Tuesday, 16 June 2009

"Macho Types Wanted: Must Dance And Have A Moustache"

While researching my book on Brokeback Mountain I am also exploring the multiple connections between the western (as a genre) and the West (as a mythic concept) in relation to gay culture. The concept of the West as a space of homosocial freedom and the fantasy of the cowboy are ongoing fascinations and it’s interesting how they are transformed and made meaningful in relation cultural identity. ‘The West’ in US gay culture is also a reference to the movement Westward to California in the 1970s, San Francisco in particular, and is a migratory moment resonant in the history of American post-Stonewall gay male identity; it’s the implicit subject of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series and the recent film Milk. This idea also finds its widespread expression in the Village People’s over-exposed disco anthem Go West (1979) that explicitly connects discourses of liberation and self-discovery with the movement Westward, in fact, their very first release was titled San Francisco (You got Me). Go West reworks the nineteenth century expression ‘go west young man’ coined by US politician and newspaper editor Horace Greeley. While the sentiment of Greeley’s phrase is rooted in colonial conquest and expansion in the move Westward along the Mississippi River, the Village People’s lyrics instead signify that other movement of men West, the so-called 1970s ‘gay flight’. However, the Village people are a rather problematic group when it comes to sexual politics and it’s a misnomer to think of them as in any way ‘a gay band’ or even properly representative of disco despite their self-conscious fashioning through the iconography of gay machismo and the four-to-the-floor beat. The genesis of the band was a response to an advert in a music paper that read "Macho Types Wanted: Must Dance And Have A Moustache". As an eventual pop realisation of disco the Village People were eschewed by gay culture proper and would rarely if ever be heard in the legendary discos because the Village People was actually a bit naff and rather embarrassing. More importantly, the Village People were often tight lipped on homosexuality in interviews (most of them it turns out were straight) despite being sold as an idolatory vision of popular gay macho stereotypes. Thus, despite being explicitly if parodisitic in their visual presentation of gayness and macho vocal posturing, a band name that alludes to New York’s Greenwich Village, and suggestive lyrics focusing on gay culture (Cruisin') and gay positive expressions (I am what I am), the Village People’s apparent homosexuality (which I imagine is axiomatic of how most people interpret the act) was nothing more than smoke and mirrors with good musical production.

The meaning of the Village People’s later songs were expressed in a double-voiced strategy (lyrics mean different things to different people) but the group were certainly anchored through the stereotypical way in which different iconic forms of American masculinity such as the cowboy become a fancy dress version of gay erotica in popular culture writ large. However, when images of cloned up cowboys are couched in lyrics that celebrate the West as a gay utopia it continues to foment the West and the cowboy through liberation and freedom. California was the new frontier for gay America and it just so happens that some of those men were free to dress in ways that channel the apparent freedom the cowboy represents recasting the horizon as a sexual frontier. What is important here is that the Village People’s song that suggests going West ‘where the air is free, we'll be what we want to be’ is grounded in discourses of the West and the cowboy thus bringing together a historical moment in American post-stonewall gay identity, the continuing movement of men westward, and an ongoing tradition of a male-male relations in Western lore. Furthermore, this western dance music fantasy continues well after disco to include Divine’s Walk Like A Man (1984) Erasure’s Who Needs Love Like That (1985), and more recently the knowingly homoerotic rodeo styling (clothes by Dsquared - S/S 2006 picture below) of Madonna’s Don’t Tell Me (2000).

(Image Credits - Casablanca Records; Dsquared; Permissions)

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