Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Feeling real

I follow Alex Petridis' Guardian music column in same spirit that I used to read James Wood's book reviews: useful, but not always in the manner intended, and the knowledge and insight and perceptiveness and critical nail-on-head-hitting is always studded with moments of misreading that are so random and so bizarre that overall it's hard to understand how it all emanates from a single perspective.

I've been thinking on and off over the past few days about this article he's written about Sylvester. He begins by describing a conference session on the singer as if it's obvious that the very existence of this event confers (a hitherto lacking) significance or legitimacy on its subject, bundled with a residual sense that there's something incongruous about making an artist like Sylvester the object of what Petridis calls 'academic analysis'. This is a trope that's usually a reliable indicator that the writer is completely clueless but once I managed to get past that point there was actually a lot in there to think about.

As a teenager I was deeply fascinated by disco, and I still really love it. I had a lot of records and a small collection of videotapes of movies and documentaries about various artists and about the disco scene, including a documentary about the evolution of disco music and culture. That film, whatever it was, presented disco as a genre that peaked and then declined and fell, and Sylvester was the moment the film chose to represent decadence and corruption. I vividly remember the disgust and revulsion in the narrator's voice, as he talked over a clip of Sylvester singing with makeup on his face and carrying himself like a queen in a silver and black Gloria Swanson turban, about how degraded and sad it was that disco finally came to this.

In 1985 I couldn't name this as homophobia and/or racism, but in some ways the lack of a label to put to the intensity of the unabashed hatred so authoritatively on display made witnessing it a very disturbing experience, because it seemed unbounded. I was shocked that this voice of authority could suddenly turn so vindictive - I still find that sort of thing shocking now, even through this cocoon of cynicism I seem to have spun around myself - and could unleash this vindictiveness in the service of making a judgement on the song that is surely, self-evidently, drastically wrong, because, as some guy called Ben Roodzand cogently says in the Youtube comments, 'This song makes you want to come out even if your not Gay!!...' You know, I think this is just about a perfect summation of what it was that I loved about this song and about disco in general, and no doubt millions of people have felt the same.

Disco makes you want to come out, who or whatever you are: its joyful, unabashed, untamed but also highly civilised, inclusive celebration of sexuality and sexual identity just rings out with such energy and beauty. Donald Winnicott's writings about play and reality theorise the psychological importance of creativity and imagination to feeling alive and real, but disco is the art form which literally embodies it. To go back to Petridis, he obviously gets this, and the commentary on Sylvester that he quotes is interesting but then he goes and spoils it, massively, by drawing a needless contrast between Sylvester's 'voice, emotive and affecting, rooted in gospel and blues... [and] Donna Summer's ethereal sex-android coo'. Possibly that is not an implausible description of Summer's amazing vocal performances but the whole point, I would have said, of disco is that there is no requirement to prefer queer to feminine, rootsy to ethereal, indeed its social value and its sexiness derives entirely from its staging of encounters across those divides. It's like the place we go in the more perverse reaches of James Tiptree Jr 's imagination but reconceived from tragedy to - what? transcendence?


ernmalleyscat said...

That's wonderful. It's such a good song. I initially only knew and loved it from the music, and more so the effect it had on people at mardi gras parades and parties, rather than his image. I was only vaguely aware that it was by someone called Sylvester and had never seen him in the clip until only a few years ago. The presence through that series of escalating entrances is spectacular.

lucy tartan said...

it's a very fabulous clip and the song is ah-may-zen.