We spent yesterday thinking seriously about the role of gender in Shaking the Habitual, the fantastic new album by The Knife. Today, we thought we’d revisit the same topic in a rather more lighthearted way: by looking at some of music’s more memorable gender-defying fashion statements over the years. Androgyny and ambiguity have long been part of popular music, after all, and they’ve been responsible for some of its most memorable imagery. From The Knife to Grace Jones and a certain remarkable German countertenor, here are some of the best.
As we discussed yesterday, questioning conventional notions of genre has always been an idea that’s been central to The Knife’s work. This has manifested itself just as much in the way the band members present themselves to the world as it has in their work — take the above press shot, for instance, where their identical masks and clothing make it very much open to question who’s the man and who’s the woman.
The whole silly is-Lady-Gaga-actually-a-transvestite controversy has rather overshadowed the fact that Gaga may be the last of what’s apparently a dying breed — the androgynous and gender-questioning pop star. The world of music once abounded with these — you’ll find many of them on this list — but these days, it’s really Gaga alone flying the flag for flamboyance and fluidity. For that, at least, we should thank her.
Perhaps the most iconic androgynous musician of them all. Jones’ statuesque physique and striking features made her a style icon and also an avatar of the idea that gender was very much open to question. The cover of Island Life is one of the most memorably androgynous images in all of music, as is the above image from the same era, where she could be a man, a woman, or anywhere in between.
As we wrote a while back, the first incarnation of Placebo covered an entire gamut of gender in the space of a traditional power trio — a gay bassist, a straight drummer… and the ever-ambiguous Brian Molko, who spent more of his time looking decidedly like a woman, a fact that no doubt confused the hell out of the laddish readers of magazines that featured images like the one above (which comes from Select, circa 1998).
Manic Street Preachers are another band who have always been very much into the idea of inverting rock’s abiding machismo — especially the sadly disappeared Richey Edwards and bassist Nicky Wire, the latter of whom is rocking a lovely dress indeed in the image above.
And speaking of rock stars who looked good in dresses, who could forget Kurt Cobain, the man who did arguably more than anyone to subvert and undermine the idea of guitar-toting-frontman-as-alpha-male?
Curiously enough, though, bands like Mötley Crüe and Guns N’ Roses — both of whom Cobain loathed — preceded him as far as subverting the idea of frontmen being manly men, at least as far as their appearance went. Some day, someone will write a long treatise about how strange it is that hard rock frontmen often look a whole lot like women — in the meantime, we’ll make do with listening to Aerosmith’s “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” (written about, yes, Vince Neil) and marveling at the photo above.
If you’re of a certain age, you probably remember this Vanity Fair cover, and the improbable controversy that it caused. Happily, times have changed somewhat, as celebrities announcing their sexual preferences on the covers of magazines has evolved into little more than a fleeting curiosity.
Anderson has always played with the idea of gender, and never more explicitly than on the cover of her most recent album, Homeland. She looks rather fetching with a mustache, as her male alter ego Fenway Bergamot, no?
Your correspondent remembers being really rather confused by Prince as a youngster. He was clearly a man, but he was so feminine, and so… so randy, dammit! And the girls seemed to love him! What did it all mean?!
And while we’re on confusing, look no further than German countertenor Klaus Nomi, a true individual in every sense of the word. His remarkable voice and androgynous appearance made him a distinctive figure indeed, and it’s a real tragedy that his career was cut short by AIDS in 1983 when he was only 39. In a collaboration that makes perfect sense, he worked with (and, indeed, was discovered by)…