded to double length); each phrase thereafter, until the last one, is double its original length; the final phrase is the same (until its very end, where there is one more bar before the Chorus) creating the effect of compression, a “drive to the cadence.” Thus, the original verse is 17 (8+9) bars long while the expan- sion verse is 26 (6+4.+6+[9+1]) bars long. These phrase-by-pbrase extensions have a tremendous effect in performance; we know what will follow the Verse (the Chorus, which we haven’t heard for a while), but the collapse of the phrase structure means that we cannot predict when it will arrive until seconds before it appears: the thrill of sud- denly realizing the Chorus is about to return can give us an additional frisson. When the Chorus finally does return, the singers’ walls are out of control. more screams of ecstasy than pitch. Both of the wails are clearly gospel trepes — religious transport and erotic rapture occupy the same expressive node in the most exhilarating of manners. Perhaps it is impossible to judge between the climaxes regarding intensity; perhaps there is no need to try. For the exact number of climaxes does not matter as much as their additive efiect: not one goal, but a series of goals, best heard as potenu'ally limitless. There could be any A number of climaxes after the fade out; given that the song would have been part of a sequence of pieces melded together, successor climaxes would have been expected. Disco always worked as a series of songs which together defined a space (the bar/ disco) and an amount of time (the evening), and good D33 were famous for their ability to mix MORRIS 223 224 S RAINING MEN songs to bring the audience as a whole to the “peak,” the moment when dance began to mimic orgasm.13 Andrew Holleran’s famous novel Dmer From the Dance gives a reveal- ing evocation of gay—interpreted disco in the early 19705: And then those first unmistakable beats of the bass guitar, those first few notes of that song that had made everyone at the Twelfth Floor holler in a communal shout of ecstasy, began, those first, repetitive, low notes that had caused Sutherland to say with great hilarity one night: “Each E—flat is like the thrust of a penis,” that curious song that had the power — even though it was just a song played at discotheques one year, was never the most popular there, or surfaced in public — to change the whole tenor of the placeM Disco was the song of sex just as surely in the early 19803 as in the early 703 of Holleran’s novel. The climax structure of “It’s Raining Men,” as well as the structure of the entire evening, was, we might say, promiscuous, communicative of insatiabili’cy.15 As a listener, you might choose one of the climaxes as a favorite, but that would certainly not preclude hearing (having?) all the others too. Constructing an identity around the value of such erotic fieedom was an important post-Stonewall gay male activity, not only in the bathhouses, not only in literature and pornography both written and visual, but also in the discos as well. It is not so much that the structures of disco’s song must reflect this, but that they can and did reflect this in the minds of much of their audience. So far I have discussed the image of promiscuity in “It’s Raining Men” as an aspect of the song’s climax structure - l have confined myself mostly to issues of harmony and phrase structure. But there are other aspects of the song, such as texture, timbre, and vocal production, that play an equally important role in determining its overall effect. I have already mentioned the “gospel” quality of the climaxes, with their wails of joy bor rowed directly from sacred style. The gospel quality appears as well in such vocal fea- tures as The Weather Girls’ exaggerated treatment of diphthongs, which are spread out luxuriously through the time of the syllables; their obvious enjoyment of such indiscreet sounds as “r”s and “w”s, which they land on firmly and chew; their delight in “dirty” sounds full of growls, whoops, pitches bent black and blue; drops into half— or fully* spoken passages. The variety and complexity of The Weather Girls“ vocalizings resist transcription even more than they resist verbal description, It may be that I’ve always responded to this quality of “It’s Raining Men” because, as a singer, I know what kind of things need to be done to get the sounds that Wash and Rhodes get (and I know that it’s a lot of fun to do theml). There is a fantastic physical pleasure in sounds like this for anyone who is interested in his or her mouth, teeth and gums, lips and tongue.16 But given the frequency of lip-synching, which demands the convincing illusion of vocal MITCHELL production, in gay folk culture, the knowledge of such oral pleasure would seem to be widespread This is an indelicate activity, one whose resonances with