The 'Daddy' of the Metrosexual, the Retrosexual, & spawner of the Spornosexual

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How ‘I’m Too Sexy’ Foretold The All-Too Sexy Future

by Mark Simpson 

1991’s big, busty novelty hit ‘I’m Too Sexy’ was as zeitgeisty and bitchily funny as it was ear-wormingly annoying.

I remember it playing everywhere in London that summer: builders’ vans, barber’s shops, caffs, pubs, nightclubs, funeral parlours. OK, I didn’t actually hear it in funeral parlours but I’m sure that even the dead didn’t escape it’s strutting beat and croaking vocal. A perfect trashy radio song for a then still trashy London that was, back then, all mouth and no trousers. Of course, today it’s all oligarch trousers and hipster mouth.

Cruelly, Right Said Fred – who were all leather trousers – saw their cheeky, giggly song about self-love cheated of the No.1 spot in the UK. They were pinned down at No.2 for six weeks by Bryan Adam’s heavyweight paean to his own altruism: ‘Everything I Do I Do It For You’. A ballad to end all ballads which selflessly hogged the top spot for sixteen weeks that felt like years of Canadian winter.

‘I’m Too Sexy’ was the camp, saucy music-hall dance pop counterpoint to the naff north American mawkishness of EIDIDIFY. Though in truth we Brits deserved Mr Adam as much as anyone could deserve that fate: the UK pop music scene, like the UK economy, was in a right post-80s, post acid-house state. Right Said Fred were the only living British act in the top five top-selling UK singles that year. At No.1 was EIDIDIFY (natch), No.2 a reissue of Queen’s 1975 hit ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (after Freddie Mercury’s death that year from Aids-related illness), at No.3 Cher’s ‘It’s in His Kiss (The Shoop Shoop Song)’, at No.4 ‘I’m Too Sexy’, and at No.5 ‘Do The Bartman’ by The Simpsons.

Even a cartoon American managed to sell sold more records in the UK that year than any British act that wasn’t wearing just leather trousers. Britpop, which got underway a couple of years later, in large part as a reaction to a US-dominated UK hit parade, was of course all about cartoon Mancunians.

Right Said Fred are back in the news after Taylor Swift’s recent acknowledged use of ‘I’m Too Sexy’ baseline in her latest single ‘Look What You Made Me Do’. Everyone it seems likes a bit of ‘I’m Too Sexy’: the Guardian, along with many others, recently ran an interview with Richard Fairbrass, lead singer (middle in photo) about the hit.

There’s some interesting background: I didn’t realise that it got to No.1 in the US (in 1992). I also enjoyed the anecdote Richard Fairbrass relates: ‘In Texas, there was a fight in a bar because some girls played the video for eight hours, and when a guy tried to turn it off, they attacked him.’ I wonder though whether after eight hours of ‘I’m Too Sexy’ anyone would have been capable of doing much more than drooling insensately. I also didn’t realise Right Said Fred were still performing and recording.

But it was the (slightly edited) pull-quote at the top of the article that grabbed my attention.

‘Everyone thought we were sad gym queens… but we were proper musicians’

Now, I have nothing to say about the Fairbrass brothers’ musical prowess. But I do want to mention that out bisexual Richard and his slightly shorter straight brother Fred (left in the pic and on guitar in the vid) were gym queens, and as Richard mentions in the article, actually owned one – which is where part of the inspiration for the song apparently came from: watching people interact with the gym mirrors.

Their own gym queeniness though was very much part of the novelty of their very gay looking novelty act – you had to hire muscle by the hour in London in 1991: pub culture not gym culture ruled back then, even in the gay world. London had not yet turned into a rainy version of Southern California with no parking spaces. Everyone smoked. Everyone drank like fishes. No one ate anything except crisps and chips and the occasional kebab. And no one had seen the inside of a gym since school – except for escorts and bouncers. The Fairbrass brothers looked like both, but even gayer. It’s why if they wore anything on stage apart from leather trousers it was just waistcoats. Really awful waistcoats.

And why I’m pretty sure I tried chatting one of them up in a gay pub in West London not long before their hit. The straight one of course. Fred or someone the spitting, salivating image of him actually was a bouncer back then, working on the door of the Penny Farthing in Hammersmith at the time. As I recall he was very patient and indulgent with me. And soon he would have a much bigger fan-base, some of whom would be even more annoying than me. I think he may have told me about being in a band and having recorded a single, but I can’t be sure because of the passage of time – and because I was anyway mightily distracted by his biceps.

