In a development which will probably have him running to the mirror yet again to search anxiously for lines, this year the metrosexual leaves his teens and turns twenty. How quickly your children grow up. Although it seems only yesterday, I first wrote about him in 1994 after attending an exhibition organised by GQ magazine called ‘It’s a Man’s World’. I’d seen the future of masculinity and it was moisturised.
‘Metrosexual man, the single young man with a high disposable income, living or working in the city (because that’s where all the best shops are) is perhaps the most promising consumer market of the decade,’ I predicted.
Two decades of increasingly out and proud – and highly lucrative – male vanity later, and the metrosexual remains the apple of consumerism’s rapacious eye. In a recent report HSBC drooled all over his ‘Yummy’-ness, breathlessly pointing out how mainstream metrosexuality has become.
This was of course old news to anyone with eyes to see the extremely image-conscious and product-consuming men around them – or in bed with them – frantically trying to attract our attention. Or the way that the glistening pecs and abs of Men’s Health magazine have been outselling the glamor breasts of ‘lad mags’ for several years.
Hard to believe in such a fragranced, buffed, ripped, groomed, selfie-adoring and social ME-dia saturated world as ours now is, the metrosexual had to struggle to be heard in an un-tucked ‘no-homo’ early 1990s. Most people were in New Lad denial about what was happening to men and why they were taking so long in the bathroom.
Just as male homosexuality was still stigmatised and partly criminalised back then, the male desire to be desired – the self-regarding heart of metrosexuality – was still scorned by many. Narcissism was still seen as ‘essentially feminine’.
Or Wildean – and look what happened to him. The trials at the end of the 19th Century of Oscar Wilde, the last dandy who famously proclaimed that ‘to love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance’, had stamped, like a steam-powered die, a Victorian division of sexual labour over much of the 20th Century. Male vanity was at best womanish – but more likely simply passive and perverted.
The arrival of a shiny new Millennium, the abolition of the last laws discriminating against homosexuality, and the arrival of the preening dominance of celebrity culture with its Darwinian struggle to be noticed in a visual, ‘branded’ world finally blew away the last remnants of Victorianism.
To illustrate this I only have to mention two words: David Beckham. The working class family man England footballer who became much more globally famous for his attention-seeking haircuts, unabashed prettiness and rampant desire to be desired than for his footballing skills. Once the sarong-wearing, gay loving, cheek-sucked male model midfielder was outed in 2002 (by me again, sorry) as flamingly metrosexual, everyone suddenly ‘got it’. All that Nineties denial turned into incessant Noughties chatter about metrosexuals and ‘male grooming’. Often to little purpose.
In fact, the momentous nature of the masculine revolution that metrosexuality represents has been largely obscured by much of the superficial coverage it got. Metrosexuality is, in a paradox that Wilde would have relished, not skin deep. It’s not about facials and manbags, guyliner and flip flops. It’s not about men becoming ‘girly’ or ‘gay’. It’s about men becoming everything. To themselves. Just as women have been encouraged to do for some time.
This uptake by men of products, practises and pleasures previously ring-fenced for women and gay men is so normal now – even if we still need to be reassured with the word ‘man’ or ‘guy’ strapped on the front, like a phallic pacifier – that it’s taken for granted by young men today who really have become everything. So much so that it can be really too much for the older generation of metrosexuals.
With their painstakingly pumped and chiselled bodies, muscle-enhancing tattoos, piercings, adorable beards and plunging necklines, it’s eye-catchingly clear that second generation metrosexuality is less about clothes than it was for the first. Eagerly self-objectifying, second generation metrosexuality is totally tarty. Their own bodies more than clobber and product have become the ultimate accessory, fashioning them at the gym into a hot commodity – one that they share and compare in the online marketplace.
This new wave of metrosexuality has hyped the ‘sexual’ part and become ‘spornosexual’ – the pumped-up offspring of those spornographic Ronaldo and Beckham lunch-box ads where sport got into bed with porn while Mr Armani took pictures. But unlike Beckham, whose attributes were possibly artificially enhanced, today’s baby Beckhams have photoshopped themselves in real life. Think Dan Osborne in a pair of glittery Speedos. (And then have a lie down.)
Glossy magazines cultivated early metrosexuality. Celebrity culture then sent it into orbit. But for today’s generation social media, selfies and porn is the major vector of the male desire to be desired. They want to be wanted for their bodies more than their wardrobe. And definitely not their minds.
I suspect Wilde, who famously enjoyed feasting with panthers, would have approved. I certainly do. Even if I’m a little bit frightened too.
Maybe I suffer from what Freud described as man’s tendency to devalue what he desires, but I find anything touched by TV survivalist Bear Grylls’ calloused-but-manicured hands difficult to take too seriously.
