and if you go chasing rabbits

The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour aired in CBS’s coveted Sunday night primetime slot for three seasons between 1967 and 1969 before its controversial cancellation with one episode still in the can. Pulling in around 12 million viewers per week — approximately one fifth of the total number of homes that owned a television in late 60s America — it more than held its own against NBC’s western hour-long Bonanza, whose fourteen-year-long popularity makes a lot more sense when you learn it was one of the first regular colour telecasts in a sea of grainy black and white (and even more once you’ve seen a young Michael Landon — aka Pa Ingalls from Little House on the Prairie — holding court as Little Joe). The charm of Tom and Dick’s shtick lay somewhere between Ant & Dec and Craig Ferguson: cheeky and affable, dapper without quite being handsome in their matching side-parts and blazers; spry and absurd, their subversive intent plated in glinting smiles and feigned naivety. As the show continued, with the help of a provocative young writing team including Bob Einstein and Steve Martin, the pair increasingly allied themselves with Haight Ashbury philosophy and the anti-Vietnam movement, pushing the boundaries of political satire both overtly and subtextually, and the show became so well-thought-of in countercultural celebrity circles that The Beatles chose it to premiere their 1968 proto-music videos for ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Revolution’ in the United States (a full month after they were shown on The David Frost Show in the UK). Earlier in the show’s run, on 7th May 1967, Jefferson Airplane burst onto the mainstream with this performance of new single ‘White Rabbit’ — the first time the band had been televised in colour, with psychedelic special effects worthy of a 90s school disco and Grace Slick’s preternaturally steady gaze boring down the camera. Introducing the band, Richard Smothers encourages the audience at home (to the delight of those in the studio) ‘to… eat a banana while you’re watching this — or smoke a banana as my brother said, but actually he’s pretty far out, even for me.’

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It’s hard now to imagine an entire month’s wait between the transatlantic premieres of a new recording by the biggest band in the world, and just as hard to imagine what it must have felt like to watch this hallucinogenic spectacle as a contemporary adolescent (or as one of their permanently-disconcerted parents). Although the cultural sea change was well under way, ’67 was the year pop music outgrew the rainy day women and magic dragons of its gateway drug to embrace the mind-bending lures of LSD and psychedelic rock in the heady lead-up to the Monterey Pop Festival and San Francisco’s Summer of Love. The Beatles had already made their quantum leap from the woozy folk-rock of 1965’s Rubber Soul (featuring a brief sitar experiment from Harrison on ‘Norwegian Wood’) to Revolver and the trippy tamboura and tape-loops of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ in August 1966, but Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, with its more deliberate ode ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, would not appear for another month, and it was especially shocking to see an attractive and self-assured young woman — not a bedraggled bearded burn-out — espousing the sublime joys of drug experimentation. (Contemporaries such as Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, and Joan Baez may well have walked the walk, but didn’t so explicitly talk the talk. Though of course this presumes that the audience at home understood what the lyrics were truly getting at when in fact they — and the majority of censors at the time — didn’t quite.) Indeed, the acid anthem wasn’t just sung by Slick, brought to life by her trademark primal howl and shamanistic intensity, but was one of two tracks she had brought with her from disbanded project The Great Society, the other being Jefferson Airplane’s 1966 single ‘Somebody to Love’, which achieved a similar level of success and renown. In an unlikely meeting of influences, ‘White Rabbit’ is inspired musically by Maurice Ravel’s ‘Boléro’ (1928) and Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain (1960), and lyrically by her childhood love of Lewis Carroll’s Alice volumes, as Slick guides us steadily to an orgiastic crescendo with her winding, cameo-heavy retelling of the tale.