The early nineties was an era when metropolitan male vanity – something celebrated and mocked but mostly, in spite of the lyrics, celebrated with ‘I’m Too Sexy’ – was just beginning to get into its stride in the UK. It was almost a soundtrack to my book about male narcissism and homoeroticism in a mediated world, Male Impersonators (which I wrote 92-93). ‘I’m Too Sexy’ was probably still ear-worming in my head in 1994 when I predicted, after attending an exhibition organised by GQ magazine called ‘It’s a Man’s World’, that the future was metrosexual.

True, the model of the song (‘I’m a model, you know what I mean’) and their little tush they shake on the catwalk, who is ‘too sexy for Milan’, their car, their cat, their hat, their love, their shirt and even the song, is gender non-specific at a time when models were generally assumed to be women. And the official story about the lyrics is that my short-lived imaginary boyfriend Fred was dating an American female model when the song was written. But the song was performed by the Fairbrass brothers. In leather trousers (sorry, I can’t stop mentioning them). And in 1991 London’s idea of a Chippendale body that was too sexy for their shirts.

Right Said Fred - I'm Too Sexy (Original Mix - 2006 Version)

In the promo the boys sashay topless on the catwalk and down the street followed by female pappers – a reversal of Duran Duran’s early 80s ‘Girls On Film’ moment, and also of course the usual clichés about the ‘male gaze’ (which wasn’t entirely new then, but a quarter of a century on some still think they are the first to subvert).

‘I’m Too Sexy’ started out satirising the fashion industry, but ended up massaging the muscles of male exhibitionism and narcissism – a noble cause the boy band Take That were to eagerly further evangelise later in the 1990s with their leather harness rent boy aesthetic. But ‘I’m Too Sexy’ for all its apparent silliness also turned out to be strangely prophetic about our 21st Century shirtless selfie-obsessed culture and the e-catwalk of Instagram – before most people even had a mobile phone, let alone one that could take really cool, app-filtered photos of their favourite gym changing room mirror. We’re all now way too sexy for not just our shirts but real life.

Which reminds me. Although they were kind of proto-spornos, the Fairbrass brothers’ bodies, which were glad-handled and devoured by the great British public’s eyes at the time as if we’d only just come off the meat ration, don’t look terribly ‘shredded’ to our much more jaded and judgey 2017 eyes. After all those back issues of Men’s Health/Fitness, and the ever-increasing refinement of what is supposed to be a ‘sexy’ male body, they look somewhat ‘watery’ – to use a technical term that only a handful of keen bodybuilders knew back then but probably your granny knows now. Were they eating clean? Were they doing enough cardio? Planking? And where’s the ink, bro?

But then, as someone who used to spend too much time hanging around gyms in London then, ‘watery’ was very much the look. I channelled it myself.

Brighton, 1990 (Photo credit M Blighton)

And yes, I did work as a bouncer for a while – just one of the so many things Fred and I had to talk about.

This month also happens to be the 20th anniversary of the surprise 1997 hit UK movie The Full Monty, about laid-off working class men in the (largely former) steel-making city of Sheffield, South Yorkshire, who decide to put together a male strip troupe to entertain the women that they used to provide for.

It was a serious (possibly overly-didactic) ‘crisis of masculinity’ movie which used male stripping as a visual metaphor for changing gender roles, particularly in the wake of 80s de-industrialisation. But it was also about male ‘sexiness’ as a kind of salvation. The whole point is that most of the guys are not vain, or conventionally sexy, or much wanted at all – and in fact have been dumped on the scrapheap of the late 20th Century.

But in learning how to act as if they were ‘too sexy’ – and move their hips to Donna Summer’s ‘Hot Stuff’ – they have somehow re-skilled themselves for the brazen new world and century bearing down on them.

The Full Monty - Looking For Some Hot Stuff

 

Polymorphous Perversity & One Direction Fandom

Fame, fame, fatal fame. It can play hideous tricks on the brain.

Last week C4 aired Crazy About One Direction a documentary about ‘Directioners’, febrile fans of the globally – some would say criminally – successful reality TV assembled UK boy band One Direction, or ‘1D’ if you’re typing with your thumbs.

Larry StylinsonLarry 2

They were all teenage girls. Now, I’m sure there are male Directioners out there (and that would make for an interesting doc in itself), but I reckon many of them would turn out to be quite a bit older than teenagers. In fact, I might be a male fan of 1D – if quite liking ‘What Makes You Beautiful’ and thinking the blond one would make a cute car dashboard gonk counts.

