Being the first in a multipart essay on a) the queer aesthetics of Dead or Alive, b) the effects thereof on the band, and c) the effects thereof on Pete Burns, with AIDS panic and transmisogyny for good measure!
For the purposes of this essay, Dead or Alive constitutes a British New Wave dance pop band most prominent in the mid-1980s. Lead singer Pete Burns, drummer Steve Coy, guitarist Wayne Hussey, and bassist Mike Percy formed the group during their years of greatest exposure. They really hit it big with their second album Youthquake, from which You Spin Me Round Like A Record charted to 1 on the UK singles chart, number 11 in the US, and number 1 in Canada. Further albums had chart success in the UK and Japan, but never hit mainstream popularity in the US.
Okay, so…rad New Wave band with a danceable groove, fun songs, and super sexy members — what’s not to love, right? I theorize that Dead or Alive was way too hard to swallow [pun intended :p] for a homophobic 1980s United States. The societal forces of homophobia and transmisogyny militated against Dead or Alive’s US success. Furthermore, it’s arguable that the same prejudices also nearly did in Pete Burns himself.
First thing that we [culturally speaking] gagged on was Dead or Alive’s gleeful homoeroticism. The band loved to employ blatantly homoerotic imagery. In 1985, for example, the official music video for My Heart Goes Bang [Get Me to a Doctor] features Pete with a blue handkerchief swishing from his jeans. According to the hanky code developed by gay dudes in the 1970s, blue hanky on the left side means that the wearer is interested in being anally penetrated. Using a signifier developed by gay dudes to advertise interest in what non-queer people tend to think of as the ultimate gay male sexual activity is, well, pretty damn gay.
For another example of Dead or Alive’s homoerotic performance, check out the Rip It Up concert video, shot live in Japan in 1987. [No, really, if you like New Wave, check it out — I’m beginning to think that New Wave sounds better in concert.] It’s two separate performances spliced together, and, right around There’s Something in My House in one of the performances, Pete takes off his pants [!]. He and his two blond hunks of backup dancer/guitarists now all have no pants on, and he’s yanking them around by the waistbands of their jockstraps. They appear to be having a gay ol’ time! :p
In conclusion, Dead or Alive adored acting homoerotic. Turn in next time as I explore their more general genderqueering tendencies…
Other parts of this essay: