“I’m a man learning how to be a man’s man man,” growls Casey Spooner, finishing off the sleazy club anthem “Everything Is Just Alright,” which began with the description, “I smell the smoke, I smell the piss, I smell the anger,” an apparent reference to Nowhere Bar (I can attest–it fits). While a deceptively short line about learning how to be a man’s man (man), this seems to be central narrative of Fischerspooner’s new album Sir–a personal Odyssey through hyped-up, pumped-up exaggerated eroticized hypermasculinity.
The album, co-written and produced with Michael Stipe, opens with “Stranger Strange,” which sees the narrator sitting on the ground in a subway station (“Thursday night and everyone’s gone home”). The song is an apt introduction to the album, which feels like a coming out into sweat-drenched nightclubs in the wake of a personal loss (“Forced to confront him, forced to risk, all the pleasure leads to this.”). Sir, as a whole, not only depicts the dissolution of a relationship, but also signifies a rebirth into a certain type of radical gay male sexuality.
Like a circuit party in album form, listeners can almost smell the Rush wafting up from each of Sir’s thirteen tracks. It’s no mistake that the cover art for the first single–the raucous “Have Fun Tonight”–featured a blurry image of someone huffing a bottle of poppers. The music sounds similarly hazy, intoxicated and addled. Ultimately, Sir is an essential ode to gay nightlife and sexual freedom in all its decadent glory. NPR’s Piotr Orlov described the music as “the best Depeche Mode album of the 21st century, with more charisma than Dave Gahan and Martin Gore have been able to muster in a while.” While I’m insulted for Filthy Dreams’s role model Dave Gahan (how dare you question Dave’s charisma!), Sir undoutedly has more than a little pinch of “Master and Servant,” in particular on songs like “Get it On.” But really, I can’t describe the instrumentation on Sir as anything other than the electro/house sounds of a gay club. You know it when you hear it.
However, its not all fun and games on Sir either–there’s a point to this wanton hedonism (not that hedonism isn’t enough). From the sensual image of Spooner on the cover with his tongue posed suggestively to the embrace of over-the-top club and house electronica, Sir feels like a reclamation of a Tom of Finland-style hypermasculinity and a form of sexual experimentation within nightlife that seemed to have been thrown out with the 1970s after the height of the AIDS pandemic. With songs like “Butterscotch Goddamn” and “Dark Pink,” with lurid lyrics about “a dark pink Saturday night” that will have you clutching your pearls, the music seems to reject respectability politics, trading in gay dads for daddies. And yet, there is a distinct sense that this form of masculinity, as performed on the album and embodied by Spooner, is a form of drag–a constructed image that can crack, as seen on the lonely final track “Oh Rio.”
Certainly, Fischerspooner is no stranger to performativity. When the collaboration between Warren Fischer and Casey Spooner exploded onto the Lower Manhattan scene in the early 2000’s, they were seen as too artificial and artsy for the grungy garage rock rebirth typified by bands like The Strokes and Interpol. Never mind the fact that The Strokes were just rich kids who loved dive bars and Converse (I say this with love since I have a particular fondness for the band). Closer to the burgeoning warehouse party scene in Williamsburg, Fischerspooner’s debut album #1 continues to be essential listening, particularly for queers who weren’t that impressed with the LES fuccboi antics of the bands during the period. In contrast to these bands’ supposed “authenticity,” Fischerspooner embraced its own fabricated nature–stopping tracks mid-performance like the missing act at Club Silencio in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.
Reappearing after their nine-year hiatus, Fischerspooner seems to have put on a new mask–equally self-fashioned yet somehow more personal. This doesn’t mean Fischerspooner abandoned their artistic concerns entirely. For example, in “Togetherness,” Spooner quotes a line from a public conversation between our preeminent filth elder John Waters and Jeff Koons who said, “The deeper you go, the darker it gets.” But, rather than elaborate costumes, Sir-era Spooner transformed his entire body into a muscle-bound amalgamation of studs from Bob Mizer’s Physique Pictorial, Tom of Finland’s leathermen and the mustachioed macho men from 1970s porn magazines. And yet, there’s something almost indefinably amusing about Spooner’s performance of masculinity. Even before the release of the album, Spooner’s Instagram has been a particular favorite of ours (Marion and me) as we send IG links back and forth, watching him dine in Paris in sheer shirts, define camp, party on Fire Island, work out, etc.
In the manner that Narcissister exaggerates the feminine to aggressive heights, Spooner pushes hypermasculinity to its absolute limit, which allows the performed nature of masculinity to be seen. This is unusual since masculinity–even hypermasculinity–is typically thought of as being natural or neutral rather than performative like femininity. Jack Halberstam in Female Masculinity theorizes on the lesser popularity of drag kings and its relation to the masculine being seen as “real.” They write, “current representations of masculinity in white men unfailingly depend on a relatively stable notion of the realness and naturalness of both the male body and its signifying effects. Advertisements for Dockers pants and Jockey underwear, for example, appeal constantly to the no-nonsense aspect of masculinity, to the idea that masculinity “just is” whereas femininity reeks of the artificial. Indeed, there are very few places in American culture where male masculinity reveals itself to be staged or performative…” (234). In relation to drag kings, Halberstam insists that masculinity must be “rendered visible and theatrical before it can be performed” (235).
