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Why i love suede by Jane Joritz-Nakagawa

What do you think of when you hear the word "suede"? Something soft and luscious? Animal rights?

Suede is more than a fabric, it's the name of an exciting British pop/rock band (NOTE 1). Not only is their music exciting, but so is their image. Or should I say "images"?

The cover art of Suede's first album, entitled, simply, "Suede," features part of a photograph by famed lesbian photographer Tee Corinne showing two androgynous women kissing. Apparently in the original photo the women are naked and one or both women is in a wheelchair, but the band was only given permission to use part of the photo, the part with the heads of the women.

The Tee Corinne photo formed the stage backdrop for the band's live performance when they toured the first album and is featured prominently and repeatedly in the official concert video entitled "Love and Poison." Other first album art (inside) features "homoerotic" photos of the (all male) band members behind whom stand partially visible partially naked men (NOTE 2). A single from this album featured a sleeve photo of a nude female model body-painted to appear male. The second album (my favorite) has a naked man lying suggestively face down on a bed on its front and back covers. The focal point of the photo, dead center and somewhat elevated on the bed, is the man's bare butt.

An album promo video featuring two men kissing was banned by British t.v. Lead singer Brett Anderson (who is involved in the art direction of the album covers) publicly declared that anyone, in the 90s, objecting to images of people of the same sex kissing was just plain stupid (or in his words, "a f**king half wit"). Videos that weren't banned were daring and contained, for example, a man in drag, and Brett reclining naked with the words "do you believe in love there?" handwritten down his back and, basically pointing to, ahem!, his ass.

Promo videos and cover art is one thing (ok, two things!): then there's the song lyrics. "Do you believe in love there?" is from the lyrics to the hit single "The Drowners" which also contained the lines "We kiss in his room, to a popular tune....." The objects of love in the lyrics of the first album, and the subsequent ones, sung by and written by Brett, are both male and female. The singer (known to his fans as His Royal Brettness) became famous early on for his "androgynous look" and for his, some said and say, "feminine" style of dress, performance, and/or singing.

For a falsetto to rival the late Freddie Mercury's, check out, especially, the song "Black or Blue" from the second album, a song Brett sings and wrote, and has said is about a multiracial relationship. Another interesting cut off the same album (actually, they are *all* interesting) is "The Two of Us" which Brett says is about a bored & lonely housewife married to a banker, written from her perspective. My favorite one showing off Brett's "low" voice from the first album is "Pantomime Horse." One line of lyric in that song: "Have you ever tried it that way?" is commonly believed to be a "homoerotic" sexual reference.

If Brett is indeed feminine, does that mean he is gay? (NOTE 3) Some years ago music journalists asked just that, to which his Royalness replied: "I'm a bisexual man who has never had a homosexual experience." Brett was asked later whether (assuming he's not gay) his "feminine" behavior was "just an act". His reply: no, I am naturally quite feminine. (A flippant lad, he's also said, provocatively, that like a housewife, he's good at doing many different things, and: "I'm quite interested in lying back and taking it. That's traditionally a female thing, isn't it?" (NOTE 4). As a live performer, he gained notoreity for suggestively slapping his butt with a mike onstage.) Pressed publicly many times about his sexuality, Brett has given various answers, including irritation at having to be identified as either gay or straight (put in a box labelled one or the other), and also stating he was "confused" at the time he was asked by reporters about his sexuality.

"I'm a bisexual man who has never had a heterosexual experience" is what the band's drummer, Simon Gilbert, told the press. Simon, the only to the present day out gay member of the band, was, hideously, the victim of a "gay bashing" attack in London. Upon leaving a gay bar with his supposed "lover" (actually his cousin) he was hit until unconscious by a group of men with a metal bar.

Suede's songs have been featured on soundtracks by the renowned gay filmmaker Gregg Araki, and Suede were famous friends of the late, also critically acclaimed gay filmmaker and author Derek Jarman, to whom they even dedicated a major tv appearance. Though very successful, especially in Asia and Europe: Suede has won prestigious music awards in the UK, their albums and songs have topped charts in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, and they appear on major British TV shows like Top of the Pops and headline at major gigs--they are to an extent a cult band, partially because U.S. success on a large scale eludes them. This might be at least in part due to the band's lack of macho posturing, or, as Brett said, not having the image of a band like (macho hard rockers) Guns N Roses or Aerosmith.

The early Suede built a reputation on daring, "sexual ambivalence", homoerotica, and the glamor and drugs of the urban scene. Although the most recent (1999) album appears to be an attempt at a pop album that would grab a wider audience (produced by a well-known producer of "dance music," in contrast to the more "glam rock"-influenced earlier Suede), this album does contain some traces of the past, such as a beautiful torchy "lost love" song, "He's Gone," sung by His Royalness, which I played to my rather delighted English class this year (NOTE 5). Other songs including hit singles from this record contain perhaps milder lyrical references to "a love like AC/DC" or gender-bending: "I feel real now, walking like a woman and talking like a stone age man" (from the songs "Electricity" and "Can't Get Enough", respectively). This album has relatively more non-Brett-authored stuff (the keyboardist makes more songwriting contributions than previously) which is part of the reason for the change in style. Brett-authored songs continue to bear the stamp of a few favorite themes: love, sex, a celebration of the British equivalent of "Shibuya Girls" (and boys) (NOTE 6), drugs and the urban scene.

Of note also perhaps is that over the years Suede has contributed their share to various causes such as AIDS charities, performing on numerous benefit albums and the like. As one example, Brett sang with Jane Birkin, another figure who gained notoreity due to her way of expressing sexuality, on an album with proceeds donated to a French AIDS charity.

Do I love this band because of their ideology? I love their music (especially the masterpiece second album "Dog Man Star"), but when I say I love a band it might encompass more than the music. (NOTE 7) Brett himself has said that what he or any band member says to the press shouldn't influence whether or not people buy Suede's records. Maybe he's right. (Perhaps some of his remarks to the press--& his good looks, appreciated by many a boy or girl--are just added bonuses to a great musical experience?!)

Briefly I participated in an email fan club list. One Mexican listee told me that Suede, especially the wilder early music, for her/him represented being accepted for who you are. Another listee, from Hong Kong, and I exchanged comments on the attractiveness of Brett; as it turned out he preferred the longer haired style of the singer and I the shorter. Another listee revealed the "suede-y" fashions in his closet: feather boas, a fuschia lycra tube top, stilettoes and the like. An American college student told me, with a sigh, that when in high school his friends called him a "fag" for listening to Suede. On this same list members got involved in a discussion about "androgyny", and it was amusing to see how many of us (yes, myself included) had been repeatedly mistaken for a member of the opposite sex. (For example, the time when, in Shizuoka, Japan, the sports club attendant tried to prevent me from entering the women's locker room! Or the real estate agent in Yokohama who told my husband he couldn't rent an apartment to two men!!)

Are feminine men always gay and are masculine women always lesbians? This is a common belief in the straight world. Is it true? (NOTE 8) Let's use me as an example. While only when I was quite underweight and thus angles replaced my bodily curves was I ever mistaken for a man in the U.S., it's happened a lot in Japan, I think because I usually wear little if any make up, have short hair, and wear comfortable clothes (flat shoes, baggy pants etc.) In fact I have a rather feminine smile and laugh, so the last time I went to a health club here, I flashed a big smile and chuckled so the front desk guy would be more likely to give me a women's rather than men's locker room key! Like Brett (if we are to believe him!?), is it possible (as I believe it is) that I am a bisexual who has never had a homosexual experience? Would that explain my crushes on female singer Janis Joplin or, more recently, the bald female rock star Skin of Skunk Anansie?

I've been involved in women's groups, gay rights groups, gender awareness, AIDS and other groups where I suspected as a (thus far) straight person, I was in the minority in the room in which I sat. But I've frequently, if not usually, felt more at home in such groups than in "straighter" company. Why? I've simply never felt enforced heterosexuality, traditional gender roles, and the like to be in the least appealing. The human rights issues disturbed me and the "logic" of all of that straight-jacketed me. I feel that way now, felt it in the past, and will probably feel the same in the, um, future.

To put it yet another way, with references to popular art: "Dangerous Beauty" (a film released in 1999) is described in Bitch magazine as a movie about a Renaissance era Venetian courtesan "consistently at odds with the female roles available to her", a woman who "loves books and cannot abide the mindless chatter of her peers" and who is "attracted to male companionship primarily because it affords more intellectual stimulation." Just two decades or so ago, as a pre-teenager in the mind-numbing suburbs of Chicago in the early 70s, I felt exactly the same way--until I met two cool unconventional young women in high school who like me rejected most of what was around us. (Prior to high school, everyone rallied around the most popular girl--my next door neighbor. She forced us to read bridal magazines on an almost daily basis and look at cute (?!) plastic figures called "figurines"-- *yawn*.) In high school, these two women became my best friends & soulmates. We talked about all manner of things--but *never* bridal gowns-- listened to loud rock music, and, yes, did all sorts of wild things together (NOTE 9). These women gave me a breath of sanity until I was free, at age 17, to escape to the more tolerant city proper upon high school graduation.

So what about my sexuality? Is my attraction to effeminate men and dyke-y women normal? NOTE 10 (Do I care? (NOTE 11) One of my brothers used to crack me up by, when watching something absurd on the news or something, saying: "if *that's* normal, thank god I'm gay!!")

For the record, my first infatuation, as a gradeschooler, was the Mexican lover of my cousin at whose feet I sat for as long as he would remain still (never long enough!) on our living room sofa. I guess I was a xenophile from an early age. My cousin's apartment, full of Mexican furniture, drawings, handicraft and the like was my favorite place: I found it magical.

My second, much bigger infatuation was a boy in high school: my first "true love." He looked very much like Brett Anderson in Love & Poison--stretchy "body con" feminine top and long dangly jewelry, dark pants hanging off his thin and rather swishy hips--but shorter (Brett's an even six) and with large Mick Jaggeresque lips. A shy girl, I was too terrified to speak to him, but I couldn't stay away from him, so I just wordlessly followed him around school (don't laugh, this is true!!). He totally ignored me, but never, to my surprise and boundless if insipid joy, asked me to go away. Usually we were in the art department, because he liked to draw, paint and sculpt, which was ok, since it was where the only cool teachers hung out as did a few (like me) unconventional students. (Did I mention I was wearing neckties and old men's dinner jackets to school by now?) Every once in a while some boys would come in and look at us, then just at him, and either whisper or yell "faggot!". He would look up from his drawing, in the general direction of the boys, never meeting their eyes, with an expression on his face that said clearly: "You are not even worthy of my glance." Then his eyes would return to his drawing and he would continue focused on his artwork. Occasionally the male art teacher would come around and ask me why I wore so much makeup (yes I did) or why I had a hickey on my neck. Frankly, I didn't know the answer to either. (OK, the makeup was to hide my face--I thought I was ugly. The hickey was to prove I wasn't.) But, anyway, because of the physical resemblance to Brett, whenever I watch "Love and Poison," I think of that elegant, beautiful, honorable boy. Who dared to be different.

When was the last time you turned on your radio and heard a woman singing a love song to a woman, or a man to a man?

Long live Suede.


ENDNOTES:

NOTE 1: Suede is known, in the U.S. only, as the London Suede, for legal reasons.
NOTE 2: I believe the "nearly naked men" are all in fact the lead singer of the band in various poses. His face/head doesn't appear in the photos in question, so it's ambiguous as to who the naked torsos belong to.
NOTE 3: No one knows....
NOTE 4: I'm aware of the full context of these remarks, and I don't believe they demonstrate sexism on the part of Mr. Anderson. I believe they were caustic replies to inane questions by rock journalists. Further, they were, characteristically, deliberately flippant, irreverant, flamboyant and provocative. I see Mr. Anderson as a (delightful!) "agitator." Or a thought-provoker, if you will. I include these as examples of his youthful in-your-face-ness.
NOTE 5: How I introduce, and encourage students to introduce, gender and sexual orientation issues in my EFL courses is beyond the scope of this paper. Those interested in swapping materials and lesson plans, please email me at: vf2j-nkgw@asahi-net.or.jp or phone 0293 30 1925, or see my (forthcoming in 2000) article in the newsletter of the TESOL Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Friends Caucus.
NOTE 6: "Shibuya Girls" refers to a type of young fashionable Japanese girl. Shibuya is a section of Tokyo popular with young people. "Shibuya Girl" fashion is characterized by a suntan (real or achieved through brown makeup), bleached hair, very high platform shoes, and conspicuous clothing and accessories such as gaudy fake fur purses, bright fuzzy tops, etc. An article on Shibuya Girls by D. Lunny will appear in the WELL Newsletter, Spring/Fall 2000.
NOTE 7: I fell in love with Suede's music, without knowing much about the band until sometime after. But certainly the sense of liberation including freedom from gender and sexual orientation stereotypes is contained within the music itself (in lyrics and so forth).
NOTE 8: No
NOTE 9: I've told students about my former drug use, complete with descriptions of the damage I've seen such use cause to people's bodies and lives. I don't advocate drug use to students or peers, nor do I consider rock music in any way responsible for my former drug use (!). I have discussed with students "natural highs" such as music, poetry, sports, fasting, spirituality, aromatherapy, sex (erm...make that "safe sex"....ok, make it abstinence? uh, just forget it!!). "Just say no" is a simplistic slogan that doesn't probe what makes people turn to drugs in the first place, what might help them get off them, or what might provide substitutes. I also don't see the "logic" of forbidding music that uses profanity or depicts drug use: listening to such songs could provide an opportunity for discussion. As with the issues of sex, and sexual orientation: "sweeping under the rug" is not always the best policy?
NOTE 10: Yes
NOTE 11: No

URLS: for the elegant & aware cybernaut....

The Suede official website: http://www.suede.net (has links to FAQ & other, more exciting fan sites)
A Suede fansite which has lyrics (most reliable lyrics source, however, is the CDs themselves-- Japanese ones have lyrics in both English & Japanese): http://www.suede.ukf.net/lyrics/index.html
Silver Hoops--a Japanese Suede site (name refers to style of earrings worn by band members early in the band's history): http://www.tokage.com/suede/
A Tee Corinne discussion group: www.queer-arts.org/wwwboard/corinne/corinne_board.html
The Derek Jarman Collection: www.echonyc.com/~mysticfire/CIJarman.html
A Gregg Araki fan site: http://www.angelfire.com/az/gregaraki/
Bitch magazine: http://www.bitchmagazine.com

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