Vassar Critical Journal

The Vassar College English Department Student Journal of Critical Essays

Content warning: communal trauma, queerphobia, suicide, sex, recreational drug use.

This essay examines a 1994 rock album, Dog Man Star’s subcultural representation of futurity, in order to articulate the tension between Leo Bersani and Lee Edeman’s anti-future, anti-relational turn and queer utopic thinking proposed by José Muñoz and Jack Halberstam. While time and space in Dog Man Star seem to constitute an autoerotic loop free of intersubjective relations, the album’s embeddedness in and reforging of queer cultural histories gesture towards collective utopic potentials. Said queer utopia is by no means a return to normative relationalities anti-futurity opposes, but rather suggests new modes of connectivity as enabled by a digitalized, global fanbase.

The Future is Queer Stuff

Our consciousness is always oriented towards something: the words you are reading at this moment, a fleeting thought about a friend, the class taking place in the afternoon, and, more often than not, the future in its erratic, all-encompassing glory. Setting eyes on the future gives meaning to the present and realigns history in its course, as is evident in the conventional utopian visions of Marxism, where the past and the present invariably build up to a proletariat revolution. The twentieth century saw future in more cunning guises as it staggered through two World Wars, the Holocaust, and the nuclear threat. In Waiting for Godot, future stays forever on the horizon and begins to weigh down the present; published in the same year, William Burroughs’s Junkie features future as agonizing intervals between substance-induced highs, while the highs themselves remain untouched by the flow of time. Nevertheless, restoration of postwar order perpetuated what Jack Halberstam calls “straight time” (Queer Time and Place 2)—a progressive, linear temporality measured by childhood, puberty, marriage, procreation, old age, and death—until the AIDS epidemic pressured a rethinking of futurity among queer and coloured, disenfranchised peoples, whose life potentials became contingent in the face of imminent death and discrimination in the name of public health.

It is against such background that scholars like Lee Edelman and Leo Bersani established what was later dubbed “anti-social/anti-relational turn”—queerness against the futurity of sense, relationality, hope, life and in congruence with the immediacy of “risk, disease, infection, and death” (3). Edelman argues the politics of futurity is the incessant stabilization of subject identity through identification with the future of social order (e.g., “I am legitimate because my work benefits the next generation”), and because queerness is what the symbolic order expels and depends on “to articulate the fracture that persistently haunts it as the death within itself” (e.g., dismissing queer masculinity as “mockery” in order to conceal the artificiality of straight masculinity), queer politics should embrace the unintelligibility and negativity we already embody (Edelman 22-28; Halberstam, “Anti-Social Turn” 141). Complementary to Edelman’s project, Bersani famously asks: “Should a homosexual be a good citizen?” (113). Bersani develops from André Gide’s The Immoralist “a model of intimacies devoid of intimacy,” which rejects relationality (because connection to others solidifies a self and therefore risks the policing and incorporation of sexuality) and allows the homosexual[1] to abandon himself to “the chaste promiscuity of a body repeatedly reaching out to find itself beyond itself” (125-128). Edelman and Bersani’s refusal of sociality was largely a comment on the rise of “respectability politics”: Taking advantage of their increased visibility in the early 1990s, major gay and lesbian organizations appealed to the “straight society” by linking queerness to rectitude and the pursuit of normative happiness, which only served to displace death and ineffability onto less privileged bodies (11-30).

While acknowledging the relevance and historicity of such critique, Edelman and Bersani’s contemporaries cautioned against the temptation of radical inaction: “the communitarian is not an absolute value, but neither is singularity and negativity” (Muñoz Cruising 10). Derived from Freudo-Lacanian readings of Proust and Gide, the politics of anti-relationality is affordable only to certain privileged subjects: “Edelman tends to cast material political concerns as crude and pedestrian, as already a part of the conjuring of futurity that his project must foreclose,” (Halberstam, “Anti-Social Turn” 142). Halberstam suggests such oversight is caused partly by the anti-social archive’s confinement to the Euro-American literary canon and aversion to materials that risk blemishing the progressive image of gay rights activism[2] (151). For instance, Edelman has recourse to the “high archive” of Marcel Proust while his book title, No Future,directly invokes the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” (“There’s no future/in England’s dreaming. . . .No future! You have no Future!”); the Sex Pistols’ working-class machismo fails to conform to the contemporary anti-macho gay agenda, yet confronts Edelman’s exclusion of messy real-world politics for an unnervingly tidy argument. Moreover, the lives of women, transgender and BIPOC people in the AIDS epidemic could hardly be contained by the universalizing gay white male experience, and it was from these neglected corners that emerged life potentials unscripted by oppressive paradigms that anti-relational politics believes to be as indestructible as capitalism. Muñoz takes on this task of exploring alternatives, and, from a vaster archive of queer of color performance art, proposes queerness as a utopian longing oriented towards the future: “We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future. . . .We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there. . .beyond romances of the negative and toiling in the present,” (Cruising 1).