But taken seriously he most certainly has been by the UK media with his currently airing C4 reality show The Island, in which thirteen ‘ordinary men’ are marooned on a tropical island for a month to find out whether today’s softies can cut it as ‘hunter gatherer’ butch Bear Grylls types. Nothing very much happens – the Gryllsettes grow beards, lose some pounds, drink a lot of boiled stagnant water, get bitten by sand-flies, and fall out with one another and then back in again. Like Big Brother but more boring.
Though given the column inches devoted to this show you’d think Grylls was some kind of sociologist, anthropologist and cultural seer. Rather than an outdoor cabaret artist with properly hydrated skin and really nice eyes.
So I hesitate to add to C4’s already bulging folder of press cuttings about Grylls’ sweaty island, but the Channel’s Chief Creative Officer Jay Hunt’s defence of the show’s decision not to include women last week was such a wonderfully serious and altogether inadvertent admission of where the actual ‘sexism’ of the show lies that it’s impossible to resist.
Hunt defended her reality show from the straw woman argument, aired widely in the media recently by female survival experts, that it was sexist because it excluded women from the island, by reiterating the comically prejudiced premise of the reality show: that it was intended as a ‘real test of modern masculinity’. She went on:
‘Let’s be honest, what better way of finding out what British men were REALLY made of than leaving them to fend for themselves in a frighteningly tropical environment.’
Yes, let’s be honest. Real men don’t eat quiche, but creepy crawlies. Real masculinity is about being deprived of all culture and civilization and potable water. Real masculinity is all about tropical skid marks.
Women are excluded from the delights of the island not because Ms Hunt didn’t think women would be able to cope, but because doing so would have got in the way of the stereotype that men are ‘really’ savages. Or ‘hunter gatherers’ as she likes to describe them. The show is not about finding out what people are REALLY made of – but today’s men. Because we already know what men should be made of. It’s not sexist, in other words, because its sexism is directed towards chaps. Any sexism towards ladies is just unintended blowback.
In fact this kind of brutish reductiveness about men applied to women by C4 would have brought a much bigger backlash than the one prompted by disgruntled female survival experts. It would have cost Hunt her job. Can you imagine the outcry, for instance, over a reality TV show which announced that it aimed to find out what British women, as a sex, were REALLY made of – by locking them in the kitchen? Or Mothercare?
Any attempt to talk about REAL and ESSENTIAL femininity – let alone applying some contrived ‘test’ of it – is generally held up to fierce criticism these days, now that women are, rather wonderfully, encouraged to believe they can be anything they want to be. Including Chief Creative Officers at C4 – commissioning shows about REAL and ESSENTIAL masculinity. ‘Women are every bit as cut out for this survivalist stuff as men,’ says Ms Hunt. ‘Women are stronger, more independent and more self-reliant than they have ever been.’
Quite so. But while women can be much more than submissive Janes nowadays, men are apparently still supposed to be forever anxiously comparing themselves to some mythical Tarzan that never existed. And if you doubt it never really existed, take a look at Mr Grylls, who is the most absurd and unbelievable confection of a human being imaginable. A survival porn star.
In an introduction to the series, in which Bare Thrills has, very unusually, kept most of his clothes on, he opined: “I want to find out what happens if you strip man of all the luxuries and conveniences of modern living and then force him to fight for his existence.” By ‘man’ here Grylls means, as Ms Hunt has explained, not humans, but ‘men’.
The presentation of the series as some ‘real test of modern masculinity’ is, ‘naturally’, completely bogus, even by the cranky standards of reality TV ‘experiments’. You could have taken any group of unprepared British men of the last hundred years or so and dropped them in a tropical mangrove swamp equipped with nothing but some garden string, Elastoplasts and hand-held TV cameras with much the same results. (Though it turns out that some of the contestants, and indeed the island itself, weren’t so unprepared after all. But hey, that’s show business.)
But the underlying premise that masculinity has to be ‘tested’, to be proved ‘real’, is what shows up the, ahem, rigid expectations we can still have of men compared to women, even on groovy C4. This is why Grylls, picking up on media chatter of the last year, has talked repeatedly about his show being about today’s ‘crisis of masculinity’.
That phrase is, like Grylls’ show, now much more of a problem than the one it purports to describe. As I’ve written elsewhere, when people talk about a ‘crisis of masculinity’ these days they’re usually talking about their own – in dealing with the fact that modern masculinity isn’t what they want or expect it to be. Particularly when working class chaps aren’t what middle class chaps like Chief Scout Grylls (educated at Eton ) want them to be.
And has anyone noticed how no one ever seems to talk about a ‘crisis of femininity’?
Older men may miss some of the masculine certainties of their youth, but most of today’s ‘soft’ young men seem very glad indeed that they’re not banished to the desert island of ascetic old skool masculinity their fathers and grandfathers were. Unless of course it gets them on telly.
