Respect for Pete Burns

Pete Burns, lead singer for 80s synthpop/dance band Dead or Alive recently passed away. Burns was originally noted as part of the '80s wave of androgynous New Wave (mostly) UK musicians: Boy George, Annie Lennox,  Jeremy Healy of Haysi Fantaysee, Marilyn, and others. After his music stardom faded in the US/UK, he continued to have major success in Japan, and experienced a comeback in the UK as a television personality and reality TV participant.

Underappreciated by cultural critics at the time, Burns stands now as an impressive queer trailblazer and icon. He was not "out" in the way that Jimmy Somerville or Marc Almond were understood; his reality was more complex. His vocal style blended a 'feminine' gospel house diva style with his 'masculine' baritone register. Pete was very butch -- and a screaming queen. It didn't fit into the categories of the time. His queerness splurts out all over the video for "Save You all my Kisses" to see the gay stereotypes of flamboyance, camp and hypersexuality, with an audiences of rough trade pretty boys and the looming titillation of sexual violence. Not to mention Burns rubbing what looks like a razor strap underneath his crotch.

Yet the earlier video for "(That's the way) I Like It" is more explicitly transgressive. The band takes a macho, heteronormative disco song from KC and the Sunshine Band and musically transforms it into a quirkry, jerky New Wave number that echoes their earlier goth days. The video begins with closeups of muscular bodies flexing, which are later revealed to be female bodybuilders. Pete ogles them in front of a sign reading "No Boys Allowed." The flipped scripts are then complicated by the final shot of the band surrounded by what appear to be the dead bodies of the bodybuilders. This could be read as a containment of the gender nonconformity of the women or, considering Pete's gender ambivalence, a sober acknowledgment of the violence facing gender nonconformists. Such a dark take would be in line with the band's original goth spirit. Ultimately, what is the way Burns 'likes it"? Considering the women and himself, he likes it quite genderfucked, to a degree beyond the cool androgyny of the 1980s pop music scene.
Did I mention that, at the time and for many years, Burns was married to a woman? They amicably divorced, and he later married a man.

Burns greatest notoriety came after pop music success, with a series of well publicized plastic surgeries. These became infamous as examples of 'plastic surgery gone wrong,' and he had reparative surgeries as well. Burns' augmentations and refinements were resolutely, ostensibly, 'feminine.' Yet, he never claimed a transgender identity. He built up his lips and cheeks, but not breasts. He asserted unequivocally that he was a man  - but a man who looked different that societal expectations. This is revealed best in his appearance on the BBC's Celebrity Wife Swap reality TV show. Burns and his husband roll their eyes when people debate whether he's a man or woman. Burns reveals himself to be far from the stereotypical 'wife.' He's inept at housekeeping and childrearing, and more comfortable bantering in a T-shirt with his swapped 'husband," a former UK footballer. Their time together in many ways comes across as more of a bro-bonding lad house (until Burns demands equal support in household duties).
Burns was an ultimate queer in his refusal to define who or what he was. He refused the minority burden of explanation to mainstream culture. As a celebrity whose livelihood was dependent on popular opinion, this is all the more significant. That being said, I really hate the Nude album.

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