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Boys on Film: An Anatomy of YouTube’s Pro Spornos

Mark Simpson examines some professional show-offs

I want to talk about Jeff Seid’s tongue.

I want to talk about what’s attached, so exquisitely, to the famous fitness model and aesthetic bodybuilder’s tongue as well. But, despite the rest of his body being so very good at talking, his tongue is probably the most eloquent part of him – without actually saying anything. Just by sticking it out in that signature way of his, Mr Seid communicates so much about himself, and about spornosexuality – second generation, body-centred, sexed-up metrosexuality.

Jeff’s 26-year-old tongue – he was born in Renton, Washington, in 1994, the same year as the metrosexual – appears to be directly attached to his biceps so that whenever he flexes them, out it pops. It’s a big, fleshy, generous tongue, that lolls over most of his square, dimpled chin. 

Perhaps that fleshly muscular organ used for tasting, licking and swallowing is promising ladies, or lads, a good time. Perhaps it’s just expressing an estimation of his own tastiness. Perhaps it’s a cheeky, boyish affront to the world. But what that big, lolling tongue definitely signifies is Mr Seid’s hunger. For it all. For everything he can get. For the money shot of fame.

There’s an early, amateurish Seid video on YouTube from 2012, as funny as it is scary, that everyone who wants to understand today’s generation of self-sexualising, body-commodifying young men should watch.

It stars an eighteen year-old ex-High School wrestler and just recently ex-football jock Jeff, pre Bieber-esque fringe, pre Mr Olympia Men’s Physique title, pre all those fitness mag covers, pre-sponsorship deals, pre-jetting around the world to appear at expos and pose for selfies with fans and wannabes, pre his own clothing line (SeidWear) and workout books. Pre a zillion professionally produced ‘inspirational’ videos of him working out topless with romantic lighting. And pre-3.9M Instagram followers

Before, in other words, he became a pro-sporno.

That’s to say, an online high priest of spornosexuality – whose body arouses fascination, envy and desire and helps convert other young men to the sexy cult. And thus converts into loads of filthy lucre. 

Jeff, whose dreams of a pro football career had not long been ended by an injury, has nothing at this point, except his hunger to be looked at. Wanted. His ravenous desire to be desired. And that tongue. Oh, and attached to that tongue, a body. Not yet quite the glistening, ‘totally ripped’, awesome ‘aesthetic’ (a key word for Jeff and other spornosexuals – but do they know it’s Greek for ‘beautiful’?), globally-monetised ‘pro’ thing that it is today.

But certainly one that can still stop traffic.

And that’s exactly what the cheeky scamp does, eagerly stripping down to his pants and fake bake on the sidewalk in Las Vegas, that tongue panting, as he flexes. Passers-by pose for selfies with him and stuff dollar bills into his pants. Which makes his tongue stick out even more. Appropriately enough, Jeff doesn’t really speak in the video, but a charmingly amateurish subtitling tells you: ‘I made like $50 in 20 minutes!’. Innocent days! (Seid is now estimated to be earning c. $1M/year)

In case there’s anyone in Vegas that still hasn’t seen this showboys’ abs and bis, the future ‘king of Aesthetics’ then stands up, somewhat precariously, in the sunroof of a limo which is driving around, a little too fast, in circles, while he furiously flexes and poses his body and his tongue – completely unbothered that a sudden brake could bisect him and his buffedness. Jeff is a mechanised, unstoppable young spornosexual, firing on all swole cylinders without, apparently, a shred of fear, shame or embarrassment anywhere in his flawless, shredded body.

We never stood a chance.

***

David Laid – apparently this is actually his real name, and not one made up to riff suggestively on Seid’s – doesn’t stick his tongue out very much. In fact, I can’t remember seeing his tongue. However, this 22-year-old does pull rather strange, twitchy faces in the gym, in his many, many and rather lengthy YouTube videos. If it’s true that the faces we pull when exerting ourselves in the gym are our ‘sex faces’ then Mr Laid would make for a somewhat distracting bedroom partner.

Then again, his extraordinary, other-worldly body would be much more distracting. And several hundred thousand people are already regularly distracted by it, regularly.

Mr Laid is a 20-year-old ‘influencer’ and YouTube star from Atlantic City with 1.4M Instagram followers. Seven years ago he was a 98 pounds and ‘an absolute twig’, as he puts it, who was bullied in school for being so scrawny. So he turned to YouTube videos for advice on lifting – including, it seems, Mr Seid’s – and began his ‘personal journey’ and ‘natural bodybuilding transformation’ into the 200 pound ripped, strangely ethereal and yet highly corporeal creature he is today. 

