“The very fact of their existence as a band making this explicitly celebratory (and sometimes celebratorily explicit) art about their sexuality and their relationship highlights just how rare it is to see this kind of representation”
by Jade Curson
As we come out of a summer of Pride events, the return of public gatherings has inevitably invited the return of that most loathed of traditions: discourse. For several horrible weeks, the internet was awash with spicy opinions on who is welcome at these events, and how they ought to behave while there – and the answer may surprise you! Most hot takes during Pride month can typically be split into one of three categories: bisexual erasure (“if you’re bi and in a ‘hetero-presenting relationship’, don’t bring your partner to Pride! We don’t want to see it! It’s not for you!”); the cops-at-Pride debate (because some people apparently still think it’s fine that the police are engaged in structural oppression of queer people for 11 months out of the year as long as two cis white gay police officers get engaged during every parade); and of course, this year’s predominant Pride #discourse: a puritanical prescriptivism on what constitutes an ‘acceptable’ presence within wider society.
What once was the most flagrant beacon of homophobia and one of the very reasons Pride was so important within the community has now evolved with the times, repackaged in Tumblr buzzwords to catch the attention and support of both middle-aged, middle-class allies who just want to take their small children to a lovely picnic, and baby gays who don’t know their history well enough to realise that by policing whose appearance is appropriate or acceptable, they are ultimately siding with their would-be oppressors. There is a direct line from the anti-trans protests that took place during Pride parades a few years ago to this latest attempt to enforce a ‘respectable’ presence among the community now. Dialling back an initially violent ideology but instead working up to it in baby steps that seem more palatable or reasonable to a wider demographic is a classic tactic in fascism and other extremist groups. It’s not hard to see the natural progression from a generalised idea of a dress code to a refusal to acknowledge the gender presentation of any given individual. ‘First, they came for the trans women…’, etc.
The opinion mill seemed especially inexhaustible this year, with chud after chud waxing lyrical about whether it was really appropriate for people to attend Pride festivities while Acting Overtly Gay – specifically, condemning those from kink communities choosing to be their best and freest selves, in the very time and place that is designated for exactly that. Please, the cry went out, won’t somebody think of the children? Isn’t Pride supposed to be a safe space where everyone feels welcome? (No.) Can’t it just be a big community project with child-friendly activities and maybe a nice raffle? (No.) Would it be that bad to perhaps, maybe, enforce some sort of dress code to ensure that those nasty pervert gays don’t show up in their leather harnesses and scare my child? (Yes.) Discourse is a circle, and if you give people an inch when it comes to queer liberation, they’ll snatch their enlightened allyship back into a territory where we are all, eventually, deemed depraved, lawless, child molesters (again). By trying to sanitise our small, hard-won spaces for self-expression, they are co-opting these spaces to ultimately push us out under the guise of ‘safety’ – though what they really mean is ‘respectability’ – and their definition of both is narrow and non-negotiable. We are deemed hostile when we refuse to capitulate to this watering down of our existence. Because heaven forbid you have to feel like any space is not your god-given birthright for even one day of your life.
As countless queer activists have said before: assimilation is not liberation. And inextricably tied up with this latest wave of anti-queer puritanism is the beautification and diminution of queerness in broader society. This is reflected most clearly in advertising: two conventionally attractive women hug chastely after being accepted for a mortgage; a man finally finds the courage to rest his head on his boyfriend’s shoulder, now that he is miraculously cured of his unsightly dandruff issues. Queer visibility is increasing, but in the mainstream, this only really manifests in ways that conform to capitalism’s notion of becoming homeowners, good workers, parents, with new cars and the latest devices and, fuck it, maybe an ISA or two for good measure. And of course, we must want all of this while also striving to be thin and conventionally beautiful. There’s nothing wrong with wanting any of these things – but when this is the only positive representation we are permitted, it reinforces the heteronormative ideal that any other way of living is deviant and worthy of suspicion or hostility. Representation is important, and yes, sometimes it is easier to push for acceptance (I say through gritted teeth) with baby steps. But also, there have been gays in Eastenders for 30 years now, so perhaps we should stop being satisfied with crumbs and demand more. Yes, I’m saying it! It’s time for a pansexual thruple to move into Albert Square! I will not be silenced!