But of course, ‘quite liking’ doesn’t count. At all. Timed to cash in on the cash-in release of This Is Us their remarkably boring-looking band movie this was a TV doc about OMG!!! LOVING!!!!!! 1D. About crayzee teen girl fandom, with beating hearts hovering sweetly, expectantly, menacingly over ‘i’s. About extravagant professions of undying, breathless, pitiless devotion for people you’ve never met – along with not entirely serious threats to top yourself or lop off limbs if they don’t acknowledge you. And hanging around the arse-end of concert stadia for hours and hours on the off-chance of screaming at a blacked out minivan which may or may not contain a member of 1D accelerating away from you.

Not to forget playing all this up for the cameras – something teen girl pop fans have been wise to for generations: e.g. that immortal, always-recycled clip of a girl outside a David Bowie concert in the 1970s sobbing gently and completely unconvincingly to camera about not getting to meet Ziggy – and, when she spots the camera’s attention wandering towards other fans, suddenly crying MUCH LOUDER.

So far, so Bay City Rollers. This doc’s main update on this now very familiar trope seemed to be that thanks to social networking fans can now monitor their idols constantly on Twitter, searching endlessly for clues as to their whereabouts and feeding their imaginary relationship with them. But watching teen girls watching their idols’ Twitter feed waiting impatiently for the next status update which may or may not be posted by a member of Simon Cowell’s PR team isn’t exactly great TV.

1DDemented as this kind of fandom may seem in its main professed hope – that the beloved will love you back or even notice you – it isn’t perhaps quite as irrational as it seems. After all, this unreality really brings fans together.

Much was made in the doc of the fact that most of the girls interviewed don’t have boyfriends. But it didn’t bother mentioning the fact that they do have girlfriends. Lots and lots of girlfriends. Who all want to have Harry Styles as their boyfriend. Or at least, enjoy thinking they do. But, of course, the chances of this desire ever being put to the test are rather slim. So everything remains endlessly, exquisitely unconsummated. It’s the perfect romance, really. And it’s part of 1D’s job description to remain always (or for a couple of years or so) available for the fans’ endless yearning – and pursuit. 1D are electric hares at a musical greyhound track run by Simon Cowell, but with fussier hair.

So the fans may or may not be single but are far from lonely because they have everything in common with one another, with the ‘pack’ – shared excitement yes, but most especially delicious disappointment, which is after all what pop music is all about. Though, to be fair, the look on the face of one of the girls when another fan was proudly showing off phone pics of her smugly beaming face next to various indulgent over-moussed 1D chaps accosted in some hotel reception was not exactly what you’d call sisterly. (And the DIE BITCH! tweets some 1D fans like to send to girlfriends of band members,or bomb threats sent to magazines that run interviews with the band they disapprove of, definitely aren’t.)

TT 1

The fun of being girls together asserting an active, quite possibly aggressive sexual interest in pretty, pouting, packaged, passive boys is something I encountered full-frontal way back in 1994 when I wrote a piece about Manchester boy band Take That playing Wembley Arena at the height of the teen feeding frenzy surrounding the grinning Manc lads in leather harnesses. I spoke to a group of rambunctious girls (and a mum or two) who’d come down from the North to lust after the boys. I asked them who their favourite was:

“HOWARD!” “ROBBIE!” “MARK!” “JASON!” they all scream at once. “Mark’s brill ‘cos ‘e’s so short an’ sweet an’ lovely an’ ‘e looks like you could do anything you like to ‘im!” “Howards’ ace ‘cos ‘e’s got pecs, and ‘cos ‘e’s got a BIG PACKAGE ‘e’s REALLY, REALLY, WELL-ENDOWED!!” How do you know? “You can’t miss it when ‘e comes on stage!!” says Lucy. “It just about pokes yer eye out!,” adds Lucy’s Mum, helpfully. Pardon me, but didn’t The Sun tell us recently that mums were shocked by the new saucy TT show? “I AM shocked,” she admits. “I expected them to get their kit off!!”’

As another pretty boy bander from Manchester who knows a few things about fandom and gender reversal (and most of whose fans were male) put it: She wants it Now and she will not wait, but she’s too rough and I’m too delicate…. It’s a sobering thought that the women having the time of their life at the Take That gig nearly twenty years ago and baying for Howard’s BIG PACKAGE would be the mothers and grandmothers of today’s 1D fans.

