The expression ‘gender bender’ was practically invented in the 1980s due to a plethora of pansexual pop idols featured in this mixtape. Like its musical predecessors glam rock and disco, new wave music – most notably the Bowie-influenced New Romantics – took all the outrageous elements of fashion, unusual stage names, ambiguous sexual identities, make-up on both genders and over-the-top hairstyles. The early 1980s also gave the rise to music videos and MTV which were the perfect visual outlets for music artists to reach an audience 24 hours a day instead of the often brief appearance on the occasional weekly pop music program. This ability to break away from sanitized on-air TV appearances allowed many performers to further accentuate their gender bending persona. Chris Rooney picks his favorite boys who look like girls and girls who look like boys.
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David Bowie, “John, I’m Only Dancing” (1972)
T.Rex’s groovy flower child Marc Bolan was the first out of the gate with a fully-developed glam rock image, but it was David Bowie’s androgynous alter ego Ziggy Stardust that one-upped Bolan when he declared in a Melody Maker interview that he was bisexual. His highly suggestive “John, I’m Only Dancing” further enhanced his gender-bending mystique as the song has long been interpreted as a gay relationship. After dancing with a girl, the narrator reassures his male partner that he’s “only dancing” with her and is not romantically involved. Alternatively, it has been suggested that Bowie wrote the song in response to a derogatory comment made by John Lennon about Bowie’s cross-dressing. Bowie’s flamboyant Ziggy Stardust along with Roxy Music’s panache would be the blueprint for the New Romantic subculture in London that would emerge at the turn of the next decade at Covent Garden’s Blitz club nights.
The New York Dolls, “Jet Boy” (1973)
Meanwhile on the other side of the Atlantic, The New York Dolls made their way into the world kicking and screaming in platform heels while sporting ratty long hair, gaudy makeup, leather and tight pants. This ungodly birth gave rise to the 1970s British punk aesthetic adopted by The Sex Pistols, Siouxsie Sioux and The Damned and later the heavy metal glam image that would resurface in the 1980s with American bands like Twisted Sister, Mötley Crüe, Poison and Cinderella.
David Sylvian of Japan, “Life In Tokyo” (1979) / Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran, “Planet Earth” (1981)
What came first: the chicken or the egg? In this case, it was probably a fuzzy, well-coiffed blonde chick. In 1982 one-time glam band, Japan called it a day and New Romantic newbies, Duran Duran became certified superstars. But between the two bands, they shared something in common: Japan frontman David Sylvian’s and Duran Duran keyboardist Nick Rhodes’ “gay but straight” looks were almost inseparable. In their late teens, Sylvian and his brother Steve stole some eyeliner from Bowie’s dressing room, some new last names from the New York Dolls, and sounds from both to create Japan. Sylvian dialed back the outrageous, imposing “alien from Mars” image that Bowie created (while keeping the gorgeous visage) and repackaged it in a more suave, sophisticated suit and masculine vocals reminiscent of Roxy Music’s troubadour, Bryan Ferry. When the 1980s rolled around, Japan were often associated with the burgeoning New Romantic fashion movement, though they denied any such connection. After Japan’s breakup, Sylvian went solo in a minimalist direction. Meanwhile, Nick Rhodes’ keyboard work emulated Japan’s 16th note sequencers that electronic music producer Giorgio Moroder introduced in “Life In Tokyo” and today Rhodes remains the world’s longest running David Sylvian tribute act, years after Sylvian himself put away the make-up and hair dye.
Klaus Nomi, “Nomi Song” (1981)
German-born Klaus Sperber discovered his love for opera and pop music in his youth. After struggling in Europe to define himself as an opera singer with his stellar countertenor (a type of classical male singing voice whose vocal range is equivalent to that of a female contralto or mezzo-soprano), he moved to New York City in the early 1970s to be a part of the art scene based in the East Village. Using the pseudonym Klaus Nomi, an allusion to the American sci-fi magazine Omni, his performances blended his opera background with pop music in elaborate stage shows reminiscent of visions of early science fiction: Kabuki-style white face painting, black lips, extravagant clothes and hairstyles inspired by early 20th century avant-garde. David Bowie discovered Nomi in 1978 and helped him with a record contract along with inviting him to sing backing vocals on Bowie’s 1979 musical appearance on Saturday Night Live. Nomi was so impressed with the plastic bowtie-shaped tuxedo suit that Bowie wore during “The Man Who Sold the World” that he commissioned one to be made for himself. It completed the otherworldly manifestation that Nomi is best remembered by now. Nomi’s musical career was cut short when he died at the age of 39 in 1983 from complications due to AIDS. In more recent years, Morrissey has championed Nomi by often using one of his songs as an introduction prior to taking the stage at his concerts.
Annie Lennox of Eurythmics, “Who’s That Girl?” (1983)
After Lennox and Dave Stewart left their previous band, The Tourists, she reinvented herself in their breakthrough video, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” with a fiery red buzz cut hairstyle and an authoritative tailored suit like she was a modern-day Marlene Dietrich. (Sorry Madonna, Annie beat you to it.) Lennox played up the image even further in their video for “Who’s That Girl?” with dual roles as a 60s-era blonde nightclub singer performing the song and a Elvis Presley-like male member of the audience with his eye on her. At the end of the video, the female Lennox locks lips with the male Lennox. Blink and you might miss appearances in the video by all four members of Bananarama, Kate Garner of Haysi Fantayzee and fellow gender bender, Marilyn.
