Saturday, February 8, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 39):"MAKE UP" (1972) Lou Reed

The weather is a drag; all the snow piled up everywhere is a drag. But what wasn’t a drag was the Yale Cabaret’s second (ever) Drag Show.  At the midnight show last night I was sitting between my wife and the dean of the Yale School of Drama who told me that at least as far as anyone knows (and there are people around who can remember back 35 years), there was never a drag show at the Cabaret before last year. Last year (speaking of weather and snow) the show was on the night of the biggest blizzard in recent history, if not ever. So I didn’t go. This year I did.

Usually I review the shows I see at the Cab, for the record. But I feel that what you see at the drag show should stay at the drag show. So, instead, I’ll let the show inspire the song for today, from Lou Reed’s 1972 LP Transformer. This was the comeback album for Lou after the end of the Velvet Underground. His career was at least partially salvaged by David Bowie who was riding high that year and did producer’s duties on the record. Which is why, for starters, this is Lou’s “glam” album. There are a number of images from around this time of Lou in fingernail polish, blush, eye shadow. He didn’t actually perform in drag but gender-bending was all the rage in 1972 and 1973 (the latter the year of the release of the debut LP by The New York Dolls).

Today’s song is a tongue-in-cheek little ditty about getting up to be a “slick little girl.” On this same LP can be found Lou’s “Walk on the Wild Side” which contains the lines “plucked his eyebrows on the way / shaved his legs and then he was a she.” If only it were so easy, we might say. But a drag show does tend to make it look that easy. I should say as well that it was a male and female drag show, which meant “guys” dressed as “girls” and “girls” dressed as “guys.”  Quotation marks here indicate that once these terms become up for grabs one wonders what we’re really talking about. Sure, there’s biology and “equipment” involved, but what the drag show is about is taking on outward signs of the opposite sex, and, sometimes, flaunting or reveling in the (oddly) beguiling in-between. Some can get away with this better than others, just as some are better (as women) “playing” women and some are better (as men) “playing” men, in everyday life.

The glam era of rock was mostly about men acting out as women. Sometimes they were gay men, but not always. The point was that being a “woman”—in terms of fashion, hair, makeup, shoes, stockings, shaving, powder, rouge, falsies and false eyelashes, and all the rest of it—was a dress-up game, a drag show wherein women try to do away with all “masculine” attributes in their pursuit of some ideal of femininity. There being in our midst guys who look rather less masculine than many women, why shouldn’t the pretty boys play dress-up too?  Even not-so-pretty boys like Lou Reed.

But it’s churlish to point out who really manages it and who doesn’t, isn’t it? Even though gays (like the “queer eye for the straight guy” type thing) have a tendency to point out the parts of the ensemble that just don’t make it, honey. Anyway, I don’t think I’d make a bad judge of the subterfuge, were this a contest, and, frankly, some of the transformations each way (guy to girl and girl to guy) can be pretty hot. Which is the entire point. Either that or funny, or both.  You’ve got to have a sense of humor about these things.

Lou’s song does. It’s even got a tuba, which is pretty funny in itself. This is cheeky carnival. And Lou’s deadpan delivery has the right note of “such fun”—“ooh it’s all so nice.” The repeated refrain “Now we’re coming out / Out of our closets” is much to the point. The gays were coming out, for real, into mainstream and prime time and so on—even if some really big name queers were slow to admit what’s what (think of Rock Hudson, Elton John, even (was anyone fooled?) Freddie Mercury). But 1972 was a more innocent time. It wasn’t yet (at least in most places) a political matter. Soon enough, remaining “in the closet” would be tantamount to a betrayal of all that’s gay. And even the aesthetics of the closet and of exiting it could be fraught with peril. As was scrawled on the wall on the entrance way to the show last night: glam or camp?

It used to be camp—a man dressing as a woman was a comic, possibly satiric act. It was “sending up” women (bless their pretty little heads) and it was a chance for a man to preen and “feel pretty, oh so pretty.” This was generally good for a laugh. So that even when sex-change artistes used cross-dressing as an expression of a “third sex”—there was still that feeling that it was all about the grande dames of yesteryear.  Becoming a film vamp for the nostalgia of it all and to make us admit that deep down even us guys wouldn’t mind being the object of all that gazing (and anyway the pretty boys—Elvis, The Beatles, etc.—had always been gazed upon as much or more than any pert pin-up). Glam, coming along when each new sensation was a televised sensation, grasped that by making the extremes of ultra masculine and ultra feminine meet . . . and then came sex-change operations and prosthetic what-have-yous. You want tits, you can have tits, it’s just a question of cash. The ability to be “both” or “neither” as the situation suits was upon us.

The drama students in the show mainly approach such things through performance because, whatever the costume, they can make it work, baby.  That’s as it should be. It’s entertainment, after all. But in some cases, one might spot someone who would much rather be dressed as “the other” in public. And why not? If “clothes make the man” then why not let clothes “make the man a woman” or vice versa?

It’s all costuming,darling. And custom. And whatever you’re accustomed to/costumed as. “When you get dressed I really get my fill / People say that it’s impossible.”

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