Whatever people’s intentions in invoking it, and whatever value it may have had back in the 80s and 90s when male roles really began to change, post Thatcherite-Reaganite crash consumerism and de-industrialization, the concept of a ‘crisis of masculinity’ all these years of change later merely perpetuates the notion that masculinity is one phallic thing only, and that thing needs to be kept up, and ‘hard’. Otherwise we’ll all have a nervous breakdown. And not catch any fish.
In the end, for all the pretentious and possibly sexist claims made for it, everyone knows that The Island is really just entertainment and voyeurism. But it’s cheering to think that the use of the ‘crisis of masculinity’ to sell Bare Thrills’ latest instalment of survival porn may finally do for the phrase.
Let’s leave its meagre carcass on the island, picked clean of what little, stringy meat it ever had on it.
The second generation of metrosexuals are cumming. And this time it’s hardcore
by Mark Simpson
What is it about male hipsters and their strange, pallid, highly ambivalent fascination with bodies beefier and sexier than their own? Which means, of course, pretty much everyone?
You may remember last year that last year the Guardian columnist and TV presenter Charlton Brooker had a very messy bowel-evacuating panic attack over the self-sexualisation of the male body exhibited in reality show Geordie Shore.
At least the Vice writer isn’t in total denial. Brooker was so threatened by the brazen male hussies on Geordie Shore and the confusion their pumped, shaved ‘sex doll’ bodies, plucked eyebrows and penises the size of a Sky remote provoked in him that the poor love had to pretend that they didn’t exist outside of reality TV. That they were some kind of science fiction invented to torment and bewilder him and his nerdy body. Perhaps because he’s rather younger than Brooker, Mr Vice on the other hand has actually noticed that these guys really do exist and are in fact pretty much everywhere today, dipped in fake tan and designer tatts and ‘wearing’ plunging ‘heavage’ condom-tight T-s.
In a media world which largely ignores what’s happened to young men Mr Vice is to be commended that he’s clearly spent a great deal of time studying them. Albeit with a mixture of envy and desire, fear and loathing – and a large side order of self-contradiction and sexual confusion.
He laments that these ‘pumped, primed, terrifyingly sexualised high-street gigolos’ have been imported from America, but uses the execrable imported Americanism ‘douchebag’ to describe them – over and over again. What’s a douchebag? Someone with bigger arms than you, who’s getting more sex than you – and probably earning more than you, despite being considerably less expensively educated than you.
But by far the most infuriating thing about ‘sad young douchebags’ is that they are so very obviously not sad at all. They and their shameless, slutty bodies are having a whale of a time, thank you very much. They’re far too happy being ‘sad young douchebags’ to sit down and write lengthy, angry rationalising essays about why someone else’s idea of a good time is WRONG. Or read one. Or read anything, in fact. Apart maybe from Men’s Health.
A strong smell of nostalgia emanates from this Vice jeremiad, like a pickled onion burp. The writer laments a lost Eden of masculine certainties and whinges that these young men with their sexualised ‘gym bunny wanker’ bodies have replaced older, more ‘authentic’ English masculine archetypes, ‘the charmer’, ‘the bit of rough’, ‘the sullen thinker’ (which, I wonder, applies to him?) and that as a result:
Nobody wants to be Sean Connery any more. With their buff, waxed bodies and stupid haircuts, the modern British douchebag looks more like a model from an Attitude chatline ad than a potential Bond.
Ah yes, Sean Connery – the former Mr Scotland gym bunny wanker ex chorus boy who wore a wig and fake tan in those glossy, slutty Bond films. Masculinity is never what it used to be. Even back in Ancient Greece everyone was whining that real men went out of fashion with the Trojan War. And what’s so wrong with wanting to look like an Attitude chat line ad, rather than a hired killer?
Oh, that’s right – coz it looks gay.
All this moaning, along with the writer’s complaints that these buff young men are disappointingly ‘soft’, crap in a fight and don’t have nearly enough scars, reminds me of those gays on Grindr who stipulate in their profile ‘I like my men to be MEN!!’. Or the camp queens who over the years who have solemnly informed me: ‘If there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s camp queens!!’ Actually, it reminds me of myself when I was much more hopelessly romantic than I am today, and before I realised real men were really slutty.
There is nothing gayer than the longing for masculine certainties like this. Especially since they never really existed anyway. It’s like believing that the phallus is the real thing and the penis is just a symbol. It’s Quentin Crisp’s Great Dark Man syndrome, but sans the self-awareness, or the archness and the henna.
