diving into the secret history of lesbian culture with king princess
With her literary references and endless visual cues, she's reinventing the intimacy of the exclusive queer space for a new generation.
Still from Pussy Is God
In her 1981 chapbook New York in 1979, cult writer Kathy Acker said: "Lesbians are women who prefer their own ways to male ways... Lesbians have made a small world deep within and separated from the world". Acker did not identify as a lesbian (at the time she used the word “perverse” to describe herself; perhaps the matching adjective in today’s terminology would be “queer”) but from her position at the periphery of lesbian culture, she observed the exquisite, exclusive subculture they had crafted for themselves.
The exclusive and the secret; these descriptors, more than any, have defined queer intimacy for the past century. Forced to hide their love by necessity, same-sex couples in the mid-century US learned a language of intimacy that was necessarily furtive and clandestine, mediated by codes and exclusive knowledge.
The handkerchief codes of the gay male community emerged in 1970s New York, when men would wear differently coloured bandanas in public to indicate their sexual preferences to other gay men – this surreptitious messaging operated below the heterosexual gaze. The secret language polari was used by British gay men in the first half of the twentieth century before homosexual acts were legalised in the 60s; it allowed them to access intimacy while eluding the waggling heterosexual ear.
Lesbian culture has equivalent esoteric language. It is less documented and more subtle than its gay brother. In 1965, the (deeply homophobic) journalist Jess Stearn wrote a book called The Grapevine: A Report on the Secret World of the Lesbian, which detailed how lesbians of the era participated in “a vast, sprawling grapevine with a secret code of its own”, and how they had an “almost radar-like communication” with each other. Though his analysis was meant to be inflammatory and demonising, it captured a truth about how queer people lived and loved. There is uncanny resonance between his sneering remarks and the fonder observations of Kathy Acker in New York; the secret lesbian world is real!
This secret lesbian world is what we dive into when we click on a King Princess music video. By using visuals of urban isolation and clever referents to mid-century lesbian culture, King Princess revisits the pre-gay liberation era in the US. She reinvents the intimacy of the exclusive queer space for a generation which lives more openly, but is still marked by a history of hiddenness.
KP calls upon lesbian literary references to pull the audience back to the era of the Lavender Scare, when crackdowns by Eisenhower’s government meant that being queer became a subterranean operation. She was inspired by Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt (which was later adapted to become the film Carol) when writing the song 1950. In this work, she clarifies her desire to enclose herself and her queer fans within a private sphere of communal memory.
“Lesbians in the 1950s, like gay men, had very little choice but to live their lives in complete secrecy,” says Robin Talley, author of the novel Pulp, which explores lesbian romance in 1955. “In major cities, communities formed. These communities were generally made up of closeted lesbians and bisexual women and centred around bars where the management was at least somewhat friendly to the community. The bars were at risk of frequent police raids and losing their operating licenses, because in most U.S. states it was illegal to serve alcohol to LGBT people. This era was also the height of the Lavender Scare, when the U.S. government was working very hard to identify and fire any gay, lesbian or bisexual employees they could find in the federal government – which happened to be the country’s largest employer.”
“I love it when we play 1950,” KP whispers on the track. On first listen, it seems like she’s inverting the 1950s ideal of the American nuclear family, dreaming of a house and kids in suburbia with the woman she loves. The proposition she’s actually making is more radical – ‘I love it when we play in our own secret world’. It might seem shocking that King Princess is wistful for an era where concealment was the only thing that saved queer women from horrific violence. But of course she's not wishing herself back to a time of oppression – she's simply taking artistic license to evoke a sense of intense privacy, of exclusivity, a world of secret codes where queer love happens behind the closed doors of bedrooms and lives in the longing glances exchanged in public. She is using history to transmit the sense of absolute trust, of total intimacy, when lesbianism happened behind the closed doors of speakeasies, when butch-femme culture held sway among the working class women who populated lesbian bar culture.
“1950 is obviously a reference to a period when bar culture was at its peak”, says Jane D’Altuin, a 21-year-old lesbian living in Dublin. “The song positions KP as someone who likes being pursued by other people. This would have traditionally been seen as the femme’s role, and these women would also have been subject to men’s unwanted attention more than butches – ‘I hate it when dudes try to chase me’. She also refers to her lover as ‘stone cold’, possibly a reference to stone butches. These women were known for having to put up an aggressive, defensive exterior when out in the world, even though they could be extremely sweet and intimate with their femmes – ‘ But I love it when you try to save me, cause I’m just a lady’”.