With inevitable logic in a social me-dear world, his own transformative YouTube videos have gained him 1.4M YT followers keen to take inspiration of various kinds from his ‘muscle journey’ – and lucrative sponsorship from the spornowear company Gymshark.

Laid lifts several hours every day and somehow finds time to devour nearly 5000 calories a day in between workouts. And of course everything is documented on video. In fact, voracious eating in what appears to be the kitchen of his (always unseen) parents’ big suburban American house seems to be a major part of his videos – and a lot of what he and his two sidekicks eat isn’t exactly what you’d call ‘clean’. Visits to MacDonald’s drive-thru feature frequently. Youth and high metabolisms are so unfair.

Actually, y’know, working out often seems to make up a fraction of his videos, which also include him and his buddies playing with a drone, losing a drone and then finding a drone. Or visiting a grocery store and buying a trolley full of pre-cooked bacon. As you do.

Maybe this is because what fans really want from a David Laid video is the sense of hanging out with him and doing fun stuff – he is more of a ‘personality’ than Mr Seid, who is more of a… tongue. Or perhaps it’s because watching Laid work out in his inspirational videos is remarkably un-inspirational. It may be down to his long limbs and goofy expressions, but he seems to struggle and wobble with weights like a new-born foal trying to walk. Bambi the bodybuilder. Especially when he does his idiosyncratic version of a dead-lift, with his long legs so far apart they’re almost around his ears.

Then again, perhaps I miss the point that it is inspirational that someone so non-jockish should have succeeded in turning themselves into a muscle ice sculpture. 

Stripped down to his pants and posing in the locker room after a pumping workout while other gym-goers pretend not to notice, Laid is a perplexing sight. The long, v-shaped torso, the vanishingly small percentage of body fat – Maccy D’s notwithstanding – the armoured abs, and the silver knight shoulders, beautiful and imposing yet flowingly pretty and willowy. It’s difficult to know quite how to respond. Laid looks less like a 20 year-old-from Atlantic City, NJ, who works out than an androgynous alien cyborg, crossed with an anime pre-Raphaelite painting. It’s almost as if he represents the next step in human development – after Jeff Seid (he’s three years younger – which in our accelerated culture now represents a generation).

His sidekicks are both cute and buff – and rather difficult to tell apart, save one has bigger pecs than the other – but shorter, less goofy, and more conventionally jock-ish: managing not to twitch and gurn and wobble when working out. They seem almost to have been selected to throw Laid’s startling appearance into sharper relief.

Actual, hormonal heterosexuality, as is often the case with these spornographic videos, doesn’t really raise its head – because spornosexuality is the sexuality here. The orientation or relationship that matters is the one the star has to his own body and our voyeurism of that relationship, even though our eyes are the mirror. 

In one video, shot as many are in a kitchen, surrounded by boxes of newly arrived Gymshark stretchy-kinky superhero style gym wear that Laid and his chums have been trying on, enthusing over the tightness and texture, he shows his sidekicks some selfies scantily-clad female fans have just sent him. “How does that make you feel?” he asks. They look, but don’t reply.

Which is also kind of my reaction to Laid.

***

You are probably thinking that YouTube pro spornos, low, meatish animal cunning aside, are not the sharpest tools in the box. Or, rather, hoping that. Because of course, if you don’t have a body like theirs you need to clutch at any consolation you can. I know I do. All that pumping iron atrophies your brain, right?

Well, their pumping of iron that in turn pumps our nether regions may atrophy the voyeur’s brain, or at least starve it of oxygen, but not necessarily the sporno’s. Who has, after all, figured out a way to make himself indispensable in our hypervisual culture – unlike the intellectual.

Allow me to introduce you to Pietro Boselli, someone invented to cruelly deprive you of your faith in sporno stupidity, albeit with a dazzling and entirely disarming smile. Boselli, is living, geometrically consistent proof that spornos don’t have to be dumb. And also that for all their self-sexualisation, spornos can be romantico. Angelic, even. Boselli With his cherubic facial features, those bucolic, rosy cheeks that belie his 31 years, and that smiley submissiveness – and 2.7M Instagram followers – is the thoughtful, studied, articulate – but no less shredded – reply to Seid’s impish tongue. Boselli is sensuous lips. And nips.

Oh, and a big buff brain. Dubbed the world’s ‘sexiest maths teacher’ by the press – or perhaps by his own cunning PR – Boselli has a PhD in mechanical engineering, and taught undergraduate mathematics as a side-line for a while to lucky engineering students at London University. One of whom according to Wikipedia, ‘took note of his physique and stumbled on his modelling career’.

Stumbled. I suppose you could stumble while hyperventilating and rushing home to Google ‘Boselli’ + ‘naked’ in the privacy of your own bedroom.