oral sex are obvi- ous. The variety of vocal devices employed in “It’s Raining Men” find ready response in the complexities of the backing. Although the instruments dominating the arrangement can he quickly enumerated — synthesizer, acdusfic piano, bass guitar, drum set — they perform very different functions. The drum set and bass guitar, for instance, support the relatively simple harmonic progressions and the basic structure of the groove. Although they are present through most of the song, they are largely taken for granted. The piano tends to move in and out of the foreground, !mostly in connection with a syncopated rhythmic pattern that fills an entire bar (in Ethple 1, this is the figure that appears in the Intro whenever the harmony finally to prepare a V-I cadence; it then takes over the texture during the Vamp). But it is the synthesizer which plays the most active role in creating and defining hooks through its fimbral shifts and willingness to play at call and response patterns with the vocalists. I Other timbral/textural aspects, such as the degree of overdubbing (done in order to create an instant back-up group for the Weather Girls) and the presence and density of hand~claps (beginning with the first Chorus, and changing patterns with the arrival of each new section thereafter through most of the song), further increase the potential interest in the sound. (As anyone who has spent much time in a disco knows, the groove is what keeps the floor together; individuality is mostly the result of particular physical responses to the dance hooks.) And, finally, there is all the synthesized weather noise - thunder, rain, and wind — which moves from inaugurating the groove, to sounding “beside” the groove (that is, rhythmically detached), to beginning to function as a kind of quasi-percussion (see Example 2). < Example 2: “It’s Raining Men,” Chorus, Weather percussion. The mtfltiiariousness of vocalization and instrumental timbre/texture increases chances that everyone will find something appealing, something to like, and thereby make the song a success. In addition, it is susceptible to heing read in conjunction with the mul- tiple climax structure as an allegory of promiscuity. There is abundance and variety for everyone within the scope of The Weather Girls’ ideal musical world. MORRIS 225 226 5 RAINING MEN The Culture: The Weather Girls point to a number of strong features in late-19703 gay culture, the culture in which I came out As triply abject - women, black, fat - they could have been seen as repositories of all that is marginal. But they (not coincidentally like many opera divas) nevertheless seemed to exist in sublime indifference to the pos- sibility of abjection, Their refusal to be humiliated gave them the ability to be spectacu- larly audible, spectacularly visible, spectacularly unruly; acting up became for them a source of power. And their voracity represented to gay men a culturally potent and val- ued way of being in the world. The Russian critic and philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin devoted an important strand of his work to the scope and function of Carnival and its manifestations. Although his in— terest in “the carnivalesque” took shape in his reading of Medieval folk culture as it appeared in Rabelais’ novel Gargantua and Pantagmel, Bakhtin seems to have written with the repressions of Stalin’s Soviet Union partly in mind, and his analysis intersects with my concerns here at several points.“ First among them is Balchtin’s notion of Carnival as a time of release for those layers of society normally held in check by the institutions of what he called “official culture.” Church and Feudal state, Bolshevik bureaucracy, the mechanisms of compulsory het- erosexuality and gender norms: the structures of repression seem all too similar from a homo point of View. I suppose that the major difference between the situation Bakhtin describes and mine in the early 19808 was that his Carnival was built around the tempo- ral, whereas mine was in the disco, mostly spatial. And yet when it came to time and space, each element was present — Carnival always seemed to linger longest and show itself in out-of-seasonal glimpses in the marketplace; gay men and lesbians began, after Stonewall, to have Gay Pride Day, when the bars emptied out onto the streets. Second, the great repressed whose return Bakhtin sought to celebrate appears pri- marily in what he called “the lower bodily stratum.” Carnival, the fecund collec- tive body of the lower classes cavorts in the streets unchastised: birth, death, eating, drinking, urinating and defecating prodigiously, copulating without ceasing — all the signs of exuberant corporeality. Bakbtin condensed the physical signs of human interconnectedness into what he called “the grotesque body.” Hybrid monsters and