TWO YEARS AGO I went to a tiny club in Camden to see a new group called the Manic Street Preachers. They were playing first on a bill of three or four, and nobody paid much attention as they thrashed through their short, sharp songs:
"Punk retro" was the general consensus. But there was something more: despite their aggressive theatre, they wore make-up, eyeliner and girls' blouses cheap, white girls' blouses, manhandled with stencilled slogans like Death Culture and Generation Terrorist.
"The blouses? Oh, they're our sisters'," the bass player said later. He spoke in a soft Welsh accent. The group came from Blackwood, near Newport, and openly wore the blouses on the streets of South Wales. Didn't they get into trouble for looking like that? "Oh yesss," the bassist replied, grinning. "We get beaten up all the time. But we don't care, because we're pretty!"
I knew then that they would be successful. Not necessarily because of their music, but because of their attitude. In a World Cup year, when most people in the music industry were pretending to be football hooligans, they were doing exactly the opposite. All heterosexual, they were coming over extremely camp, both as a provocation, and in an implicit understanding of the transformational possibilities inherent in pop. You don't have to be yourself; you can be anyone you want.
After a period when men have been men, and women women, gender-bending is back. Rock bands have started wearing dresses again Michael Stipe of REM on stage, Nirvana in their video for In Bloom. The Manic Street Preachers have had hits, and continued to wear girls' blouses on national television. In the cycle of pop fashion which is not purely a hype, but an indicator of what people are feeling the mood has swung away from a lad's casualness and anonymity to an artificial, seedy glamour.
England's hottest group, Suede, are a case in point. Their first single, The Drowners, had lyrics about kissing a man, and a sleeve that showed model Veruschka bodypainted to resemble a man with stubble and a Seventies suit. Their first album, released last week, has lyrics such as "so we are a boy we are a girl" and an androgynous sleeve photo of two people kissing. Last month, Katharine Hamnett unveiled her new trompe-l'oeil catsuit, photo-printed with a man's shirt and Seventies suit. It was Veruschka come to life. Meanwhile in New York, RuPaul, glamorous male drag queen-cum-supermodel, reigns supreme.
Playing with gender has long been a male prerogative. Now women are doing it. Last month, k.d.lang duetted with Andy Bell at the Brit awards. She was dressed not as a man, but like a man, in a jacket, waistcoat and trousers. Madonna's best-selling Sex book has dozens of photos in which she takes a man's role. And the first truly popular British film for a while, Sally Potter's Orlando, features Tilda Swinton crossing from man to woman in a vertiginous blur.
Playing with gender roles can take many forms. The most common is cross-dressing, which for many people is an obvious sign of homosexuality often not true and is somewhat shocking (unless it's Les Dawson with a pinny and shawl). For some, the appearance of men as women and women as men is a sign of modern degeneracy but, in fact, this gender-blurring is as old as humanity itself.
What does the audience want from a performance? The audience will go to a play, a reading, a concert, to be taken out of itself, to experience something different, to feel something. But what of the performer? He or she has to present a heightened reality: in the theatre, this will be a role determined by the playwright and director; in pop, performers usually direct themselves and will play "themselves" until they can find a way of differentiating the onstage and offstage self. (Otherwise madness and burnout ensue.)
We pay performers to be what we are not. Offstage, the performer and especially the musician is outside the mainstream of society. In the 19th century, the theatre was automatically associated with prostitution; today, actors and pop stars are automatically assumed to have funny sex lives.
Some of them do, of course. For the sexually divergent, the performing arts have long provided a haven. Over the years, this has both contributed to an enduring liberalism which, in the music industry, coexists with the application of market forces and a gender-blurred style. Nobody can doubt that Mick Jagger is heterosexual, yet in 1966 he appeared in drag with the other Rolling Stones on the sleeve of Have You Seen Your Mother Baby Standing in the Shadow.
GENDER-BLURRING HAS a particular piquancy in English and American society. With our puritan past, sexuality is often something to be feared: for a long time now, popular culture whether the pantomime dame or pop stars like Boy George has provided a space within our morally restrictive societies for sexuality and gender in all its forms to be discussed, rehearsed, changed. Within popular culture, we can see what we are not, but what we could be.
And, for male performers in popular culture, the mere fact of being adored, even of being looked at, means that you have crossed the borders of day-to-day sexuality. As Marjorie Gerber writes in her history of "cross-dressing and cultural anxiety", Vested Interests, "display and masquerade are perceived as feminine, and feminising". Every male pop star, from Rudolph Valentino to Michael Jackson, is accused of being homosexual at some point in his career, even when he is not.
