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80's music video: the gender bender experience


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The early 80's saw the rise of a new, but short lived phenomenon - the appearance of cross-dressing pop stars. While the men were trying the look like women, the reverse also applied - although it wasn't as wide spread.

Boy George was probably the first 80's performer to popularise the gender bender style which saw a momentary peak in 1983. Marilyn soon followed, but in an effort to become a more serious performer, he dropped the frock and quickly fell into the fickle 80's fashion abyss. Around the time of Boy George's rise, Annie Lennox also appeared in Sweet Dreams - sporting a short orange haircut and male suit. While this fad seem to disappear by late 84, a momentarily resurgence of the gender benders appeared in 1985 with Dead or Alive.

So what triggered this apparent rise and fall? The most likely explanation comes from the high rotation of gimmicks and fads in the early 80s. Gender bender fashion was not an 80s invention and many performers of the 70s also experimented with this type of image - particularly the glam rockers. However, the transient nature of the early 80's fashion allowed the momentary creation of new styles. Another contributing factor is likely to be the increasing impact of music video clips on the public - for the first time pop stars were reaching a TV audience 24 hours a day instead of through occasional and often brief appearances on hour-long pop shows that appeared once on TV once a week. This ability to break away from sanitised TV allowed many performers to adopt gender bender outfits. Annie Lennox shocked many people with her stark manly look in Sweet Dreams.
It can be suggested that many of the 50s and 60s singers enhanced their public image and gained a wider audience through movies (Elvis Presley, The Monkees and the Beatles are good examples). As an aside, is it really a coincidence that movie musicals died around the time that music video started to appear? Grease was released in 78 - and was probably the last successful musical.

As this gallery shows, it wasn't always the men popping on a frock - Marilyn, Boy George, Fred Mercury and Divine were joined by Annie Lennox and all girl band the Belle Stars doing their best to become gender benders.

The first of the commercial cross-dresses and definitive 80's icon. As lead singer for Culture Club, he is probably the first person that comes to people's mind when talking about the 80's gender benders.

Always seen as a silly imitation of Boy George, the rest of the 80's saw him shrug his frock and disappear into the fickle 80's fashion abyss. In 84 he attempted to make a serious return without the frock and make-up, but the album was a stinker.
When most of the androgynous performers had returned to the typical clothes of their gender, along came Dead or Alive, as pictured here in the 85 music video - You Spin Me Round. Even the re-release of the song in 96 with a new video showed that the frock was only traded in for a new one.

Queen's 'I want to break free' had the entire band dressed up in shirts, frocks and a school uniform. At the time, many hard rockers were distraught that this clip came from the same band that produced anthems such as Bohemian Rhapsody and We Will Rock You.

Divine was more of a drag-queen turned pop star, rather than a pop star who turned drag-queen. His clips showed that he had way too much fun dressing up in skirts and tarty dresses. His favourite trick was to pick a garment that accentuated his oversized beer gut.

While Annie Lennox quickly dropped the male look in subsequent videos, her gender bender appearance in the ground breaking Sweet Dreams music video certainly drew a lot of attention to the song.

While not one of the most famous bands of the 80's, the Belle Stars did adopt the androgynous look. This video captures is from "Sign of the times" which is less well known than Iko Iko (a song that featured in 88's Rain Man).
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