Boselli, originally from Verona, Italy, is no longer involved in the world of old-skool engineering. He is fully-employed nowadays in the new wave of engineering – designing his own machine-body and working as a fitness model, offering body-blueprints for others to copy or just lust over. And it’s a stunningly successful project. In fact, Boselli was a model long before he was an engineer: he was chosen as the face of Armani Junior campaign in 1995 when he was just seven.

The boyish face and the smoothly mannish body are slightly reminiscent perhaps of the young Marky Mark in Mr Klein’s underpants, sans the compensatory bad-boy rapismo. Boselli is a very good boy on the streets – but, we like to think, a very naughty one between the sheets. The bona from Verona. As a reminder that we’re talking about second generation male tartiness here, Boselli was just four years old when Wahlberg was grabbing himself on the side of buses.

In addition to magazine ‘spreads’, he has his own YouTube channel where we can dissect the secrets of his beautiful body (Pietro Boselli’s Exercise Anatomy), and also listen to him offering thoughtful, philosophical advice about bodybuilding, and beauty tips, including ways to keep your skin hydrated by “drying your clothes indoors”. Pietro is not just a fitness coach – Pietro is a way of life.

Though admittedly it can be a little difficult to focus on all those words. His genetics are very distracting – and anyway tend to undermine his message. Most of us are never going to have skin or abs or lives like him, no matter how much washing we hang up in our untidy apartments. Paradoxically, that’s why we’re sat there in our onesies eating pizza and drooling over his fitness and beauty advice videos. Or is that just me?

The Bona from Verona likes to wax philosophical about the Cartesian ‘mind/body dualism’ in our culture. One which tends to both assume/hope he will be dumb because he’s hot – but which has also made him even more famous than he would have been if he had just been a pretty face and studly body. Boselli gave a TED lecture called ‘How I survived as professor on the runway and model in the classroom’ – looking like he was on a catwalk rather than in a lecture theatre while doing so. There was certainly a lot of telephoto lens action from the audience.

Boselli also likes to post photos of himself on Instagram/Facebook etc. in his Speedos, looking lonely somewhere scenic – or looking scenic somewhere lonely – usually with a self-improving motto attached. Such as:

Learn to think. Embrace being alone with your own thoughts.

Pietro boselli

I’m not sure whether it’s down to the Cartesian mind/body split, but these uplifting messages – as is often the case with the self-help slogans that many pro spornos go in for when posting sexy photos of themselves – seem sincere, and also a kind of parody at the same time. After all, the thoughts that Boselli is mostly in the business of provoking already involve a great deal of lonely self-embracing.

A little bit like Laid, Pietro is a confusing/intoxicating phenomenon to behold. Not just because of his boyish, Dorian-esque head on his pumped, smooth, statuesque body. Or his near-androgyny: all truly beautiful things, as Sontag famously noted, are a mixture of masculine and feminine – like early Tom of Finland drawings, Boselli has a wonderful, firm voluptuousness to his ‘hyper male’ body. But also because – unlike say Mr Seid who has made it perfectly clear exactly what we’re supposed to do with him – we don’t know whether to put Signore Boselli on a pedestal or in a sling. 

His buff beauty, like his buff brain, is exquisitely discombobulating.

***

(Don’t worry, I’ve not forgotten Matt Does Fitness, who with 2M YouTube followers, he is possibly the UK’s most popular pro sporno. He and his assets deserve a scrutinising post all to himself – and will soon be getting one.)

A version of this post originally appeared on Mark Simpson’s Patreon

Grab Ass is Over

Strewth! What’s the world of team sports coming to? Horseplay has been sent to the knacker’s yard.

Australian Football League team Melbourne Demons gave star players Jayden Hunt and Christian Petracca a stern telling off, after the former playfully grabbed the latter’s be-shorted bum during a game against Essendon last September.

It seems that Petracca was not at all offended. Quite the opposite. When Hunt removed his hand, Petracca immediately caught it and placed it back on his butt. More… matily.

Pumped Petracca

Despite the consensuality – or maybe because of it – Melbourne Football Club management didn’t like it one little bit. They pronounced it ‘inappropriate’ and put out a statement that the players had agreed it was ‘not a good look for the club’ and had promised that it ‘won’t happen again’.

I don’t think this goes far enough. Melbourne Demons should have given those naughty boys a spanking. Televised, of course.

Actually, I don’t see what the point of AFL is if players can’t matily grab one another’s arses. This is the latest of a slew of ‘scandals’ around the shocking tendency of extremely fit young men in an extremely physical, very ‘bonded’ sport such as Aussie rules football to get physical with one another. Every time they happen everyone pretends to be totally appalled that such horseplay goes on in team sports.

