I’ll come right out and say it: The best damn thing to happen in pop music in the past decade is queerification. Now, I’ll open the umbrella pretty wide; gay men, lesbians, the transgendered, the queer-identified, the gender-queer, and their comrades together have opened pop music outwards, have absorbed and inflected a bewilderingly huge arrray of songwriting and stage-personae tropes, both rebirthed the disco appurtenances of gay and Latin dance music from the ’70s and appropriated the bendable rigors of hip-hop and deejay sampling, forged what were previously regarded as niche markets into some motherfucking fun.
This-all occurred to me while dancing my ass off, the night after Hallowe’en, at a Peaches show at the White Rabbit. Peaches was incredible: idiosyncratically stylish, giving 150 percent, seemingly fearless (she crowd-surfed less like a bumbly party-animal grunge boy than like Cleopatra on her barge down the Nile of audience, utterly in charge — yet touchingly, profoundly trusting). There were costume changes of philosophic importance, feminist anthems of dirty, catchy pulchritude. The opening band (Men) featured players whose gender was … well, negligible. The audience, though, was equal to the performers’ exertions. I danced with pretty gay boys and dashing young bois, hipsters nearing and mommies past 40. And this was in San Antonio: a LOCAL post-sexual-identification dance gratification. “This is not a crowd mix I woulda run into at a live show when I was 20 in the ’90s,” I thought. Also: “This is pretty fucking great.”
But you don’t have to wander in the not-for-everybody outlier territory of Peaches’ Merrill Nisker, who left her art-teaching career at 40ish to foment a vaginal juggernaut. Let’s start with Lady Gaga, a performer whose songs, I must admit, I initially had trouble distinguishing from Christina Aguilera’s … but when Gaga appeared on SNL a few months back sporting what appeared to be a functional gyroscope, she got my attention. And then! When one of the spinning chrome hoops which formed her “dress” whacked her in the face and she kept on keeping on, the girl had my number. She is one committed, gyroscope-wearing freakypants. She thanks God (OK) and the gays (fuck yeah!). It almost doesn’t matter who she has actual doin’-it type poker-faced sex with; there’s a tits-out purity to knowing and acknowledging the oceanic gay forces of entertainment, and saying so constitutes queerification and liberation for everybody.
Remember when Madonna was fun? No, but really fun — Louis XIV-era drag-wearing, pre-Kabbalah, pre-Ritchie, lookit-now-she’s-wearing-a-blinged
-out-grill-and-lederhosen Madonna, who
liked crucufixes ’cause Jesus didn’t have a shirt on, and had a Midwestern accent? Gaga sorta goes there. (To be fair, Madonna’s “Confessions on a Dance Floor” live show of several years ago, which I watched on TV, was more fun than I woulda thought. She shook it hard, embraced her danciest impulses and the sheer joy of disco choreography — “How is it she doesn’t have camel toe?” my mom said about her snug white pants during one number, having just learned the term and eager to trot it out. “She’s hiding her candy,” my friend replied. It’s as though even she recognized, in this past decade, that you can’t be in Esther’s-saving-Africa mode 24/7.)
Because let’s face it: This decade was a stone bitch. It started out with the soul-sickening apparition of Bush’s inaugural, the nation’s hard swing Right, the ineluctably quick segue into the 9/11 attacks … I don’t have to remind you of all that. How it felt, day to day, assaulted by grim assurances from (white, male, straight) voices on high that our degenerate gay-agenda Weimar fin de seicle stained-blue-dress nonsense was now OVER and it was time to watch for suspicious behavior, Jesus-up, and get ready for the Apocalypse. Orange alert!
Girl, fuck that, the musical part of this decade said. Let’s put on some Beyoncé. And Daft Punk. And LCD Soundsystem. And the Gossip. And the Scissor Sisters. And Phoenix. And the Roots. Let’s dance. Crank up that Rufus Wainright, I need a good cry. Feeling a little out of place, emotionally vulnerable, full of aching anomie? So does Baby Dee, child — you try being a 6-foot M to F harpschichord enthusiast. And she has fun with it!
Perpetual crisis is what lured me back into current pop music. Frankly, toward the end of the ’90s, there, I’d somewhat lost interest in going to shows to see bands of four glum white guys, and just standing there looking at them for an hour. There was no musical experience more dour and partyless than seeing Pavement in 1996. And I loved Pavement. I still love Pavement! I loved them a sight better than the motherfucking “Macarena,” which according to Billboard.com was the top hit of that year, or Celine Dion’s “Because You Love Me” (#4). By 1999 (and, again, this is Billboard talking), we were listening to “Smooth” by Santana and Rob Thomas (I guess somebody was). But I’m really being facetious here — nobody I spent my 20s with listened to Top 40. Relatively few people I’m spending my 30s with do now.
But the radio-MTV nexus no longer rules things. If the Billboard ratings mattered little then, they matter way less now. So, somewhat sadly, do brick-and-mortar music stores (I was sad to see Music Town go). The underground is overboard, available, reduced (or exalted) to digital bits you can find from your bedroom. And I understand the angst of those who bemoan the loss of the scratchy vinyl gem prized from the jaws of import bins after hours of searching. I do … But have they heard Girl Talk? What about Antony and the Johnsons?
I imagine you know this outlook says as much about me as it does about music. When I was in my 20s I wanted my anguish reified (Sonic Youth); now I want a break from people I’m reasonably sure also need a break from it (Le Tigre). You think you know anguish, 23-year-old me? Well, you do: Depressive episodes, service-industry jobs, and love confusion hurt. So do writing careers, political engagement, and deeper, more experienced love confusion.
But here we all are, surviving it, whether we’re 20-something or 30-something, or — gasp — OLDER, despite all the tragedy, all the regret, all the heartache ... Put some music on. Thank you God, and gays. Fuck it, let’s dance. •