Similar to Muñoz’s project, mine attempts “a backward glance that enacts a future vision” (4). I will be examining futurity in relation to English rock band Suede’s 1994 album Dog Man Star, a work widely viewed as the band’s effort to distance themselves from “Britpop,” a media-driven musical movement coined in the early 1990s. Priding itself as the child of the Swinging Sixties and the First British Invasion, Britpop sought to formulate a new sense of British identity in the face of American cultural predominance and fin-de-siècle anxiety. Suede was one of the many bands brought from anonymity and impoverishment to fame and fortune by the Britpop fad, but the artists were disturbed by its narratives of upward class mobility, machismo, and nationalism—notions that very much align with the politics of futurity repudiated by Lee Edelman. Shortly after their failed attempt at “breaking” the U.S. market, Suede created a most “un-Britpop” album at the height of Britpop, and, in self-irony, named it Dog Man Star as a shorthand for the Darwinism that enabled their rise from abjection to not-so-glorious stardom.

Using a primarily literary approach with the necessary attention to musical and visual forms, I will articulate Dog Man Star’s ambiguous representation of futurity, which partly converges with the anti-relational turn but inevitably connotes queer utopic possibilities in its identifications with and against old-time Hollywood film stars and encounters with the globally-dispersed, contemporary fandom. On the one hand, Dog Man Star is anti-relational in its dystopic subversion of literary conventions via which futurity politics perpetuates itself. Although songs about personal temporalities express the desire for connection and alternatives, the narrative voices invariably fail to establish anything substantial, their subjectivities shaken up in the absence of a future. On the other hand, the album’s theatrical articulation of the celluloid appeals to the communal and generates intense moments of (dis)identification, both within the text and in relation to the fandom. These relational instances allow for a recoding of problematic cultural sources (including the album itself), producing queer subjects who are able to relate to pasts and call upon the plurality of utopic alternatives.

Corrupt the Child. . . and Space Oddity

One of the most unsettling aspects about literary dystopias is that they are often utopias gone awry. Believing themselves to be utopic, these worlds claim the position of the future itself and repel the idea that there are futures beyond; their next generation’s sole purpose is to reproduce existing social hierarchies. The only thing that separates our world from a dystopia is our belief that the future is still lying in wait, a thought nonetheless designed to perpetuate current structures. In order to be recognized as subjects, we assume names and characters, and we try to “live up to” them precisely because there is an eternal distance between our experiential selves and these symbolic selves. Yet to consolidate our existence in the now and avoid social death, we remain in this struggle and, by identifying with future causes such as that of the Child, promise ourselves the distance will be closed one day. Therefore, modern society associates the Child with hope and futurity, and privileges it as one of the many symbols we fetishize to stitch up the gaping hole produced by the subject’s subjection to language in order to enter the Symbolic.[3] One example of the Child’s bandage function would be the battleground of abortion rights, where Edelman recognizes that both pro-choice and pro-life are pro-life, since the former not only frames abortion rights as “for our daughters,” but also refuses to name “abortion” as death out of the need to defend the Child and therefore defer indefinitely the promise of happiness[4] (No Future 3).

