Sunday, March 23, 2014

"Real Men": A Real "Queer" '80s Pop Song

Joe Jackson released a third single from Night and Day, but it didn't do as well as the other two. Maybe it wasn't catchy? Maybe it wasn't elegant? Maybe it wasn't glistening with sophisticated charm? No, it was definitely all of those things. Maybe it flopped because it was a song about GAY PEOPLE.

And not just surreptitiously. Joe actually says "faggot" in the lyrics. No, "Real Men" flopped as a single because no radio station in the '80s probably wanted to touch, with a ten foot pole, a song that tackled homosexuality with quite so much zeal.

It wasn't the most danceable single either, with Joe trading in the latin congas and maracas for a dignified string quartet. Out with the Tito Puente, in with the "Eleanor Rigby"? Also, by pairing up the strings with an extremely prominent drum machine, he might have been trying to invent the new genre of "synth-chamber pop," but apart from The Cure's "Lullaby," I don't think it caught on. Nor does the song seem to fit in with the album's whole "New York" concept, until you realize that the City That Never Sleeps is also a city full of Men Who Sleep With Other Men.

But if "Real Men" is about homosexuality, it's not exactly an anthem for homosexual rights. And if it's not quite pro-gay, it's not quite anti-gay either. So what the hell is it then? Upon closer inspection, "Real Men" may be the ultimate slice of straight male panic:
Take your mind back
I don't know when
Sometime when it always seemed
To be just us and them
Girls that wore pink
And boys that wore blue
Boys that always grew up better men
Than me and you

What's a man now?
What's a man mean?
Is he rough or is he rugged?
Is he cultural and clean?
Now it's all changed
It's got to change more
'Cause we think it's getting better
But nobody's really sure

And so it goes, go round again
But now and then we wonder who the real men are
As if Joe didn't already feel awkward enough dealing with heterosexual relationships, now he has to deal with homosexual relationships too? Can't an Angry Young Man catch a break? Things were already confusing enough as they were! Which is not to say that he harbors some misguided nostalgia for "the good old days" when girls wore pink and boys wore blue and everything was perfect, since he admits that "it's got to change more." Still, as he projects those "Woh-hoh"s over that "Be My Baby" drumbeat, there must be that reactionary little part of him that has his doubts:
See the nice boys
Dancing in pairs
Golden earring, golden tan
Blow-wave in the hair
Sure they're all straight
Straight as a line
All the gays are macho
Can't you see their leather shine

You don't want to sound dumb
Don't want to offend
So don't call me a faggot
Not unless you are a friend
Then if you're tall
And handsome and strong
You can wear the uniform
And I could play along
Like fellow Yuppie Rocker Mark Knopfler (see "Les Boys"), I think Joe's trying to show that although he's "cool" with gay people, the whole thing still makes him a little bit squeamish:
Time to get scared
Time to change plan
Don't know how to treat a lady
Don't know how to be a man
Time to admit
What you call defeat
'Cause there's women running past you now
And you just drag your feet
Poor, poor Joe Jackson. The rise of the gay subculture has messed up his whole sense of identity! God, it's hard being a straight white male sometimes. To be honest, there are probably any number of ways to read these lyrics, although I'm not sure if such open-endedness was Joe's intention. And if "Real Man" was already a bit ideologically confused as it was, in the last verse, Joe goes for broke and tries to make some big grand statement about the human race:
Man makes a gun
Man goes to war
Man can kill and man can drink
And man can take a whore
Kill all the blacks
Kill all the reds
And if there's war between the sexes
Then there'll be no people left
Wait, what? So, at first, he just names all the stereotypical qualities that, for centuries, have been associated with "Man," all of which are somewhat destructive and negative. But then he throws in these lines about blacks and reds and a war between the sexes and I don't know where he's hoping to go with this crap. Well, maybe Joe didn't know exactly what he was trying to say, but hey, you've got to give him points for being a mainstream '80s artist who was at least trying to say something - even if it just seemed like he was throwing a bunch of controversial ideas into a big socio-political pot.

Then there's the video, in which the seemingly All-American, small town football jock decides to drive off a cliff rather than watch his homecoming queen girlfriend hang out with gay biker dudes? I think? Your guess is as good as mine. I'll bet MTV loved this one.


Anonymous said...

Quick question for the author - Were you around in the 80's to remember this song?

Little Earl said...

Slow answer from the author - I was a toddler when this song came out. I remember hearing "Steppin' Out" and "You Can't Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want" on the radio, but I don't remember hearing "Real Men" at all.

Anonymous said...

Funny thing, Joe was an out and proud Bisexual when he wrote the song.

It is a challenge to stereotypical gender/sexuality roles.

Anonymous said...

it was a huge top ten hit here down under in Australia....did well in NZ too.

El Pensativo S. A. said...

Well, the first time I heard this song it was confusing... but for me, it had some little sense in the end. First of all, we should start with Joe Jackson itself, with the fact that he is bisexual. Then, remember that the song refers also to the "exclusiveness" of the gay scene and community of the late 80's in New York, and, as it says in this blog entry, the confusion and ambivalence began with him trying to remember something about the past: the order, first experiences and doubts about, well, I think all makes sense: his bisexuality. And maybe the line about "kill all the blacks kill all the reds" may be about a memory of the "reds" as the communists and the "blacks" back when he was growing up.

Jonah Falcon said...

The song is simply "Who am I supposed to be?" and the answer is "Don't label me!"

Nic said...

Hope these give you some answers but have a feeling you've grown since you wrote the post. ❤

Jonah Falcon said...

Also, consider the next song, in which "my friend and me" "dance not fight", but are in a club where they're "brutalized by bass and terrorized by treble", and just want them to "play us a slow song".

Anonymous said...

To quote another song from this wonderful album: "Everything, gave me cancer"