A founding text of 20th-century pop culture is Peter Pan, premiered in 1904. At the start of a century obsessed with adolescence, J.M.Barrie wrote a play about a boy who never grew up. From the beginning, the boy was played by a young woman; this tradition continues to the present day. As Gerber states, Peter Pan is played by a woman, because "a woman will never grow up to be a man".
Peter Pan was instantly successful: heshe was, as writer Andrew Birkin remarks, "the first of the pre-teen heroes: girls wanted to mother him, boys wanted to fight by his side". This sounds like a description of a contemporary pop star, and it is a trope of 20th-century popular culture that its mythical male heroes die young, before they can truly become men: Valentino, James Dean, arguably Elvis Presley, even Sid Vicious.
POPULAR CULTURE was initiated as an adolescent medium during the second world war, with the success of Frank Sinatra and the invention of the teenager as a marketing category. Its heroes whether Presley, the Beatles, or today's pre-teen idols like Take That have always used androgyny to create hysterical responses from female fans and to signal an ageless adolescence.
To the English, pop music was an alien, Afro-American style. Early English pop music was a pale facsimile of American styles: the crooners of the early Fifties, or rockers like Cliff Richard (before he became a peculiarly English Peter Pan). Apart from a few exceptions, English pop really started with the Beatles: with their long hair and similar appearance, they made androgyny an exportable English commodity.
What the Beatles and other Sixties pop groups, including the Rolling Stones and the Who, added to an Afro-American form was a whole tradition of distance, commentary and gender role-playing taken from English popular culture. The music hall influence was strong in English pop around 1966-67, with songs such as the Kinks's Dedicated Follower of Fashion.
Pop always has to be new. This can mean either the recycling of past styles to fresh teens who have not experienced the style before, or the slow accretion of knowledge, whereby each successive generation adds something to existing models, going further, deeper, or becoming more detailed. This often means upping the ante. In 1969, David Bowie appeared in drag on the cover of his The Man Who Sold The World album; in 1972, he announced his stardom by proclaiming that he was bisexual.
The successful pop stars of the Sixties changed their image frequently: they assumed and discarded costume like children in a toyshop. Seventies stars such as David Bowie and Roxy Music took this process a stage further: influenced by pop art and literary models, they changed personae with each new project. Through Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke, Bowie took this process to a stage where, as he now admits, he lost his sense of self. His influence on English pop has been immense.
Boy George's success in the early Eighties initiated the last period of pop "gender-bending", as it was called then. In his wake, men like Peter Robinson wore dresses and had hits under a female name, Marilyn. More interestingly, there was a new licence for women to play with their gender: Grace Jones frightened the horses with her severe haircut and gay-derived savage hedonism, while Annie Lennox posed as a body builder, flexing her arm muscles in a decidedly masculine way.
The two biggest pop stars of today sum up these trends. Both Michael Jackson and Madonna are changelings; they have transformed themselves many times.
Jackson enshrines the Peter Pan principle within his own body seeking plastic surgery to change his shape and race and in his Santa Barbara home, called Never Land ranch. In transcending the boundaries of age, race and gender, he epitomises one pop paradigm: the unity of apparent opposites.
Madonna is more confrontational. She epitomises another pop paradigm: that what is shocking today becomes the norm tomorrow. On her 1990 tour, she appeared in men's clothing and cropped hair, the spitting image of Marlene Dietrich or Stephen Gordon, the heroine of the book which shocked England in 1926, Radclyffe Hall's lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness. What was unthinkable then is permissible now, in entertainment at least.
Even a cursory trawl through pop images reveals the extent to which gender-blurring is embedded within popular culture. But does it stay there? The relationship between pop images and the outside world is a tricky one: in the week that the House of Lords refused the appeal in the "Spanner" trial making sadomasochistic activities largely illegal the pop group Right Said Fred appeared on television during Comic Relief, dressed in full S&M gear.
It is clear that there is a yawning gulf, in England at least, between our public language the language of law, politics, news, etc and our private language: what we feel, what we desire, who we think we are, who we would like to be. Pop music and its culture is one of the few places where our private feelings and fantasies become visible: there may be danger in converting these fantasies into reality, but, on the other hand, this gender play enables us to think of what the future could be.
It is one of pop's enduring strengths that it confronts the present: this is an increasingly nostalgic and fearful country. Despite its roots in English tradition, there is still something threatening and disturbing about cross-dressing: a refusal to take the world at face value, a refusal to accept things as they seem. In our current political and cultural crisis, I find the reappearance of cross-dressing and androgyny in popular culture heartening and curiously relaxing.I Want Your Sex, a season of films and talks on cross-dressing and transsexualism, will take place at the ICA (071-873 0061) from next Wednesday until April 29.