Which brings us back, I’m sure you’ll be glad to hear, to bumming. By far the most memorable section of Crazy About One Direction and the part that caused the most controversy examined the phenomenon of ‘Larry shippers’, 1D fans who fantasise about a relationship between Louis Tomlinson and Harry Styles writing passionately romantic or outright erotic stories, complete with eye-popping illustrations. Harry Tomlinson, the beast with two very shapely backs. One Direction fans can be very polymorphously perverse.

Larry kiss

 ‘Shipping’ seems to be an update on ‘slashing’ – the long-established fanfic tradition of women writing storylines for one another that bring male celebs or fictional characters together for their enjoyment: e.g. Spock/Kirk, Starsky/Hutch, Sam/Frodo finally gloriously consummating, if you like, or even if you don’t like, a hidden subtext. And yet this was the part of the documentary that was generally seen as most ‘bizarre’. C4 played up to this with a slightly sniffy voiceover that introduced shipping Larry with the line ‘…and they have funny ways of showing their love.’

What’s really ‘funny’ is that manlove for ladies, the female version of men’s enjoyment of woman-on-woman fantasy, is as old as pop music. From The Beatles to The Bay City Rollers to Wham to Take That boy bands have slyly exploited the girlish fantasy of cute, coiffed boys who live together and out of one another’s fashionably-styled pockets, usually supervised by a gay male father figure/manager. Boy bands are a kind of gay porn for girls. Wham were explicitly told by their manager Simon Napier Bell to flirt with one another on stage to get the girls hot (advice that George Michael seems to have taken to heart). Take That took things a be-thonged step further and were test-marketed on gay men before being offered, with their heads resting on one another’s shoulders – no doubt exhausted after all that dancing around and slapping their arses on stage – to teen girls.

Twenty years on it’s not necessary to test market a boy band on The Gays any more. Everyone seems to know the formula. How to do ‘gayness’. Including of course the boys themselves, whose tenderness and physical affection for one another is much more ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ for their metrosexualised generation than it was for the Take That one. Thanks, in part, to Take That.

You could argue that the Larry shippers are only joining the dots that have already been drawn – very close together – by 1D’s management and the whole history of boy bands. As one girl put it, “I think the management secretly love Larry.”

Though admittedly some of the Larry shippers/slashers are a trifle over-zealous, insisting that Louis and Harry REALLY ARE, LIKE, TOTALLY!!! shagging one another’s brains out non-stop and that any girlfriends that come along are JUST A DIVERSION, SHEEPLE!!! As one fan put it in the doc, “A lot of the fans wouldn’t be so jealous if they had a boyfriend instead of a girlfriend.” Or perhaps it’s better to find a way of believing that the doll-like boys are, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, sticking to your storyline – rather than following their own.

But what’s really ‘crazy’ is the way so many people have failed to see and hear the literally screaming evidence of the gravitational pull of manlove for ladies and the voyeuristic, highly kinky ‘female gaze’ powering it.

A few years ago a UK TV producer friend of mine tried vainly to pitch a documentary proposal we’d put together about women’s interest in man-on-man action and the huge but largely unspoken role it had played in shaping a lot of pop culture. The response from commissioning editors was always the same: bafflement. Followed by a certain amount of unease. Followed swiftly by total and no doubt highly reassuring scepticism that such a phenomenon existed at all.

Oh, but it does. It really does, guys. Like, TOTALLY!!!

louis&harry | what i feel is something real

 

Shameless Slashiness

I’m not much of a Robbie Williams fan. ‘Bromance’ leaves me cold. And I hated Brokeback Mountain. But perhaps I’m a big softy really because I rather like this video for Williams’ single ‘Shame’ which brings all these themes together, adds a hairy Gary Barlow, Robbie’s once-reviled Take That collaborator, and takes its top off. What was it Dusty said? ‘The best part of breaking up is when you’re making up’

Yes, the ‘Toys R Us’ line is a real clanger, a reminder of Robbie’s gurning, annoyingness, and the song is a little bland. But the video succeeds, just about, in bringing it alive. Despite the complaints of some gays that the promo ‘mocks’ Brokeback Mountain there’s a real sense of longing and intimacy in the way they look at one another that is almost more convincing than much of what appeared in the movie it’s ‘spoofing’. Or, to be honest, in many gay male relationships.

Actually this promo’s not really ‘bromance’ at all, which is almost defined by its sniggering, paralysing fear of anything physical – it’s a knowingly slashy pop promo video: manlove for the ladies (and the gays). It plays on both the ‘gayness’ of Take That, who, despite the leather harnesses, disco and baby oil – and the fantasies of many of their fans – were probably all straight (more or less), and the famously passionate love-hate and now love-again affair between Barlow and Williams. Though of course, for all the looks and stripping off they don’t ‘take the plunge’. Which is a bit of a relief, frankly.  And in its way rather less cowardly than ‘gay cowboy romance’ Brokeback Mountain’s five seconds of darkly-lit tent sex.

But that ending to ‘Shame’, in which Robbie and Gary run to the top of a cliff to jump into the water below (but chicken out) seems to reference a much older and better cowboy romance – the famous scene in Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid where Robert Redford and Paul Newman laughingly jump into the river together to escape a pursuing posse.  Butch Cassidy was a favourite of early slashers – ‘strange’ ladies who liked to bring out the homoerotic subtext of mainstream movies, TV shows and bands, and perhaps of male heterosexuality itself, and make them the text, sometimes with eye-popping illustrations.

Forty years on, the auto-slashiness of the video for ‘Shame’ seems to illustrate how mainstream and accepted slash itself has become in pop culture.

Tip: William Godwin

Manlove for Ladies on Torchwood

barrowman2.jpg

The phenomenon of manlove for ladies, which I wrote about recently, citing The Mighty Boosh snog, seems to be catching:

‘Former Buffy the Vampire star James Marsters helped fulfil one of his girlfriend’s fantasies on the set of sci-fi series Torchwood – when he locked lips with John Barrowman.

The actor plays flamboyant bisexual Captain John in the cult TV show and had to share a same sex kiss for the first time.

Marsters says, “I had never kissed a man on film before, but luckily my girlfriend was there, and she said it was always a fantasy of hers that I would kiss another man. She thought it was really hot.”‘

Torchwood was created by Russell T Davies, the writer behind the hit drama Queer As Folk set in Manchester’s gay village – a series whose success was largely down to its huge popularity with women. Probably because it was basically: Take That Finally Get Down To It.

Speaking personally, John Barrowman is about as unsexy as you can get – even with James Marsters dressed as Adam Ant plastered all over his face.

But what do I know? It’s the ladies calling the queer shots now.

Manlove For Ladies

Mark Simpson on the crossover of female man-on-man fantasy – or ‘slash’ – into the mainstream

(‘The London Times, December 29, 2007)

When Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt of the hit BBC comedy The Mighty Boosh snogged on air the other week, it may have looked as if they were pandering, tongues literally in cheeks, to gay male fans. At first glance the swarm of comments on the YouTube clip (now removed) of the clinch seemed to confirm this: “The hottest thing I’ve ever seen!” and “Oh sweet baby Jesus!”, being typical examples.

Until you get to: “I broked my ovaries!!” – and then you realise that most if not all the posters perving shamelessly over this man-on-man action are actually female.

Welcome to the wonderful, if sometimes slightly perplexing world of ladies who love men loving men. Once, this scene was confined to obscure online groups of fanfic “slashers” – women who subversively outed a homoerotic subtext within the “buddy” genre for one another. So Starsky played with Hutch’s clutch, and Sam fingered Master Frodo’s ring.

But as we’ve increasingly seen, virtual day-dreaming has a way of infiltrating traditional media. In a sign of the crossover of slash – fashslash if you will – that Mighty Boosh snog seems to have been directly inspired by the online frenzied feminine fantasising about this male comedy duo’s close friendship.

Meanwhile, the semi-secret reason so many, from Desperate Housewives to Coronation Street, have boy-on-boy romances now is not so much political correctness, but a growing awareness that a large segment of their mostly female audience rather like seeing pretty boys getting it on.

This, after all, has been the implicit erotic dynamic of all those screamingly successful gay-managed, gay-flirty boybands from the Beatles to Wham to Take That. The huge success of Queer As Folk on both sides of the Atlantic was in part down to it’s slashy ‘Take That on Canal Street’ feel. Brokeback Mountain was essentially posh slash fiction that became a massively successful fashslash movie.

Sometimes though, today’s ladies’ overt and sometimes over-eager interest in manlove – the Queer Eye of the Straight Gal – can make men rather… shy. Earlier this year, a gay bar in Melbourne had to go to court to get an order banning women. Apparently they were descending on the club en masse to ogle the canoodling men.

Read what the slashers themselves have to say about this article.