Elise Moore takes a close, loving look at the protean punkster pop star’s masterfully submissive manipulation of sexual imagery – and his wet shorts
(special guest post)
As a Canadian born in 1975, I knew essentially nothing about Adam Ant until this year. I don’t even have the faintest recollection of “Goody Two Shoes,” his one big U.S. hit, or “Stand and Deliver,” the one everyone in the UK remembers. I do have a vague recollection of “Room at the Top,” which was a U.S. dance hit in 1990: probably I saw the video, in which a suited, slick-looking Ant engages in a lot of elaborate mic play.
At the time it came out, I was already taking an interest in punk and New Wave, a context in which I encountered the cover of Kings of the Wild Frontier a million times, although I certainly would not have connected it with the “Room at the Top” video. I also heard the story of how Malcolm McLaren stole Ant’s band for Bow Wow Wow, and accordingly thought that Adam and the Ants were a comparable packaged post-punk confection. Which I have nothing against, but for some reason, I just never got around to them.
Then the other week, an old, brief post on Ant’s “Prince Charming” video by Mark Simpson that has since disappeared [here’s the enlarged repost] but was probably occasioned by the release of Ant’s comeback album in 2013, rose from my murky subconscious and sent me down an Ant-related internet rabbit hole. Since my thoughts about Ant, as I perused this material, were framed by my familiarity with Mark’s writing, he offered to give me a platform for them.
The benefit of not having “been there” for any part of Ant’s career is the overview of his oeuvre that it gives you. There appear to be two official versions of the story of his career: that of the British music press that was there for his rise as a cult performer in the late punk scene, which is that he was a failed punk who used his pretty face to sell out; and that of the fans he acquired with Kings of the Wild Frontier who grew up to be serious music fans (in part thanks to that album), which is that he was an avant-garde pop genius who sold out with his pop album, Strip, and then utterly betrayed them a few years later by making a, gasp, dance album.
There’s also the revisionist account, prompted by several triumphant tours since his comeback, which is that he was an eccentric pop genius all along, so far ahead of his time that the critics never caught up with him and too protean for the public to stay with him. It’s probably clear, since I’m writing this, that I prefer this version of history.
However, it remains for the exact nature of this eccentric genius to be described. I’m not a musician, nor a music critic, nor even a “serious music fan,” so I can’t say much about that component of Mr. Ant’s career. But the “Adam Ant project,” so to speak, extended far beyond music or even visuals. And the most interesting aspect of it was his conscious manipulation of sexual imagery.
It was as an art student that Ant (then Stuart Leslie Goddard) first became fascinated by transgressive sexual imagery in art and transgressive sexual behaviour in subcultures. Not, according to early interviews, as something he wanted to enact in his own life, but for its taboo-breaking value and visually appealing iconography. This disclaimer rings true, given that one of his heroes was 60s British gay playwright Joe Orton, despite the fact that by all accounts Ant is enthusiastically heterosexual. But more on that later.
Part of what drew him to the punk scene, presumably, and McLaren’s SEX boutique in particular, was its congruence with these interests. The other part was Johnny Rotten’s theatrical and aggressive self-presentation (based on Laurence Olivier’s Richard III, according to Lydon), which so impressed Ant that he quit the pub rock band he’d been in the first time he saw The Sex Pistols. That happened to be their first gig, supporting Ant’s band. But Ant wasn’t married to the sound of punk. Instead, it was the attitude of punk that he never lost, and that he brought to his approach to pop stardom and relationship with the music industry.
Which is the other piece of the puzzle. Ant’s teenage years were dominated by Bolan, Roxy Music, and Ziggy-era Bowie, and it was over the love of glam rock that he bonded with long-time collaborator Marco Pirroni, another ex-punk, when he formed Adam and the Ants 2.0. It wasn’t just the sound, fashion, and theatrics he loved, however. Already a student of human sexuality, he saw the reaction of teenage girls to Marc Bolan and knew what he wanted to do with his life.
