Content warning: use of a homophobic slur
The problem of the personal essay is bridging the massive gap between me and you. Many personal essays, especially those written by queer people whose experiences are so varied and idiosyncratic, tend to share an almost unmediated picture of experience. I sometimes express dissatisfaction when an essay glances off me and leaves no lasting trace. I don’t get it. Then I’m reminded that that’s sort of the point. You read the piece, and if you share the experience, you empathize. If not, too bad. It was not for you anyway.
But a melancholy taste is left in my mouth. I want to connect. I want to get close as I can to someone else, though barriers as high as vast differences in position and experience get in the way. Art (and the essay is an art form) will never yield any intimacy with the artist. So the chances of the personal essay really reaching over the divide seem non-existent. Still, there’s still something valuable in the empathy enabled by a book, a song, or a queer personal essay. What I want is to reach my hand out as far as I can, to translate some of me into a form someone far removed from me could understand. And I will have to talk a lot about the first album of rising pop icon Dorian Electra to do so.
Perhaps the expected thing for me to do would be to introduce you to the web of identifiers I use for myself. But the first thing you need to know about me to understand how I feel about Dorian Electra is that I don’t really like identifiers. I think a history would be better suited and get the same job done. Sorry if things get intimate. My relationship with gender and sexuality begins with loving boys. Nothing before makes sense. Nothing before counts. There’s a joy I could find nowhere else but in bubbling, uncertain feelings I had for my friends. There were types of relationships, more romantic than sexual, that could only exist between two men and I wanted them. I read a lot of webcomics about twinks in high school. I was infatuated by the idea that guys could touch, fall in love so easily.
For about a month, all I’ve listened to is Dorian Electra’s debut album Flamboyant. It’s great pop music that paints exaggerated but intimate caricatures of masculinity. Just listening to the sound can’t provide the complete Flamboyant experience. You have to see the music videos. Electra is fabulous, dressed to the nines as gay boxer or a gay office worker or a gay knight or a gay leather daddy zombie, and is always ready to smash a martini glass or a pot of coffee over their head. I was a little confused at first, but entranced. Pretty soon I learned that what Electra is performing is a Drag King act, making masculinity extreme, criticizing and embracing it at once. But the type of masculinity Electra takes on is so often effeminate. When they sing “Hangin’ in the break room / I’m mixin’ it with you” on Career Boy, they address a genderless 2nd person, but the career boy in the music video wears too much eyeshadow to be straight. Even if he is available to women, he expresses his masculinity in a way which usually tells girls that he’s not for them. On top of that, he is confidently, unapologetically submissive or “Lonely at the top”. The video for the album’s title track is even worse. Electra’s covered in sparkles and makeup and rings, bedazzled, always looking like such an amazing faggot. For me, it’s like waking up to find a stranger in your house who looks perfectly at home there, like he owns the place.
I began to think of a new name (now names) and new words that I wanted to be called after looking at androgynous marble statuary for too long, among other things. That was the start of a journey into a very different exploration of desire. The pole star of a portion of this venture has become the idea of being uninscribed by language, without categories to place sexuality or gender. It’s a beautiful way to be, to just be. But the idea of being a faggot, of embracing an extra helping of effeminacy, has opened even more possibilities for me. To make this situation more confusing, there are parts of my life that I can only understand in light of what femme and non-binary lesbians have written about their experiences of attraction and gender. Currently, I have no desire to be a lesbian and even less to be a woman. I recently got upset because my roommate offered to carry my groceries for me. I exclaimed ‘I’m not a girl! It’s more complicated than that!’ Just that weekend at work, I was frustrated because I’m expected to reach the high shelves and move the heavy boxes. When I socialize with gay men, I struggle to talk about ‘we’ and ‘us’, but I try.
As gaudy and parodic as Flamboyant is, Electra is often able to reveal very tender, vulnerable sides of homoeroticism and male identity. Man to Man is about a man trying to get one of his friends to open up to him emotionally. Fighting and kissing, conflict and intimacy bleed into each other. Emasculate invites the addressee to tear apart the masculinity of a man who is “Too much man for my own good”. Self-loathing is paired with humorously exaggerated self-confidence. He is laughable but exposed, pitiable, honest. The opening track, Mr. To You, sees the formal, sexualized distance implied by the title ‘mister’ collapse into something close and personal: “I don’t make anybody call me Mister / I don’t make anybody but you”, a name only your partner calls you. I wonder why this guy isn’t Mr. to other people. Perhaps he isn’t seen that way. Similarly, on the album’s vinyl only bonus track, Your Kinda Guy, Electra describes taking someone for a drive “away from the city lights” to “see another side of me”. The character Electra plays makes it a point to describe himself as “freaky”, seeming to suggest that his masculinity is more complicated that it might appear at first. The world of Dorian Electra’s music is full of men, boys, and guys but none of them come off as entirely straight, cis, conventionally imagined men. Even Daddy wants to “ask real nicely”. He gets off to consent. Though Electra is not a man in such simple terms (last I checked, genderfluid was the word they use), they capture a nuanced, empathetic picture of what it can mean to be a queer man, the joy, the pain, the contradiction of it all. After looking a moment at this stranger in my house, I realize that I’m not supposed to be here either.
I have no clue whether I’m seeing Electra’s music from the inside or the outside. Are these songs for me? I empathize and I do not. I see something that I pine for, possess, and have rejected entirely. But I see a performance, too. Electra plays with gender in a way which is both serious and absurd. They act, but they act naturally. Without being anything they can communicate the complexity of a gendered position. No line can connect me to Dorian, through their work or not, but what they do, with the mess of associations they drag behind them, resonates with me. I am steadied and unsteadied, at home and not.
What I want is to reach my hand out as far as I can, to translate some of me into a form someone far removed from me could understand.