The very thing that has helped to turn sports stars into sporno stars, the ubiquity of HD lenses on and off the sports field, along with the proliferation of social media (and blogs like this) to share, analyse and shame a momentary gesture, has also subjected their interactions on the field to total surveillance. Hunt and Petracca obviously thought their joshing around would be hidden in the group huddle. But as is always the case these days, a telephoto lens was in just the wrong position to tell tales.

Meanwhile the corporatisation of sport as a form of show business and ‘role modelling’, not to mention the dominance of ‘toxic masculinity’ discourse, means rough behaviour by rough boys has to be shamed as ‘inappropriate’ and penitent promises never to do it again must be extracted.

Hence the entire statement Melbourne Demons management had their captain put out is almost Pythonesque in its fulsome and pompous repudiation of the brief bum-touching:

“As AFL players, we are role models and have a responsibility to showcase the right behaviours to the wider AFL community,” captain Max Gawn said.

“On this occasion, we have clearly fallen short, and we own that this is not acceptable.

“Christian and Jayden know that this was an inappropriate act, which is not in line with our expectations, or that of the competition.

“As a playing group, we understand and respect the example we need to be setting, and will continue to reinforce this going forward.”

‘We are role models’… ‘we have a responsibility to showcase the right behaviours’… ‘we have clearly fallen short’… ‘inappropriate act’… etc. etc. The roll-call of cant that the modern team sports player – and multi millionaire – is contractually obliged to mouth nowadays.

***

Bootnecks are very swole but also very short

And while I’m moaning about the modern world, I should mention I only recently discovered that the very popular Royal Marine ‘Go Commando’ calendar, which featured hench bootnecks with their tops off, displaying their oiled guns, was banned a few years back by the Ministry of Defence, despite raising hundreds of thousands of pounds for charity. It was deemed to be ‘sexualising’. Apparently, this is a bad thing.

So Go Commando is now No Commando.

At least the MoD didn’t demand the bootnecks make a grovelling public apology. You can imagine how it would have gone:

‘We have a responsibility to showcase the right behaviours… we have clearly fallen short… this was inappropriate…. but it was also really fuckin’ hot.’

Cristiano Ronaldo’s Insta-Lovefest

The world’s most famous man this week became the first person to pass 250 million followers on Instagram. A milestone in human e-volution.

Already the most popular personality on social media, 35-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo is now just rubbing our noses in it. The Juventus star has 100 million more followers than all 20 Premier League clubs combined. His arch-rival Lionel Messi trails way behind him, in seventh place, with ‘only’ 174 million followers.

Obviously they’re not posting enough totally shredded topless pics.

The five-time Ballon d’Or winner is bigger and hencher than football. So, for a while, was his UK metrosexual prototype, David Beckham in his pretty early Noughties prime. But Ronaldo’s humongous fame has dwarfed Beckhams’.

Partly because Ronaldo really is the astonishing once-in-a-lifetime footballer that Beckham was imagined to be by those who didn’t really follow football. But also because the Portuguese chap somehow manages to be even more tarty than his hardly retiring Brit predecessor. (And was regularly queer bashed for it by the UK media when he played for Manchester United.)

Born into a modest, working class Madeiran family, his pride in showing off the shiny symbols his extraordinary success – the pools, the houses, the yachts, and the shiny bod again – is also part of his willingness to share. He also of course includes lots of photos of himself with his girlfriend Georgina Rodriguez, his four children, his mother, relations and friends. But fame is necessarily a lonely business, especially at these stratospheric levels, so it is the photos of him alone in his Olympian palaces, nearly naked and tensing his abs and quads ready to receive our lonely gaze that are the most Insta.

He also is even more intimately and profitably connected to his fans than Beckham ever was: Ronaldo reputedly makes a cool $1m per Instagram post. Helping to pay for all those palaces.

Perhaps that’s because he knows exactly what he’s doing, is completely unashamed of his full-body vanity, and isn’t afraid to play with his desire for our desire of him. In one Insta post he poses in swimwear on his yacht next to a gorgeous sunset, with the caption:

‘There are only two options: the view or ME. I let you choose your favourite one?!’

There is of course no question. Ronaldo’s beauty eclipses the sunset.

Ronaldo is sporno to Beckham’s metro, digital to Beckham’s analogue, social media to Beckham’s glossy magazine.

And 2.0 to Beckham’s 1.0 when it comes to the insatiable, uncorked, totally ripped genie that is the male desire to be desired.