            The creators of Dog Man Star likely did not read Edelman, but they nevertheless brought into the album the anti-future, anti-Child impulse from having spent their adolescence under Thatcher and AIDS. The opening song, aptly titled “Introducing the Band,” is a ballad of portentous instrumentals and nasally, theatrical vocals, with little trace of the sweet melodiousness of traditional guitar rock music that was the backbone of Britpop (e.g., the Smiths). The verse reeks of Carrollian psychedelia, referring to druggy distortions in mobility and spatial perception characteristic of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a book widely read as children’s literature despite its darkness. The strong presence of phonetic iterations is also reminiscent of nursery rhymes, many of which are ominous at best. Further, repetition itself is a feature of Freudian drives, whose aim is not to reach an impossible state of satisfaction, but to repeat this path of pleasure in circles, which is presumably why the Child (return to the starting point of life) captures so much of futurity politics’ imagination:

Dog Man Star took a suck on the pill

And stabbed a cerebellum with a curious quill

Europe, America, Winterland

Introducing the band

Similar to the volta in sonnets, the third stanza responds to previous destitution, but this future it offers overflows with sexual transgression and the perversion of familial bonds. This is the figure of the queer reveling in “failing to be ‘normal’,” turning what was meant to be miserable ostracism into ecstatic, undisciplined abjection:

So steal me a savage, subservient son

Get him shacked-up, bloodied-up and sucking on a gun

I want the style of a woman, the kiss of a man

Introducing the band

The “son” (a young gay man sexually involved with an older gay man) who is wrapped up in violent and sexual imagery, though not invoking actual children like futurity politics does, nonetheless corrupts the idea of generational succession and calls out its implicit perversities.

            If “Introducing the Band” corrodes futurity with its mocking antagonism, “We Are the Pigs” reveals futurity at its most malign by invoking those buried by said future. The song features gripping melodies and Orwellian lyrics describing a nuclear apocalypse from the perspective of a police person, who is sent out to crush street riots (“As they call you to the eye of the storm. . . .We are the pigs/we are the swine/we are the stars of the firing line”). As the frenzied vocals and wail of the guitar die down, a chorus of children starts repeating the last line “we all watch them [rioters] burn” in eerie replication of children’s chanting in Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” (“We don’t need no education/We don’t need no thought control”). While the latter uses the Child’s voice and the pulsing, heartbeat-like rhythm section to appeal to futurity, life, and subsequently public awareness of child abuse in English boarding schools, “We Are the Pigs” sides children with the state apparatus, as sovereign princes of a future that is no future for the disenfranchised.

The anti-future queer’s localization of no-future is not only temporal but also spatial. Taking advantage of visual and musical forms, Dog Man Star explores anti-relational intimacy akin to Michel’s narcissistic, one-sided connection with young Algerian boys in Gide’s The Immoralist. “Stay Together”[5] is the band’s self-proclaimed first love song. Its uncharacteristically simple lyrics feature the narrator imploring their lover to revive their bond by jumping off a building together (“We could feel a little closer as we tumble through the sky”). The repetitive, pleading falsettos, “Stay, these days are ours,” are exemplary of the anti-future privileging of the present as doomed yet all-encompassing. Nearly as manic as the lyrics, the song’s music video keeps flashing images of cartoonish human figures thrown across an artificial blue sky framed by high-rises, and the camera finds curious pleasure in mimicking these free falls: the end to time and dissipation of subjectivity is visualized through the fast-compressing space, as if the self is expanding towards the earth in its deadly descent. However, such visions are never to be realized, and the narrator’s supplication for relationality-in-death has to be rejected, or else this romance of negativity would fledge into full-on horror. Therefore, the very queer failure to establish intelligible relations is what keeps the narrator (and the audience) in this loop of border-death enjoyment, losing themselves to a sweet unrequitedness.

