One of the last posts I wrote before I took my hiatus from blogging was in response to a video of John Waters’ (I was especially intrigued by his description of the film “The Girl Can’t Help It” – as well as its effects on music and popular culture). I decided to continue with my quest to watch as many documentaries as possible about Waters and company. I had been wanting to see the documentary “I am Divine” since I started seeing trailers for it (it came out in 2013, but I was right in the thick of dissertation work at that point). I finally got a chance to see it and wanted to share my thoughts about it.
Before I start in, I should mention that this project (Sounds of Laughter – studying musical comedy of various sorts) has been slowly merging with my dissertation project (as of now, tentatively titled “Sound Categorization: Authenticity, Assessment, and Ideology among Seattle Jazz Instrumentalists”). When I started the dissertation research, I was focused on notions of musical authenticity. Through lots of thought and analysis, I’ve come to realize that authenticity is one of several modes of categorizing performers – it creates a binary used to distinguish individuals based on whether they are “authentic” or “inauthentic.” In the dissertation, I focus on how jazz instrumentalists negotiate tensions and/or contradictions between the many constructions used for categorization – ultimately concluding that they exert agency by determining their own positions in music and society (hence “sound” categorization in the sense of being secure, correct, etc., as opposed to “sound” as in music and “Sound” as in the Puget Sound area – I really dig the multiple meanings of the word “sound”). So where does musical comedy fit into all of this?
I’ve come to realize that what appeals to me so much about about musical comedy is that it seeks to actively disrupt, mock, and occasionally terrorize traditional modes of musical and/or social categorization. Both John Waters and Divine built their careers around what could be described as categorical anarchy. While Waters is not a musical comedian, he deals with many themes used in musical comedy: camp, the grotesque, the scandalous, etc. As a drag performer (among many other things), Divine was in many ways a musical comedian. While the documentary only briefly mentions Divine’s musical career (which, I confess, I wasn’t even aware of), the film emphasizes that it was every bit as forward-thinking and groundbreaking as the other parts of his career.
The most obvious way that Divine complicated social categories was through gender presentation. My understanding from watching the documentary was that Divine the individual/performer/actor was “he” – several interviewees stress that he identified as a man, had no desire for any sort of reassignment, and regretted not being able to get more roles as a man. This is in contrast to Divine the persona, who was very much a “she” – in most of her film roles, she was cast as the leading lady and treated as such (side note: the scenes in which Tab Hunter describes working with Divine are really, really sweet – he was really cool about the whole thing and clearly treated Divine the performer and character with a lot of respect).
As a drag performer, Divine further complicated categories. The film shows how she mocked the conventional, pretty queens of the drag ball circuit. While I knew a little bit about Divine’s career before, the documentary made me realize just how much of an effect she had on the world of drag performance. I haven’t been able to watch “RuPaul’s Drag Race” for a couple of years (again, too busy with dissertation stuff), but I could really see Divine’s influence on a lot of the edgier queens. I could also see similarities between the tensions among contestants on the show and the juxtaposition between drag-ball glamour and Divine’s brand of raw sexuality and scariness (a dynamic many gay men and/or drag performers talked about at length in the documentary, much to my great delight).
As I mentioned, Divine’s musical career is only mentioned briefly. However, what I found interesting is that one of the music industry people who helped kick-start his musical career emphasized that Divine was not a singer, but a vocal performer (or something to that effect – I’m too lazy to go find the actual words in the film). The disco music (and proto-techno, as Waters notes) provided the backdrop to on-stage shows that incorporated musical, comedic, and theatrical elements. In today’s day and age, the idea of a song being set to vocals by a total amateur or using informal song-speech seems totally normal, But at the time, it was disrupting yet another categorical boundary of music versus non-music.
I’m still not sure what trajectory these interests will follow once I graduate. I would love to keep teaching about musical comedy and possible incorporate it into my research (switching my focus from negotiating categorizations to disrupting them). Whatever the case, I will always enjoy offerings like this film which combine my love of documentaries with my fascination with provocative pop culture figures like Divine.