Philip Oakey of Human League, “Sound Of The Crowd” (1981)
With his lipstick, eyeliner and asymmetric hair hanging long and down one side of his face, Oakey’s androgynous appearance and chilly baritone helped to define the look and sound of British new wave in the early ‘80s. Lyrics like “The shades from a pencil peer / Pass around / A fold in an eyelid brushed with fear / The lines on a compact guide / Pass around / A hat with alignment worn inside” was the same musical inspiration that a desperate Oakey probably used to get ready before heading to the Crazy Daisy Nightclub in his hometown of Sheffield a year earlier. There, to his amazing luck, he plucked Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall out of obscurity to be his tour dancers and backing vocalists when he set out to create a more pop-driven Human League.
Boy George of Culture Club, “I’ll Tumble 4 Ya” (1982)
America fell hook, line and sinker for the former Blitz Kid because of his witty personality and infectious retro soul pop sound so much so that Culture Club racked up five Top Five hits in the US within two years. His multicultural-printed baggy tops, ribbon-filled braided hair and accentuated facial features spawned such merchandise as a Barbie-sized doll by the American toymaker LJN that proclaimed on the box, “Boy George: The Original Outrageous Boy of Rock!” and the publication Boy George Fashion and Make-Up Book that featured instructions on how to create your own flamboyant hats and hairstyles and expert tips on make-up.
Pete Burns of Dead Or Alive “Brand New Lover” (1986)
If Boy George was the cute and cuddly androgynous performer that America could embrace, Pete Burns was Boy’s evil twin who brought a fiery sexuality to his songs and look. Burns has never shied away from flaunting his individual style and since his initial halcyon days with Dead Or Alive, he has gone through numerous cosmetic surgery operations to transform his face. While others of this era have moved on from their androgynous 80s style, Burns has constantly pushed his gender bending look even further.
Grace Jones “Slave To The Rhythm” (1985)
Long before Lady Gaga broke out of the gender box and Caribbean pop divas Rihanna and Nicki Minaj were even born, Jamaica-born Grace Jones was glamorizing a fiercely androgynous look with masculine, angular fashions and an imposing flattop haircut that could stop you dead in your tracks. Her commanding, yet exotic-sounding vocal delivery didn’t hurt either. Jones later appeared as the sexy assassin in the James Bond film, A View To A Kill for which Duran Duran provided the theme song.
Marilyn, “Calling Your Name” (1983)
Liberating the name that schoolyard bullies once taunted him with, Peter Robinson rechristened himself ‘Marilyn’ while wearing vintage dresses and bleach blonde hair when he became a regular at The Blitz along with his frenemy Boy George. After a small appearance in Eurythmics’ music video, “Who’s That Girl?” and Boy George’s success with Culture Club, Marilyn launched a singing career with limited success. Marilyn’s 15 minutes of fame stretched a little further when he took part in the Band Aid charity single “Do They Know It’s Christmas” along with various other pop stars of the era. His notoriety soon waned after cutting his long blonde mane and ditching the makeup. At one time he was an item with the future Mr. Gwen Stefani, Gavin Rossdale before Rossdale’s days as the frontman of the band Bush.
Divine, “You Think You’re A Man” (1984)
Cult film director and close friend John Waters first bestowed the stage name “Divine” upon the drag persona of Glenn Milstead and introduced the actor and performer as “The most beautiful woman in the world, almost”. After several movies under Waters’ direction, Divine branched out as a singer by cutting several Hi-NRG disco singles in the 80s that were club hits in several countries. Just as mainstream recognition was around the corner, Divine died in 1988.
Jimmy Somerville of Bronski Beat, “Why” (1984)
With a skyscraping falsetto that could make Barry Gibbs sound like Barry White, Jimmy Somerville fronted the openly gay synthpop group that explored overtly political commentary on gay-related issues coupled with a hard-edged dance-pop sound. Thirty years ago, it was almost unheard of to be an out-of-the-closet pop singer, yet with his autobiographical ‘Smalltown Boy’ and this song, he and his bandmates gained mainstream acceptance. Somerville left Bronski Beat after one album and had continued success in the 1980s with his similar-sounding synthpop duo, The Communards and as a solo artist.
Laurie Anderson, “Language Is A Virus” (1986)
Experimental performance artist, composer and musician, Anderson never quite fit the definition of “new wave” but embraced its sound in many of her compositions and its ambiguous style with her spiky hair and skinny tie masculine suits. A recurring motif in Anderson’s work has been the use of a voice filter which deepens her voice into a masculine register, a technique which Anderson has referred to as “audio drag”. For much of Anderson’s career, her masculine character was nameless or called the Voice of Authority, although more recently, he was dubbed Fenway Bergamot at her late husband Lou Reed’s suggestion.