GROVEWATCH (June 30, 2009)
As we prepare for this year’s Invasion of The Pines, it seemed like a great time for me to put down on paper (or bytes) some thoughts I’ve been having recently about that most indigenous of Cherry Grove species: The Drag Queen.
It would be nearly impossible to not consider drag, if only briefly, after spending any time at all in Cherry Grove. Drag is the common thread – a gaudy one at that – stringing together all the different crowds and age-groups in Cherry Grove. One sees more drag in Cherry Grove than one will see in an entire year of typical gay night life. You can love it or you can hate it, but you will learn quickly to live with it.
And, being of a “certain age,” I have seen enough drag extravaganzas to believe that we are now in a transitional node on the drag queen continuum, moving from the Golden and Silver Ages to some new drag era — perhaps a Bronzer age. If drag has periodic system upgrades, this is Drag Queen 3.0.
The Golden Era of modern drag queenery preceded my arrival on the scene, but one could still feel and see its residual values for most of my coming out years, which were, for the record, the early 80s. These first drag queens who got their start as budding young queenettes in the 50’s and 60’s, and reached full drag flower in the high rollin’ 70’s, bring a certain Nashville-meets-Vegas glamour to their personas. It is easy to imagine these girls planning their weekly TV schedule around appearances by Anne Margaret, Bette Midler, Dolly Parton or any other slightly salty dish with a big head of frosting-like hair and a whore-with-a-heart-of-gold charm. The songs that the Golden Era drag queens chose to perform typically featured powerhouse “show” vocals and a liberal dose of the risqué. Our drag queen was a party-time gal out for honest kicks who gave as good as she got. Camp humor was front and center, and bawdiness and self-deprecation sang harmony, but what was totally missing in any meaningful way was true irony. I guess in those days, being a man in a dress tended to fulfill any obligations one had to the ironic.
Somewhere around 1990 (or at least that’s when I started to notice), the drag ethic took a conceptual leap – or perhaps a more lady-like skip. Though the “look” of drag stayed the same, the “sound” began to noticeably change. In many ways, it was in their choice of music that the drag queens of the 90’s began to carve out an aesthetic of their own. While raunchy sex songs never go out of drag style, more and more, drag queens were choosing numbers that conveyed not the challenge of a man pretending to be a woman, but of a woman pretending to hold herself together, or any human being who’s pretending to fit into a splintering and unsympathetic culture. Connie Francis and Cher were replaced by Grace Jones and P!nk. Arch rock songs and “Miss JACKson if you’re Nasty!” made perfect sonic soundplates for performances that growled out some hard-earned drag rage. Outfits began to slide over and off the style curve, as if Nolan Miller had struck a particularly ill-advised retail deal with Joan Jett. Physical humor became more unexpected and risk-taking, with drag entrances now often consisting of face-down skids across the stage. Though still similar in many ways, the Silver Age Drag Queen stood apart from her Golden Age aunt by virtue of her generation’s confidence in being gay, and a chip-on-her-shoulder attitude that made drag empowering as well as funny.
Which brings us to the last year or two, where another generational change appears to be taking place. Tellingly, it has happened in parallel with the Doll Wars: just as Barbie has yielded her once-unchallangeable commercial reign to the decidedly uptown Bratz, so has the drag aesthetic finally loosened its grip on the white, bouffant feminine ideal to grasp instead for a Beyonce/Tyra/Xtina multi-ethnic edge. Street-smarts, while always hinted at and played with in drag humor, have now become the key driver of drag humor in all its finger-waving, chin-out ghetto bravura. Dispensed with too is the often-cramped stage dimension in which drag so snugly fit for decades. Today’s drag queen views any space, surface or atmosphere she can physically inhabit as part of her performance theater. The “fourth wall” has been demolished and you’re just as likely to find a drag queen dangling from the lightning rod on the roof of the bar or submerged in the swimming pool or the bay as you are to see her up on stage where we once comfortably assumed she was supposed to stay.
There has never been a cannier and more voracious connoisseuse of pop culture than a good drag queen, and now new technologies that are easily affordable have placed vast libraries of music and sound clips, along with digital manipulation techniques with which to re-combine them, into the hands of the Bratz Generation and one begins to see performances that no longer consist of one song in one space, but rather of head-jerking juxtapositions of lyrics and beats and bits from old TV shows, all set on Frappe! in the Great Drag Blender. In short, drag has begun to move from being a character study to being a culture study, where fashion, history, class, camp, empowerment and movement collide in ways that are at times unsettling, at times hilarious, but always fascinating.
So, enough pontificating. One might not ever have occasion to consider this level of drag theory if he or she weren’t surrounded at all times in Cherry Grove by a true Who’s Who of drag legends –- good ol’ home-grown gay drag queens – who continue to make it fun and compelling to watch. Golden Era matriarchs like China, Charity and Bella, Pansy and Philomena; Silver Era cougars Arielle Sinclair, Porsche, and Gusty and Sweetie; and the new breed, heralded by Logan Hardcore and Bastard Amber and many others sure to follow. All continue to bring their “A” game and uniquely gay sensibilities to the one art form that is left exclusively to us.
So I salute you all, and wish you a wonderful Invasion, and I hope you give us your best performances for years to come. ‘Cuz somewhere out in that crowd is next year’s new thing and she’s looking you up and down, thinking: “Nice. Nice. But what if I put a hologram of Amy Winehouse running all fucked up in London right next to her and mixed in some Lada Gaga singing ‘Paparazzi’ – yeah, THAT would be FIERCE!”
Watch your broad backs, ladies. As All About Eve so brilliantly cautioned: there is always a v4.0.
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