In Dog Man Star’s centerpiece “The Asphalt World,” space ceases to be an appendage to time; rather, it becomes integral to an anti-relational relationality, and is experienced both narratively and musically.[6] As the album’s only explicitly queer-themed song, “The Asphalt World” walks a tightrope of expressing one-sided anti-relational desire without risking exploitative salaciousness. The story begins with the narrator’s encounter with their lover, a girl who “walks the asphalt world,” but the listener does not comprehend the inquisition “who does she love. . .is it me or her?” until 2 minutes into the song: “She’s got a friend/They share mascara, I pretend.” Parallel to the audience’s fragmentary access to the story, the Sapphic couple’s world is closed off to the narrator: their quotidian bedroom space is suspended from reality and frozen in the river of time (“Sometimes they fly from the covers/ to the winter of a river”), untroubled by future-concerning questions (“Where does she go?/What does she do?”). The lover’s physical inaccessibility prevents the prodding and crossing of subjective borders, and subsequently contributes to the relational-impossibility between her and the narrator. Deprived of substantial connection with others to stabilize the self, the narrator’s voice dissolves into a 3-minute instrumental that oscillates between quiet strumming and desperate wails. Like the narrative suspense, the musical interlude is experienced as temporal and spatial; in the absence of vocals, silence relaxes and eases in the melodies, whose rise and dip suggest condensation and expansion, descent, and ascent. As the music settles into a structured intensity, the narrative voice returns as an elusive self no longer subject to physical distance nor relationship exclusivity: “When you’re there in her arms/and there in her legs/I’ll be in her head.” The anti-relational queer hovers in a place that is no place, a time that is no time, and, in its absolute stagnancy, resists the touch of both normative connection and futurity.

My Celluloid Heroines

Our previous talk of “here and now” has a major incoherence: for us, the narrators’ time and place are always “there and then”; even anti-relationality itself is presented as a “possibility” that connotes an elsewhere and future. While anti-futurity and anti-relationality effectively resist gay assimilation into the normative, many of us depend on navigating normative codes for survival, literally and figuratively. Akin to Muñoz’s concept of “disidentification,” a strategy for those existing along the intersections of symbolic systems that are not “meant” for them, Dog Man Star articulates its own “there and then”—celluloid figures like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean—and produces narrative selves whose relationship with the queer listener implies utopic potentialities. Disidentification is the reweaving of hostile cultural codes to make connection possible; the result is often patchwork and nothing short of problematic, but it allows queer subjects to survive the no-future and dream beyond.

Marilyn Monroe is well-loved in queer communities and often hailed by drag queens in their own stage looks, a “campy fascination” that Muñoz likens to a sense of astonishment, which “helps one surpass the limitations of an alienating presentness and allows one to see a different time and place” (Cruising 5). Similarly, “Heroine” admires Monroe from the perspective of a teenager who desires her (“My Marilyn come to my slum for an hour/I’m aching to see my heroine”) in the exploration of queer (dis)identification. The tour film, projected onto the screen behind the band on stage, shows its protagonist changing from a man’s suit into a sleek white bodysuit, putting on heels, make-up, and a wig that sit somewhere between old Hollywood and drag, and, completing the look with a make-shift gauze curtain dress, stretches themselves in the sunlight. While the comical delivery could be construed as a mockery of drag queens and trans femmes, once the performing musicians are included in the picture, we would see instead a case of disidentificatory resistance.

Suede was amputated in 1994, halfway through Dog Man Star’s production, when their lead guitarist left the band, and the public held little faith in the band’s survival; they were also intensely criticized as “limp-wristed,”[7] “appropriating femininity.”[8] Therefore, when the re-grouped band went on tour for Dog Man Star in 1995, they rolled back the signature gender ambiguity and changed into dress shirts and suits. However, the invocation of a communal icon like Monroe opened up a “there and then” amidst the suffocating present, and the tour film’s clownish representation is repurposed, in a disidentificatory move, to signify a utopic elsewhere. As the tour film protagonist finds joy in their new look behind the band members, who are dressed in “proper” attire but still distinctly emasculated in demeanor, the audience is compelled to think of Monroe as a referent of both desire and identification: “I” conveniently disguise my identification with Monroe as heterosexual desire, so that “I” may preserve queerness as an inseparable part of myself in the onslaught of masculinizing discipline.

The uniqueness of popular music as a performance art—the fact that one sings or plays along and simultaneously occupies positions of performer and listener, creator and interpreter—encourages the audience to disidentify with Dog Man Star like the artists did with their own imperfect cultural sources. In the “shuffling back and forth between reception and production” (Muñoz Disidentifications 25), the album’s contemporary, geopolitically diverse fandom necessarily establishes utopic relationalities against the privileged anti-relational, anti-future impulse.