In fact Mr Vice is so nostalgic – and so young – that he seems to think metrosexuality is something prior to, distinct from and more tasteful than these sexed-up shamelessly slutty male bodies that insist on grabbing his attention, wistfully contrasting how the ‘natural confidence’ of metrosexuality ‘has been replaced by something far more flagrant’. Take it from metrodaddy, today’s flagrantly sexualised male body is merely more metrosexuality. More sexy, more tarty, more porny, more slapped in your face. So stop bitching and suck on it. Metrosexuality has gone hard-core -the ‘sexuality’ part has gone ‘hyper’.
The metrosexual was born twenty years ago and had to struggle to survive in an untucked ‘no-homo’ 1990s – but the second wave take the revolution he brought about in masculine aesthetics for granted. Steeped in images of male desirability from birth and masturbating furiously to hard-core online porn from puberty, they have totally sexed-up the male body and turbo-charged the male desire to be desired, which was always at the heart of metrosexuality rather than expensive fashion spreads and fastidious lists of ‘dos and don’ts’. Their own bodies rather than clobber and cosmetics have become the ultimate accessory, fashioning them at the gym into a hot commodity. Nakedly metrosexy.
If we need to give this new generation of hyper metrosexuals a name – other than total tarts – we should perhaps dub them spornosexuals. These mostly straight-identified young men are happy to advertise, like an Attitude chat line, their love of the pornolised, sporting-spurting male body – particularly their own. Along with their very generous availability to anyone’s gaze-graze. Especially at premium rates.
And everyone is calling their number. Though admittedly not many do it via the extremely kinky route of writing long essays denouncing them and explaining why they’re TOTALLY NOT INTERESTED. Hipsters, who of course think themselves above the vulgarity of sexiness, are simply the ironic, anti-sexual wing of metrosexuality – which is to say, absolutely fucking pointless.
It’s the obvious, if often oblivious, visual bi-curiosity of today’s totally tarty, hyper metrosexuality that alarms people even more than its ‘vulgarity’. Male bisexuality is still largely a taboo precisely because it threatens the final, fond, sacred, and highly phallic myth of masculinity: that it has an (heteronormative) ‘aim’ and ‘purpose’. The scattershot sluttiness of spornosexuals signals a very sticky end to that virile delusion.
Mr Vice argues repeatedly that these young men enjoying their bodies and their lack of inhibition compared to their fathers and grandfathers, are having a ‘crisis of masculinity’. This just smacks of more middle class resentment dressed up as ‘concern’ – a pissy, passive aggressive way of calling them ‘sad douchebags’ again. Or ‘gay’. When people talk about a ‘crisis of masculinity’ they’re usually talking about their own – in dealing with the fact that masculinity isn’t what they want it to be. And particularly when working class chaps aren’t what middle class chaps want them to be.
It’s true that our post-industrial landscape often doesn’t know what to do with the male body apart from shag it or sell it, but that’s not necessarily such a terrible contrast with the ‘glorious’ past. For a younger generation of young men no longer afraid of their own bodies there’s no crisis – but rather a liberation. From the dehumanising, sexist constraints of their forefathers. Men’s bodies are no longer simply instrumental things – for fighting wars, extracting coal, building ships, scoring goals, making babies and putting the rubbish out that must renounce pleasure, vanity, sensuality and a really good fingering and leave that to women and pooves.
Instead the male body has been radically redesigned, with the help of some blueprints from Tom of Finland, as a sensual sex toy designed to give and particularly to receive pleasure. Maybe it’s not terribly heroic, and admittedly some of the tatts are really grotty, but there are much worse things to be. Such as a slut-shaming writer for a hipster magazine.
Of course, I would say that. Because I find these spornosexual, totally tarty young men fuckable. But that’s kind of the point. They desperately want to be found fuckable. It would be extremely rude and ungrateful not to find them fuckable when they have gone to so much trouble doing all those bubble-butt building barbell lunges at the gym for me.
And in fuckable fact, it’s their fuckability which makes the unfuckables hate them so fucking much.
From the gender-bending antics of Eurythmics and Culture Club, to the propulsive synthpop of Depeche Mode, New Order, and the Human League, was there ever, asks Mark Simpson, a more spectacular time for pop?
In 1983, the year that McDonald’s introduced the Chicken McNugget and the second Cold War was at its height, the world very nearly ended when large NATO exercises were mistaken by an understandably jittery USSR for preparations for a new Barbarossa.
More ominously, compact discs went on sale in the United States and Europe, the first commercial mobile telephone call was made, and the Internet as it’s known today came into existence. Oh, and Carrie Underwood was born.
In other words, while the world itself didn’t end in 1983, all the necessary means were invented for eventually bringing about something much more serious: the end of pop music.
Which, rather like the best pop itself, is a bittersweet thought to savor, since 1983 was unquestionably the finest year for pop music ever.
