This is the second installment in a three-part series on the theme of straight-transgender encounters in music videos. You can find the first installment here. Stay tuned for part III!
Gender-bending, drag, and other modes of queer gender-performance are not especially new to popular music videos—and their uses have not always been unambiguously empowering, truth be told—but far fewer are the videos that dramatize an encounter between seemingly-heterosexual men and trans-women. The “man meets (trans)woman” trope is shared by music videos for The Knife’s “Pass This On” (2003), The New Pornographer’s “Sing Me Spanish Techno” (2005), and Kai Stänicke’s /Tin [A] Din’s“Cold Star” (2010)—the last being more a movie short with no dialogue and music-video-like features. All of these videos feature scenes of rising tension, as these two archetypal characters are brought into contact with each other; representing the distant ends of gender normativity, what sorts of attractions and repulsions will result? In all three videos, some sudden shift in direction is put in motion through eye contact: conspiratorial glances, searching looks, smoldering—perhaps even menacing—stares. Each video nonetheless differs in how it resolves this tension, how each character fares at the end of it all, and which third person or group takes on the role of cultural dupe/antagonist to play against the lead couple. Musically, all of these videos feature music that is far away from the torch songs and club dance remixes that usually accompany drag performances; instead, they offer slow-burning electro-pop and chipper indie rock.
“Sing Me Spanish Techno” (The New Pornographers, 2005; dir. Michael Palmieri)
Director Michael Palmieri sets this music video in a dark and dingy lounge-bar, decorated in a tacky, vaguely Polynesian “Tiki”-esque theme. Incongruously, the strains of some sort of guitar-and-strings country/western song hang in the air. There’s a shot of an empty stage with turquoise lighting over a fake tropical/jungle backdrop. At the bar sits a boringly normal, straight-appearing white man (for now), staring blankly over his empty glass. Behind the bar, which features a painting of tropical seaside scenery in garish colors, stands a handsome, black, masculine bartender, cleaning glasses and throwing derisive looks at a curly-haired white patron drinking blearily at a table near the stage. The drinker passes out and his glass rolls off the table.
The music to “Sing Me Spanish Techno” begins just as the glass hits the floor. After a brief reaction shot from the man at the bar, there follows a montage of close-up shots following the back of a feminine figure in a sequined, feathered red cocktail dress and high black stiletto heels. As she takes the stage and begins lip-synching to the music, this performer becomes clearly legible as a cross gender performer through her outfit (sequined dress, oversized earrings and hairpiece), her hyperbolic, “fierce” performance gestures, her facial features, and her strategically over-dramatic makeup (e.g., the past-the-lip application of lipstick).
After one verse of lip-synching, there is hardly any reaction from the nearly-empty bar: the bartender looks nonplussed, the drunk man is asleep, and the man at the bar looks at her with flat—perhaps hesitant—interest. Exasperated, she leaves the stage and comes to the bar, where she lights a cigarette; we see a slow-motion close-up of smoke curling out from her lips. The man at the bar looks over at her, and then gestures to the bartender, seemingly buying her a drink. He comes and takes a seat next to her at the bar, and they both exchange awkward smiles and glances. They leave the bar together soon afterwards, leaving the drunken patron smiling and unconscious on his table. They continue to flirt awkwardly as they return to her apartment, where they have a round of shots before heading to her living room.
At this point, it’s still not clear that the man is aware that his companion is not a biological female, and so the tension mounts during a slow-motion montage of the two of them falling onto the couch together, which is cross-cut with shots of various objects in the room that hint towards the performer’s occupation as a drag queen. But then, just as their mouths almost meet, she brings out a pair of tweezers and begins to pluck his eyebrows aggressively. What follows afterwards is a montage of the man’s transformation—assisted by the drag performer now turned mentor—into a stunning, young-looking, blonde woman.
They both return to the club, where the newly-minted transwoman receives an appreciative glance from the bartender. Smiling but nervous, she takes a compact mirror from her new mentor, checks her eyes, and goes on stage. As her mentor gives her a thumbs-up, she tosses glitter across the stage and lip-synchs the last chorus. Despite being a complete neophyte, her performance is superb, even inspiring the slumbering drunkard to wake up, smile, and mouth, “I love you,” while clapping feebly. The camera suddenly cuts to her mentor, standing at the bar and glaring at her with hooded eyes.
As she leaves the stage triumphantly—making eye contact with the bartender and smiling bashfully—her mentor gives her a tight and insincere smile. The ingénue disappears into the “Ladies” washroom, apparently happy. Her mentor takes a shot of liquor and lights a cigarette; we see the same close-up shot of smoke curling out of her mouth. The bar is empty and quiet again, the drunk man once again fast asleep on his table.
In real life, as it turns out, both the initial drag performer and the man who goes through a drag metamorphosis are professional drag performers (Juanita More and Michael Venus, respectively). Also, the sleepy drunk man at the table is actually A.C. Newman, the lead singer for The New Pornographers—which means that, as he was drunkenly clapping along to Venus’s lipsynching performance, he was the one providing the vocal performance. Was this whole video a sort of audition for who would be the avatar for Newman’s voice? Is that why the mentor-performer looked so bitter and resigned at the end?
What is perhaps more interesting about this video is how it stages a queer recuperation of the straight male libido. Rather than be the dupe or find his desires frustrated, the man at the bar (Venus) instead takes on the attributes of whom/what he desired and finds him/herself discovering new and queer pleasures in the exchange of glances with the bartender. But, ironically, it is the original drag performer (More) who seems to pay some sort of price for this metamorphosis: after a process of drag-queen parenthood, she seems to have found her place usurped, as both the bartender and the drunken patron give their attention to her protégée.
Luis-Manuel is a Canadian of Peruvian-Colombian origins, migrating between Toronto, Berlin, Chicago, and Paris. He has managed to turn his love of electronic dance music into a PhD in Ethnomusicology at the University of Chicago, and into a post-doctoral fellowship at the Freie Universität Berlin. On the side, he writes about food and dances every chance he gets. You can find him at LMGM, The Blog, as well as his website.