The story of Alice in Wonderland is very much how I experienced things. She grew up in rigid Victorian England, but she arrives in Wonderland, and suddenly it’s nuts, it’s political, and she’s all by herself ­– no Prince Charming comes and saves her. Same thing with going from the 50s into the 60s, so you had to have faith in yourself, because nobody’s going to save you: if you expect that, you’re in trouble. Little girls read Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and in all of them the heroine is saved by some guy — they don’t do anything for themselves! Snow White worked a little bit,­ she made breakfast for a bunch of guys. I’m sorry, I never cooked anything for the band. You play the guitar, I sing, you don’t make breakfast for me, I don’t make breakfast for you. We buy breakfast. –GRACE SLICK, INTERVIEW MAGAZINE, 2007

aliceinwonderland

It’s apt here that Slick draws a connection between autonomy and food, independence and sustenance, because Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) is a story preoccupied with the boundaries of selfhood as they relate not just to tests of the heroine’s mettle, but to distortions of her body through ingestion. One pill makes you larger and the next pill makes you small. For Alice these are the Eat Me/Drink Me confections that affect her in a wonderdrug way; which she swallows moments after descending the rabbit hole in hopes of fitting through a tiny locked door into the beautiful garden on the other side. Of course, sizeshifting is a staple of children’s stories — a cousin to the low fantasy “while you were sleeping”-style narratives of The Borrowers, Toy Story, Grimm’s helpful elves, et al. In these examples, the protagonist/reader is allowed an awe-inspiring glimpse of a world beneath a world, operating outwith human hours but by its rules and upon its scraps, the secret often warmly shared with deserving children by an all-knowing, twinkly-eyed narrator. But sizeshifting narratives are far less to do with the invocation of the magical and more about questions of identity, personhood, and one’s place in society. Such tales often tap into the cultural anxieties of the time in which they were written. In Gulliver’s Travels (1726), the protagonist himself doesn’t shrink and stretch but he stumbles through a series of worlds in which he is rendered hugely disproportionate, first a giant among the Lilliputians then a pocket-sized doll in Brobdingnag. Through an odyssey of intercultural errors and astute satire, Jonathan Swift engages with theories of innate human nature and political philosophy, disorientating his protagonist at every turn in a reflection of the sociopolitical instability of the early eighteenth century. Poor Gulliver stays physically the same, but each time he arrives in a new society he brings the ideology of the previous one along, his sense of self-and-other knocked by each experience, a completely different man by the end of his travels. Meanwhile, Disney live action classic Honey I Shrunk the Kids (1989) toys with an 80s parent’s twin anxieties: achieving work-life balance (not letting your career absorb you to the point you sweep your quarter-inch-tall children out with the trash),keyz_web and the thought of growing children fending for themselves out there in an often hostile world (giant bees). On the kids’ part, it is a tale with a moral not unlike the vast majority of family blockbusters: you are stronger than you realise but also more vulnerable; if you settle your differences and work as a team you have a better chance of survival; your parents are just idiots who are trying to do their best. Simultaneously, it rides the wave of science-gone-awry movies of this period, which responded to recent progress in take-home technologies such as personal computers and cellular phones, and in the advancing field of genetic engineering. (This would later develop into the dark brand of early 90s computer-driven narratives, featuring hacking conspiracies, virtual reality, and other assorted “cyberspace” nightmares.) The Victorian era too was a time of prodigious scientific invention and experimentation, and great medical strides were being taken with the discovery of “laughing gas” anaesthetics and surgical antiseptics. But for most the apothecary — apprenticed as opposed to qualified, ancestor to today’s homeopath — was still king, and in Carroll’s brand of sizeshifting he plays with the anxiety of medicine-taking in a time of thriving cure-all trade; the prescription of an unknown substance that is going to affect you bodily, allegedly overwhelmingly, in untold ways. It’s this daunting prospect that fundamentally links the stories Slick loved in childhood and her experiences as part of the drug revolution — this idea of being metamorphosed by a substance stronger that your will, that makes you bigger and smaller, pushes and pulls you, but that also risks drawing out whatever is already inside you to create a different self, just as true if not truer, unbridled and unselfconscious. ‘How [Alice] longed to get out of that dark hall, and wander about among those beds of bright flowers,’ writes Carroll. For the acid generation, the beautiful garden was locked deep within the mind, and LSD was the key.

‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ was written in April 1966 when John Lennon visited London’s newly-opened Indica Gallery Bookshop, looking for a copy of The Portable Nietzsche, leaving instead with The Psychedelic Experience. Located in Masons Yard, St James’s (where White Cube now stands), the gallery was famous for its VIP-heavy happenings and groundbreaking support of the alternative arts scene, and is incidentally where Lennon would later meet Yoko Ono in November that same year, at an exhibition of her conceptual work with avant-garde collective Fluxus. Indica co-owner Barry Miles ran the bookshop side of the business, and its provocative range reflected his avid personal interests in experimental literature, drug culture, eastern philosophies, and ‘pataphysics (which would appear to have outlived the 60s). Timothy Leary hadn’t quite yet reached the heady heights of his eventual notoriety — President Nixon would purportedly name him ‘the most dangerous man in America’ come the early 70s — but by the time his Psychedelic Experience was published in 1964 the former clinical psychology professor had already been sacked by Harvard for his controversial drug trials, which were just beginning to embrace LSD, and which most notably involved famous beat poet Allen Ginsberg, and a group of the university’s Divinity Studies graduates, soon introducing a psychedelic culture across the wider campus. Based upon an ancient funerary text known in the west as The Tibetan Book of the Dead (c8BC), Leary’s book aims to provide a correspondent guide through a psychedelic drug trip, in the belief that both experiences involve a journey to ‘new realms of consciousness’, initiating a transcendence of the material and verbal, and ego-death. Borrowing its language and distilling its essence, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ became a veritable LSD For Dummies. Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream. It is not dying, it is not dying. In one of the most brilliant closing scenes of the ever-brilliant Mad Men, Don listens to the track for the first time at the encouragement of younger wife Megan, and the camera pans across other characters playing their part in the zeitgeist before we are jolted back to the Draper residence, where Don shuts off the music and retires wearily to the bedroom. When the screen cuts to black and the credits begin, the music picks up again from where it left off. In the dawning 60s, as the show began, Don was our blueprint for cool, for progressive. In his opening scene he talks to a black server as an actual human being, and in early seasons he fraternises with beatniks and has an emotional moment with Frank O’Hara. Despite some bumps in the road (homophobia, antisemitism, generic misogyny) he fondly encourages both Peggy and Dawn’s ladder-climbing, even making it as far as skinny ties, electric razors, and The Rolling Stones, before falling at the psychedelic hurdle. Here, the counterculture (and the show, thus the audience) happily leaves Don behind, playing on no matter how many times he would like to lift the needle. Absolutely worth whatever exorbitant licensing fee the show’s producers must have had to pay.