Further reading:

The Smell of Vinnie Jones

It’s that fragrant time of year again, and Brut are spraying the airwaves with a new TV ad, fronted by ‘ard man Vinnie Jones, the ex-footballer, ex-actor, ex-Guy Ritchie fetish object.

Jones seized his claim to fame way back in 1988 by squeezing (the much better) footballer Paul Gascoigne’s wedding tackle during a game.

This image obviously tickled Mr Ritchie, who cast Jones in his first two films, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000) in essentially the same ‘ard man role that Jones had cast himself in on the pitch. In Snatch he gave him a long, bizarre, pornographic monologue about balls, which included the line:

There are big brave balls, and there are little mincey faggot balls.

His last major appearance on British TV was on Celebrity Big Brother in 2012, where he came across as a bully and a bitch, laughably threatened by cross-dressing kickboxer Alex Reid’s youth and relaxed sexuality – literally running to the other side of the room when Reid said that he was ‘try-sexual’. Jones went into the house the favourite to win – and left to boos. Cross-dressing Reid, the real ‘hard man’, won.

Eight years on Jones appears in this Brut ad to be playing a psycho Alf Garnett, sans the tache and the gags. Or perhaps a Pound Shop Sgt. Major Williams. He’s on a mission to save the world from… men’s fragrance ads. And general poovery.

“OI! CUT IT OUT!”

Brut is selling to its strengths here – or making a virtue out of its weakness. In the UK the Unilever-owned brand is, like Jones, a dated punchline. You are never going to sell Brut as a metrosexual brand. You are never going to sell it as a sexual brand.

So instead you sell it as the ‘no-nonsense’ ‘straight’ brand. No lah-dee-dah poncey gay bullshit. It does what it says on the tin. Brut-al.

The problem however with the ‘no-nonsense’ Ronseal ‘what matters is what it smells like’ approach is that Brut smells like… Ronseal.

And Jones is so studiedly butch he’s screamingly camp. Though without any entertainment value.

Henry ‘Splash it all ovah!’ Cooper, the Cockney ex heavyweight boxer who advertised Brut in its 1970s heydey, with less inhibition and a lot more humour – and way more homoerotics – must be rolling in his strongly-fragranced grave:

The Importance of Being Adam Ant

Elise Moore takes a close, loving look at the protean punkster pop star’s masterfully submissive manipulation of sexual imagery – and his wet shorts

(special guest post)

As a Canadian born in 1975, I knew essentially nothing about Adam Ant until this year. I don’t even have the faintest recollection of “Goody Two Shoes,” his one big U.S. hit, or “Stand and Deliver,” the one everyone in the UK remembers. I do have a vague recollection of “Room at the Top,” which was a U.S. dance hit in 1990: probably I saw the video, in which a suited, slick-looking Ant engages in a lot of elaborate mic play.

At the time it came out, I was already taking an interest in punk and New Wave, a context in which I encountered the cover of Kings of the Wild Frontier a million times, although I certainly would not have connected it with the “Room at the Top” video. I also heard the story of how Malcolm McLaren stole Ant’s band for Bow Wow Wow, and accordingly thought that Adam and the Ants were a comparable packaged post-punk confection. Which I have nothing against, but for some reason, I just never got around to them.

Then the other week, an old, brief post on Ant’s “Prince Charming” video by Mark Simpson that has since disappeared [here’s the enlarged repost] but was probably occasioned by the release of Ant’s comeback album in 2013, rose from my murky subconscious and sent me down an Ant-related internet rabbit hole. Since my thoughts about Ant, as I perused this material, were framed by my familiarity with Mark’s writing, he offered to give me a platform for them.

The benefit of not having “been there” for any part of Ant’s career is the overview of his oeuvre that it gives you. There appear to be two official versions of the story of his career: that of the British music press that was there for his rise as a cult performer in the late punk scene, which is that he was a failed punk who used his pretty face to sell out; and that of the fans he acquired with Kings of the Wild Frontier who grew up to be serious music fans (in part thanks to that album), which is that he was an avant-garde pop genius who sold out with his pop album, Strip, and then utterly betrayed them a few years later by making a, gasp, dance album.

There’s also the revisionist account, prompted by several triumphant tours since his comeback, which is that he was an eccentric pop genius all along, so far ahead of his time that the critics never caught up with him and too protean for the public to stay with him. It’s probably clear, since I’m writing this, that I prefer this version of history.

However, it remains for the exact nature of this eccentric genius to be described. I’m not a musician, nor a music critic, nor even a “serious music fan,” so I can’t say much about that component of Mr. Ant’s career. But the “Adam Ant project,” so to speak, extended far beyond music or even visuals. And the most interesting aspect of it was his conscious manipulation of sexual imagery.

It was as an art student that Ant (then Stuart Leslie Goddard) first became fascinated by transgressive sexual imagery in art and transgressive sexual behaviour in subcultures. Not, according to early interviews, as something he wanted to enact in his own life, but for its taboo-breaking value and visually appealing iconography. This disclaimer rings true, given that one of his heroes was 60s British gay playwright Joe Orton, despite the fact that by all accounts Ant is enthusiastically heterosexual. But more on that later.

Adam and Siouxsie Sioux inventing Goth, London 1977

Part of what drew him to the punk scene, presumably, and McLaren’s SEX boutique in particular, was its congruence with these interests. The other part was Johnny Rotten’s theatrical and aggressive self-presentation (based on Laurence Olivier’s Richard III, according to Lydon), which so impressed Ant that he quit the pub rock band he’d been in the first time he saw The Sex Pistols. That happened to be their first gig, supporting Ant’s band. But Ant wasn’t married to the sound of punk. Instead, it was the attitude of punk that he never lost, and that he brought to his approach to pop stardom and relationship with the music industry.

Which is the other piece of the puzzle. Ant’s teenage years were dominated by Bolan, Roxy Music, and Ziggy-era Bowie, and it was over the love of glam rock that he bonded with long-time collaborator Marco Pirroni, another ex-punk, when he formed Adam and the Ants 2.0. It wasn’t just the sound, fashion, and theatrics he loved, however. Already a student of human sexuality, he saw the reaction of teenage girls to Marc Bolan and knew what he wanted to do with his life.

When the puzzle is all put together, we have this: an artist whose subject is sexual transgression but who wants to be Marc Bolan. Actually, there’s one more piece, which is Ant’s comedic side. You can see it from the earliest videos, as well as in a Dadaist prank like “Ant Rap,” but he really starts to lean into it with his first solo album, Friend or Foe, perhaps because he’s dropping the Johnny Rotten act and letting more of his own personality through. I don’t know much about the history of music videos, but one that did get on my radar is Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady,” which has quite a similar sensibility to “Friend or Foe.” The songs also notably share a similar attitude toward the artists’ critics, to wit, Fuck all y’all. If the early 80s music press already found it impossible to deal with Ant as a sex-obsessed, “style-over-substance” sell-out, adding comedy to the mix must have been even more unforgivable.

Adam Ant was broadcasting the dirty little secret that serious music fans and adherents to punk or indie “authenticity” didn’t want to hear about. He was a walking deconstruction of pop.

It went together, really, the style-over-substance accusations and the comedy. Perhaps what was most unforgivable about Ant was that he knew, and didn’t try to hide, the fact that popular music (even, or especially, punk) had always been as much about the image as about the music. In fact, it had been about three things: music, image, and sex. In the reverse order. Punk was perhaps especially about image, because it certainly wasn’t about music or sex. Adam Ant was broadcasting the dirty little secret that serious music fans and adherents to punk or indie “authenticity” didn’t want to hear about. He was a walking, or rather bouncing, deconstruction of pop. The addition of comedy and panto was just another way to refuse to pretend that there was anything serious about being a rock star—the punkest gesture of all.

Sex and comedy come together at what might be the double climax of his career, the albums Strip (1983) and Vive Le Rock (1985). Pun intended. Kings and Prince Charming are two of the least sex-obsessed of his albums, his conversations with McLaren having triggered not only an interest in tribal drumming and vocalizations but also an exploration of the theme of romantic heroism, which drew on Ant’s other obsession, history. Even then, he would end concerts by stripping his shirt off and singing “Physical (You’re So),” a punk-period bump-and-grinder that Nine Inch Nails saw fit to cover. The lyrics, tentatively requesting a romantic date and perhaps a little roughhousing after dinner, are positively sweet, so it’s hard to know what was going on in his head to cause his ecstatic gyrations, but easier to know what was going on in the heads of the women in the audience during them.

(Forget Reznor: you’ve got to wonder if Steve Kipner and Terry Shaddick, who wrote Olivia Newton-John’s massive 1981 hit “(Let’s Get) Physical” with a male vocalist in mind, caught an Ants concert.) 

Friend or Foe was the fame album, after which the sex theme came to the fore again with a vengeance. How could someone with Adam Ant’s interests resist the opportunity push the envelope sexually in a mainstream context for his audience of pubescent girls? In the process, he alienated the teen boy audience he’d acquired with Kings, and with Vive Le Rock he alienated the girls. But before that happened he had an almost unheard-of opportunity to make pornographic art in a completely mainstream context. 

