Take That: queer icons or queer-baiters? [May 31, 1992]
Plus: Faith No More, Future Sound of London, Wayne's World, and The Fatima Mansions
Greetings, Time Travellers! 👋 Welcome back to the week of May 31, 1992.
📰 In the news this week: The U.N. imposes sanctions on Yugoslavia, while Danish voters reject the Maastricht Treaty on European integration.
📽️New films in the cinema include ropey Virtual Reality extravaganza The Lawnmower Man and the excellent Jennifer Jason-Leigh drama Rush.
📺On the telly, presidential candidate Bill Clinton plays a sax solo on the Arsenio Hall show.
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🎶 Number One song in the UK Top 40 is ‘Please Don’t Go’ by K.W.S., hanging on for a fifth consecutive week. But this week, let’s look further down the chart at…
This week’s Number 16: ‘It Only Takes a Minute’ — Take That
LGBT+ representation in movies and TV is much better today than it was in the early 90s. However, there’s still a long way to go, and some of the representation on offer can feel a little cynical.
For example, some blockbusters include gay characters in a way that’s easy to edit out if required. When Warner Brothers needed to censor the “Dumbledore is gay” stuff from Fantastic Beasts, they only had to cut six seconds of the movie.
Or you’ve got Star Wars, which seemed to tease a romance between Poe and Finn. The lingering, lustful looks between the pilot and renegade stormtrooper managed to inspire a ton of fanfiction, but the movies never actually showed the two becoming a couple.
(Although they did get together in the superior Lego universe.)
This kind of content is often labelled “queer-baiting”. Queer-baiting is when someone tries to lure an LGBT+ audience by offering them some morsels of representation. But when this audience stumps up their cash, they find that the end product is disappointingly heteronormative.
Now, queer-baiting is a very 2022 concept. It’s not fair to apply it to people living in the distant past (1992).
That said… what the hell is going on in Take That’s first video?
Okay, a little context:
In 1990, an English impresario called Nigel Martin-Smith had an idea for a music project. That idea was “what if New Kids On The Block were English and they gave me 10%?”
To make his dream a reality, he rounded up five lads from around Manchester: dancers Jason and Howard, singers Mark and Robbie, and frontman/songwriter Gary.
Take That started out by performing in gay clubs around the country—presumably because Martin-Smith himself was quite involved in the gay event scene (he was a big investor in Manchester’s Canal Street area.)
Eventually, the band cut a single, which was ‘Do What You Like’. Martin-Smith managed to get them a little studio time to cut a promo video, and they filmed the first thing that popped into their heads.
Which, in this case, was a semi-naked foodfight. I believe connoisseurs of pornography call this genre “splosh”.
The ‘Do What You Like’ clip received zero airplay because it’s so sexually charged, and the single failed to make the top 40. The next two singles were also disappointing.
And then, in May of 1992, Take That reappeared as wholesome boys-next-door and began their takeover of British pop music.
The boys are still quite sexualised in the ‘It Only Takes A Minute’ clip, with lots of lingering shots of Howard and Jason’s abs. But it’s substantially toned down and clearly aimed at the teenage girl demographic.
So, what gives? Did Take That exploit a gay audience to get started, and then abandon them to go mainstream?
Kind of. But it’s complicated.
Gay culture has always had an outsized influence on mainstream pop music. In 1992, the charts were dominated by House music, but nobody ever seemed to ask the obvious question: which House?
Answer: The Warehouse, a gay club in Chicago.
Gay men have played an important role as tastemakers, especially in Britain. Early impresarios like Larry Parnes dominated the nascent rock’n’roll scene before another gay man, Brian Epstein, changed everything by launching the world’s first boy band, The Beatles.
These gay tastemakers had a knack for finding acts that teenage girls would lust over. And there’s more to it than simply looking for the hottest guys—after all, The Beatles were hardly models.
Queer theorists have written extensively about the semantics of boy bands, and the way these boys portray a unique type of masculinity. Here’s an extract from an essay called “Boy Bands, Drag Kings, and the Performance of (Queer) Masculinities”:
At first sight, the boy band phenomenon seems to have evolved around a rather heteronormatively structured pattern of singing and dancing boys on stage and screaming, sometimes even fainting, girls in front of the stage…[but] the "manufacturing processes" involved in the fabrication of a boy band as well as the fact that boy bands are promoted primarily via audio-visual material such as the band’s music videos evolves into a specific "boy band masculinity". This soft, "innocent" masculinity or even "girlishness" heavily relies on markers of gay culture.
