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Rock Kings, Drag Queens: A Common Strut

The New York Times, June 14, 1998, Sunday

By Stephen Holden

It wasn't so long ago that rock-and-roll, symbolized by the primitive, strutting, priapic dance of a surly young man and his guitar, seemed to be an entrenched staple of American culture. In the 1970's and 80's heyday of the hard-rock ''hair band,'' it was easy to imagine an endless stream of sinewy guitar heroes with flowing tresses and bulging crotches passing the Dionysian torch from generation to generation until civilization finally exploded in an apocalyptic blitz of screeching feedback. An immersion in the arena-rock experience, with its beer-guzzling, drug-taking and gladiatorial rowdiness, was a rite of passage for every red-blooded American teen-age boy.

One of the fundamental myths of rock was that it was essentially a man's game, a macho sport that knocked a generation of unctuous crooning mama's boys out of the batter's box of popular culture and allowed ''real'' men to step to the pop-music plate. Girls who sought membership in this boys' club had better be butch. But even performers like Patti Smith and Joan Jett, who affected male bravado, were never fully accepted into the highest reaches of rock's pantheon.

The reality behind that myth, of course, is something quite different. The Beatles, when they arrived, were cuddly, nonthreatening teddy bears. As early as the mid-1960's, male rockers like Mick Jagger were toying with images of androgyny and sexual role reversal. But full-scale deconstruction of the myth of the rock hero didn't begin in earnest until the early 1970's, when that cadaverous, chilly-voiced English rocker and (at the time) self-proclaimed bisexual David Bowie began parading sexually subversive alter egos on the rock stage. The most notorious was a space alien with flaming hair named Ziggy Stardust (he metamorphosed into Aladdin Sane and later into the Thin White Duke) who parodied oral sex with his lead guitarist on stage.

Mr. Bowie's theatricality subverted the notion of the rock star as an authentic populist hero by suggesting that all rock preening and strutting was really just a pose. He paved the way for the gender-bending performances of Lou Reed and the New York Dolls, as well as a ''glitter rock'' movement in England.

The ideas about rock, androgyny and sexual fluidity popularized by Mr. Bowie and his glitter-rock peers have recently been carried to the next step by the witty Off Broadway show ''Hedwig and the Angry Inch.'' This surreal musical fantasy written by John Cameron Mitchell, who stars as its title character, Hedwig Schmidt, an East German transsexual rock performer who becomes lost in America, emphasizes the point that rock-and-roll stardom of the flamboyant sort has always shared profound similarities with drag performance. When striding across the stage in high drag, exhibiting the ironic hauteur of a rock-era Marlene Dietrich, Hedwig is a charismatic, larger-than-life rock-and-roll vamp. When she removes her wig extensions, her charisma begins to wilt.

As ''Hedwig'' illustrates, the macho strut of the rock-and-roll star is the same exaggerated pantomime as the strut of a drag queen. It doesn't matter whether the image being promoted is supermacho or ultra-femme. From behind the facade of the Dionysian superstud or the voracious vamp, the performer commands the same godlike erotic power.

One of the show's most telling jokes is that Hedwig has had a botched sex-change operation that left an inch of her penis attached. This despised reminder of her past has inspired the name of her band, the Angry Inch. The mocking joke is a clever swipe at the phallocentric myth of rock machismo as symbolized by the overstuffed crotch that many hard-rock singers and guitarists affected during the heyday of the hair band, from Led Zeppelin to Aerosmith to Poison.

As Hedwig recounts her life in song and narration, she tells the unhappy story of growing up a miserable, lonely ''girlyboy'' named Hansel in East Germany and of escaping her past by marrying an American soldier who insisted she have the operation before their wedding. They move to America, and Hedwig ends up in Kansas, divorced and earning her living as a prostitute. Resuming her childhood hobby of music, she becomes the mentor, songwriting collaborator and lover of a gangling, pimply teen-age boy whom she christens Tommy Gnosis.

But once Tommy becomes a star, he denies her existence. While Hedwig relates this sad story, she periodically opens a side door of the seedy hotel nightclub in which she is appearing to let in blasts of music from a huge outdoor concert that Tommy is giving nearby.

Starting with its mentions of the Berlin wall as an artificial dividing line, the show is rife with images of the divided self and the artificially separated masculine and feminine sides of rock. The show suggests that Hedwig and Tommy are actually two aspects of the same person who are lost without each other.

That fantasy resonates powerfully in rock-and-roll history. Consider Elvis Presley, the king himself, who ascended from the working class in Mississippi by reinventing himself as a swiveling, hiccuping, country-blues version of Dean Martin. When Elvis burst onto the pop scene in 1956, he seemed as weirdly androgynous in his way as Mr. Bowie's space alien did 16 years later. Initially, Elvis's gyrations, pouty sneer, bedroom eyes and Marilyn Monroe-like body language were interpreted by America's straight-arrow culture mavens as effeminate.