In How To Be Gay, David M. Halperin sees this understanding of masculinity as performative as something inherent to being gay. “Straight men, of course, also have to learn how to act like straight men. But straight men do not routinely regard masculinity as a style, nor do they consider their own impersonation of straight men to be a performance,” he notes (196). Instead, he continues, “In the course of remembering and reconstituting what straight men have forgotten, in the course of consciously reproducing the acts that straight men are no longer conscious of performing, gay men inevitably come to see what heterosexual culture considers to be a natural and authentic identity–a form of being, an essence, a thing–as a social form: A performance, an act a role” (197).
Sir does this work of revealing masculinity as an act in both the music and in Spooner’s physical expression. From Spooner bragging about being a “racing motorcycle thoroughbred, I’m a blazing motorcycle, yeah” to writhing in a sea of men’s bodies in the video for “TopBrazil,” Spooner embodies this form of masculinity in a way that reveals itself as an aesthetic and erotic construction–as a form of drag. As Spooner croons in “Strut,” “I’m a dreamer, I’m a dreamer, I’m a dream.” Even he is aware that this masculine ideal is a fantasy.
But by taking on this act, as Halperin articulates, Spooner consciously harkens back to the gay masculine performance developed within clubs like The Mineshaft, The Anvil, The Saint, Crisco Disco and other clubs that disappeared during the AIDS pandemic. For example, “Togetherness,” which features singer Caroline Polachek, details:
“Tattered and frayed, knotted and twisted
Pressing and looking for a way
That’s the rub, denim on denim
This is no pragmatic love”
“Denim on denim” gestures to the iconic gay clone aesthetic of this era. As Patrick Moore writes in Beyond Shame: Reclaiming the Abandoned History of Gay Sexuality, “In the carefully constructed unreality of the club, men were given rigid roles that satisfied their creative need to respond to the oppression of being gay in an unaccepting world…It was a world in which masculinity replaced beauty, and brutality was a kind of love” (26). These world-making possibilities within clubs were a source of escape, rebellion, and refusal, but were also temporary.
While Sir recalls the freedom of pre-AIDS pandemic sexuality and kinship within clubs, it is not one big nostalgia-fest. Fischerspooner firmly locates this eroticism within the present, particularly within the renewed pharmaceutical and tech-based sexual possibilities with PrEP and the predominance of dating apps like Grindr, Scruff and others. For example, the song “TopBrazil” details a hookup gone wrong with a man from a dating app whose username is reflected in the song title (“I’m not opposed to humiliation/I hold my breath until/I wiggle out of a bad position/I call it TopBrazil”). Similarly, “Discreet” features a segment of dialogue that comes straight out of the world of dating apps (“Sup, hello, hey, looking, tell me what you’re into”).
While depicting this trip through newfound sexual abandon, Sir also features an undercurrent of insecurity, loss and loneliness within all this skin on skin. The prime example of this is the album’s final song “Oh Rio.” The song starts with Spooner’s spoken Autotuned voice stating, “Every dream has a dark side no matter how hard you try, some ideas started so long ago–expectations you absorbed. You don’t even know, you know, you don’t even know, you know.” From there, the song, named after the Bruce Weber book O Rio de Janiero, details an autobiographical trip to Rio, which didn’t quite live up to the dreamscape presented in Weber’s publication. As Spooner told Consequence of Sound:
“So I would go look at this book and get excited and turned on and confused and freaked out and scared and put it back on the shelf, which kind of built this erotic fantasy landscape in my mind and created all these associations with Rio that somehow my sexuality existed in this foreign land somewhere far far away. In 2014 I finally went to Rio. It was a disaster. Since it was March and I was coming from winter in New York I was not in great shape. I was old. I was fat. I was tired. I was sick. And I got to Rio and it was the end of summer so everyone was hot and amazing, sexy and incredible and basically I had put myself in this crazy situation where I ended up in my sexual fantasyland and I was not beautiful or happy. It was me confronting my dreams and having them collapse before me.”
With Holly Miranda pleasantly singing about “hacking up a lung in the sun,” “Oh Rio” is an appropriate final track, like those harsh lights coming on during last call revealing partiers’ wrinkles, blemishes and imperfections. Rather than being an anachronism, this hard slap of reality mimics the mornings Patrick Moore describes in Beyond Shame: “morning always waited. No matter how the men of the Mineshaft stopped up the cracks in the walls or painted the windows black, the knowledge that their magic did not work in the sunlight beyond the thin divide adds a note of sad complexity to their creative accomplishment” (27). So too with Sir, as it further pulls back the curtain on the masculine ideal rendering it a momentary, as David M. Halperin writes, “song and dance” (273).