In the essay “Marketing Androgeny: The Evolution of the Backstreet Boys”, Daryl Jamieson says:
Nick Carter, as the youngest, most androgynous member of the band, was the Backstreet Boy who played the most sexually ambiguous role within the band. Since he appealed to both of the main groups of fans that the Boys were courting (young girls, due to his age, and gay men, due to his androgynous body-type), Wright Stuff [i.e. one of the managers] made him the front-man of the band, emphasising his youth, innocence and his sexual ambiguity. They isolated and highlighted him in the Boys’ videos, they gave him more solo lines in the singles, they even put him on the cover of a gay teen magazine.
This passage is about Backstreet Boys, but much of it applies to Ringo in The Beatles, or Mark in Take That, or Joey in NKOTB, or most of BTS (I think, I don’t really know BTS).
Boyband sexuality is different from the dick-swinging sexual aggression of your typical hetero rock star. These boys are passive, inviting the audience to project their sexual fantasies onto them. Even the more traditionally masculine members (like Howard and Jason) make the audience feel safe and comfortable.
And this audience doesn’t always feels safe or comfortable about expressing their sexual fantasies.
Now, as a 40-something cishet bloke, I’m not the best person to talk about queer and female desire.
However, even I can see how much people of my persuasion dominated everything in the 90s. Page 3. Lad Mags. T&A in action movies. “Bums against the walls, lads!” jokes if there was even a hint of gayness. Back then, there was no real sense of an alternative culture that was challenging norms.
This was peak Male Gaze era, when men looked and women were looked at. We occasionally theorised that a female gaze might exist, and we assumed that it would simply be an inverted male gaze. The Chippendales made sense to us, because that was about women enjoying men the same way that men enjoyed women.
This is also the root of much homophobia. Men traditionally understand attraction as being a subject/object, powerful/powerless relationship. It’s scary to imagine yourself being on the other side—the powerless side—of that relationship.
But the fact is that there are other ways of looking. There are other ways of desiring.
Here’s another theorist, in a paper called “Beefing Up the Beefcake: Male Objectification, Boy Bands, and the Socialized Female Gaze”:
For male audiences, this vantage point is inherently patriarchal in nature, and thus allows for an ease of identification without much negotiation of objectivity. As a result of this masculine perspective of the woman, however, her own view is relegated to the “passive” gaze, inferior to that of the man. Thus, the patriarchal dominance of women in visual culture is continued, and this asymmetrical power structure is embedded within the construction, narrative, and preferred reading of the text in question…Therefore, the active role of “the looker” is systematically adopted by the male, where as the passive role of “the looked at” is therefore assumed by the female, removing agency and identity through the scopophilic nature of the look.
Basically, all teenagers want to look and fantasize, but straight boys are conditioned to fantasise about being dominant.
But there are other ways of looking.
Take That were as much about sexual desire as The Chippendales or Page 3, but it’s a different kind of desire. This, I think, is why straight guys were often so furiously reactionary against boyband culture. It was one of the few mainstream things that was, fundamentally, not for us.
Asking if Take That were queer-bating is kind of meaningless. The concept of queer-baiting depends on the audience having choices. They can choose not to support Fantastic Beasts or Star Wars, and instead turn to properties that do a better job of representation.
Here in 1992, however, there aren’t as many options in the mainstream. But there is Take That.
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Elsewhere in the charts
Number 10 (New Entry): ‘Midlife Crisis’ — Faith No More
Faith No More used to go through frontmen like Spinal Tap went through drummers. The band was founded in 1979 by vocalist Mike Morris, but he was usurped in a coup a few years later.
After Morris, they tried out a hot young singer by the name of Courtney Love. She lasted a few months and was replaced by Chuck Mosley, who sang on early hits like ‘We Care A Lot’. But there was behind-the-scenes tension with Mosley, and soon the band were looking for a replacement frontman.
Chris Cornell auditioned for the role but was beaten out by Mike Patton, which was probably a win-win for both Faith No More and Soundgarden. Patton is such a good fit that’s it’s hard to imagine the band without him.
Number 11 (↓ from 9): ‘I Don’t Care’ — Shakespears Sister
‘Stay’ was such an outsized hit that it completely eclipsed the rest of Shakespears Sister’s work, which is a shame as they produced some interesting pop music.