Bed In

Tommy Smothers, Rosemary & Timothy Leary join John & Yoko’s Bed-In, June 1969

On 25th June 1967, the first ever live satellite television event was broadcast around the world to an estimated audience of 350 million. Live on air, at the height of the Vietnam War, The Beatles cut their next single ‘All You Need Is Love’, playing over a backing track with a little help from some very special friends, in a performance that George Harrison would later describe in the Beatles Anthology as ‘a bit of subtle PR for god’. Timothy Leary too was no stranger to the power of advertising. As Mad Men has illustrated, this was an exhilarating time in the field of audiovisual media — the peak union of burgeoning globalism, forward-thinking creativity, and commercialism. Throughout his career as The Establishment’s Most Wanted, Leary assembled an arsenal of slogans to publicise what fast became not just a lifestyle choice, but a spiritual movement. In autobiography Flashbacks, he relates his 1966 lunch date with media theory titan (and king of the punchy one-liner) Marshall McLuhan, who advised Leary on the importance of ‘arousing customer interest’: ‘you are promoting a product — your product is the new and improved accelerated brain.’ With an academic background in English language and literature, McLuhan had by this time earned his reputation as a pioneering public intellectual in what would later become known as the field of cultural studies, with three popular works already in circulation and The Medium is the Massage (1967) soon on its way. ‘Prophet of the electronic communications age’, he in fact opened the Our World satellite link-up from Toronto’s CBC Studios control room, discussing the lightspeed evolution of the “global village”, and his ideas on the unique ‘all-at-onceness’ property of the televisual medium: the new worldwide tribalism he believed would result from this unified gaze upon the tv set. (In the end television would only occasionally rise to this challenge, becoming a primarily national as opposed to international tool.) Though difficult to trace the explicit source, legend has it that McLuhan gifted Leary with his most famous slogan at that very first lunch, the phrase that would come to define the acid generation and its reverberations down through the decades: turn on, tune in, drop out. Later, for a child of the 80s or 90s, Leary’s phrase might easily seem to be referring to the ills of television culture — a scathing criticism of late twentieth century westerners who would return home from work all too ready to numb their minds with another evening of “chewing gum for the eyes“. Not quite what McLuhan had in mind, but in 1968’s High Priest, Leary paints a similar picture of his life before psychedelics, describing himself as ‘A rootless city-dweller. An anonymous institutional employee who drove to work each morning in a long line of commuter cars, and drove home each night and drank martinis and looked like and thought like and acted like several million middle-class liberal intellectual robots.’ You don’t have to own a television to be alienated here, but it helps. When George Harrison visited Haight-Ashbury in August ’67 he found for himself that the reality of drug culture had long since parted ways with Leary’s evangelic teachings: ‘It wasn’t what I’d thought — spiritual awakenings and being artistic — it was like alcoholism, like any addiction.’ Even with the very best of ad campaigns, any medium can soon enough be twisted off-message.

‘Turn on’ meant go within to activate your neural and genetic equipment. Become sensitive to the many and various levels of consciousness and the specific triggers that engage them. Drugs were one way to accomplish this end. ‘Tune in’ meant interact harmoniously with the world around you — externalize, materialize, express your new internal perspectives. ‘Drop out’ suggested an active, selective, graceful process of detachment from involuntary or unconscious commitments. ‘Drop Out’ meant self-reliance, a discovery of one’s singularity, a commitment to mobility, choice, and change. Unhappily my explanations of this sequence of personal development were often misinterpreted to mean ‘Get stoned and abandon all constructive activity’. –TIMOTHY LEARY, FLASHBACKS (1983)