It’s not a coincidence that these thoughts (not the Eastenders ones, the other stuff) were front and centre of my brain during the release of MAN ON MAN’s self-titled debut, an unapologetic and unfiltered tribute to love in the time of coronavirus. As the first lockdown hit, partners Roddy Bottum and Joey Holman decamped to a house in California to ride it out and became musical collaborators as well. The result is a record that charts that experience while expertly straddling the line between indie-pop and spacious, dreamy shoegaze. It is a natural combination of the pair’s creative approaches: Bottum has cemented his credentials in a number of bands – perhaps most notably as part of Faith No More, and then with two decades in trailblazing queer indie-pop group Imperial Teen – while Holman’s 2020 record The Beginning Feels Like The End is a clear predecessor to the more expansive, atmospheric element present in MAN ON MAN. The blending of their respective sounds on this record is in itself a perfect sonic representation of their relationship – but the couple were clearly not content to rely on subtext.
Listen, *slaps roof of record* this bad boy can fit so much gay shit in it.
Bottum and Holman have refused to play by the unspoken (?) gay rule of shrouding their meaning in allusion or metaphor (“I took a ride to your house // I pulled your shorts down // I knelt before my swelling king // I took in everything” from ‘Daddy’ springs immediately to mind) and have instead created a space for their love and desire to take centre stage. And in doing so, they have reclaimed the concept of masculinity from a very rigid and almost exclusively heterosexual definition that has been reinforced so often and for so long. Making this a focus in their art is a radical act in itself, but Bottum and Holman know exactly what they’re doing and what it means in a wider social context. For example, the video for ‘Daddy’ was taken down by YouTube for several months for supposedly violating their sex and nudity policy (it literally didn’t). It has since been returned to the platform, but in an interview with Rolling Stone about the incident, they called out the double standards at play in the intersection between queer representation and capitalism: “…the industry is still playing by straight men’s rules. It’s devaluing when we see Google monopolize on our Pride but do so little to actually enhance and protect the LGBTQIA+ digital experience.”
It’s surely not a coincidence that their follow-up video for ‘1983’ really doubled down on the content that YouTube considered to be so contentious, leaving absolutely no room for interpretation in the way they express their desire for each other. As well as allowing them to thumb their noses at YouTube’s poorly-justified censorship, it’s also the most thematically perfect accompaniment to a song driven overwhelmingly by horny energy. While the track begins in a fairly subdued way, it builds over a full minute to the arrival of vocals, with a pointed fade-out that effortlessly guides the listener’s attention to the opening lines: Bottum, almost nonchalantly, singing “I was frowning down the promenade, when I got to thinking about sucking you off.”
The very fact of their existence as a band making this explicitly celebratory (and sometimes celebratorily explicit) art about their sexuality and their relationship highlights just how rare it is to see this kind of representation. LGBT+ visibility has come a long way in the last couple of decades, but that increased visibility has inevitably come with more policing of which queer people are seen, and who benefits from that visibility. What little queer representation we have in the media is so often about style over substance, and while we are able to defy certain norms of gender and heterosexuality, there is still an implicit expectation that we will conform to mainstream society’s beauty standards. It’s a challenge to the notion that masculinity and romantic affection are mutually exclusive – an idea that seems hopelessly outdated in big 2021, and yet is often, particularly in gay men, still treated as something illicit or obscene, in a way that is not condemned in those who are straight or who fit the socially acceptable criteria of desirability. Or, as Bottum told Rolling Stone: “It feels good to represent a faction of our culture that isn’t squeaky and manicured…I’m happy to be those faces on the queer map.”
Young queer representation in media is, sometimes, permitted to be vibrant and sexy, whereas representations of older LGBT+ people (thin on the ground though they certainly are) trend towards the romantic but sexless. These are the only stories that seem to get told, with the exception, of course, of deaths, hate crimes and miscellaneous tragedy, for which we are all equally fair game. By contrast, MAN ON MAN allow themselves (and us by extension) to revel in queer joy for its own sake rather than as an eventual payoff for overcoming the burden of our own existence. We deserve to exist and experience joy just because, not as some token reward for continual struggle.
Or, to put it another way, the pair have found another path than the ones usually offered up to us: both gay as in happy, and queer as in ‘fuck you’.