‘I Don’t Care’ sounds like The Pretenders trapped in a Weimar-era cabaret. It’s more of a natural successor to their previous big hit, ‘You’re History’. Good fun.
Number 17 (New Entry): ‘Karmadrome/Eat Me Drink Me Love Me’ — Pop Will Eat Itself
I rewatched Black Swan at the weekend and I still can’t quite believe that this guy composed the soundtrack.
Number 22 (Non-mover): ‘Papua New Guinea’ — Future Sound Of London
‘Papua New Guinea’ uses a vocal sample of Lisa Gerrard from her Dead Can Dance days, and there’s a funny story behind where that sample came from.
Once upon a time in the 90s, some random bloke was dating a girl. He made her a mixtape (as was the style at the time) which included a Dead Can Dance song. The girl dumped him and ended up dating Brian from Future Sound Of London.
Garry Cobain, the other half of FSOL, stumbled across this mixtape and found himself really digging the Dead Can Dance song. He couldn’t find another copy of the track, so he pulled a sample directly from the cassette.
So, when you listen to ‘Papua New Guinea’, you’re really listening to some broken-hearted guy’s mixtape. Enjoy!
Number 35 (New Entry): ‘Ballroom Blitz’ — Tia Carrere
Wayne’s World is responsible for two new entries in this week’s chart—Alice Cooper’s ‘Feed My Frankenstein’ also appears at Number 27.
Tia Carrere is actually quite an accomplished singer. Her debut album went platinum in the Philippines, and since then she’s recorded multiple albums of Hawaiian folk songs.
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Album of the Week
Valhalla Avenue — The Fatima Mansions
Cathal Coughlan, frontman of Microdisney and The Fatima Mansions, passed away last week at the age of 61.
For me personally, it was a bit of a wake-up call because I realised I have spent over 30 years saying “I should really try getting into The Fatima Mansions.” You see, Cathal used to live within walking distance of my house, and this neighbourhood doesn’t produce an awful lot of rock stars.
My thing with Fatima Mansions is that I could never really get a handle on their sound. Their biggest hit was ‘Only Losers Take The Bus’, a kind of weird psychobilly thing. Then there’s the fucked-up post-rock version of ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It For You’ from NME’s Ruby Trax compilation.
Who were Fatima Mansions? What were these guys about?
Listening to Valhalla Avenue, I now see why I could never get a read on them. It’s because Fatima Mansions were restless genre-hoppers who hated to be pinned down, even within the confines of a studio album.
Listening to Valhalla Avenue feels like being at a music festival where each act gets to play just one song. Title track ‘Valhalla Avenue’ sounds like Tears For Fears. ‘North Atlantic Wind’ is straight-up Nick Cave. ‘1000%’—the most obvious single on this album—is a stomping slice of Pixies:
At the mid-point of the record, we get the blissful ‘Purple Window’, which at times sounds like The Stones trying to write a song for Screamadelica:
On side 2, you start to hear sounds from the future, like the post-grunge guitars on ‘Go Home Bible Mike’ that almost sound like Vitalogy-era Pearl Jam:
By the end, we’ve descended into pure noise. The shrieking insanity of ‘C^7’ brings to mind the darker moments of In Utero (which, like Vitalogy, hadn’t been recorded yet.)
It’s pure chaos from start to finish, an unstoppable force that flows around this one immovable object: Cathal Coughlan. His stentorious voice and furious lyrics give this record a firm footing and a tangible identity. In opening track ‘Evil Man’, he starts by listing everything wrong in the world:
The city was evil, some country was evil
The hippies were evil, the writers were evil
The homeless were evil, the workers were evil
The summer was evil, independence was evil
This is the beginning of a barrage of dense poetry, rich with images of war, corruption and self-loathing. And, also, humour and sex and tenderness. Coughlan’s lyrics are bursting at the seams, with an almostic novelistic desire to discuss life in as much detail as possible.
Fatima Mansions were never going to be pop stars, and were probably too weird to be indie darlings. But this is rich, grown-up music, and an album that rewards multiple listens.
Before ABBA had those holograms things, they had two other avatars: Vince Clarke and Andy Bell.
The Fatima Mansions were also on my list to listen to and never got around. While not indie darlings per se, they did see some time on the indie/college charts here in the US.
Just coming back through to say that 5 days on, and I still have Take That stuck in my head. Not sure what that says about me...
The opening notes of Midlife Crisis are sublime. Mike Bordin was also on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" which is a fun bit of rock & roll weirdness.