sports, pregnant cranes, all distorted figures of terror and fun are exemplifies- tions of the grotesque body. But their distortions are not to be read negatively - they are all like Falstaff, figures of superabundant life, of ambivalent joy. They are monstrous because they continually overflow themselves and break apart; their appendages and orifices go out to meet the world, bring the world into themselves. And of course post— (for that matter, pre-) Stonewall gay America has been filled with grotesque bodies and acts that create grotesque bodies in Bakhfin’s sense. These are the bodies of sex as well as the bodies for sex; they mean to make visible a certain MlTCHELL congeries of sexual styles as a moral endeavor, a way of being in the world by laughter and desire. Gaily grotesque bodies mean to affirm that it is good to be the way they are. The disco is close to the bathhouse, where the spectacle of sex takes on a delightful, terrifying power. The writer Samuel Delaney describes his experience of an orgy room in these terms: I have written of a space at a certain libidinal saturation before. That was not what frightened me. It was rather that the saturation was not only kinaesthetic but visible. You could see what was going on throughout the dorm,18 The borders of the body, which must be confined and policed by official culture, could be heard, seen, and felt. And of course, this was the point. Drag queens, leather men, body builders, the superabundant Weather Girls themselves, all manner of costumes to be worn whenever the occasion presented itself; the courtship of the disco and the street; the couplings of bathhouses, tearooms, and parks all testified to the spectacle of revolt, a rebellion that wished and strove for a momentary but repeatable utopia. In post-AIDS—aware America, Our recovery of that kind of spirit seems to be proceeding, however slowly; but in order to recover the kind of joy that I can remember on that 1983 dance floor, it seems to me that we still need our singers and their style. The carnivalesque - the gay carnivalesque - was and is the true home of The Weather Girls, with their damp, stormy, neverending excessive bliss. Hallelujah. This paper was first read as part of a symposium at the University of California at San Diego and as a colloquium at the University of California at Riverside, and I owe a great debt to those who discussed it with me, particularly Charlie Kronengold, Carol Vernalh's, Philip Brett, Ethan Nasreddin-Longo, Jennifer Brody, and Byron Adams. I must also thank my all-time favorite “Forty-Second Street” dancing partners, Mila Schwartz, Mary Ann Simpson, and those queens from Chapel Hill (you know who you are). MORRIS 227 228 RAiNING MEN Philip Brett, “Musicality, Essentialism, and the Closet” and Suzanne G. Cusick, “On a Lesbian Relationship With Music: A Serious Effort Not to Think Straight," in the Pitch; The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology, eds. Philip Brett, Elizabeth Wood, and Gary C. Thomas (New York: Routledge, 2994), 9—26 and 67-84, respectively. David Diebold, Tribal Rites: Son Frwwisco’s Dance Music Phenomenon 1978—1938 (Northridge, 1988), 218-20. Growing up as I did in rural North Carolina, where there was fairly close contact between black and white, I had plenty of opportunity to hear both the preaching style and the joking style used by African Americans. But for more general information, see Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Monkey: A Theory of Literary Criticism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988). This song first appeared on Sylvester, Sylvester (Fantasy Records, F 9331, 1977) as “I’ve Been Down”; it was re-relessed as “1 Been Down” on The Two Tons' album Backatcha (Fantasy/Hurley Records, F—9605, 1980). Camp is perhaps better defined by its community of origin (gay men) than by its precise manifestations, but it usually involves most of the following: exaggeration and fantasy, including a penchant for female impersonation; a generous enjoyment of the ridiculous Or of aesthetic disasters; and a generally carnivalesque attitude toward aspects of oEficial culture (see below). One of the defining discussions is Susan Sontag’s 1964, essay, “Notes On Camp,” in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York: Farrar Straus Ciroux, 1966), 275—92 and in A Susan Sontag Reader (New York: Vintage Books, 1983), 105—19. But the literature on camp has recently expanded enormously; see, for instance, the essays in Camp Grounds: Style and Homsexuality, ed. David Bergman (Amherst: Uni- versity of Massachusetts Hess, 1993) and The Politics and Poetics of Camp, ed. Moe Meyer (New York: Routledge, 1994.). On the relationship between camp and music see Wayne Koestenbaum, 7712 Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosmolity, and the Mystery of Desire (New