Hugely influential in its technical experimentation, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ stands as an evocative document of its time, but it was ‘White Rabbit’ that soon became cinematic shorthand for trippy psychedelia and a character’s first steps into a strange new hallucinogenic world. By the 90s, however, it was coming to be used to more comedic or sardonic effect. In 1998, The Simpsons used the song to soundtrack Homer’s foray into peyote-laced juice peddling, and the next year it accompanied Tony’s first begrudging hit of prozac in season one of The Sopranos. With the commercialisation of drug culture, the domestication of serotonin-affective substances, the alluring strains of ‘White Rabbit’s intro had now generally come to symbolise being drawn, snake-charmed, into anything you might not be able to control. In the quarter-century since its release the song has been covered by a vast array of bands in a vaster array of styles, from jazz guitarist George Benson in 1972, to goth punk rock Londoners The Damned in 1980, to a bassline sample in the Sugababes’ stunning debut single ‘Overload‘ in September 2000. By this time too, at a different point on the “girl group” spectrum, third wave three-piece Sleater-Kinney were including ‘White Rabbit’ in their live set-list: a fantastic recontextualisation of the track. Here, Slick’s lyrics toy with the band’s recurring themes of gender inequality, female invisibility, body image politics, and the sins of the mother, evident since their riot grrrl beginnings but especially so on recently released All Hands on the Bad One (2000). Propelled in popular culture by Washington’s underground music scene, 90s feminism was rooted in the theory and groundwork of the second wave (60s-80s) whilst rejecting its “solutions” of learnt masculinity and corporate careerism, instead embracing community ethics, diy culture, and the iconography of girlhood. In blistering album track ‘Youth Decay’, Corin Tucker sings her narrator’s feelings of existential deterioration, causing her visceral bodily pain that others believe to be psychosomatically self-inflicted, and therefore easily-endable. ‘Am I rotting out? Daddy says I’ve got my momma’s mouth,’ she howls, indicting not just the overbearing, emotionally abusive father, but also his over-accommodating wife, who says she suffered just the same pains when she was young and yet allowed herself to repeat the cycle, leaving her daughter to suffer through. And the ones that mother gives you don’t do anything at all. More recently, an Arabic version of Slick’s song featured in twisted crime dramedy American Hustle (2013), and it’s interesting to note that both The Beatles’ and Jefferson Airplane’s trip tracks were covered for teensploitation action flick Sucker Punch (2011), in which a young woman in the 60s is institutionalised and slips into a computer game-like fantasy world. In this setting, in a film that upends misogynistic geek/gamer culture, the song is recast as an empowerment anthem, a rejection of the patriarchal institutional strictures placed upon “wayward women”, a rebellion against playing by their rules. When the men on the chessboard get up and tell you where to go. Refreshingly, Mad Men dodged the cliché for Roger’s first LSD experience — laced sugar cubes for dessert at a dinner party hosted by his wife’s psychiatrist — instead opting for a warped-out version of ‘I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times’, from easily the most solid, most elegant long-player of the decade: Pet Sounds (1966). As with so many moments in the show, hearing Brian Wilson’s sumptuous harmonies in their natural habitat packs a huge emotional punch, stripping away forty-plus years of mythologisation to illuminate the everyday human reality of life in such a tumultuous, careening period. We crowd silently round the tv set on the day of JFK’s assassination, we are rocked by Marilyn’s death, our minds can hardly comprehend the fact a man is walking on the face of the moon. And despite all the years of The Beach Boys as shorthand for harmless youthful folly and good vibrations, we finally understand Pet Sounds as an album not in celebration of its time, but itself laced with a tender melancholy, anxiety and alienation, wistful simultaneous yearnings for the past and the future, home comforts and new horizons. We imagine how it really felt to be there, in the fray, out of sync, shrinking and stretching, disorientated at every turn by the sociopolitical instability of the 60s revolution.

‘Electric technology, by virtue of its immediate relation to our nervous system, is itself a sort of inner trip,’ McLuhan wrote in 1974. Both he and Leary held that their belief systems fundamentally overlapped, each seeking better understanding of life through experimental mediums. While each ideology was built upon individualistic rites — defying hegemonic culture, chasing the white rabbit deep inside your own mind, experiencing the world for oneself through a screen — the paradoxic pay-off of these practices was communality, a breaking down of barriers, the profound realisation of essential human oneness. This is the kind of utopian language we’re now so used to hearing in social media discourse, from Arab Spring commentators to twenty-first century philosopher kings (‘I’m trying to make the world a more open place’), which is really just globalism taken to its furthest point. The internet is of course the ultimate act of communalism-by-individualism, and McLuhan would be posthumously celebrated for “predicting” its invention as far back as 1962, envisioning the ‘extension of consciousness’ through a post-television medium — ‘a computer as a research and communication instrument’. Leary, for his part, would wholly embrace the new digital age, proclaiming the personal computer ‘the LSD of the 90s’, and the internet as a freedom from the dominant media culture: turn on, boot up, jack in. As with Slick’s ‘White Rabbit’ and each of its later feminist incarnations, as with McLuhan’s wish upon a satellite, the driving moral of psychedelic philosophy was to question everything, to challenge the party line and transcend received wisdom. To work to see things clearly, critically, and independently: to stop following the crowd and join the stream. Remember what the dormouse said: feed your head, feed your head.

