Something horrible happened.
The promo package, marked Special, arrived on my desk in May from Ultra Records in New York City. Hastily, I tore the envelope open and yanked out the CD within, letting squiggles of packing confetti fall where they may. A bronze and glistening, near-naked, possibly underage Brazilian boy stared fiercely from the cover. His bulging genitalia were not quite stuffed into a Gummi-red Speedo. His hair dripped with viscous product. Posed stiffly against a seaside shack the color of processed cheddar, he looked like he was about to either blow me or feast on my liver. The text across his sculpted, slightly veiny torso read DJ Ricardo! Presents Out Anthems 2.
Oh, good lord. If there’s anything that turns me off more than DJs with exclamation points appended to their monikers OMG! The ’90s! Low carb! Wow! it’s some gay fool from Ultra Records in New York City trying to tell me what my "out anthems" are. Sorry, but tin-eared "Don’t Want No Short Dick Man" remixes, spacey-diva "Deeper Love" covers, mindless melodramatic thumpers, and obnoxious washes of sizzle and screech don’t quite sum up my raggedy, faggoty lifestyle or speak to my proud, if occasionally morally compromised, experience.
I adore dance music it’s my life. Any packed dance floor is a good thing in my book. But I also have some taste, and this was the apogee of cheesiness. The presumption that these bland corporate farts are the tunes of my loony-queer times crosses a clear homo-to-homo line in the shimmering sands. (For the record, Ultra Records, my current personal out anthems are the Cinematics’ "Keep Forgetting," Shazzy’s "Giggahoe," and Gladys Knight and the Pips’ "Love Is Always on Your Mind." Go mix that.)
Listen, I can ride with the tsunami of cheap and sleazy DJ dance compilations that has flooded various music stores, in-boxes, and jittery Wal-Marts for the past decade or so, featuring tightly clenched glutes, toxic tans, and spandex-stretching silicone explosions. (And that’s just the music. Someone should really publish a picture book of all of the blindingly awful, grinding-Barbie-in-headphones cover designs. Title suggestion: Writhe the Ibiza Abysmal. Or how about just Champagne and Crap?) There’s definitely a market out there for pulsating pabulum, and I dug my own grave with two coke spoons and a mirror ball when I became a nightlife critic. I was even OK with the knowledge that because I had Out Anthems 2 grasped shakily in my hot little palm, it meant that somewhere out there an Out Anthems 1 must exist. You go, DJ Ricardo!! Work it however you can. No, that wasn’t the horrible part.
SPLICING THE MONOLITH
The horrible part was this: I actually kind of liked it.
Bursting with a weird glee that’s unique to our media-saturated moment "Holy shit, you’ve got to hear-see-watch this, it’s the most horrifying thing ever!" I had rushed the CD over to my boyfriend Hunky Beau’s house before listening to it, eager for us to put it on and tear it a new one together. That’s our modern gay love.
Yet once I’d slipped the disc into Hunky’s Mac and readied myself a hot shot of schadenfreude, I realized I don’t hear this sort of heinous stuff when I’m out and about as much as I used to. The once-omnipresent, thousand-nostriled behemoth of overbearing, poorly produced circuit and "progressive house" music has been somewhat tamed. Sure, much of the CD was atrocious, but now that this cookie-cutter hokum is no longer forced on me at every gay turn I take, pouring forth from restaurant patios and flashy video bars, after-hours megaclubs and fisting pornos, open gym windows and passing Miata convertibles, I could listen to it not as some soulless dominant paradigm that was threatening to rob gay culture of every last ounce of scruff and sparkle, but as mere tacky noodling: harmless fun in an ironic way, if you’re into irony anymore. (Not poor Hunky Beau, though. A die-hard devotee of skinhead mosh and East Bay punk, he dived beneath the covers as soon as the first few high-hat sprays had rung in the air, moaning like he had aural hepatitis.)
What happened that night a night that found me wriggling around in my Underoos and torturing my man with shouts of "Look at me! I’m a tweaked-out fan dancer!" sparked the more masochistic aspects of my curiosity.
Ever since the supastar DJ scene of the late ’90s and early ’00s became economically impossible to sustain the Sisyphean task of convincing thousands of people to spend $40 to hear a scrawny dude from Manchester, UK, or Miami spin yet again burned many promoters out the dance floor playing field has blown wide open. Megaclubs, with their monolithic sounds, gave way to smaller venues where independent promoters could experiment with fresh ideas and vent their wacky stylistic impulses, minus hefty cover charges and pat-down security. Clubs became more like house parties: the kid with the most friends or the biggest iTunes collection could plug into the DJ booth and let ‘er rip.
Gay clubs, especially, had followed the newfound freedom from big-time pressure and flight-booking budgets in myriad zany directions. Today’s gay club scene is more diverse than it’s ever been. Almost every night of the week there are options.
So maybe it was time for me to reappraise a style that I’d grown to hate, now that it was fading from mainstream gay scene ubiquity in favor of sleek hip-pop and ’80s hair bands. Maybe I could stare into the numb, drooling jaws of circuit and progressive terror and dance, dance, dance. Could it really be as bad as I remembered? Was I ready to let go of my bitterness toward a music so insidious that even my grandmother thought my life was one big party scene from gag Queer as Folk?
Was it possible for me to tune into KNGY, 92.7 FM (Energy), the aggressively gay-friendly "pure dance" local radio station that had become synonymous with such music and had recent hosted a party spotlighting, yes, DJ Ricardo! without retching uncontrollably at the first few modulated wails?
Perhaps. I dug out the hand-crank radio from my earthquake emergency kit because, like, transmission radio who still listens to that? I reacquainted myself with how to adjust a dial. Then I turned the volume up.
Mention Energy 92.7 to most gay men, and curious things happen to their bodies. The shoulders pop, the eyes roll, the hands begin to gesticulate wildly. Those are the gay men who love the station. The others absolutely loathe it. Their bodies convulse in a spasm of disgust. Their faces twist into ghoulish grimaces. Spittle flies from their lips. The hatred is palpable. There’s no middle ground when it comes to Energy. I’ve been in cars where people have fought over it until blood spurted.
Such reactions may be the legacy of the circuit party scene. Fifteen years ago, if you asked the average straight person to close their eyes and think about "gay music," the image that would first leap to his or her mind would be a turtlenecked show-tune queen clipping pink rosebuds in her garden while whistling something from Les Miz. Or, if the hetero were more contemporary, the archetype called up would be a sweat-dripping, mustachioed disco nymph collapsing into a pile of Studio 54 fairy dust or a bleached and tragic Madonna fan in an oversize cable-knit sweater with a regrettable yen for cheap eyeliner. Many gay club kids today would gladly take those images over what replaced them in the mid-’90s: buffed-out ‘roid heads in sailor caps and tighty whiteys frantically tooting whistles while some faceless diva yelped them into an aerobic frenzy.
The colossal circuit scene had its strengths: with its world-conquering voraciousness, it served as an accessible entry point for the vast numbers of gay men who came out at the time. Clattering circuit beats and ecstatic progressive swells and breaks the natural evolution of corporate rave music in a mainstream gay environment pushed many HIV-positive men through despair in the time before effective AIDS meds became available, and served as an all-purpose celebration template afterward. But circuit parties also marginalized queers with no taste for militaristic conformity, gratingly regurgitated tunes, or the alphabet soup of designer drugs then in vogue. The fact that the circuit had once been a credible, if snobbish and expensive, underground movement held no sway when it hatched into a gargantuan space tarantula from Planet GHB that swallowed all semblance of queer individuality. It was the Will and Grace of clubland, and most of us got jacked.
But that was then, this is neu. Dissing the circuit scene for gay club music’s discouraging popular image is like nail-gunning a dead, glitter-freckled horse. "The scene has really downsized, along with the whole megaclub thing in general," a popular San Francisco circuit DJ confided to me recently. "The energy we’re riding on is nostalgia."
Michael Williams, co-owner of Medium Rare Records in the Castro, the go-to store for dance mix compilations, told me, "We still sell a lot of that music, but people aren’t asking for it as they once did. I think the market got oversaturated and quality became a real factor. People began asking, ‘Where’s the talent?’ Our biggest sellers now are more complex artists like Shirley Bassey, Thelma Houston, and Pink Martini, or DJs who really work to have an interesting sound, like Dimitri from Paris." Even the odiously corporate Out magazine declared the circuit party over in its current issue, so you know it must be true.
Still, the sour taste of the circuit era in many alternaqueers’ mouths has proved hard to wash out. And the stereotype of awful gay club music still reigns supreme in the straight world. Even though Energy 92.7’s been around for less than three years and is in truth, as I found out after tuning in, more prone to playing Billboard Hot 100 pop remixes than actual circuit music, it’s had to bear the backlash brunt. As the most visible mainstream gay dance music giant of the moment, it’s become guilty by association.
CREEPIN’ LIKE BOUGAINVILLEA
Greg: "Oh my god, he is such a freakin’ moron."
Fernando: "Thirty-six percent approval ratings is far too high for this president."
Greg: "The only way my gay ass would be impressed by [George W.] Bush is if he put a VJ in the Oval Office. Bitch, please how many more troops have to die?!"
Fernando: "You’re listening to Energy, 92.7 FM. Here’s Rihanna with ‘Don’t Stop the Music.’"
—Fernando and Greg in the Morning
This is how gay Energy 92.7 is: when I first visited the station recently, the station’s party promoter, Juan Garcia, recognized my hair product from 50 paces. "Little orange can, girl?" he called out to greet me.
This is how gay Energy 92.7 is: when I sat in on the morning show with hosts Fernando Ventura and Greg Sherrell, they agonized during songs over the fact that something called the "smart-fat diet" forbade them to eat nuts for a week. "You can write anything you want," Sherrell, a high-voiced, blond spitfire who frequently informs listeners that he’s wearing his most expensive jeans, told me. "But if you don’t say I’m thin, I finna kill you."
Fernando and Greg in the Morning, on air weekdays from 6 to 10 a.m., is one of the most popular shows on Energy, which has a potential reach of 3.2 million listeners. The show could be accused of a lot of things gay minstrelsy, pandering to stereotypes, making me get up at 4 a.m. to sit in but it could never be accused of being unexciting. It’s the only openly gay morning show on commercial radio, and some of the live quips traded by DJ Fernando, Greg "the Gay Sportscaster," and their "straight man" producer Jason are dizzy scandal. Vaginal pubic hair "creeps up like bougainvillea," poppers are bad on first dates "because they’ll make your throat sore," and Kylie Minogue gets the verbal knockdown but "Oh, we love her: she had breast cancer!" Interspersed with segments like "Homo vs. Hetero," during which one caller of each orientation is quizzed about the other’s lifestyle, are Kelly Clarkson and the Killers remixes, "Vintage Beats" by Blondie and Michael Jackson, and current dance-chart toppers by Bananarama, David Guetta, and the Sunlovers.
It’s a thing of wonder in a society still riddled with homophobia I dare you to find a YouTube video with more than 5,000 views that doesn’t have the word fag in the comments to have such an unequivocally queeny experience, with a strong straight following, sail through the airwaves each morning. The tunes take a backseat to the dish. "At 9:30 in the morning you can only get so adventurous with your music selections," Ventura, an easygoing, bearish guy, told me. "I mostly stick with the hits."
The station, located in a murky green downtown office building, is a buzzing hive of fluid sexuality and good-natured candidness. The hyperdrive strains of DJ Tiesto and Deepface fill the air. As the only independently owned and operated commercial radio station in San Francisco, Energy’s done well. As a suitor of the gay audience, it’s done spectacularly. Even though its press materials emphasize its appeal to a broad variety of dance music fans, Energy’s known as "the gay dance station" to most San Franciscans. (That’s not so much the case across the bay, where Energy has gained a lot of traction in the Latino and Asian communities.)
Balancing a constant need for revenue with gay political intricacies can get tricky. A chill shot through me when I saw "Energy 92.7 owns the gay community" printed in bold and underlined in the station’s media kit apparently we’re all slaves to remixed Cher. And even though the station is a major sponsor of most large gay charity events, there have been a few controversies. The gay media has fussed that Energy is co-owned and run by a straight man, Joe Bayliss, and the station has been blamed for dumbing down gay culture to grasp the pink dollar (although that’s like saying Britney Spears’s performance sucked because her heel broke). And last year Energy released a branded compilation mix CD with an Army recruitment ad slipped into the packaging.
"We made a mistake. It was just stupid and insensitive on our part," Bayliss, a frank, handsome man with a ready smile, said when I asked him about the Army debacle. "This institution offered us a lot of money, and hey, we’re a struggling, independent business. We answered every complaint personally to apologize. We learned our lesson." (A new, military-free compilation comes out next month, to be carried by Best Buy, with proceeds going to local AIDS charities.)
That’s the politics, but what about the music? "I’m starting to build up a dance music collection," said Bayliss, who’s been working in radio since he was a kid. "This particular format tested through the roof in this market when we were looking to buy the station. I had no idea who Paul Oakenfold or Kaskade was when we started. I used to run a country station, and I didn’t know Merle Haggard from a hole in the ground either. But we’re 100 percent committed to this music and its audience. We have to be our listeners are very dedicated."
Rabid may be a better word. The phone lines were jammed while I was there, and according to programming manager John Peake, the in-boxes are full every morning with e-mails from gaga enthusiasts. Good portions of Energy listeners stream the station online, and employees interact continuously with members of Energy’s E-Club virtual community. Even the afternoon DJs were leaping up and down in the booth while I was there, pumping their fists heavenward.
"Often we’ll get these enormously long e-mails from people listing every song we played that night, going into intense detail about each one and exactly why it was so important to them," Peake told me. "We get a lot of e-mails at six in the morning."
Looking compact in a lavender oxford, faded jeans, and a kicky Italian snakeskin belt, Peake took me through the music selection process. Each week he and music programmer Trevor Simpson go through new releases, recently submitted remixes, and requests from the station’s fans. They form a playlist based on what they think will most appeal to listeners and then program their picks into a hilariously retro MS-DOS program called Selector with, I shit you not, a rainbow-colored interface. "It’s tacky, but it’s bulletproof," Peake said, laughing. DJs either punch up the tracks automatically or refer to the playlist to make their own mixes using Serato software. Zero vinyl’s involved.
Peake and I talked about the criteria for choosing songs. "It’s a moving target. There’s definitely a ton of music out there that falls within our brand, and our nighttime and weekend DJs get to play a huge variety of mix music from around the world, so there’s a lot of latitude. I think our biggest challenge right now is figuring out the role of hip-hop. Our younger listeners demand it, but a lot of our demographic is still afraid of it. If we play something with rapping in it, we get flooded with angry callers screaming, ‘How dare you play this! Don’t you know it’s homophobic?’"
Later I spoke with Energy’s promotions director, Tim Kwong, about the backlash against the station. "We get it from both sides," Kwong, a young Bay Area native with impressively gelled hair, said. "Trance and progressive fans say, ‘Why don’t you play more harder, locally produced records?’ Rock and hip-hop fans want us to play fewer remixes of their favorite songs. We try to strike a balance, but the truth is what we do works for our audience."
"I can totally understand the frustration people feel when a certain image is projected that doesn’t fit them," he continued, addressing the gay question. "As an Asian American with a punk and indie background, I have a lot of experience with stereotypes, believe me. But we try to be as broad as possible in our appeal and acknowledge differences. And we’re not bribing people to listen to us."
To their credit, the folks at Energy also acknowledge that their programming may not be in sync with what’s going on in the gay club scene now. "It’s apparent when you listen to the morning show that I don’t go out to clubs very much," DJ Fernando told me. "But when I do, I notice there is so much more choice these days. In the past there were a bunch of huge nights or clubs, and everybody went. Now there’s a night or a bar for everybody."
"Ick! I think it’s total crap. It’s like the dance music equivalent of Weird Al," said Bill Picture, who, along with his partner, DJ Dirty Knees, is the city’s biggest gay rock club promoter, when I asked him his opinion of Energy. "We’re much more into visceral rock energy and seeing live, local queer punk. But a lot of gay people do like that kind of music. And I’m glad that there’s a radio station that they can tune in to. How boring would it be if all gay people liked the same things? We’re happy to be an alternative."
The alternatives have arrived aplenty. In addition to Picture’s metal events, there’s DJ Bus Station John’s bathhouse disco revival scene, which fetishizes pre-AIDS vinyl like the smell of polished leather. There’s DJ David Harness’s Super Soul Sundayz, which focuses on atmospheric Chicago house sounds. There’s Charlie Horse, drag queen Anna Conda’s carnivalesque trash-rock drag club that often gasp! includes live singing. Queer-oriented parties with old-school show tunes, square dancing, tango, hula, Asian Hi-NRG, hyphy, mashups, Mexican banda, country line dancing, and a bonanza of other styles have found popularity in the past few years. The night’s a sissy smorgasbord of sound.
There’s even a bit of a backlash to all of this wacky fracturation and, especially, the iTunes DJ mentality. A segment of gay club music makers is starting to look back to the early techno and house days for inspiration, yearning for a time when seamless mixing and meticulously produced four-on-the-floor tunes not sheer musical novelty propelled masses onto dance floors.
Honey Soundsystem, a gay DJ collective formed by DJs Ken Vulsion and Pee Play and including a rotating membership of local vinyl enthusiasts, attempts to distill Italo disco, Euro dance, acid house, neominimal techno, and other cosmic sounds of the past three decades into smooth, ahistorical sets spanning the musical spectrum from DAF’s 1983 robo-homo hit "Brothers" to Kevin Aviance’s 1998 vogue-nostalgic "Din Da Da" to the Mahala Rai Banda’s 2006 technoklezmer conflagration "Mahalageasca (Felix B Jaxxhouz Dub)."
"Girl, that shit must be pumped out by a computer with a beard somewhere," the 21-year-old Pee Play opined of Energy 92.7’s music. I didn’t tell him how close to the truth he was as he continued, "But I’m over most of the goofy alternashit too. I never lived though circuit, but the music is fucked-up. I’m just really into quality. I want to play records that every time you hear them, they just get better."
PLAY LIKE BROTHERS DO
I’m not sure if there’s such a thing as gay music. If there were, its representative incarnation would probably be closer to experimental duo Matmos’s homophilic soundscapes, like those on their 2006 album The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of the Beast (Matador) each track named for a gay community hero and composed of poetically related sampled objects ("Sequins and Steam for Larry Levan," "Rag for William S. Burroughs") than anything that ever soared from Donna Summers’s throat. As far as gay dance goes, the epochal choreography of the uncompromisingly out Mark Morris, currently the hottest dance maker in the country, may prove more historically resilient than the image of semiclothed bears raving on a cruise ship.
Yet despite the Internet drain, clubs are still where homos meet to get sweaty, and the music they get sweaty to has a big impact on the culture at large. Dance music is ephemeral in the best sense: how good it sounds has everything to do with how and where you experience it and what and who you experience it with. Energy’s playlist was perfectly amusing in a broadcast booth full of campy, happy people or while twirling half naked in my BF’s bedroom. But in a club setting, maybe not so much it all depends on who my been-there, done-that ass is dancing next to, no?
I recently spoke with Steve Fabus, one of the original DJs at San Francisco’s legendary Trocadero Transfer gay disco, launched in 1977. He’s been spinning continuously for 30 years and has pretty much seen it all. "Dance music is magic it’s what gay people are," he explained. "It brought us together and kept us going through some incredibly hard times. Disco gathered everyone under one roof, and then house came along and did the same. Circuit was fun in the beginning, but it got too aggressive, and people of color or people into other things didn’t feel welcome. It took over everything, and, of course, it burned out."
"I love that kids are expressing themselves in smaller clubs, with different kinds of playing. It’s encouraging," he continued. "But it’s a shame that circuit took the big clubs down with it, where everyone could share in this experience together. Of course, there are other factors involved crystal meth, the Internet, economics. You have to be very clever to be gay and live here now. It’s just so damned expensive."
"But oh well," he said with a laugh. "Everything comes in cycles."