Category Archives: Sexual Sociability

Bette Midler’s Gay Science

octopus-desire-tiawan-cover

 Cover design of the National Central University of Taiwan’s Center for the Study of Sexualities‘ forthcoming edited collection, translated into Mandarin, “When Desire Meets Public Health”

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I can’t believe I’d never seen this footage of Bette Midler’s Continental Baths Concert of 1971. It is all kinds of awesome and fabulous; a cataclysmic moment of gay world-making.
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The referentiality between the runsheet and the context of reception – the song choice and the abject status and attachments of the deviants who frequented “such establishments” – is so incredibly sharp and blatant and pointed and contradictory but ultimately joyous for what it cares to acknowledge and celebrate in and about, these places, these attachments, these publics, these gatherings.
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Basically it’s like, so gay 💅🏽
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octopus-bette
 Queer Entanglements
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Among the highlights of the show (and if you can’t quite face another cultural studies rave right now, don’t take my word for it: do yourself a favour & just watch it):
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  • Midler blows queer theory’s “anti-social” thesis right out of the water within 3 minutes of appearing on stage, because (doncha know?) “It’s All About Friends!”
  • Yet only minutes later, this woman, who at first glance might have come across as some happy-clappy redemptive sex pastoralist is getting down and dirty and revelling in a celebration of shameless sexual receptivity, with all its hurt and pleasure, in a show-stopper that situates “copping it” within the same order of bodily experience/urgency/necessity as scratching an itch: A basic craving, mundane, but often unbearably intense;  practically constitutive of being bodily in this world, difficult, disturbing –  with a million ways of approaching it, each with their own risks and possibilities for connection, intimacy, transformation, disappointment, frustrated consummation, and boundless enjoyment.
  • But what the heck?  What’s a Queen got to lose?

nothing-to-lose

  • And then next up (as though out of nowhere) an Ode to Marijuana, to top things off.  The Exotic/Palliative Sublime!
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Meanwhile, in the  second half of the show there is a Nostalgia Interlude, featuring hits from the 1940s, in which Milder adopts such a cheesy, self-assured persona when she sings “Going to the Chapel” (“R’member that great song? ‘Member?”) that she verges on obnoxious. The more she goes on and on and on and gloats about how she’s “Gonna Get Married” in the morning, the more you want to slap her! And you could almost be forgiven for that violent impulse, given the sense of comfort she derives so obviously and insensitively from knowing that that moment (indeed, even the slightest rendition or reference to that moment) has whole institutions dedicated to propping it up, as is more than demonstrated in how reliably and  routinely the refrain is backed up by a troupe of captive but ecstatic chorus singers. A surefire crowd-pleaser! What a triumph!  How enchanting!  (God knows it oughta be; they’ve being doing it to death in rehearsal).
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To counteract the bulldozing affects of this excruciatingly marital personae/performance, in the next sequence Midler switches gears and gets busy turning things around:  Mainly by ramping up the rapport she has  achieved so magically with her bathhouse audience: whipping up the feels, stirring up the love, only to culminate in her finally belting out this climactic, earth-shattering, quivering chant: “Any Day Now, I will be RELEASED!!” Which sends the audience arse over tit in an utter frenzy of gay abandon and delirium.
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Which all seems natural enough in the circumstances. Earlier in the show, she had confided casually that, like many of the boys in her bathhouse audience, she’d been working her ass off for “three days now”, without barely a breather in between acts.  No wonder the show’s climax is  so enthusiastically shared among the crowd, so devastating, so intense, so overinvested – and yet so playfully and powerfully communicated.
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Such brilliant realisation, explosive as dynamite.  Bringing to mind what a good friend suggested to me recently:  It’s “All about Energy”.  A pedagogical moment of sparkling clarity.
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Filmed a year before I was born, Bette Midler’s 1971 Continental Baths Concert is such a joy to behold, I feel so lucky to have been thrown into a world in which this could be found and grasped as a precedent, and so lucky to have chanced across footage of the event … Partly because of the queer associations it reveals and multiplies: it’s so obviously and unapologetically *her* kind of audience – striving for release – the kind of release that only a few legends like Midler were gutsy enough to affirm, acknowledge, and share publicly at the time, despite the likelihood of recrimination and scorn this might bring upon her, (not to mention the loneliness and despair and rejection and ugly affects that often underwrite such collective investments, which she also movingly acknowledges).
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But mainly because she just *owns* these desires and investments – in all their messy, abject complexity – so damn indiscriminately in this performance.   The whole queer kit and caboodle. In short, she belts it out of the ballpark.  & I’m talking …..FAR OUT!!!!!
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What kind of magic is this?  So playful! So abject! So affirmative! So powerful!  Overflowing with unmitigated pleasures and gusto….💖💕
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 On a more scholarly note, I take this show to be an exemplary instance of Sexual Sociability, a concept I came up with a while back now & have been trying to work with ever since, & which has ended up becoming key, as it turns out, to my forthcoming book, The Gay Science (“Forthcoming” ….ahem…..Any Day Now”….)
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It all makes me wish you could have a YouTube clip as a book cover! (it won’t be long now, surely? I mean, “we have the technology”, right?).  What a wild wet dream it would be to have Bette Midler’s 1971 “You’ve Got to Have Friends” featuring prominently somewhere in the book’s back matter, for the benefit of friends and readers, both old and new – or maybe I could arrange to have the number just playing throughout, on autorepeat. I can’t think of a better way of acknowledging my key informants, divine muses, motivating impulses and other assorted sources of gayspiration.  Or of signalling some of my work’s key design principles – and impossible objects.
bette
 The Divine Bette Midler, Continental Baths, circa 1971
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There. Thanks for putting up with that excessive, raving gay rant.  Writing it at least ought to force me to finish the fucker.  And friends, believe me, that day can’t come quickly enough … 🌊💨🌪💥⚡️🌈🌸💦
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(Did someone say “happy ending?”  Bring it!!)

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