1983 was also — perhaps not so coincidentally — my final year at high school, and instead of studying for my exams and thinking about what I wanted to actually do with my life, I’d taken to hanging around hi-fi shops on my way home, hypnotized by the LED and LCD equalizer displays on the latest sound systems. I fell head over heels in love with a Technics SL-5 Turntable. There were various reasons for its quasi-sexual appeal: It was very slim, and from above no bigger than an LP sleeve, plus the turntable had a really cool linear arm tracking inside the lid that was automatically operated with buttons at the front. It was very futuristic; like a giant, clunky, analog CD player, before anyone I knew had a CD player.
But the real reason for my infatuation with the turntable was the 12-inch of Eurythmics’ “Love Is a Stranger” that the cunning salesman slapped on at full volume. Not only did the otherworldly, drivingly sequenced synth sounds and Annie Lennox’s operatic range superbly showcase the sound dynamics of the product, the lyrics Lennox breathed, seemingly in the back of your mind, were the ultimate hard sell:
“And I want you / And I want you / And I want you so.”
Pop moozic in the early ’80s was a stranger in an open, glamorous, sleekly designed car: tempting you in and driving you far away. And not only in Eurythmics songs; the Smiths’ second single, “This Charming Man,” also released in 1983, featured that same car-driving stranger offering Morrissey a ride.
This year was a pre-Fall moment when everything and anything seemed possible — because it was. The neck-strainingly rapid developments in music-making technology meant that no one really knew what they were doing until they’d actually done it. Every record was a revelation. A miracle. There were no rules because there was no manual. Invention was king.
Eurythmics recorded their sophomore album, Sweet Dreams, for example, on a simple TEAC eight-track in an attic, without any of the fixtures of a professional studio. The title song was recorded in a single take, with Lennox improvising most of the lyrics on the spot and David Stewart tapping on half-filled milk bottles to produce that chiming sound as Lennox sings “Hold your head up / Keep your head up.” In this new landscape, record companies had little choice but to indulge their prodigies in their pixie boots with their pixie powers. (Although that didn’t stop “Love Is a Stranger” from being yanked off the air during an early transmission on MTV by executives who confused Lennox for a transvestite.)
This was also the era of the wizard producer: industry legends like Martin Rushent, who fashioned the sound of the Human League, and most famously Trevor Horn, former lead singer for the Buggles, who produced ABC’s stunningly beautiful 1982 album, The Lexicon of Love, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s pounding 1983 single “Relax,” a siren call to closeted young gay teens if ever there was one. Horn, who deftly deployed the dark magic of the famous Fairlight sampling synthesizer, was nothing less than a creator of brave new sonic worlds. (Appropriately, Horn’s 1979 Buggles single “Video Killed the Radio Star” was also the first to be aired on MTV when the channel launched in 1981.)
Early ’80s British synthpop — or “new wave,” as it was known in the United States — was madly ambitious and utopian, offering an analog dream of a digital future. And it sounded gorgeous. In fact, it sounded much better than the properly digital future did when it actually arrived, with greater processing power, a few years later. It was also much better than drugs or sex, which turned out to be piss-poor substitutes for pop music when they finally showed up at the end of the decade in jeans at an acid house rave somewhere in a field near Manchester. Synthpop — or “new pop” as the genre was more broadly dubbed by the music journalist Paul Morley at the time — was the glorious culmination of the 1970s’ aesthetic revolts of glam and punk rock. It was pop music at its most fun, its most danceable, its most pretentious, its most gender-bending, and its most fashionable.
The 12-inch single was a mainstay of synthpop, which in many ways carried on where disco (for which the 12-inch was invented) left off after America murdered it at the end of the ’70s. The greater treble and bass response afforded by 12-inch singles demonstrated the new recording, mixing, and lavish production techniques all the better — and made it hip-twitching. Today, if you listen to extended mixes from that era, especially the ones with the long intros with, say, a single sampled snare drum playing for several minutes, you often wonder where people got the time. But back then, before the Internet and mobile phones ruined everything, they were the height of indulgence. They were a way of making the blissful perfection of the pop single last forever, instead of just three minutes.
Our sixth-form common room didn’t have a Technics SL-5, but it did have a battered 1960s mono Dansette record player. Undoubtedly, the most played record on it in 1983 was New Order’s epoch-making, four-to-the-floor new wave disco track “Blue Monday,” which was, in a calculatedly haughty gesture, only available as a 12-inch single and infamously not included on the album Power, Corruption & Lies – though with a transporting track like “Your Silent Face,” whose final kiss-off lyric is “You’ve caught me at a bad time, so why don’t you piss off?” I wasn’t complaining about the album.
“Blue Monday” became the bestselling 12-inch single ever in the United Kingdom. It’s difficult, in a post-“Blue Monday” world, to understand the seismic impact of that New York hi-NRG sound recycled gloriously through Manchester melancholy. We played it so many times we had to weigh the ancient chisel of a needle down with putty to stop it from jumping.