When the puzzle is all put together, we have this: an artist whose subject is sexual transgression but who wants to be Marc Bolan. Actually, there’s one more piece, which is Ant’s comedic side. You can see it from the earliest videos, as well as in a Dadaist prank like “Ant Rap,” but he really starts to lean into it with his first solo album, Friend or Foe, perhaps because he’s dropping the Johnny Rotten act and letting more of his own personality through. I don’t know much about the history of music videos, but one that did get on my radar is Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady,” which has quite a similar sensibility to “Friend or Foe.” The songs also notably share a similar attitude toward the artists’ critics, to wit, Fuck all y’all. If the early 80s music press already found it impossible to deal with Ant as a sex-obsessed, “style-over-substance” sell-out, adding comedy to the mix must have been even more unforgivable.
It went together, really, the style-over-substance accusations and the comedy. Perhaps what was most unforgivable about Ant was that he knew, and didn’t try to hide, the fact that popular music (even, or especially, punk) had always been as much about the image as about the music. In fact, it had been about three things: music, image, and sex. In the reverse order. Punk was perhaps especially about image, because it certainly wasn’t about music or sex. Adam Ant was broadcasting the dirty little secret that serious music fans and adherents to punk or indie “authenticity” didn’t want to hear about. He was a walking, or rather bouncing, deconstruction of pop. The addition of comedy and panto was just another way to refuse to pretend that there was anything serious about being a rock star—the punkest gesture of all.
Sex and comedy come together at what might be the double climax of his career, the albums Strip (1983) and Vive Le Rock (1985). Pun intended. Kings and Prince Charming are two of the least sex-obsessed of his albums, his conversations with McLaren having triggered not only an interest in tribal drumming and vocalizations but also an exploration of the theme of romantic heroism, which drew on Ant’s other obsession, history. Even then, he would end concerts by stripping his shirt off and singing “Physical (You’re So),” a punk-period bump-and-grinder that Nine Inch Nails saw fit to cover. The lyrics, tentatively requesting a romantic date and perhaps a little roughhousing after dinner, are positively sweet, so it’s hard to know what was going on in his head to cause his ecstatic gyrations, but easier to know what was going on in the heads of the women in the audience during them.
(Forget Reznor: you’ve got to wonder if Steve Kipner and Terry Shaddick, who wrote Olivia Newton-John’s massive 1981 hit “(Let’s Get) Physical” with a male vocalist in mind, caught an Ants concert.)
Friend or Foe was the fame album, after which the sex theme came to the fore again with a vengeance. How could someone with Adam Ant’s interests resist the opportunity push the envelope sexually in a mainstream context for his audience of pubescent girls? In the process, he alienated the teen boy audience he’d acquired with Kings, and with Vive Le Rock he alienated the girls. But before that happened he had an almost unheard-of opportunity to make pornographic art in a completely mainstream context.
Of course, the 80s were the decade for putting porn into pop. Madonna and Prince were doing it in the United States. Wham! were all leathered-up on the cover of Fantastic already in 1983, and dancing around onstage in tight shorts on their Club Fantastic tour. The problem was really how to distinguish yourself, as a pornographic artist, from what was just normal pop proceedings. I would say Ant managed it, or at least, put his own stamp on the trend.
The Libertine character invented for Strip was a natural evolution of the Prince Charming/Dandy Highwayman character, who had in turn evolved out of the original Buccaneer/Warrior. The Strip character is Casanova by way of Jane Russell: the album cover apparently nods to a poster for Howard Hughes’ The Outlaw, a film notorious now and controversial then for the eccentric millionaire’s obsession with his Muse’s mammaries.
It’s not something you can really reproduce with a male body (at least not Adam Ant’s: you’d need a Tom of Finland type), but the reference is a mission statement for the album: we’re here to celebrate sex and court controversy, and Adam is taking the place normally occupied by women in popular culture. Ant, who was the only man in his college course Women in Society, presumably knew all about second-wave feminist objectification arguments and was only too happy to gallantly relieve women of the gaze. Apparently, he did manage to get the “Strip” single and video banned by the BBC, although the single sounds more innocuous than “Like a Virgin” now and the video looks like an indigestion nightmare after watching too much 70s TV sketch comedy.
