Patrick Cash ponders why we gay men love divas so much ahead of his new play ‘Superficial’, which is at The Glory in east London from 20th June – 1st July.
I taught myself to hate pop music. Going to an all- boys’ school I found a great pressure to act masculine, and if I didn’t check myself, others would. I still remember the awful day someone pointed out my walk was ‘too camp’ in front of the whole French class.
Just 13 and coming from a Catholic family, I had no strength to assert my sexuality, and spent some time after straightening out my gait. This would also be when I began policing my gesticulations.
Pop music, which until that point had made me happy, and made me want to dance, was seen as feminine, and femininity at a boys’ was despised. I forged myself a new identity: die- hard rock fan, complete with the black hoodies and band- name badges.
It occasionally gave me a twinge of envy to see other pupils, such as Dazed writer Shon Faye (who was in the year below) expressing their love of exuberant Beyoncé pop and just not giving a fuck.
By the time I joined Soho’s Ku Bar at 22, I’d forgotten I ever liked pop music. I was appalled by what I was hearing: Ke$ha, Rihanna and Kylie reigned over the jukebox; guys had serious arguments over whether they preferred Dannii Minogue or Cheryl Cole; and there were drag queens dressed as Gaga.
I strutted straightly into this palace of pop, clutching my iPod full of Arcade Fire, a decade of internalised homophobia bubbling under the surface, and I snobbishly judged it all to be utterly superficial.
Despite this, I stayed on the scene. As time passed, I discovered that gay men’s love of pop divas is replete with meaning. I finally unearthed my own repressed love of pop.
So when I came to write a play about the London gay scene, I knew what I wanted to call it – Superficial – and I knew that pop had to be a central theme.
In a sonic middle finger to my scared 22-year-old self, the play features pop performances from Whitney to the Spice Girls to Miley. Mariah might just pop up as a character. The script explores what pop means to gay men, and when researching it I asked various gay DJs and musicians: why do we love divas?
“Madonna, the biggest pop star on the planet, was still embracing the gay community at the time of the AIDS crisis,” says quick-talking XXL DJ David Robson, 32, who recently became a viral sensation after dancing in a tube station to Crazy In Love.
“You’ve got to have an element of tragedy with a diva, you’ve got to have glamour, you’ve got to have a touch of untouchable, but you’ve also got to have appeal and understanding. There’s a reason why they call her ‘Our Glorious Leader.
“Maybe gay men love strong women because we’ve both been maligned by the white, heterosexual male-dominated society. There’s a link or commonality. We understand the sexism and the homophobia, and through something like pop music you can lose yourself.”
Circa DJ Sam DMS, 29, sees pop as a freedom of expression.
“Pop music lets you be yourself,” he says. “It’s about having fun: just go for it and have a good time.
“A lot of music is about negativity in life, and not all pop is happy; Adele did that performance at the Brits where she cried and everyone was going crazy about it. There are loads of different sides to pop music, but the happiness is more out there. Pop has inspired me.”
Sam was a DJ at Ku Bar when I was working behind the bar. One night at the club, I remember him spontaneously bursting into the complete Single Ladies dance with another guy, as the whole club watched. I asked him what the appeal of divas such as Beyonce is.
“Gay men love a performance,” he answers. “And you don’t get a better performer than a diva. It’s a note of empowerment when they reach that high note.”
The legendary Stewart Who? – writer, DJ and former Twisted pop star himself – waves a fag as we natter over suitably large glasses of wine in his London Bridge pad.
“To be a diva you are inherently camp for starters,” he drawls, sipping and puffing, the spectacular vista of nighttime London sparkling behind him.
“It’s also a maternal thing, in that every boy’s mother is a diva in their eyes. Part of being a diva is having men worship you, and who doesn’t want that, whether you’re 12 or 40?
“When you’re a gay teen you feel utterly weak: you can’t take on the bullies, you’re desiring the hunks and a diva is getting them; and she’s strong. I think even the ‘straightest acting’ gay man has a diva inside him.”
I nod, thinking of how two years ago I invented a terrifying but liberating drag alter- ego, Trashbag Trish; a move which would have been anathema to my repressed younger self. I ask Stewart what he would say to anybody who claims that pop music is superficial.
He gulps down his wine and blows out a plume of smoke as he thinks.
“It takes effort to be superficial,” he says. “To make a good pop song, and be superficial enough to write a pop song, is an effort in itself and I applaud that.
“It’s a lot harder than you think. To be a pop star takes a certain amount of brilliance. Kylie, for instance, deserves applause for her constancy in pop and ‘thinness’. She’s managed to remain a star for 25 years, while avoiding major scandals and not saying anything controversial.”
After musing over Kylie’s image, Stewart moves to her music.
“Your classic pop song, like Better The Devil You Know, just triggers a rush of adrenaline, three minutes of escape from yourself. It’s happiness and it reminds you of happy times: if you’re at G-A-Y and that song comes on, you feel that unity with everyone else on the dance floor. Pop music means the little things that just make life better: turning on the radio, hearing a song and it instantly changing your mood.”
I think Stewart has struck a chord, as it were, when he speaks of unity. What with David’s talk of oppression, and Sam’s claim of empowerment, it seems that what divas offer gay men most is a sense of belonging. From Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters to Katy Perry’s exploding bra to Britney’s general brilliance, the message is: You can be who you want to be. In writing a play on this celebration of freedom and pride, I wanted to capture how pop’s meaning to gay men is anything but superficial.
‘Superficial’ runs at The Glory, 281 Kingsland Road, E2 8AS from 20th June – 1st July, 7.30pm. £15. £10 previews on Monday 20th and Tuesday 21st using the code DIVA. Booking: dragonfliestheatre.co.uk/superficial