For queer audiences from the Global South, myself included, the opportunity to fabricate selfhood with an album like Dog Man Star is nothing if not precious. The fact that the artists are all allegedly white cis-men is rather insignificant, and I do not experience James Baldwin’s panic at disidentifying with the white actress Bette Davis (18) when I slip into the perspectives of Dog Man Star. When I hear “She will come from India with a gun at her side/Or she will come from Argentina with her cemetery eyes,” I am conscious of the lines’ orientalist slant, but it does not sour my resonance with the narrator’s hope for utopic revolutions (Of course Black women knew Joan Crawford was not Black, but it did not stop them from seeing her as one of them,  Disidentifications 29.) In fact, similar to how Monroe and James Dean aided Suede’s venture, Dog Man Star helped me relate to a queer history overflowing with communal possibilities. The digital-age fandom, like its punk, subcultural predecessors, exhibits transient, extrafamilial modes of affiliation (Queer Time and Place 154), and has built impressive archives of historical records and interpretative works. As the queer cultural makers look for indeterminacy and subversive instances in what many people assume to be a locked-down, completed cultural moment, they are in fact drawn by a utopian instinct that is driven by the promise of “something that is not quite there” (Cruising 9); they therefore elongate the past into the present, and, in relating to this dispersed temporal entity, queer their personal time beyond paradigmatic markers of a linear life.

People might take issue with the fact that Dog Man Star’s queer history is “not mine,” and pathologize subcultural relationalities as “identification with the aggressor.” Admittedly, disidentification will always echo the materially-prescribed cultural locus of the identification, but what history is “mine” anyway? Colonial imprints cannot and should not be cleansed. And what history is not “mine”? Every singular experience of mine invokes and reshapes plural pasts. It is precisely through this relational plurality that we are able to dream of queerness in spite of the totalizing present: “[queer utopias are] the hopes of a collective, an emergent group, or even the solitary oddball who is the one who dreams for many” (Muñoz, Cruising 3).

Works Cited

  • Anderson, Brett. Afternoons with the Blinds Drawn. Little, Brown UK, 2020.
  • Bersani, Leo. Homos. Harvard University Press, 1995.
  • Bersani, Leo. “Is the Rectum a Grave?” in Is the Rectum a Grave? and Other Essays. Essay originally published in AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism (Winter, 1987), pp. 197-222. The University of Chicago Press, 2010.
  • Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2004.
  • Halberstam, Jack. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. NY: New York University Press, 2005.
  • Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. NY: New York University Press, 2009.
  • Muñoz, José Esteban.. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of
    Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.
  • Suede. Dog Man Star. Nude Records. First released on 10th Oct. 1994.

[1] “No one wants to be called a homosexual (Homos 1).” I understand the controversies and limitations of said term, and am using it here specifically to refer to Bersani’s emphasis on the psychoanalytic significance of “sameness” in gay desire.

[2] The gay rights archive is far from innocent. Halberstam points out that masculinist fraternization with the Nazi state contributed to misogyny in contemporary gay communities.

[3] I am aware that this rendering of the Lacanian subject is reductive at best, but I do not wish to get too technical. Put plainly, symbols such as the Child, Nation, and Happiness give meaning to the subject, justify its existence and make it willing to work for a promised land that lies forever on the horizon. Anti-social theory is against this logic since it sutures false promises at the cost of queers and other disenfranchised groups.

[4] This is not an anti-abortion argument. Edelman argues that queerness, as an opposition to crude oppositions of positive vs negative, life vs. death, is unwelcomed by progressive agendas that function by the logic of futurity.

[5] Despite being a non-album single, “Stay Together” was largely seen as integral to Dog Man Star; an uncut version was featured on the remastered album in 2011.

[6] The song’s volume was controversial in production: the original was rumored to have spanned 25’ but was cut down to 9’25” for accessibility.

[7] Section 28, which forbade the “promotion of homosexuality,” was enacted in 1988 and not revoked until 2003. The only member of Suede that publicly came out is their drummer, who is also a gay rights activist. However, because Suede’s music resonates with many queers, the audience likes to identify the band as queer themselves—also a disidentificatory move where the recoding is privileged over the “original.”

[8] There is a contemporary tendency to distinguish “being gay” from the destabilization of gender. Although understandably a response to the longstanding feminization of gay men, Halberstam cautions us against this sanitizing impulse that hovers dangerously close to gender essentialism and misogyny.

Copyright © Vassar Critical Journal