I was joking when I said there was an element of gallantry in Ant’s assumption of the role of “objectified woman,” but I may not have been far off. The great crowd-sourced pop archive that is YouTube has a “making of” clip about the “Strip” video in which Ant, who studied filmmaking at college and storyboarded his videos, explains that, far from a mere video babe, the woman in the video is its “hero,” and the point at which he sits in her lap on a park bench a gender-flip of the more conventional heterosexual situation. (Which is easier to do when the man is the same size as the woman.) The lyrics of the song actually reject “sneaky” voyeurism, represented in the video by the moustache-twirling villains who constitute the showgirl heroine’s audience; the alternative offered is mutual stripping, with the man going first. The video’s Psycho homage makes more sense in this feminist context, underlining the aggression in the act of erotic looking. An aggression that Ant evidently felt capable of facing, although his post-fame breakdowns make you wonder. And it’s perhaps worth noting here that the first breakdown was triggered by a female stalker whose aggression levels were comparable to Norman Bates’s.
But back to gender: Ant was already doing gender-flipped versions of narratives in the “Prince Charming” video, in which Ant really assumes the role of Cinderella. Diana Dors, “the English Marilyn Monroe,” is the fairy godmother whose magic wand transforms our baby-faced, biceped working-class hero into an exotic spectacle, a Star. So as with the Strip album, an iconic female pin-up stands behind Ant’s conception of himself as a sex symbol.
The limitation of feminist objectification theory is its rigid structure: only men possess the destructive “gaze,” and only women can be its object. But Ant, of course, beginning with Prince Charming and continuing with Strip, was courting the gaze of his teen girl audience. With his scholarly, historically oriented approach to pop culture, Ant was aware that Bolan wasn’t the first male star to create mass hysteria in women, and neither were The Beatles (to which “The Ants” nods) or even Elvis. At the end of the “Prince Charming” video he fragments into several characters, one of which is this Ur-male sex symbol, silent film star Rudolph Valentino, The Latin Lover, in his most famous role, cosplaying as The Sheik. The seeds of Strip are there.
Much naughtier than the banned “Strip” single and video was the stage show, which was easily the most outrageous aspect of this phase, or maybe any phase, of Ant’s career. And I include his punk-era appearances in a gimp mask. (Or was it a Cambridge rapist mask? I can’t quite get to the bottom of this story.) Photos of the tour preserved by fans and documented on the internet detail his routine of stripping down to little shorts (also on display in the “Strip” video) and immersing himself in a tank of water before completing the show soaking wet. Which was ostensibly an homage to Houdini, although I don’t quite see what he was escaping from other than his clothes.
His project of making himself, in his late 20s, into a porn star for pubescent girls was apparently entirely successful, to judge from the fascinating and extensive YouTube comments on his videos and live clips. Women now in their 50s gleefully relate how he triggered their puberty; lesbians confess that he was the only man they would have gone straight for; and self-identified straight men come forward to testify to his handsomeness (one even admitting to lusting after him during the “Physical” gig climaxes). (Unless that was another lesbian.) It may be that his own relaxed attitude toward his self-objectification, his entire indifference to presenting himself as “masculine,” made Adam Ant the male star that it was okay for straight men to admit to finding attractive. In his cover of “Y.M.C.A.,” “A.N.T.S,” with lyrics altered to yet another Ants manifesto, he made his hostility toward what the internet has taken to calling “toxic” masculinity, which perhaps might better be called repressed masculinity, crystal clear:
It's fun to go to the A.N.T.S.... Put on that paint and hold up your head Til all the tough men drop dead.