Other 1983 synthpop singles that got played to death, either in the common room or in my bedroom, included the deliciously silly “Blind Vision,” by Blancmange; the surprisingly political “Bad Boys,” by Wham!; the sublimely whiney “Everything Counts,” by Depeche Mode; the cutesy-funky “Rip it Up,” by Orange Juice; the fantastically pretentious and pompous “Visions in Blue,” by Ultravox; the hair-prickling “Song to the Siren,” by This Mortal Coil; the tantrummy torch song “Soul Inside,” by Soft Cell (their last hurrah); the toe-tapping, fringe-flapping “Too Shy,” by Kajagoogoo; the plaintive but insistent “Come Back and Stay,” by Paul Young; the revving synth-reggae of “Electric Avenue,” by Eddy Grant; the beating beauty of “All of My Heart,” by ABC (released in 1982 but so big that it hogged much of 1983, too).
The delightfully absurd synth-goth of “The Walk,” by the Cure; the stolen kisses of “Our Lips Are Sealed,” by Fun Boy Three; the bitter-sweet “Church of the Poison Mind,” by Culture Club; the exhilaratingly obscure “Burning Down the House,” by Talking Heads; the lipsticked charm of “(Keep Feeling) Fascination,” by the Human League; the dreamy reverie of “Don’t Talk to Me About Love” by Altered Images; and, of course, David Bowie’s Nile Rodgers–produced smash “Let’s Dance,” a record that manages somehow to be both criminally danceable and strangely austere, like the White Witch of Narnia on roller skates.
With records like that as the soundtrack to our teenagerdom, is it any wonder that we thought ourselves the cat’s meow?
Bowie had, in many ways, made the glamour and swish of synthpop possible. He was certainly the stylistic inspiration for the romantic wing of new wave (many of whom, however, chose to sing like Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry), famously bestowing his benediction on Steve Strange and assorted Blitz Kids in the video for 1980 “Ashes to Ashes,” dressed in a Pierrot costume, being followed by a bulldozer. By 1983, Bowie had finally achieved the stateside success he had longed for throughout the ’70s with his “Serious Moonlight” tour, becoming part of the “second British Invasion” of new wave acts.
The second British Invasion — which, by the way, was almost certainly the last — was more successful than the first, changing the American aesthetic as well as musical landscapes. Schooled by ’70s Bowie, British new wave acts like Duran Duran were masterful at drawing attention to themselves onscreen and got saturation exposure on the newly founded MTV. Although their hit single “Girls on Film” was released in 1981, it wasn’t until an MTV-friendly “day version” was reissued in March 1983 that the video became a staple on the channel, along with “Hungry Like the Wolf” and “The Reflex.”
The synthpop sound and kooky styles of those quirky Brits became the hallmark of ’80s MTV, and eventually made its way into the classic ’80s high school movies of John Hughes. British new wave was especially popular on the West Coast and with Los Angeles’s KROQ station — and continued to be long after new wave had been rolled back in the U.K. (When I visited Los Angeles for the first time in 1990, I couldn’t quite believe that all this British synthpop was still being played so much — and in such a sunny place.)
It didn’t hurt that many of the Brit synthpop bands were also very easy on the eyes. The women, like Lennox, could be very handsome, and the boys could be very pretty — Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet certainly were, with the possible exception of their lead singers. In the promo for “Everything Counts,” the seemingly sweet Essex boys of Depeche Mode look like they’re in a Bel Ami video, albeit with clothes.
For my part, I had a crush on the fresh-faced Edwyn Collins from Orange Juice and Bernard Sumner from New Order (it was a long time ago); I always thought Sumner sang like a boy crying in his bedroom with the window left deliberately open. I also crushed on Curt Smith from Tears for Fears — yes, even with those mini pigtails. There was something about the boyish vulnerability and sensuality of synthpop that went with their kind of looks — there was definitely a sexual ambiguity in the sequenced air.
Unfortunately for Smith, he also looked a bit like a lad at school I was hopelessly in love with. It was a requited but unconsummated affair — which meant, of course, that it was endlessly orgasmic. I listened to the Tears for Fears album The Hurting, particularly the heartfelt yearnings of “Pale Shelter” — “You don’t give me love / you give me cold hands” — much, much too much, and heard things that weren’t really there. I even wrote to them via their record label, thanking them for daring to write such “openly homoerotic lyrics” — and received a diplomatic letter of acknowledgement back from a PR agent informing me that Curt and Roland would be very pleased to hear their music “meant so much.”
But of all of the pretty early ’80s boys — or girls — Marilyn, a.k.a. Peter Robinson, was perhaps the prettiest. A star of new romantic stomping ground the Blitz club when his mate Boy George was working in the coat check there, he finally got a record deal in 1983 and had a hit with the catchy single “Calling Your Name.” Finally the pop charts had a male gender bender who was sexy instead of mimsy, famously describing himself as “Tarzan and Jane rolled into one.”
