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Great Moustaches in Rock: Village People

Apparently half, or at least two, of the Village People weren’t gay. One has to admire the putative heteros (with one exception) for not feeling threatened by a whole world thinking that they were homosexual at a time when same-sex orientations were obscured even by some of the most flamboyant exponents of camp, by force of rampant homophobia. In the late ’70s, Elton John would say he was bisexual, a position he has, I think, since departed from but which was nonetheless brave at the time. Freddie Mercury let his band’s name and, later, his moustache do the outing, but was careful to give his homophobic fans enough to defend their hero’s “honour” (everybody will have encountered Queen devotees primed to challenge you to an old-fashioned duel should you have dared as much as to hint at Mr Bulsara’s homosexuality. Some of them are still in denial).

The Village People sported a whole catalogue of facial horticulture, to the point of cliché, in a bid to assert their collective homosexuality. Take Leatherman’s droop-growth, carefully styled to assessorise his leather chaps and caps to evoke the stereotype of a San Francisco clone (you don’t hear the word clone anymore. Send in the clones!). His luxurious shrub is supposed to communicate that he’ll like a bit of rough in the hole (the club’s hole; your filthy mind!).

Cowboy’s ‘tache was less scary but still exquisitely gay. In the picture here, Randy Jones looks angry (to the apparent astonishment of Leatherman), but usually he wore a smile so open and engaging that quite conceivably he’d have stood with Gary Cooper in facing down the bad guys in High Noon (that would be Gary Cooper the dead actor, not Gary Cooper the “ex-gay” fellow who founded a Christian ministry to cure homosexuals from their “affliction”).

By comparison, Construction Worker’s moustache is rather unremarkable. To compensate for his mediocre snotabsorber, he camped it up even more furiously than the other villagers. Watch him: he prances this way, he strikes a macho-gay pose that way, he gurns in a show of rampant homosexuality. Construction guy David Hodo has not disclosed his sexual orientation, as is his right, but my guess is that he’s straight. As was, you guessed it, Leatherman (who died in 2002).

If you have concentrated, you will recall that I qualified my applause for straight Village People doing gay with a caveat. Leadsinger Victor Willis, the Cop (who, in a bitter twist of irony, has since had serious trouble with the law), left the group when he worked out that he was fronting a novelty gay act, with his objection centering on the latter attribute. None of the hits, he claimed, had a gay subtext. And with song titles such as Hot Cop, Macho Man, Action Man, Fireman, Milkshake and, for crying out loud, I’m A Cruiser, who could ever have thought so?

Of course, when Y.M.C.A. and In The Navy were hits, the gay subtext did sail straight over many people’s heads, such were the naive times. And that was the subversive beauty of the Village People. When the US Navy sought to use In The Navvy as a recruitment anthem, they really must have thought that the Village People were totally ungay, not a clue to be had. Willis — who was later married to the Crosby Show‘s Mrs Huxtable, incidentally — cannot have any such excuse as it was him who camped it up big time in the camp shanty with that line of being afraid of the water, and the nudge-nudge-wink-winking question: “Oh my goodness. What am I gonna do in a submarine?”

I presume the Young Men’s Christian Association was grateful for the publicity on the back of the Village People’s biggest hit. Oh yes, “you can hang out with all the boys” and “do whatever you feel” surely was a reference to good old-fashioned male camaraderie. I bet you won’t have Gary Cooper the “Ex-Gay” putting those lines on his pamphlets.

In presentation, the Village People were a manufactured novelty act, much like contemporaries Boney M, and their music was treated accordingly. As anybody who has ever listened to a whole Village People album will agree, much of the music was mediocre. But the good stuff has acquired a bad reputation it does not merit. At parties, people will invariably laugh when Y.M.C.A. plays, smear on the irony thickly as they perform the letters routine (as demonstrated here by the blasphemous troupe), and assure each other that this song is so stupid. It isn’t stupid at all; it’s a good pop song compromised only by overexposure.

Follow-up In The Navy is almost as catchy, and has a great line in wicked humour (the submarine gag never fails to make me laugh). Go West was good enough for the Pet Shop Boys to cover it without resort to “irony”. Can’t Stop The Music is often described as a so-bad-it’s-good job, which is simply untrue; it may be the group’s second-best song, after Go West. Even some non-hits rocked, such as the pre-HiNRG disco track Ready For the 80’s (greengrocer’s apostrophe notwithstanding).

The Village People had some extravagant moustaches and a handful of really great tunes. We forgive Bob Dylan a terrible line in ‘taches and a lot of disposable dirges. That is a good enough reason to stop doing the letters dance to Y.M.C.A., take Can’t Stop The Music seriously as great pop, and celebrate the Village People for enriching us by bringing homosexuality (real or feigned) into the cultural mainstream.

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  1. Barely Awake In Frog Pajamas
    May 6th, 2008 at 14:59 | #1

    Moustaches aside, Village People had some undeniably catchy stuff (something of which I am reminded when the pop up on the iPod).Living in London a decade ago, “Go West” was in some commercial (for some diary product, I believe). All I remember is a bunch of farmers on tractors in a verdent valley, grooving to the song.

  2. StellaVista
    May 17th, 2008 at 04:11 | #2

    Listen to songs like “Fire Island” (which is probably their gayest track with the unbeatable line: “Don´t go in the bushes someone might grab ya/GoGo in the bushes somebody might just grab ya”) and then you forgot to mention their movie, where they had already jumped the shark.Anyway, I always marvel at the great production of their songs. This is no throw-away disco, but tight and lusciously orchestrated white-boy funk.

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