Ant didn’t stick with androgyny for long, however. With his Dietrichesque canvas of a face (high forehead included), it must have been too easy for him. Instead, with Strip and Vive Le Rock he fashioned himself into first a heterosexual, and then a homosexual porn archetype. You can put over the gay porn archetype with a teen girl audience, as George Michael magnificently proved with his Faith album just two years after Vive Le Rock. But not if it comes with a hair metal-by-way-of-its glam roots sound, I guess. With a single, “Apollo 9,” that hearkens back to the demented bubble-gum of Bowie’s avant-pop album, Lodger (also produced by Tony Visconti), by way of a square dance. With accompanying video featuring Ant decked out as a pink-gloved space cowboy, sporting a band aid-as-accessory long before Morrissey. Incredibly, “Apollo 9” was a bit of a hit, unlike the title single, a more straightforward rocker—that, however, namechecks Tom of Finland. I’m assuming that no heterosexual man would have known who Tom of Finland was in 1985 without a dedicated interest in pornographic imagery and sexual subcultures.
Maybe the only reason Vive Le Rock tanked was that Ant, distracted by acting, let a whole year lapse between the success of “Apollo 9” and the album’s release. In the spring of 1985 he appeared in his first and most noteworthy role, as the title character in Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr. Sloane at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester; Vive Le Rock appeared in the fall. Ant made his first reference to Orton, however, on a 1980 demo called “Prick Up Your Ears,” about Orton’s relationship with the lover who murdered him, Ken Halliwell. The timing suggests that Ant read John Lahr’s biography of Orton, Prick Up Your Ears, when it came out in 1978. Ant has said that he felt he understood Orton very well, and believed that Sloane was Orton’s alter ego.
As someone who is also not a gay man who wrote an award-winning play about Orton and Halliwell in my teens, I feel like I’m in a better position than most to understand what he means. My own take on Orton, who became my alter ego in the play, in some regards, was that he was a narcissist who continually refashioned himself into other people’s fantasies and had no real identity. Well, I think that was actually John Lahr’s take, but it was one that fascinated me and resonated with me. I grew out of that phase, but Adam Ant, for good or ill, found a way not to, by becoming a pop star.
With Orton as one of the guiding spirits of the Vive Le Rock era, I suspect Ant was using this new “gay” image not so much to court a gay male gaze, or anyone else’s at this point, as to explore his narcissism, or, in Mark Simpson’s phrase, his “desire to be desired.” The heterosexual fantasy characters he’d previously enacted had the unfortunate drawback of having, ostensibly, to do something. Even if his Prince Charming/Cinderella in the video, unlike the characters he’s based on, doesn’t go to the ball to meet anyone, but to be looked at. Whereas the rent boy persona of the Vive Le Rock era doesn’t have to do anything except look sluttily available—not even feel desire. It’s not a character that exists within the lexicon of heterosexual fantasy, but Ant, ever the cultural appropriator, doesn’t let that stop him. And it makes sense that the pop music image influences of his 50s childhood, the first rock ‘n’ roll stars, are part of this mix. Because the decade that gave us pop masculinity as we still know it—“rebellious,” Romantic, a bit dangerous in a Byronic way, rough trade for the boys and girls—is also the decade in which masculinity’s desire to be desired came out of the closet.
Rock ‘n’ roll really started with Brando’s leather look in The Wild One (1953), which inspired Tom of Finland to create a gay archetype that grew up alongside the “straight” one. Like a couple of twins checking each other out, exchanging style tips. Whatever label you want to put on this new masculinity, it was both aestheticized and sexualized in a way that masculinity had seldom been before, in the modern world.
In fact the only proper label for it is—dare I use the “m”-word?
My source of unique information for this essay was this article, by a psychologist fan.
As mentioned in the essay, I was a playwright in my teens and early 20s. I’m currently working on a novel, which should be out some time in the next century, if there is one. Meanwhile I like to think about pop culture, usually film. I co-host the weekly film podcast There’s Sometimes a Buggy: Irresponsible Opinions About Classic Film and have published essays with various (non-academic) journals, usually Bright Wall/Dark Room and Bright Lights Film Journal.
Mark and I have been chatting about masculinity in pop culture for about 15 years, although we’ve never actually met.