Until his death in 1977, Elvis remained as flamboyant a showman as any pop diva or diva impersonator. Is there really any difference between today's legions of Elvis imitators wiggling and sneering in white-studded jumpsuits and today's legions of be-wigged drag queens lip-synching to the recordings of Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand or Cher? Not much, aside from the fact that Elvis imitators belong to an ostensibly straight culture and the drag queens to a gay-oriented one.

Drag, like Elvis-style rock stardom, is all about emerging from nowhere as a self-invented phenomenon. Although drag in the era of performance art has assumed many shadings, the drag queen has traditionally been a gay man who dons female garb to savor the power of being a female star and uses that alter ego to vent larger-than-life ''unmanly'' emotions.

Transforming yourself from a nondescript gay man into a glamorous facsimile of a female star or into your own original drag persona also theoretically opens up a world of erotic possibility in which heterosexual men unavailable to you in your drab everyday persona become potential conquests. In that sense, the drag queen's parody of a diva has an attitude toward women of wishful envy.

Because such parodies often involve a comic caricature of a woman as a sexually voracious Gorgon, they have often been misperceived as misogynistic. What the drag queen is burlesquing, by turning the tables, is really the macho mystique and the male objectification of women as sex objects. At the same time, the drag queen's imperious assumption of the female role is a fierce assertion of power by a member of one of the most persecuted of all groups: effeminate gay men.

The standard myth of the rock-and-roll hero, be he Elvis or Bruce Springsteen, is quite similar. He is a lonely outsider from the wrong side of the tracks who in a sustained feat of self-transcendence transforms himself into an icon, inflating his rags-to-riches story into a pop myth.

But since the 1950's, that story has been repeated so many times and on so many levels that the only way mass culture has been able to refresh the myth has been to eviscerate it. In that sense, rock-and-roll history and the search for novelty -- new variations on a standard theme -- has been a mass market exercise in cultural deconstruction. By the time Mr. Bowie became an international star in 1972, rock culture, in order to advance, required the kind of self-conscious exploration of rock-star iconography that he provided.

Mr. Bowie wasn't the only early-70's rocker whose concerts were theatrical spectacles. Alice Cooper and successors like the band Kiss and most recently Marilyn Manson have treated rock performance as cartoonish Grand Guignol. With the rise of the music video, Michael Jackson, the Artist formerly known as Prince, Culture Club, Madonna and others have gone deeper by portraying stardom itself as a continuously evolving performance piece in which the borders between their public and private selves blur until image and music are indivisible.

Of course, not all rock culture follows this model. The folk movement and the rock music it produced belongs to a more puritanical literary tradition. Or at least it pretends to in its trusting in the authenticity and consistency of the artist's voice. But you could argue that authenticity itself is a pose.

Who would Bob Dylan be if little Bobby Zimmerman from Hibbing, Minn., hadn't adopted the surname of a charismatic Welsh poet famous for his hypnotically lyrical recitations? From the beginning of his career, Mr. Dylan cultivated the chameleon image of elusive genius trickster, vagabond troubadour and prophet of hip. During his mid-70's Rolling Thunder Revue, he theatricalized that image, appearing on stage in white-face.

Nearly a decade later, when Mr. Springsteen posed in front of an American flag in T-shirt and jeans for the album ''Born in the U.S.A.,'' it was an iconographic coup that established him as ''authentic'' working-class beefcake. Today's male country music stars in their tight jeans and western regalia are the studly Nashville-schooled cousins of the hair-band rockers. Authenticity, sincerity and country ''roots'' are essential ingredients to the package being marketed.

The popularity of ''Hedwig,'' with its endless joking references to 70's pop culture, is an indication of the degree to which that culture has been absorbed by millions of people over the last four decades. It may well be that more Americans under 55 are better acquainted with the history of rock than with any other history they have been taught. But once something is known and assimilated to the degree that rock culture has been, its mystery, its ''art,'' if you will, begins to fade. Once it belongs to everyone, it is just a commodity.

''Hedwig'' suggests that the strutting rock-and-roll hero, if he's to survive as a cultural icon, may have to be reinvented. Or maybe he is already being reinvented as a bad girl. First Madonna, then Courtney Love have sent real shock waves through the culture by flaunting rebellious images unapologetically. To a be a bad boy nowadays means being a gangsta rapper, and even that outlaw image is becoming stale. Women still have more latitude.

The promise of unlimited freedom of expression that the snarling rock-and-roll hero augured in the conformist 1950's is taken for granted 40 years later. But that freedom hasn't been just a license for men to make rowdy macho noise and thrust out their groins. From the very beginning, the freedom promised by rock was also the freedom of men and women (and blacks and whites) to play and exchange roles, to dress up and be sexy in ways that were almost unthinkable half a century ago. Whether it's Elvis unconsciously imitating Marilyn Monroe or Mick Jagger consciously copying Tina Turner or Patti Smith aping Jimi Hendrix, this dialogue has been going on for a long time, and it has made everyone aware of an erotic potential in human life that was once barely discernible. It takes a proud man in drag to remind us of how far we've come.

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