But a line had been crossed. Sadly, the story of Marilyn is also the story of the end of the high summer of synthpop/new wave. We had traveled too far and too fast in that stranger’s open car — the brakes were being applied. Margaret Thatcher, whose much vaunted “Victorian values” were to include a ban on gay propaganda, was reelected by a landslide in June 1983, thanks largely to the victory of the British armed forces over Argentina in a far-flung colonial outpost. Her bosom buddy Ronald Reagan had meanwhile essentially put the West on a war footing against the “Evil Empire,” as he dubbed the Soviet Union. And Dr. Robert Gallo had isolated a virus he named HTLV-III, which had snuffed out Klaus Nomi and Jobriath in that same year. We now know it as HIV.
The delicious “art fag” decadence of new wave — or “that queer English shit” as it was sometimes known — was clearly doomed in the militaristic, materialistic, AIDS-terror climate of the mid-1980s. Male vulnerability and sexual ambiguity were now fatal weaknesses.
Marilyn’s second single, “Cry and Be Free,” a ballad released in 1984, was doing well until he appeared, pouting, on Top of the Pops in a glittery off-the-shoulder number. There was a visceral reaction as a nation recoiled from its own arousal. His single plummeted. His third, the ironically prescient “You Don’t Love Me,” stalled at number 40 on the U.K. charts. The career of the most beautiful boy in British pop was over.
And so, essentially, was new wave – banished by a mid-’80s counterrevolution of guitar-led rock. Disco sucked again, and it gave you AIDS. And Bruce bloody Springsteen was the biggest thing on the U.K. charts in 1984. Yes, it’s true that Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s spunktacular dance track “Relax” finally hit number 1 in January 1984, but it had been released in 1983 — and was banned by the BBC in 1984. Frankie went on to have more hits that year in the U.K., including, most famously, ‘Two Tribes,” which satirized the threat of the Cold War turning hot, and certainly sold a lot of T-shirts. But for my pocket money they definitely peaked with “Relax.”
My school days ended in the summer of 1983, and with them my exquisitely doomed love affair. Synthpop, as it turned out, was also doomed. So you see, contrary to what the history books tell you, the world really did end in 1983 — but at least I got the Technics SL-5 turntable for my 18th birthday.
I ended up playing the Smiths on it a lot — and their eponymous first album, released in January 1984, complete with young Joe Dallesandro’s naked torso on the sleeve, was very definitely the homoerotic bonanza I’d mistaken Tears for Fears’s The Hurting for, albeit a celibate one.
In a sense, the Smiths were the ultimate new wave/new pop band, one who eschewed synthesizers for guitars, which lead singer Morrissey, an uber fan of glam and punk, professed to hate. This turned out to be a smart move that kept them in business until 1987 — and Morrissey, as a solo artist, to this day.
But I suspect the Smiths were only allowed to happen at all because, despite their enormous fame today, they were a very well-kept secret in the ’80s, barely troubling the British top 10 and effectively banned from daytime radio airplay.
The Smiths were semi-underground new wave. Otherwise known as indie.
(Originally appeared on Out.com, 18 Feb, 2014)
Joe Brown has kindly made a Spotify out of some of the songs in this essay:
Mark Simpson goes on a road trip connecting four countries: England, Scotland, the UK – & Yorkshire
What’s so ‘Great’ about ‘The Great North Road’? Better known in our more impatient era as the A1?
Well, if you’re unfortunate enough to find yourself in the south, it takes you to the north – or ‘The NORTH’ as the signage rightly has it. And unlike the more popular M1, it goes all the way NORTH – instead of petering out like a big Jessie near Leeds. And that’s the proper shining, horny helmeted, be-sporroned NORTH. Not the damp, camp north west of the M6.
For all its butchness, the A1 is also the most glamorous road in Britain, connecting the capitals of four countries – England, Scotland, the UK, and Yorkshire. The A1 is a metalled Union, starting in the English Baroque shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral, flowing up the eastern side of England, past the Romano-Viking-White Rose splendour of York, once England’s second city, spooling up and over the much-contested border fortress town of Berwick Upon Tweed, and finishing with a flourish in the Caledonian heart of Edinburgh with the grand panoramic, kilted sweep of Princes Street.
True, along the way, you also have to go through Holloway, under Hatfield and past Stevenage, but glamour always has a price. For size queens out there, the A1 is also the biggest. At 410 miles it’s the longest numbered road in the UK.