Dr. Lillian Faderman, an internationally renowned scholar of lesbian history, says that KP is propagating an updated version of these roles, while still coaching them in literary history. “What she’s doing really is very contemporary, she’s doing genderqueer. She has a painted moustache in one place, but in another place she’s very feminine and seductive. She doesn’t play the butch role throughout; ‘I love it when you try to save me’ would be a femme line”.
KP winks conspiratorially at her queer audience in a way that would fly over the heads of heterosexual listeners. “Honey on your knees… and you’re begging please”, she seduces in Holy. “We get it, you’re a top!” joked one Youtube commenter. With each lyric, she alternately positions herself in the dominant and submissive roles in queer sex, something the heterosexual audience is oblivious to – in this way, her lyrics and visuals function like a code of sorts. In Pussy is God, her slicked-back hair and suits evoke masculinity while she sings about going down on a woman: “I been praying for hours”.
“King Princess has at one point a ring of keys, which was probably inspired by Alison Bechdel’s musical Fun Home”, Faderman continues. “It’s based on a graphic novel about Alison’s childhood in the 1960s, about how when Alison is around 12 years old she sees this very butch woman who she admires, who’s very independent and daring, and is wearing a ring of keys”, Faderman explains.
KP uses endless visual cues in her videos to pull us back into the past, into an underground queer utopia. She smokes endlessly in her Upper West Side video, nodding not-so-subtly to Carol, and the camera constantly zooms in on dogs around the streets of NY – dogs, it is said, are a “lesbian’s best friend”. It is important to acknowledge here how KP blurs the lines of history – Carol, a staunchly middle class character, would never have been part of the largely working class butch-femme bar culture, Faderman emphasises. But however muddled KP’s references may become, the intense atmosphere she seeks to evoke is still felt powerfully by the audience. When she submerges herself in the water in Holy, we feel the weight of history pressing us into the soundless depths alongside her.
“She taps into a genealogy of lesbian performance,” says Michael Bronski, professor of gender and sexuality studies at Harvard University. “The clothing, the unshaven underarms, the smoking (very 1950s) are all part of that”.
“For me, the most ‘lesbian’ aspect of the videos was the sense of isolation for her character,” he explains. “This was clearly true of Pussy is God, but even more so with Upper West Side -- where the isolation happens in an urban neighbourhood. It really did remind me of scenes in those lesbian pulps by Ann Bannon and Vin Packer”. Ann Bannon, who wrote in the 50s, also had a book called I am a Woman, telling of a lesbian love affair in New York. The cityscape is the perfect environment with which to convey a sense of suffocating loneliness and desire, because, as Bronski concludes, “cities are, for gay people, both isolating and potentially a place of community”.
The esoteric politics and social contradictions of being a queer person on 'the scene' in any city are evoked in Upper West Side; "I can't stop judging everything you do, but I can't get enough of you". This excruciatingly specific vision resonates with any queer person who frequents the clubs and queer spaces in their city, who wrestle with the tiny incestuous worlds where you have simultaneous history, enmity and lust with almost everyone you see, exchanging ambiguous stares across a dancefloor full of familiar faces, when it's easier to count the people you haven't fucked than the people you have. She evokes the uniquely suffocating and lonely intimacy of these spaces that only queer people can know – the intensity of these spaces must have been even greater when they were the only places we could go; i.e. in 1950. KP uses history as a conduit and amplifier for the potent emotions she conveys.
Ysanne Baxter is a 22-year-old lesbian living in London. “Wlw were sidelined for centuries and shut out of feeling like their desires could be considered monumental and romantic in the kind of ‘classic movie’ sense," she says, "so to see someone take that context and reapply it in a way that makes you feel like you can have that is compelling. I finally feel like I get to swoon over a pop idol when I see videos like this: the suit and the slicked-back hair in Pussy Is God, the kind of James Dean Americana in Talia, the cartoon moustache in 1950. Essentially, KP is using that swagger and magnetism that can be part of masculinity, taken out of its original macho context and instead centred entirely on a woman singing about women”.
“This video featuring King Princess next to her more femme girlfriend in the 1950s is a clear call back to wlw culture; our histories have been suppressed and erased, and before the 50s most wlw didn’t have a community to engage with, so to bring them to the forefront like this feels important to me,” she concludes.
Queer love has always lived shrouded by necessity. King Princess lifts the weight of decades of history and plays with the signifiers of lesbian subculture in order to submerge a contemporary audience in the hidden world of intimacy that has defined how queer women love and how they relate to each other. She reframes historic queer love as intoxicatingly secret and special, rather than fearful. Now that queer people as a whole are able to live openly in many places, the monumental work of King Princess reminds us of who we are, of the world we came out of, and the joyous, precious sacredness of the private worlds we still command.