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Too much of a good thing?

Homoerotica abounds in Tarsem's music videos. Maybe it shouldn't

[Originally published 1992 |
Updated here 1999.06.20

In music video, as in the pop music on which it is based, if you don't like what's out there, just bide your time; another Bright Young Thing is sure to come along. Tarsem, for example.

At the 1991 MTV Awards, this L.A. director (his name is pronounced "tar-seem") and his video for R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion" ate the competition for breakfast, winning absurd astronaut-shaped trophies for best director and best video, among others. It was just deserts: "Losing My Religion" is a superb achievement, in part because of its brilliantly integrated homo subtexts. But now, mission control, we have a problem, and it is the subsequent video from Tarsem – "My Definition of a Boombastic Jazz Style" by Dream Warriors, the Toronto rap duo. This video also brilliantly integrates homo subtexts, but in this case they're misplaced. And that's enough to give homoeroticism a bad name.

Available on a splendid R.E.M. home-video compilation, This Film is On (from Warner Reprise Video), "Losing My Religion" uses the music-video genre's typical rapid-fire edits and the body language of singer Michael Stipe to weave together a number of visual threads – antiquity, religion, sensuality. The latter two combine in one scene, when Stipe gazes up and sings, "That's me in the corner" – equating himself to a pink-skinned black man, nearly nude, with bleached hair and feathery wings. Sacred/sacrilegious images like these pop up throughout, but it isn't any specific religion Stipe is losing. Tarsem's visual tropes to the spirituality of his homeland of India counterpoint a range of Christian iconography strong enough to get the video banned in Ireland.

At least, that was the ostensible reason it was banned. But could the reason really have been the girly boy with St. Sebastian-esque arrows masking-taped to his chest? (Mishima must be moaning in his grave.) Or the shirtless muscle queen who manages to look simultaneously East Indian and West Village? Or the ambiguous physical contact from one of the boys in the band, who squeezes Stipe's shoulders and walks away? Or the opening scene right out of Billy Budd, where a pitcher of milk crashing to the floor might just symbolize (gasp) the spilling of semen?

Like a lightning rod, the increasingly androgynous Michael Stipe acts as a foil for the concentrated homosensuality in "Losing My Religion." When he's the star, all these stimuli make sense and remain within the range of the palatable. But as much as I love them, Lou and Q of the Dream Warriors are hardly cut from the same cloth as Stipe. Their deadpan delivery in Tarsem's video, and their reserved personae everywhere, make the exotica of the video all the more anacronistic. Now, I'm completely in favour of huddled groups of shirtless, low-bodyfat, chalk-white boys with Mr. Spock eyebrows, and I love a bad drag queen even when she's kicking a guy in the balls, and I even think lesbian skinhead wrestling matches are the cat's meow. But in a video, titillating camp like this makes sense only if the band or the song drip with irony or sexual possibility.

The Dream Warriors' delight, however, stems from their felicity in crafting straightforward, gentle, innocent tunes. No matter how goofy he makes his actors act, Tarsem's ornate mise-en-scène just does not suit a song with a line like "Relax, relax, relaxation, boombastic." Homoerotica is making its way into rap video, largely through dreamboat LL Cool J and his gratifying fondness for tank tops, but it's is a powerful and conspicuous element in a repressive society. Homoerotica is welcome and needed in mainstream culture, but it demands shrewdness in application, lest homophobes rail against its ubiquity and start campaigning for its eradication. "Losing My Religion" was compatible with Tarsem's homoeroticism and gained from its inclusion; I can't say the same about the Dream Warriors song.

It's better for queer sensuality to infiltrate those videos where its presence is meaningful, not gratuitous. Tarsem has the guts to ladle homoerotica into his videos, but maybe it's time he showed us he knows not only how to use it, but when.