Being the third 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!
I previously engaged in long, hard study of Dead or Alive’s performances and music to bring you the penetrating news that, first, they were all about the gay imagery and, second, they were all about the gender-bending. Now we’ll examine the effects of said performance and reputation on Dead or Alive’s popularity. Basically I argue that the homophobic and transmisogynist hostility to Dead or Alive hampered their mainstream success.
An in-depth view of You Spin Me Round Like a Record — and, more specifically, what it conspicuously lacks — demonstrates the cultural prejudices arrayed against Dead or Alive. You Spin Me, as I mentioned in Part I, is the song for which the band is best known, at least in the US, UK, and Canada [which all are, of course, the center of the world 😛 ]. Analysis of the reasons for its success leads me to the conclusion that it succeeded mostly on the strength of being neither homoerotic nor generally genderqueer. Yes, folks, I’m saying that the song topped the charts due to the sheer power of its mediocrity.
Now I’m not arguing that lack of homoerotic and genderqueer content automatically makes You Spin Me dull; instead I’m arguing that it charted because it was one of the least queer, most heteronormative, least innovative, and generally commercially safest in Dead or Alive’s oeuvre. In no particular order, here are my reasons for the song’s boringness:
- Musically speaking, You Spin Me demonstrates a conservative dependence on other artists’ work. According to Wikipedia, Pete’s autobiography states that the song arose from his mental mashup of Luther Vandross’ I Wanted Your Love and Little Nell’s See You Round Like a Record. I don’t count this as much of a strike against the song, as it’s got a good beat, and you can dance to it, but I know that Dead or Alive can do cool, creative reinterpretations of others’ songs [ref. their cover of That’s The Way I Like It]. However, You Spin Me, which is neither original or daring, doesn’t come anywhere close to That’s the Way I Like It.
- Furthermore, the lyrics play it straight. A significant number of Dead or Alive’s songs either leave the identity of the singer’s lover ungendered and/or insinuate that the singer is a dude singing about another dude. By contrast, You Spin Me has a male singer addressing someone as baby, a feminized diminutive, thus implying the male singer’s interest in a female person, i.e., heterosexual desire.
- It’s not funny. I earlier derided Dead or Alive’s lyrics as generic, but that was before I detected the sly humor at work in some of their stuff. This wryness appears in Brand New Lover, in which the peripatetic singer frankly wishes for “someone who will lie to me” and pretend not to notice his constant infidelities. Many of the homoerotic double entendres are also pretty entertaining, as when the lyrics of Something in My House wonder “what might have been / If I’d never met that wicked queen.” Queen qua regal woman or queen qua gay guy? I opt for b), given the total context of Dead or Alive’s preferred imagery. Anyway, the point remains that You Spin Me, with its simple, generic declaratives, has none of this humor.
- Even the supporting material is unusually subdued. The music video, for example, features the band mostly singing into the camera, occasionally tied up in ribbons and sometimes waving flags, with breaks to show an out-of-focus disco ball. Pretty much nothing happens in it, although we do see Pete
dancingwiggling slightly, as some people’s hands, adorned with golden nails, appear from behind him. I understand [from the Wikipedia article again] that they did this on the cheap, but it completely avoids the energetic abandon of all other music videos of theirs I’ve seen.
To summarize, You Spin Me eschews all those potentially controversial aspects of Dead or Alive’s music and image: the homoeroticism, the genderqueerness, and the tongue-in-cheek humor. The song plays it safe melodically with its homage to other artists’ hits. The lyrics describe a thoroughly average experience of heteronormative lust. The song is completely without the humorous glints of self-awareness and/or homoerotic allusions prevalent in other songs. More than that, even the music video shows Dead or Alive in a quiet, physically restrained [literally, by the ribbons!] physical presentation. Pete’s purple loungewear aside [seriously, what is that revolting thing?!], the video showcases nothing remarkable. In other words, You Spin Me gains significance for those qualities conspicuous by their absence in it, not because it has some positive greatness.
You Spin Me is both Dead or Alive’s least quintessential song and also their most popular and commercially successful. I acknowledge that some of their other songs did chart and achieve popularity, particularly in the UK and Japan, but mainstream culture regards the group as a one-hit wonder with You Spin Me as their emblem. That’s because, in the homophobic 1980s, during which people were having moral freakouts over the AIDS crisis, Dead or Alive’s ebullient, flamboyant homoerotic image, genderqueerness, and playful, funny performance of sexuality had little appeal. Only when the band toned down or even excised these aspects could they achieve a chart-topping hit.
The case study of You Spin Me suggests that the homoerotic and genderqueer aesthetics of Dead or Alive manifested in some ways as absences. They played up these aspects in many of their songs, videos, and concerts, but the presence of such tropes led to a mainstream cultural censorship. We found Dead or Alive too hard to handle in the 1980s, so we ignored them, denied them popular and commercial success, and thus absented them from widespread familiarity. When they evacuated their signature aesthetics from You Spin Me in a sort of creative absence, we rewarded them by acknowledging their existence and granting pop cultural success. These absences at play conjure up the metaphorical space of an artistic closet, a homophobic construction created when the audience willfully avoids things it doesn’t want to accept and the artists go along with it by pretending not to evince said traits.
Tune in next time when I focus my attention on Pete’s image in particular and the ways in which homophobia and transmisogyny have played out more recently in his life.
Other parts of this essay: