Late last month, Slate issued a pride-week series of articles on the historical and contemporary relevance of the gay bar. The gay bar was described by June Thomas — the author of the series — as “a refuge [and] Hebrew school,” a place to escape the aggressive straightness of the world, but also a place to transmit cultural traditions, to pass along heritage. Thomas’ assessment of the importance of the gay bar is lucid and level-headed enough for even the most clueless and sheltered heterosexual:
Historically, gay bars were a haven from the strictures of the closet, a safe space where patrons could take off the masks they wore while passing for straight. […] They were a place to meet, to socialize, to find friends and potential partners. In a way, they were our church, with sermons delivered by disco divas.
The past tense Thomas uses in this section is a pivotal part of her thesis, of the series as a whole. Culture — queer as well as the hetero-normative mainstream — has changed drastically in the past two decades.
Technology deserves much of the credit for this mainstreaming of gay culture; the internet makes it possible for queer teens to seek out the support of allies half a world away, allows straight men and women to indulge their curiosity without fear of judgment or reproach, and keeps an undying record of the hypocritical misdeeds of the most loathsome politicians and mega-preachers. The world — Western world, at least — is less rigidly segmented along axes of gender and sex than it had been for the overwhelming majority of human history; the boundaries of identity have blurred, and they are unlikely to refocus any time soon. But one side effect of this increased digital connection, as diagnosed by Thomas, is the growing obsolescence of the gay bar. The more mainstream queer culture becomes, the less there appears to be a need for safe havens and community klatches.
That mainstreaming of queerness and breaching of boundaries is the context, spirit, and thesis of Pictureplane’s second album, Thee Physical. Even a cursory glance at the album art — a simulacrum of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, with black vinyl glove reaching out to touch an uncovered hand — or the tracklisting — with titles like “Sex Mechanism,” “Techno Fetish,” and “Negative Slave” bringing the hyper-sexuality of the early-90s acid-house movement to mind — makes it obvious that Thee Physical is a record with a specific agenda. However lacking Thee Physical may be in regards to coyness or subtlety, few songs make discussing queering as explicitly as “Trancegender,” one of the album’s standout tracks. “Because you could be my boy/ And I could be your girl”, Travis Egedy, the electro-punk behind Pictureplane, sings, almost as a rebuke to White Town’s forward-thinking, late-90s left-field hit, “Your Woman” or perhaps to The Chemical Brothers’ “Hey Girl, Hey Boy,” another gender-oriented club hit from a few years later. Here, for four-and-a-quarter minutes, Egedy goes easy on the abrasive synthetics and offers a blissful vision of a post-biological future, where we’re not only free to be whatever or whoever we want, but also to love, fuck, or crush on whoever we want; free your mind, and the rest will surely follow, right?
But Egedy’s utopian attitude is in many ways ideologically problematic. Thee Physical’s triumphant first single tells us that “Real Is a Feeling” — the song itself a rave anthem for tolerance, with simple, broadly sketched lyrics matched by rousing klaxon-like instrumentation — but what Egedy seems to actually mean here is that queer is a feeling, that no matter what urges we feel, they are justified and valid. It’s a nice sentiment, but it’s also a narrow-minded, reductive one. The world is not yet a safe place for out, self-identifying queers, and no matter how blurred the distinction between genders and sexuality might become, it probably never will be a safe place. “Real is a feeling, yeah,” but only for a limited percentage of the world — and also American — population. To play at the possibility of broad, utopian acceptance speaks more to the privilege of the artist than to the state of our ever-more-tolerant popular culture.
Real is more than a feeling; authenticity is not only a matter of indie cred, but also of self-expression and visibility. Pictureplane make the same miscalculation as Lady Gaga did with Born This Way: sometimes inclusiveness means letting others speak for themselves. It doesn’t matter if you’re “Chola or Orient made”; it matters if you’re a white musician employing a public platform to drown out the authentic first-person minority voices. It’s all well and good to make music that appeals to a diverse base, but there are numerous points when the appeal for diversity becomes an act of hetero-normative hegemony.
In an interview with EDGE, a gay culture portal, Egedy discusses his Pictureplane ambitions: “I would rather be exposing straight mainstream individuals who have never been exposed to anything ‘queer’ than broaden the perceptions of queer folks’ taste in music.” It’s a bit of a Freudian slip — Egedy is trying to assert himself as a visitor within, and observer of, queer culture, and also as an ambassador to straight, mainstream culture. But the exposure he speaks of can easily be construed as an imperialist maneuver, a mining and trading of an exotic culture’s resources. Just as easily, it can be interpreted as a sort of musical gentrification, a cleaning-up, a securing, of formerly transgressive territory for members of the dominant majority. None of this is to claim that Egedy’s heart isn’t in the right place, but the gesture, the action, the ideology are thorny all the same.
Little of this speaks directly to the musical merits of Thee Physical — which include, but are not limited to its blood-and-fist-pumping anthemic qualities; the rousing bright, broadness of Pictureplane’s synthwave pop — but at the same time, it’s difficult to hear the more overtly club-influenced songs like “Touching Transform” without thinking of La Bouche, C+C Music Factory, and the faceless disco divas who, to June Thomas, signify safe spaces for queer individuals. No matter its pleasures, Thee Physical is a difficult album to enjoy without thinking about either the gentrification of these formerly queer — and formerly safe — spaces or considering the many musical traditions white heterosexuals have adopted and then brazenly claimed as their own.