To Be Real: The Enduring Queer Musical Legacy of ‘Paris is Burning’
Vogue culture has since infiltrated mainstream pop, but this iconic 1990 film stands as a monument to a time before everyone screamed "yas queen".
In the opening scene of Paris Is Burning, Jennie Levingston's seminal documentary on New York's ball scene in the 80s, an unspecified stock market ticker crawls with orange text, its digital glow resembling a burning flame: "white supremacist church begins conference." Its ordinariness, the way the letters emerge with seemingly no one in sight to take note, makes the desolate streets around the building feel almost dystopian. We then smash cut elsewhere in New York City – 1987, the opening slide tells us – and the street is scored with young black city dwellers, far from the deserted street corner of that bank. We're somewhere else – uptown in Harlem, we soon learn – and Loose Joints' "It's All Over My Face!" is blasting from inside Savoy Manor Ballroom.
The iconic images in Paris Is Burning have endured for the last 26 years thanks largely to this exact kind of confrontation. The film's soundtrack works much the same way; it tells you two stories at once. The genius of Levingston's film – and it is genius, even after all this time, perhaps even because of it – is how it uses silence to bring focus to her subjects' humanity, and music to illuminate their desires.
Cheryl Lynn's late 70s classic, "Got To Be Real", punctuates the film on more than one occasion, and has become imbued with new meaning because of it. The track kicks off a lively montage – it's the first non-diegetic sound we hear – and closes the film after moments of genuine pathos (a post-script about the fate of a subject; a gorgeous monologue about the limitations of life on the fringe).
Yet the song's subtext rises to the surface with each fresh spin, highlighting the contradictory nature of 'reality' within the context of drag and ball culture. When the montage begins, it provides a glossary of both runway categories and the scene's hyper-specific lexicon. "REALNESS" flashes on screen just as Lynn's voice hits the catlike purr of that titular chorus. "If you can pass the untrained eye and not give away the fact that you're gay, that's when it's realness," narrates one of the film's stars, Dorian Corey. But drag in its affectations, both of blending in and standing out, capture a unique tension. In this way, "real" is presented as a spectrum, with performance an overriding constant onstage and off.
Levingston's soundtrack constantly ties together the space between the ball and the world it stows away from. When the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)" begins pumping through the ballroom, it makes a runway strut feel like a deep exhale. Patti LaBelle's cover of "Over The Rainbow" bridges the gap between show tune and the American gospel in an instant, and manages to frame black life and gay history into a singular experience; The Jungle Brothers' "I'll House You" could become a celebration of the ballroom "houses" that take in wayward LGBTQ people of colour, often ostracised and kicked out of their homes – or it could be just a song.
As the film progresses, the soundtrack begins to move forward. The film takes us from 1987 to 1989, and makes two years feel like a lifetime. In the film's third act, Willi Ninja, the Godfather of Voguing, one of the scene's signature dance styles, has become an in-demand name. By '89, Ninja is helping direct fashion shoots and runway shows, going so far as to choreograph for Malcolm McLaren, whose song, "Deep In Vogue", Levingston plays in the film.
By that point, Ninja is an outlier; the members of the scene stay in the same dangerous standing they were before Levingston rolled film. Some would go on to voice displeasure at the film's one-sided financial success; others would tragically die from AIDS or, in the case of Venus Xtravaganza, be murdered at random. To this day, her death remains unsolved.
Much has changed in the two-and-a-half decades since Paris Is Burning was first released. Then, the poor black and Latino men at the heart of the film would dress up in the talisman of Hollywood glamour. They'd look like Marilyn Monroe or Joan Collins; now, white kids in the middle of the country talk and dress like them.
Paris Is Burning used to be the kind of film you'd track down much the same way you'd score an illicit drug. Its existence was the culture's worst kept secret; how to watch the film, one of its best. Cruddy old VHS, warped from re-viewing (and one screening of the film would tell you why someone would watch and re-watch the film at length); late-night art house cinemas, with poor sound but a decent seat; eventually YouTube, in ten separate nine-minute chapters, and now Netflix.
