Saturday, August 24, 2013

Shameless Saturday Camp Explosion: Drag Rant

What is extravagant in an inconsistent or an unpassionate way is not Camp.
- Susan Sontag, "Notes on Camp"

A few snippets of Camp at its most classic for this lovely August Saturday...

...accompanied by a rant on the sorry state of contemporary gay/camp culture.  In short: what on earth has happened to drag?

You see, Mr. Muscato and I went to a drag show last weekend.  It was kind of by accident; we had survived a family dinner (long story there, but that's for another day) and realized we were near what is advertised as our suburban area's only establishment of interest to gentlemen of aesthetic tastes.  We hied ourselves thither, and discovered it was Drag Nite.

God help us.

Above, you have drag at one its apexes (apices?) - some moments in the distinguished career of Mr. Jim Bailey.  One of the many joys of YouTube is the plethora of such treasures on offer - not just Jim Bailey, of course, but great bits and even whole shows from the likes of Craig Russell, Charles Pierce; from more contemporary vedettes like Jimmy James, Randy Roberts, Lypsinka, and Coco Peru; and of course infinite amounts of scary home drag that really doesn't bear too close investigation.  All kinds of drag, all kinds of approaches, from the uncanny persona-inhabiting in which Bailey specializes to Pierce's anarchic spoofs and far, far beyond.

This is not what we saw last Saturday night.  No.  What we saw looked like a fashion parade from South Philadelphia's tackiest wedding, accompanied by a few - all too few - attempts to keep up with the lyrics from the most boring assortment of pop "hits" imaginable, while the sad clowns in the false eyelashes and falsies stumbled around grabbing dollar bills from bored (yet shrieking) hen parties (for the audience was well over half brides-to-be and their sozzled attendants).  When the highlight of your night out is a half-hearted lunge at a Shania Twain impression, you know it's time to go home.

Now, I know it's not fair to compare Bailey's meticulously orchestrated, choreographed concert-hall extravaganzas to a Saturday lip-synch revue in a strip-mall bar, but still.  Is it that the ladies to be impersonated today just don't lend themselves to impersonation, that Rihanna, to be kind, is no Peggy Lee?  Is it that we don't have the same framework of shared references that were once fostered by talk-show appearances and variety-hour turns, by obsessive listening to a relatively limited set of cast albums and live-in-London discs?  Should we blame RuPaul for the homogenization of drag?  I've never seen the eponymous Drag Race, but the ladies we saw reminded me of what I've seen of those contestants - blowsy chits who seem to think that adding "bitch" to the end of each sentence constitutes wit and who spend more time on their eyelids than they do on their (very limited) repartee.

And the names!  If you're not going to go ahead and just be Judy or Barbra (or, today, I suppose, Gaga or Adele - and certainly they at least lend themselves to sending up, no?), whatever happened to the kinds of names immortalized by dear Mr. Fierstein in Torch Song Trilogy - monikers like Marsha Dimes, Virginia Ham, or BangBang LaDesh?  Why are all these horrid soi-disant "performers" calling themselves names stolen (and mangled) from '80s soap operas? I've never seen so many Colbys and Carringtons and worse, so many Jessicas and Moniques and Alexandras.  It was all very dispiriting.

I think it was the lack of ambition that depressed me, the inconsistent, unpassionate, utter absence of the sense of shared fun that used to energize even the tackiest of dragfests.  No one ever accused Lady Bunny of being subtle, but you're never bored when she's on stage.  I certainly don't require the kind of art the illumines something like the exquisite pop-culture curation that is Lypsinka.  I've got standards, oh, yes, but they're not austere.  One of my formative drag experiences was decades ago in Philadelphia, where a creature who called herself Mabel Redtopp would careen across the tiny dance floor of the local wrinkle room, the Venture Inn (still in business, last I checked, and still in its estimable restaurant serving its signature dish, Chicken Livermore - try it, you'll love it and, for a moment, it will be 1958 all over again...).  Mabel did cartwheels, and when she did a cartwheel, it was done.  It was raunchy and tawdry and slightly dangerous feeling (she would, you were quite sure, if the circumstances warranted, cut a bitch).  It was that energy I missed last Saturday, and I only wish Mabel were around to school these gals in how to frighten an audience into submission the way she did those long-lost Saturday nights on Camac Street...


  1. In a culture (and I use the term quite loosely) that allows not one, but a whole herd of, Kardashians to thrive as celebrities or entertainers (these terms are even more loose), what is left to celebrate or send up?

    There is precious little drive to exhibit true talent or real accomplishment. Showing up gets you a Little League trophy these days. Teachers are badgered and blamed if Johnny doesn't get a "B" or better.

    As noted in Sontag's quote, it's not camp if there's no passion. If drag isn't camp, why bother?

  2. In the '70's, I had a Jim Bailey album. I filed it neatly between the male and the female vocalists. One day I was at a friend's home, looking at his record collection, and filed neatly between the male and the female vocalists was the exact same Jim Bailey album.

    Gay World has never been a big place.

  3. Drag, lip-synch style, seems to be the regular format in the US. I've rarely found it "entertainment". Over here, in London and Brighton in particular, there is a fine and long-standing tradition of drag artistes who actually sing - it's a proud legacy of the old-time Music Hall, I suppose. Much better value.

    Drag-as-"artform" has never been healthier in our fair city, with numerous pubs frequented by gentlemen who are light on their loafers having drag shows every night of the week. They are, of course, of varying quality and talent, but there is certainly a plethora: Bette Rinse, Maisie Trollette (still going at 80), Rose Garden, Mrs Moore, Crystal deCanter and Kelly Mild to name but a few.

    Jim Bailey and Charles Pierce were legends, but then we had Mrs Shufflewick, Lily Savage and HIH Regina Fong...


    1. PS Rihanna, to be unkind, is not even Little Peggy Marsh... Jx

    2. The British tradition really is different, as you point out closely connected to Music Hall and concert-party traditions that we don't really have a direct parallel to. Drag is much more prominent in UK comedy, of course (Monty Python's pepperpots come to mind, not to mention Bubble DeVere) and in some part at least less tied to notions of glamor. When I was first in London - rising 30 years ago - I remember more than one wild night at the old Madam JoJo's, which I was sad to see is still going on as what now seems to be rather a hen-party sort of joint. And I really must find out more about this Crystal deCanter - exactly my point about those names!

    3. I've mentioned her on my blog a few times, needless to say... Jx

  4. i love "drag race." i get bored with all the stupid, talentless girls that must be endured until they sashay away, but endure i do. i think my very favorite part of the show is when the girls come out on the runway & we HEAR ru & the judges dishing. obviously this dish is done post, but that's fine. it is that dishy & often clever innuendo that i most adore. i also love the smart girls that win or come close. the girls don't realize it isn't how pretty they are, it's all about smart & clever.

    i've been to only a few drag shows in my entire life (gasp!). jimmy james was briliaint back back. i did see one in LA back in the 80s. "diana ross" with extra long monkey arms that emerged from beneath her chiffon froth, begging us all to reach out & touch. not sure that would fly today.

    1. Not sure if the act you saw in LA was indeed her, but the UK's own Lizzy Drip has been doing the lethal Miss-Ross-with-extending-arms act for a good twenty years or more. Indeed, she still does it (along with Montserrat Caballe and Freddy Mercury (as a puppet); and Dolly Parton with singing tits). Some formulae are worth keeping going, it seems. Jx

    2. jon, i'd never recall the name of the act, but i love freddy & monsterfat as backup!

    3. me thinks you just posted those for me? xx