nothing like the real thing

Based in Edinburgh and supported by Creative Scotland, Arika is a non-profit organisation staging experimental arts events across the UK, including an ongoing series of festivals in Glasgow exploring the intersection of multi-disciplinary artistic discourse and radical cultural politics. I was gutted to have to miss their last event, but this time around made only slight progress by scoring a late-release ticket to the closing discussion at south-side venue Tramway. Episode 6: Make a Way Out of No Way (named from the African American folk proverb, drawn from Isaiah 43:16) dedicated its weekend to exploring race, sex, sexuality, and gender as social categories versus the reality of lived experience, through a programme of music, film, and performance. Variously tired, jet-lagged, overwhelmed, and overstimulated, the assembled panel pressed on through two hours of in-depth discussion on black identity and experience. An introductory point about the whitewashed, cis-centric narrative of the gay rights movement was perhaps most illuminating, as activist and filmmaker Reina Gossett cited the work of key trans activists of colour Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, firebrands of the Stonewall riots of 1969 now yearly commemorated internationally as Pride. Gossett is currently working on Happy Birthday, Marsha!, a documentary about the important work and friendship the two women shared, and spoke of the mistreatment they suffered as the gay power narrative gained traction; the commercialisation of the movement in their wake; how parades that once ended in public parks now make their way to public houses. This set the tone for much of the discussion ahead: pride and passion in the work being done, but frustration at the enduring widespread sociopolitical and economic hardship of people of colour; the selective solidarity displayed by certain sectors of the lgbtq* community; the minority status within the minority status. At times anecdotal, at times abstract, at times angry, the conversation was passed around the table like a pliant piece of clay, shaped and reshaped by each speaker according to their background, encompassing institutional oppression, gentrification, theology, and molecular biology. The sheer wealth, breadth, and depth of knowledge and experience in the room was dizzying.

The overall theme of the evening was “realness”: a phrase popularised in the mainstream by Jennie Livingston’s pivotal 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, a chronicle of NYC’s drag ball scene as it ebbed towards the end of its Golden Age. Beginning with the queer masquerades of 1860s Harlem, ball culture reemerged in the 1920s and 30s with the “New Negro” movement, developing in the neighbourhood’s myriad jazz clubs and speakeasies, where black bohemians and white voyeurs flocked to see Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey sing the blues for hot poppas and bulldaggers in their tops and tails. Navigating the Prohibition-era cultural clampdown, the Puerto Rican influx of the post-war years, and the heteronormative ideologies of the 1960s Black Power movement, the scene continued to thrive behind barred doors, centring around competitions of theatrical catwalking categories showcasing the looks, moves, style, and attitude of femmes and butches in turn. In the 70s and 80s, the competitive circuit developed into a house system, with membership based upon personality traits and biographical kinship, echoing the burgeoning street gang and hip hop crew cultures. Here, nominated house-mothers and -fathers preside over family-like collectives, providing guidance, tough love, and understanding to their drag children. Ensuring shelter and safety for generations of homeless, ostracised lgbtq* youth, this community structure became particularly important through the heights of the Western AIDS epidemic, with entrance fees to underage balls waived for the sake of a visit to the HIV testing booth, and safe sex information disseminated by house-parents and respected emcees. Always preoccupied with the luxe spectacle of it all, the ball scene fell headlong into the haute hypercapitalism of the late 80s and early 90s, with houses often named for luxe labels and brand-conscious “mopping” (shoplifting) fast becoming a vital skillset for any serious competitor. Icon Ayana Christian was another member of the Arika panel. ‘Have any of you ever owned a real designer bag?’ she asked. ‘Real genuine leather, with that little card inside?’ The language of luxury goods easily lends itself to the ballroom.