York: Poseidon Press, 1993). I also address the issue of camp in music to some extent in “On Gaily Reading Music,” repercussions 1 (1992): 48:64, and “Reading As An Opera Queen,” in Musicology and Difi‘erence: Gender and Sexuality in Music Scholarship, ed. Ruth A. Solie (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 184—200. Michael Moon and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Divinity” in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Ten— denoies (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 216. This alliance is acknowledged, if with great potential cruelty, in the old joke — Q 2 Why did God create gay men? A: 80 fat women would have somebody to dance with. In keeping with the carnivalesque attitude that would be implied by her parodic name, Hamm sings a song ironically praising bulimia as a weight-loss technique. Or, as she so delicately puts it, “I puke.” And creating and decoding this kind of verbal play seems strongly characteristic of gay- acculturated audiences. See William L. Leap, Word’s Out: Gay Men’s English (Minneapo~ lis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996) for an extended consideration of gay verbal habits. Interestingly (if unpleasan’dy) enough, Martha Wash’s later, less openly “gny~iden~ tified” career, has been plagued by incidents of discrimination on the basis of body type: some of her vocal work with groups like Black Box and C+C Music Company was implic- itly credited on video to a younger, slimmer perform er, and Wash found it necessary to go to court in order to have the chance to record a solo album she’d long been promised. ln 10. ll. 12. 13. 14-. 15. 16. 17. 18. MITCHELL the notes to Wasb’s solo album Martha Wash (BMG Music, 66052-2, 1992), it is worth noting that after she’s thanked God and her family, she lists her attorney on account of his “outstanding representation.” For more information on these issues, see Barbara Bradby, “Sampling Sexuality: Gender, Technology and the Body in Dance Music,” Popular Music 12 (1993):17o-73- Though there is at least one popular vocal tradition that resists this de-sexualizing. See Peter Antelyes, “Red Hot Mamas: Bessie Smith, Sophie Thcker, and the Ethnic Maternal Voice in American Pupular Song,’1 in Embodied Vbices: Representing Female lbwlity in Western Culture, eds. Leslie C. Dunn and Nancy A. Jones (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 2:12—29. A related discussion of body type and sexual desire may be found in Renee Coulombe, “The Insatiable Banshee: Voracious Vocalizing, Riot Grrrl, and the Blues,” iry‘ra, 257— 272. An intertextual resonance which supports this might be found in a song released just a bit earlier, “So Many Men” (itself playing on the gay expression, “So many men, so little time”), which starts ofl with a chant that simply counts until the number is enough to provide the climax which launches the song’s groove. On this point as well as the history of 19705 disco in general, see Albert Goldman, Disco (New York: Hawthorne Books, 1978); Carolyn Krasnow, “Fear and Loathing in the 709: Race, Sexuality, and Disco,” Stanford Humanities Review 3 (1993): 37—45; and Anne- Lise Francois, “F akin’ It/Maln‘n’ It: Falsctto’s Bid for Transcendence in 19703 Disco Highs,” Perspectives ofNew Music 33 (1995): 442—57. Andrew Hollcrsn, Dancer From the Dance (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1978), 229. Disco’s promiscuous characteristics were probably widely intuited among the general public, even if they did try hard to believe that the Village People were straight; never theless, the music’s connection with explicit and easy sexuality seems to have been an important subtext in the “Disco sucks” campaigns launched by elements of the straight public in the late 19705. Such an awareness leads Martha Bayles to an unattractiver censorious discussion of the music under the rubric “Disco: Invasion of the Sex Robots.” See Martha Bayles, Hole In Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music (New York: Free Press, 1994,), 277—82. 0n the other hand, see Richard Dyer, “In Defense of Disco,” in Out In Culture: Gay, Lesbian, and Queer Essays on Popu~ lar Culture, eds. Corey K. Creekmur and Alexander Doty (Durham: Duke University Prcsss 1995), 407-15. A marvelous discussion of music’s physicality can be found in Suzanne G. Cusiclr, “Femi- nist Theory, Music Theory, and the Mind/Body Problem,” Perspectives of New Music 32 (1994): 8*27. Mikhail M. Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Helene Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indi- ana University Press, 1984,). Samuel R. Delaney, The Motion ofLight In Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing In the East Village: 1960—1965 (New York: Masquerade Books, 1993), 267-68. MORRIS 229 ...
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