Of course, the 80s were the decade for putting porn into pop. Madonna and Prince were doing it in the United States. Wham! were all leathered-up on the cover of Fantastic already in 1983, and dancing around onstage in tight shorts on their Club Fantastic tour. The problem was really how to distinguish yourself, as a pornographic artist, from what was just normal pop proceedings. I would say Ant managed it, or at least, put his own stamp on the trend.

The Libertine character invented for Strip was a natural evolution of the Prince Charming/Dandy Highwayman character, who had in turn evolved out of the original Buccaneer/Warrior. The Strip character is Casanova by way of Jane Russell: the album cover apparently nods to a poster for Howard Hughes’ The Outlaw, a film notorious now and controversial then for the eccentric millionaire’s obsession with his Muse’s mammaries.

It’s not something you can really reproduce with a male body (at least not Adam Ant’s: you’d need a Tom of Finland type), but the reference is a mission statement for the album: we’re here to celebrate sex and court controversy, and Adam is taking the place normally occupied by women in popular culture. Ant, who was the only man in his college course Women in Society, presumably knew all about second-wave feminist objectification arguments, and was only too happy to gallantly relieve women of the gaze. Apparently, he did manage to get the “Strip” single and video banned by the BBC, although the single sounds more innocuous than “Like a Virgin” now and the video looks like an indigestion nightmare after watching too much 70s TV sketch comedy.

 I was joking when I said there was an element of gallantry in Ant’s assumption of the role of “objectified woman,” but I may not have been far off. The great crowd-sourced pop archive that is YouTube has a “making of” clip about the “Strip” video in which Ant, who studied filmmaking at college and storyboarded his videos, explains that, far from a mere video babe, the woman in the video is its “hero,” and the point at which he sits in her lap on a park bench a gender-flip of the more conventional heterosexual situation. (Which is easier to do when the man is the same size as the woman.) The lyrics of the song actually reject “sneaky” voyeurism, represented in the video by the moustache-twirling villains who constitute the showgirl heroine’s audience; the alternative offered is mutual stripping, with the man going first. The video’s Psycho homage makes more sense in this feminist context, underlining the aggression in the act of erotic looking. An aggression that Ant evidently felt capable of facing, although his post-fame breakdowns make you wonder. And it’s perhaps worth noting here that the first breakdown was triggered by a female stalker whose aggression levels were comparable to Norman Bates’s.

But back to gender: Ant was already doing gender-flipped versions of narratives in the “Prince Charming” video, in which Ant really assumes the role of Cinderella. Diana Dors, “the English Marilyn Monroe,” is the fairy godmother whose magic wand transforms our baby-faced, biceped working-class hero into an exotic spectacle, a Star. So as with the Strip album, an iconic female pin-up stands behind Ant’s conception of himself as a sex symbol.

The limitation of feminist objectification theory is its rigid structure: only men possess the destructive “gaze,” and only women can be its object. But Ant, of course, beginning with Prince Charming and continuing with Strip, was courting the gaze of his teen girl audience. With his scholarly, historically-oriented approach to pop culture, Ant was aware that Bolan wasn’t the first male star to create mass hysteria in women, and neither were The Beatles (to which “The Ants” nods) or even Elvis. At the end of the “Prince Charming” video he fragments into several characters, one of which is this Ur-male sex symbol, silent film star Rudolph Valentino, The Latin Lover, in his most famous role, cosplaying as The Sheik. The seeds of Strip are there.

Women now in their 50s gleefully relate how he triggered their puberty; lesbians confess that he was the only man they would have gone straight for; and self-identified straight men come forward to testify to his handsomeness

Much naughtier than the banned “Strip” single and video was the stage show, which was easily the most outrageous aspect of this phase, or maybe any phase, of Ant’s career. And I include his punk-era appearances in a gimp mask. (Or was it a Cambridge rapist mask? I can’t quite get to the bottom of this story.) Photos of the tour preserved by fans and documented on the internet detail his routine of stripping down to little shorts (also on display in the “Strip” video) and immersing himself in a tank of water before completing the show soaking wet. Which was ostensibly an homage to Houdini, although I don’t quite see what he was escaping from other than his clothes.

Damp Ant

His project of making himself, in his late 20s, into a porn star for pubescent girls was apparently entirely successful, to judge from the fascinating and extensive YouTube comments on his videos and live clips. Women now in their 50s gleefully relate how he triggered their puberty; lesbians confess that he was the only man they would have gone straight for; and self-identified straight men come forward to testify to his handsomeness (one even admitting to lusting after him during the “Physical” gig climaxes). (Unless that was another lesbian.) It may be that his own relaxed attitude toward his self-objectification, his entire indifference to presenting himself as “masculine,” made Adam Ant the male star that it was okay for straight men to admit to finding attractive. In his cover of “Y.M.C.A.,” “A.N.T.S,” with lyrics altered to yet another Ants manifesto, he made his hostility toward what the internet has taken to calling “toxic” masculinity, which perhaps might better be called repressed masculinity, crystal clear:

It's fun to go to the A.N.T.S.... 
Put on that paint and hold up your head
Til all the tough men drop dead.