Above all, the A1, still mostly dual carriageway, is a road with a view – on the past and the present. Not a virtual ‘M’ road built and engineered to connect industrial centres as fast and as boringly as possible, the A1 is a road that takes time to tell you a story. (Thankfully, plans to downgrade the whole of the A1 to motorway were dropped in 1995).
OK, very often the view it offers is the back end of two lorries labouring up a hill, one overtaking the other at a speed differential of 0.5 MPH. Or during the summer months, those suburban juggernauts of despair – otherwise known as caravans. But nonetheless, and despite all the by-passes and ‘upgrades’ to stretches of it, detouring the A1 from the old ‘coaching’ Great North Road route of Dick Turpin yore, it’s a road that still allows you to see or at least glimpse England and Scotland, instead of hiding it behind cuttings and another Unwelcome Break.
A lush, lowland Eastern England of market towns and fertile arable farms, grain silos and Cathedrals, country houses and garrisons – and, just outside sleepy Grantham… a roadside sex shop. Try finding one of those on the M1. Near Doncaster you zoom around Ferrybridge power station’s colossal steaming cooling towers, looming like concrete castles with dragons lurking within – a legacy of the rich coal seams of Yorkshire that helped fire the Industrial Revolution.
Just before the York turn off you pass a mile west of Towton, site of the bloodiest battle on English soil, where in 1461 the Yorkists triumphed over the Lancastrians leaving 28,000 dead and dying in the snow.
If you look to the West before Scotch Corner, site of the Angle’s decisive defeat of the Goddodin in 600, you might on a clear day glimpse the preposterous beauty of the Yorkshire Dales. As you head up through the land of the Prince Bishops and past Durham, its Romanesque Cathedral and final resting place of the father of English history, the Venerable Bede, is sadly hidden from the current A1 route. But as a consolation prize you might be able to fleetingly scope Lumley Castle, once the residence of the Bishop of Durham and now a luxury hotel where travellers can break their journey in turreted style.
Onwards to Gateshead, where Antony Gormley’s famous Angel of the North, welcomes you, wings outstretched over the A1 like a Norse god, braced forever against the wind sluicing in off the North Sea without the benefit of even a Geordie t-shirt. ‘The Gateshead Flasher’ as locals dub him, is a steely sign commanding you to start paying serious attention, man, pet.
For after you skirt Newcastle’s Western suburbs and fly over the mighty Tyne – with or without fog on it – towards Morpeth, you enter the enchanted Middle Earth of Northumberland, where the A1 frequently narrows and slows to a single lane the better to allow you to enjoy the timeless, undulating landscape, and permit you perhaps to catch a glimpse of mighty Alnwick Castle, seat of the Duke of Northumberland and easily most photogenic star of the Harry Potter movies. A little further on, bold Bamburgh Castle, ancient seat of the Kings of Northumbria. And just beyond, holy, lonely Lindisfarne, where St Cuthbert, patron Saint of the North, got up to whatever it is saintly monks get up to.
Why ever did they film Lord of the Rings in plain and dull New Zealand?
Over the Tweed and just over the border you can enjoy Scotland’s own very abbreviated Amalfi Run as the A1 snakes you along the top of cliffs overlooking a shockingly blue North Sea, and on to the glittering Firth of Forth, with the brooding promise of the Highlands beyond – if it’s not raining horizontally again.
But keep your eyes peeled at all times for the anti-Sassenach speed cameras.
Just south of Dunbar the A1 takes you right through – and over the bones – of the bleak battlefield where in 1650 Cromwell routed the Scottish army loyal to Charles II, who had been proclaimed King of Scotland in defiance of the Commonwealth. Next year of course the Scottish vote on whether to divorce the English and end the 306 year-old Union. If it’s a ‘Byazz!!’, then the A1 will become a truly international road again. Possibly with border posts, passport checks and maybe even the occasional border skirmish and raid just like in the good old days.
Call it what you will, and ‘upgrade’ it as much as you like, The Great North Road is the axis by which Scots and English, invaders and defenders, Romans and Britons, Vikings and Saxons, rebels and loyalists, Catholics and Protestants, Rugby Leaguers and Rugby Unionists, have sought to impose their will and their map-reading on these British Isles.
All saints should be considered guilty until proven innocent
The book that changed the way the world looks at men
It’s a Queer World
A warped look at a fin de siecle world of pop culture where nothing is quite as straight – or gay – as it seems. Based on Mark Simpson’s monthly columns of the same name for Attitude magazine in the 1990s, It’s a Queer World turned out to be both a valedictory for the 20th century and something of a prophetic text for […]
Banning gay propaganda can backfire. Spectacularly. In the 1980s, when the UK Government of Margaret Thatcher outlawed the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality, gays were still semi-criminal. As well as immoral, ridiculous, disgusting, diseased and after your kids. Since then however UK gays have been promoted more rapidly and giddily than almost any persecuted, despised group in […]