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...