Today we look at masculinity in rock and pop music: sex, gender, ambiguity, androgyny, iconography and iconoclasts.
Manic Street Preachers, “From Despair to Where” (live at the Reading Festival, 1997; studio version appears on the album Gold Against the Soul, 1993) and “Everything Must Go” (live at the Millennium Stadium, New Year’s Eve 1999; studio version appears on the album Everything Must Go, 1996). Yet again I return to the Manics. By the late 1990s, the trio no longer had a specific fashion aesthetic; where once the entire group had donned slogan-covered homemade t-shirts, glam leopard-print and white jeans (and, when the feeling arose, feather boas), a mixture of black/leather/Brat Pack chic, then military apparel, the post-Richey Edwards incarnation of the band no longer had couture guidelines. For a while in the mid-90s it might have looked like the band was settling for a minimalist, dressed-down approach, boring jeans and khakis becoming the comfortable clothing du jour (unless you also count the few times that James Dean Bradfield wore cat-eye glasses). (Incidentally, in Everything (A Book About Manic Street Preachers), Simon Price makes quite a good point about JDB circa 1993, compared to the music-press notoriety of Richey Edwards and Nicky Wire: “It is, certainly, extremely unusual for the lead singer to be only the third most recognizable member of the band.”) Luckily, any perceptible lack of fabric-based excitement didn’t last too long – this is where the two videos I have chosen come in.
There has always been an interesting push-pull between masculinity and femininity in the Manic Street Preachers’ music. Tom Hawking’s essay “This Mess of a Man: The Manics and Masculinity” is a pretty good assessment of how Wire’s and Edwards’ lyrics observe a wide array of perspectives on sex, gender and the discomforts of living in the body in which you are born. Instead I’m looking solely at the visual aesthetics of Nicky Wire’s penchant for cross-dressing, most admirably at Manics concerts. Inspired by one of my favorite snapshots of the Manics from 1993, Nicky Wire grinning under the heaps of “glamour” provided by movie-star sunglasses, a leopard headscarf, a red blazer and a dress and tights made in two different floral prints, I began to think about all the great moments in the band’s history when Nicky’s use of traditionally female clothing made for some truly fabulous images. (Would you expect anything less than stellar from a person once described by NME as “the bastard child of Sid Vicious and Dame Edna”?) Surely a man with less-appealing legs would look ridiculous in a skirt as short as the one Nicky wore at the Cardiff Castle show last June (and in leopard-print, no less), so kudos to him for still having both the looks and the guts.
In the two concert clips I’ve cherry-picked above, Nicky wears two of the most memorable outfits of his career: a sheer blue camouflage dress at the 1997 festival in Reading that was so thrilling to music journalists that two different photographers took virtually identical shots of him and placed them on the covers of NME and Melody Maker in the same week, and in the “Manic Millennium” concert at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium on December 31, 1999, a combination of pink skirt, leopard shirt-dress and a pink shirt bearing the legend “Culture Slut,” a reference to the band’s famous 1991 NME photoshoot. Unlike when other male musicians dressed in drag in the 90s – Nirvana comes to mind – I think that Nicky Wire’s feminized outfits can actually be taken seriously. They’re fashion for fashion’s sake, glorying in the fun and beauty of getting dressed up and wearing a ton of eye makeup and glitter, neither completely rejecting masculinity nor denying eyeshadowed-and-mascara’d femininity. (And apparently the camouflage dress is still kicking around; Nicky tweeted a photo of it last year.) There’s something inexplicably enjoyable about seeing Nicky Wire in his women’s wear contrasted with James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore in their staunchly “normal” attire. And, of course, there are the feather boas. Those items so closely linked to the Manics of yore have never gone away. To this day they make appearances wrapped around Nicky’s microphone stand (as seen in the “Everything Must Go” clip) and they’re part of the culture of fans’ own dress codes. If you go to a Manics concert, boas will be welcome.
P.S. In honor of the Rolling Stones’ “historic” recent voyage to Cuba, let’s take a moment to note that the Manic Street Preachers played there in 2001 (leading to some amusing recent headlines by befuddled American publications, like the Chicago Sun-Times’ “Band challenges Rolling Stones’ ‘landmark’ gig in Cuba.”) For that other, less-well-remembered occasion, here is Nicky Wire photographed in his hotel room, and later describing the event: “The one dress that really suited me and the one which I probably looked better as a woman than any rock star that’s ever been was this Cuban white cotton dress. I had a bit of a fucking mental moment in Cuba when – how can I say it? – I felt oppressed. I didn’t want to go over there and just…dress like a boring Communist. And I was in the hotel lobby and there were these fantastic dresses. Everything just felt right…kinetic…serendipity. I brought it, went upstairs and just felt utterly liberated in one dress. I started putting loads of make-up on and Mitch, our photographer, came in. All these photographs have never really been seen, I’ve got them all locked up. There was this mad half-day in the hotel prancing around my room like a Cuban whore. My legs look amazing there.”