I was born in 1989, and wouldn't even know what Paris Is Burning was until university, where I encountered something like an awakening. At the time, I hadn't even realised I was gay, but a predisposition to the word "fierce" could have told you something; I didn't even know where the word came from.
It came, as much else did, from the ballroom scene. And seeing Paris Is Burning was tantamount to reading Baldwin or Butler; to watching Truffaut or Malick; to first having sex. It was a reframing of feelings you'd held and things you'd already beared witnessed to. A year after I was born, Madonna's "Vogue" would serve, by today's standards at least, as the kiss of death for the subculture's cache. The song would strip voguing of its time and place, its context and its inherent politics – it would also become one of Madonna's biggest hits.
Today, the ballroom scene sits somewhere between legacy and lore, seen everywhere from the gender-bending of Mykki Blanco to the direct sonic influences of Cakes Da Killa and Azealia Banks (in 2012, the singer and Harlem native, hot off "212", threw a Mermaid Ball that she herself curated, which borrowed heavily from the drag and ballroom aesthetic). Rapper Le1f has also been tied as a new wave of ball-inspired performer, though he has worked to shake the connotation. Similarly, rapper Zebra Katz has found the vague connections between his work and the subculture to be suffocating, in spite of his debut single, "Imma Read", which quotes gay slang born out of Harlem's ball scene. In one of the best scenes in Levingston's film, the definition of "shade" is explained via one queen "reading" another.
But most pertinently, its presence feels embedded in every crevice of mainstream pop culture; so much so, that sometimes we don't even notice it's there. The exaggerated androgyny of Missy Elliott, for instance, or the drag-inspired theatrics of Lady Gaga, or the tightly choreographed dance routines of Beyoncé, or even the way the word "work" seems to have crept into so many major pop songs in the past ten years, all of which harken to the pure DNA of the scene.
But the broader ties to Paris Is Burning feel as if they forego any and all direct connections to the ballroom scene. These days, gay slang is used in everything from a top 40 single to a Taco Bell print campaign. The emphatic celebration that feels exuberant and unique in Levingston's film is, today, best replicated on the Internet. The web's penchant for bullying and triggers notwithstanding, the hyperbole of internet fandom most closely resembles the hysteria that would surround an uptown star. Cries of "yaaas" and "queen" go from pseudo-ironic hysteria to living, breathing thesis. Just look at Beyoncé, whose crowning as pop culture's prophet felt, at first, like intentionally exaggerated praise – until it wasn't.
Everything from the brilliance of RuPaul's Drag Race and the watered-down and aggressively palatable Lip Sync Battle engage almost entirely with the farce of both artifice and performance. A desire to take things less seriously pervades in drag, at the very moment in which its popularity meets a culture leaning in an opposite direction. What makes Paris Is Burning continually fascinating is that it is perhaps one of the first seminal gay texts to be almost entirely devoid of camp. The irreverence persists, but tongue doesn't even meet cheek. In fact, a prevailing spectre of seriousness hovers in every shot, and manifests as both a devotion to the craft as well as a truly authentic fear of death.
By May 1987, Ronald Reagan had gone 2,000 days without giving a major public address on AIDS, scarcely mentioning the name of the disease that had claimed 4,100 people in the US that year alone. Over what amounted to almost a decade, he relegated an entire segment of his population to the outskirts. At times, Levingston's film feels as if it's urging you to understand what it is that drives people in the face of a plague to devote themselves to this thing. What the motivation could possibly be to bury the dead and carry on through dance.
A series of poses would end with a death drop, where the dancer lays on the ground, hands spread and a leg bent back, twisting the body into an incredible, unusual contortion. All the while, the crowd squeals in delight. They would lay, splayed and still; by morning, the optics could hit too close to home. But at night, the image told you a story. Ghosts walking among each other, celebrated for a strut, posing with purpose, dancing in the name of a magazine they could never be on the cover of. Invisible to the world at large, making an art out of simply being seen and looking beautiful.
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(Lead illustration by Joel Benjamin)