Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Nostalgia for the Gender Fluid 80's

Ah the 80's. Even in Jamaica we were enjoying Boy George. Do you remember the androgyny of the musical icons back then? Annie Lennox of Eurythymics. Michael Jackson. Grace Jones. Prince. Ready For The World. Duran Duran. And glam rock was all about men with long permed hair, tights and makeup. I remember being a teen in the 80's, and brothers were rockin neon clothes with cut off midriff shirts, a dangling cross ear-ring and a jheri curl. And that was ok!! What happened? Now black men can only be 50 Cent look-alikes?
I mean, at least before, there was more of a spectrum. Public Enemy was showcasing an aggressive, butch masculinity that was channeled towards spreading black consciousness. And there were many femme acts like Bananarama and Jody Watley (been seeing some of that fashion around...). But now? Especially with black folks, the only acceptable portrayals of us are mostly as thugs or "video vixens", to use the popular G rated term.
I look at foundational soul groups like Earth, Wind and Fire, and wonder if they could make it today, if they were to just drop right now. Talented and soulful Black men displaying vulnerability, gentleness... and a flair for sequined jumpsuits. Not quite 50 Cent.
I think I can unofficially chart the shift with the rise of TLC. When they dropped "Ain't Too Proud To Beg", in 1992 they were carrying over some of that 80's neon.. and were basically some fun havin' tomboys/bois, with T-Boz coming in with that sexy, deep gravelly voice... in case you don't remember...

and then, an album or two later, they looked more like this:

-don't get me wrong, i ain't hatin on TLC! Never. And for real, they are looking fierce in this picture. I just wonder if there could have been any room for them to have continued in their original vein, and now be rockin' men's suits and fedoras.

Where are the Ya Kid K's (from Technotronic)? Where are the Jermaine Stewarts with vats of cherry wine, singing about non-penetrative intimacy? House divas like Adeva demanding respect? Bring 'em on, we need ya!!

"You're a shining star, no matter who you are.
Shining bright to see what you could truly be."
- Earth, Wind & Fire


richard said...

*ammendment: upon re-looking at the other TLC videos like "Waterfalls" and especially the cybernetic "No Scrubs" which not only blends gender but human and machine... it seems like TLC indeed forged an interesting gender hybrid look... their patented "CrazySexyCool" image looked like andro-femme chic... they always had pants on, even if they were wearing bikini tops. interesting....

afrobot said...

Don't forget David Bowie.

But I have to go back and emphasize the questions that Prince raised in me as child on the brink of puberty. Prince's persona was a frontal assault on gender. He embodied two spiritedness before the term was coined. I think we should put out a call for papers on Prince and have a conference complete with an all Prince party where wearers of purple get in for free.



richard said...

Brandon! yes!! so good to see another brotha up in here!

and yes, Prince definitely raised questions for me as young teen as well. On some level, i somehow understood that how he inhabited his masculinity did not need to reflect his sexuality. whether or not Prince is queer in terms of sexuality became irrelevant. Prince must have contributed to my growing conclusions that being a hetero male did not mean having to be macho. And furthermore, that any males "need" to be macho, that its more about where you are most comfortable- though it may be at odds with culture, religion, etc.

you know, we really do have to put a call out for papers, because maybe Prince (and Michael Jackson) single handledly gave black men permission to expand their masculine identities. And embodying these kinds of masculinites was probably doubly affirmed for hetero men by the fact that-- women found both of them sexy. perhaps more so Prince, yeah. It was officially safe to get a jheri curl!

hmmm... lets keep talking about this!

and of course, David Bowie. I just named a few for sure. i could have said Da Brat, Sinead O'Connor, Alexander O'Neal, Cameo, Imagination, Sylvester... the list of musical gender benders definitely includes quite a few... just less so now. Maybe Pink is one of the few contemporary icons that has some of this going on? Meshell Ndegeocello too. And there are groups like Le Tigre, but they aren't as mainstream as well, Prince was/is.

I wonder which musical icon women feel trailblazed a similar path? Grace Jones? (a Jamaican gyal! bo! bo! :) There is more leniency for girls to be tomboys in the cultures i have lived in, but still, i'm sure it may have been nice to see that reflected in the media.

Anonymous said...

Kind of tied into that, I think it's also interesting that after the 80's, we also see a lot of black musicians change from taking the adult contemporary track as they get older, into becoming perpetual teenagers in performance.

richard said...

yep, i won't be known as lil' fflood anytime soon