We’re born naked, the rest is drag. –RuPaul

Filmed over seven years, Livingston’s film is a part tender, part ribald portrait of a maligned community on the cusp of being co-opted by the zeitgeist. Greeted with rave reviews and a cull of festival awards, its release came hot on the heels of Madonna’s smash hit ‘Vogue‘, and captured the spirit of the identity politics era, in which every college kid worth their bottle of CKOne belonged to a grassroots activist group designed to their own personal sociopolitical specifications (talk about theatrical catwalking categories). It was around the same time that the whiter, gaucher, downtown Club Kids caused quite the stir on the daytime television talk-show circuit, and it’s fair to imagine that, for most viewers, sightings of a befeathered Pepper LaBeija and displays by voguing godfather Willi Ninja all folded into the same spectacle, selling a scandalising vision of a post-Warhol, pre-Giuliani New York City populated by drug-addled gender-bending cartoon hedonists. In fact, though the two cultures were central to lgbtq* history and the development of postmodernism, and though both grew from the outcast’s fetishisation of fame, fantasy, and fortune, each was deeply rooted in a very different musical and artistic tradition — garage-house and techno-house, disco and punk, glamour and the grotesque, sequins and sci-fi. Without casting aspersions upon the cultural importance of the Club Kids, the ball scene certainly engaged more directly with sociopolitical issues, offering a safe space for the city’s economically and societally disenfranchised to congregate, celebrate, and imagine themselves living a divergent life. Beyond self-expressive role-play, ballroom drag allowed anyone bold enough to step up on that stage to be ‘anything that you’re not, and might want to be — or might want to make fun of, in some cases’. Alongside femme/butch queen and dance rounds at any given ball were categories such as ‘executive realness’ and ‘banjee realness’, with walkers competing to sell themselves to the crowd and judges, to prove they might “pass” in public, as a member of the social sub-group of their choice.

Though many of Paris is Burning‘s stars met with a tragic fate, dying young or in mysterious circumstances, the houses live on, and the ball scene continues to thrive today, albeit in a largely google-unfriendly fashion. Besides the widespread international influence of vogue, the culture has trickled down through popular culture in manifold ways. While pop artists like Beyoncé, Ciara, and Willow Smith have paid homage in their lyrics and dance routines, acts such as Lady Gaga and the Scissor Sisters have been even more overt in their shout-outs. Perhaps the most overlooked torch-bearer of the ball scene was Sex and the City, whose scarlet-headed Stylist-in-Chief Patricia Field had the dubious honour of founding ‘the first white downtown house to walk the uptown balls‘. The influence is evident in Carrie’s commitment to dressing the part (#executiverealness), but the most pointed tip of the hat is in ‘The Real Me’ (402), in which she is called upon to work the catwalk (with disastrous results) before play-strutting around her bedroom to Cheryl Lynn’s ballroom anthem ‘Got to be Real‘ in the episode’s closing scene. Though RuPaul’s background is more Party Monster than Femme Queen, his disgustingly entertaining Drag Race brings the zany humour of the Club Kids together with the unique lexicon and house-mother warmth of the ballroom, borrowing the America’s Next Top Model format to create something of a drag renaissance in recent years. This revival has been compounded by a new wave of queer black artists eager to pay their respects, from fashion darling Zebra Katz of once-ubiquitous ‘Ima Read’ fame, whose live shows feature gimp masks and Njena Reddd Foxxx’s creepily slow-mo’d voguing, to provocative lyrical spitfire Azealia Banks, who mixes voguing and ball lingo with posthuman iconography and post-CK electroclash covers. Despite being one of many subcultures riddled with homophobia, the more mainstream strands of hip hop too seem to echo with the legacy of ballroom. Rap — which grew up in the Bronx before spreading to neighbouring Harlem — is another genre quite uniquely preoccupied with the notion of “realness”: being real, keeping it real, authenticity and legitimacy. As Andrew Marantz writes in a recent article for the New Yorker, examining how this theme has developed through rap’s history, ‘realness in hip-hop has a slippery definition, related to the everyday sense of the word but not synonymous with it.’ While Maranz details the various examples of respected rappers whose backgrounds didn’t quite align with the hood narrative they were selling (Rick Ross was a prison guard?!), the article is essentially an attack piece on Iggy Azalea’s brand of glossy, ebonics-driven pop hop, and concludes that ‘realness, for her, is just another hip hop tic … nothing about Azalea feels real, in any sense of the word.’ There’s absolutely no denying that Azalea is a deeply problematic artist, but what such articles fail to consider is that, despite being a Tupac fangirl, rap for her is more a mode of artistic expression than a dyed-in-the-wool lifestyle. First things first, she’s a performer, and her public persona is infused with drag ball culture, as shown by frequent social media references to being “beat” (done up in flawless make-up), and her sheer glee at being called ‘a great drag queen‘ by RuPaul. Taken in this context, as a pretty young white Australian woman who gets up on stage every night as a flawfree swaggering rap goddess with a deep south drawl, Iggy is the realest: is practising ballroom realness on a worldwide scale. Indeed, the drag ball scene has featured plenty of cis-PYTs through the years, and bald bombshell Amber Rose found her feet there as ‘Paris Karan’ long before she was Kanye’s most infamous ex (now going by ‘Muva Rosebud’ on the internet). Considering the widespread cultural narrative that Yeezy taught her everything she knows, it’s interesting to hear such a ballroom influence in his 2011 collaboration with Jay Z, ‘N*s in Paris’. So good it defies all superlatives, the track is both a celebration of the jetsetting life of the young, black and gifted in the twenty-first century, and an ode to the city of lights as a place of freedom and frivolity for African Americans since early in the twentieth. Through homonymic and homophonic wordplay the song operates on two levels, ripe for reappropriation by the ball scene. The opening ‘Hova’ shout-out — a reference to Jay’s “god of rap” moniker — is voiced in such a way that it could be the ball scene warcry ‘ovaaah’, bestowed upon only the most fabulous of queens. A comment on the disproportionate criticism and ridicule levied his way whenever he acts or even just speaks out on America’s racism, Kanye’s ‘doctors say I’m the illest / cos I’m suffering from realness’ also serves to meld the worlds of hip hop and ballroom, extolling his authenticity, his aesthetic, and his willingness to stick his head above the parapet in one fell swoop. ‘Ball so hard’ is a given. To top it all off, Kanye wears a leather skirt in the promo. Give Jay his due but there’s a reason everybody says that Ye changed the game, Heidi Slimane.