Ant didn’t stick with androgyny for long, however. With his Dietrichesque canvas of a face (high forehead included), it must have been too easy for him. Instead, with Strip and Vive Le Rock  he fashioned himself into first a heterosexual, and then a homosexual porn archetype. You can put over the gay porn archetype with a teen girl audience, as George Michael magnificently proved with his Faith album just two years after Vive Le Rock. But not if it comes with a hair metal-by-way-of-its glam roots sound, I guess. With a single, “Apollo 9,” that hearkens back to the demented bubble-gum of Bowie’s avant-pop album, Lodger (also produced by Tony Visconti), by way of a square dance. With accompanying video featuring Ant decked out as a pink-gloved space cowboy, sporting a band aid-as-accessory long before Morrissey. Incredibly, “Apollo 9” was a bit of a hit, unlike the title single, a more straightforward rocker—that, however, namechecks Tom of Finland. I’m assuming that no heterosexual man would have known who Tom of Finland was in 1985 without a dedicated interest in pornographic imagery and sexual subcultures.

Ant as Mr Sloane, backstage at the Royal Exchange

Maybe the only reason Vive Le Rock tanked was that Ant, distracted by acting, let a whole year lapse between the success of “Apollo 9” and the album’s release. In the spring of 1985 he appeared in his first and most noteworthy role, as the title character in Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr. Sloane at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester; Vive Le Rock appeared in the fall. Ant made his first reference to Orton, however, on a 1980 demo called “Prick Up Your Ears,” about Orton’s relationship with the lover who murdered him, Ken Halliwell. The timing suggests that Ant read John Lahr’s biography of Orton, Prick Up Your Ears, when it came out in 1978. Ant has said that he felt he understood Orton very well, and believed that Sloane was Orton’s alter ego.

Sloaning again

As someone who is also not a gay man who wrote an award-winning play about Orton and Halliwell in my teens, I feel like I’m in a better position than most to understand what he means. My own take on Orton, who became my alter ego in the play, in some regards, was that he was a narcissist who continually refashioned himself into other people’s fantasies and had no real identity. Well, I think that was actually John Lahr’s take, but it was one that fascinated me and resonated with me. I grew out of that phase, but Adam Ant, for good or ill, found a way not to, by becoming a pop star.

With Orton as one of the guiding spirits of the Vive Le Rock era, I suspect Ant was using this new “gay” image not so much to court a gay male gaze, or anyone else’s at this point, as to explore his narcissism, or, in Mark Simpson’s phrase, his “desire to be desired.” The heterosexual fantasy characters he’d previously enacted had the unfortunate drawback of having, ostensibly, to do something. Even if his Prince Charming/Cinderella in the video, unlike the characters he’s based on, doesn’t go to the ball to meet anyone, but to be looked at. Whereas the rent boy persona of the Vive Le Rock era doesn’t have to do anything except look sluttily available—not even feel desire. It’s not a character that exists within the lexicon of heterosexual fantasy, but Ant, ever the cultural appropriator, doesn’t let that stop him. And it makes sense that the pop music image influences of his 50s childhood, the first rock ‘n’ roll stars, are part of this mix. Because the decade that gave us pop masculinity as we still know it—“rebellious,” Romantic, a bit dangerous in a Byronic way, rough trade for the boys and girls—is also the decade in which masculinity’s desire to be desired came out of the closet.

Rock ‘n’ roll really started with Brando’s leather look in The Wild One (1953), which inspired Tom of Finland to create a gay archetype that grew up alongside the “straight” one. Like a couple of twins checking each other out, exchanging style tips. Whatever label you want to put on this new masculinity, it was both aestheticized and sexualized in a way that masculinity had seldom been before, in the modern world.

In fact the only proper label for it is—dare I use the “m”-word?

Ant taking Grace Jones, early 1980s

My source of unique information for this essay was this article, by a psychologist fan.

As mentioned in the essay, I was a playwright in my teens and early 20s. I’m currently working on a novel, which should be out some time in the next century, if there is one. Meanwhile I like to think about pop culture, usually film. I co-host the weekly film podcast There’s Sometimes a Buggy: Irresponsible Opinions About Classic Film and have published essays with various (non-academic) journals, usually Bright Wall/Dark Room and Bright Lights Film Journal.

Mark and I have been chatting about masculinity in pop culture for about 15 years, although we’ve never actually met.