P.P.S. Here’s an adorable tiara!
Suede, “Animal Nitrate” (live at the Brit Awards, 1994; studio version appears on album Suede, 1993). It might not have taken much to shock the suits in the audience (just look at the sea of bemused patrons in the last few seconds!), but Brett Anderson & co. probably did. Despite some of the regrettably goofy dancing and very 90s haircuts displayed by guitarist Bernard Butler and bassist Mat Osman, the viewer’s eye cannot stop watching the mesmerizing singing and dancing of Brett Anderson, oozing as he is out of that lacy, open blouse. Anderson took a lot of cues from David Bowie in this early phase of Suede, both physically and musically (certainly in the quality of his voice), but you could almost forget all that just by watching the performance. Brett Anderson probably could have wailed names from the London directory and it would have been equally as entrancing as long as he cavorted around the stage in the same way.
David Bowie, “Let’s Spend the Night Together” (live at the Hammersmith Odeon, 1973; studio version appears on the album Aladdin Sane, 1973). Bowie is the ultimate glam rock icon, the gender-bender to end all (or bend all?) so it’s no surprise that when he covered the Rolling Stones’ bawdy hit from 1967, “Let’s Spend the Night Together” (for the D.A. Pennebaker-directed concert film Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars), he made it faster and possibly even cooler. Dedicated to Mick Jagger, the song takes on a proto-punk urgency driven by Mick ‘Woody’ Woodmansey on drums, Trevor Bolder on bass and Mick Ronson on guitar. Maybe it’s Bowie’s romper that really seals the deal, though it could just as easily have been his earrings. Whatever the case, in that moment, his androgynous Ziggy Stardust persona was a magnet.
P.S. Connection: David Bowie and Nicky Wire in similar shots in music videos, designed for maximum beauty.
Klaus Nomi, “Total Eclipse” (live in New York, 1981; studio version appears on the album Klaus Nomi, 1981). Back in January, after David Bowie passed away, I was considering writing about a few different figures from the glam rock and New Wave scenes and Nomi was one of them. (Jobriath, who was supposed to be the new, American Bowie, was another.) I didn’t even recall right away that Nomi had been one of Bowie’s backup singers on “SNL”; I just remembered that he was part of that fascinating 70s-through-early-80s atmosphere of artists who pushed the boundaries of sexual identity, and in Nomi’s case, earthliness. He was German, but thanks to his unique makeup, hair and high countertenor voice he also seemed like a delightfully bizarre alien who had dropped down to our planet with the intention of conquering it through sales pitches at Fiorucci’s, singing Saint-Saëns arias at Irving Plaza and wearing the most elegant costumes. If only Nomi hadn’t died in 1983 – an early victim of the AIDS epidemic – who knows what wonderful madness he might have continued to create?
There’s no doubt that Nomi was otherworldly.
Brett Smiley, “Space Ace” (on album Breathlessly Brett, 1974). “So who’s Brett Smiley?” you might be asking. You would be forgiven for not knowing. In 1974, eighteen-year-old Smiley was supposed to be a new prince of glam rock, his androgynous beauty and delicate, youthful voice expected to woo all manner of fans (although he was being marketed exclusively in the UK, not in his native US). After his one single, “Va Va Voom,” went nowhere and his performance of “Space Ace” and subsequent interview on Russell Harty’s talk show proved disastrous, Smiley’s budding career as a pop star/rock god was over. His album, Breathlessly Brett (what a title!), was shelved and not released until 2004. Smiley dabbled in some film work, but for the most part he continued as a struggling singer-songwriter. (You can find clips from gigs on YouTube.) When he died in Brooklyn this past January, after years of living with HIV and hepatitis, his name might have stayed obscure if his passing had not coincided with David Bowie’s death two days later, prompting a New York Times piece titled “The Man Who Fell from Fame.” Smiley hardly even achieved a cult status, given that his debut album was released thirty years too late, but “Space Ace” deserves a listen. Now, to paraphrase the lyrics, we can catch a glimpse of Brett Smiley as a shooting star.