These are some of the thoughts I took into the Arika round-table. What I brought away was an understanding that realness is a far more complex, political concept than I’d realised, tightly woven with notions of safety, survival, and catharsis, rebelling against the hegemonic strictures of the world we live in. While in the media and common culture lgbtq* people of colour are ignored and invisiblised, paradoxically in public spheres they are highly spectaclised, unable simply to walk down the street without risking the wrath of bigots and law enforcement agencies. In their ballroom walk, competitors at once take control of this hypervisibility, basking in the spotlight, while living out a fantasy of blending, passing, getting out from under the glare. Realness mediates the idealised self, the “true” self, and “reality” as defined by our culture. In living out these fantasies onstage, competitors escape the persona thrust upon them by society and socialisation, not by rejecting the narrow categories but by subverting them, proving them as fictions. Nevertheless, they do buy into these fictions, enjoying a brief taste of the attached privileges not afforded to them in real life — affluence, respect, adoration of the masses. Through realness they finally do feel real; feel recognised as valid social beings. What I brought away was leading advocate and Legendary House-Father Michael Robertson Garçon’s call for fury; filmmaker Arthur Jafa’s words on rejecting the idea of ‘difference as a basis for pressure’; poet-educator Fred Moten thinking aloud on ‘difference without separation’ and asking sound tech to restart the track, this time from the top, ‘this is Aretha‘. In a poignant moment, theologian Charlene Sinclair talked of the strangeness and difficulty of always discussing racial issues ‘under the white gaze’ at such events; Moten replied ‘I don’t care who is looking — look on, white people.’ I’ve spent the past four days reading over my notes with about twenty-five tabs open at any one time. Next year I’ll be sure to book early.