ladies and white gentlemen” took to the dance floor; the origin
story of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,” which began life as “a
very dirty number that made the queens go wild in the drag
bars”; and the appropriation, by Miley Cyrus, of twerking, a
booty-twirling dance style that originated in black culture.
In her sweeping analysis, Powers positions popular music at
the intersection of sex and social change—and the center of our
cultural conversation. “Music allows people—players, dancers,
observers—to ride the storm that arises when desire encounters
the roadblocks of prejudice, moral judgment, or cruel circumstance,” she writes.
Darryl W. Bullock’s David Bowie Made Me Gay (Overlook,
Nov.) recovers the lost history of music made by, and for, the
LGBTQ community. Bullock, author of the biography Florence
Foster Jenkins: A Life of the World’s Worst Opera Singer, touches on
artists as unalike and historically far-flung as the flamboyant
ragtime-era pianist Tony Jackson, whose song “Pretty Baby” was
written for another man and who mentored Jellyroll Morton, and
the uncategorizable Klaus Nomi, a new wave cult sensation
who looked like Joel Grey’s campy, chalk-faced emcee in Cabaret
and sang, in the words of one critic, “like Pinocchio on helium.”
Decades before Lady Gaga’s gay-positive song “Born This
Way” hit the airwaves, Nomi, Bowie, and others like them gave
hope to fearful, isolated LGBTQ kids. Bullock quotes Holly
Johnson, lead singer for the ’80s synth-pop group Frankie Goes
to Hollywood, from an interview he gave the Gay Times in April
1994: “I was desperately searching for some kind of gay identity
when I was a teenager.” Johnson said he found it in the music
of Bowie, Marc Bolan, Reed, and Roxy Music. “I used to tell
people, ‘Oh, I’m bisexual, just like my hero David!’ ” he added.
Sidewalk Scenes and
By the time Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show sang, in their 1972
song “The Cover of ‘Rolling Stone,’ ” of the incomparable thrill
of seeing your face on Jann Wenner’s magazine, the house organ
of the Woodstock generation had one foot in the mainstream, but
still managed the neat trick of retaining its countercultural cool.
Sticky Fingers by Joe Hagan (Random House, Oct.) is at once
a portrait of Wenner, who for five decades has displayed a dowser’s ability to tap into the political and cultural currents of the
moment, and a biography of his magazine, which—in an economic landscape that has become a killing field for legacy
media—is still rolling off the presses.
Wenner “had an intuitive grasp of how to connect the counterculture to the so-called straight world and convert this rude
world of rock and dope into fame, power, and money,” Hagan
told Entertainment Weekly in May. “He knew there was money to
be made from day one. As it turned out, there was millions.”
The Face, an achingly hip magazine launched in London in 1980,
was to the postpunk era what Rolling Stone was to the ’60s and
In both books, it’s the photos—of Muhammad Ali, Warren
Beatty, Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger, Elizabeth Taylor, the ubiquitous Andy Warhol—that tell the story most vividly, capturing a scene that has the manic frivolity of a Weimar nightclub on the eve of the Third Reich. Here, the specter at the feast
isn’t Nazism, but AIDS, whose scythe would soon empty the
dance floor, seemingly overnight.
If this fall and next spring’s music titles have a common
refrain, it is the pockets of resistance lurking in disposable culture. Bowie and his glam cohort modeled a more genderfluid
masculinity and in so doing opened the door to a more tolerant,
more diverse—and, let’s admit, 100% more fabulous—future.
Dylan and Cohen made folk-rock grist for Harvard seminars.
Nelson and his outlaw-country posse made room at the truck
stop bar for hippies in Stetsons who preferred pot to Pabst Blue
Ribbon. Female singers and songwriters such as Mitchell, Nicks,
and Parton refused to be sharp-elbowed out of the boys’ club of
pop stardom. Hip-hop artists claimed a place at the turntable,
showing that a deejay’s wheels of steel could rival rock guitar
and rapping was poetry, too. Ann Powers and other critics drew
our attention to the subversiveness lurking in the grooves of
“race” records and Superbowl halftime shows, while magazines
like The Face and clubs like Studio 54 were dedicated to the
dream that, as Ray Davies of the Kinks sang, everybody’s a
star—a proposition that turns the elitism of celebrity culture on
its head, reminding us that even superstars start out as fans,
serenading themselves in the bathroom mirror. ;
Mark Dery is a cultural critic and the author, most recently, of the essay
collection I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts (Univ. of Minnesota, 2012).
He is writing a biography of Edward Gorey for Little, Brown.