“There is a clear thread running through British history from Oscar Wilde to today’s British male pop stars. The dandy has been with us a long time, and he has played a vital role in our perception of masculinity,” says Stan Hawkins, professor of musicology at the University of Oslo. Hawkins has recently published the book “The British pop dandy: masculinity, pop music and culture”, in which he examines a group of male British pop musicians who he believes share a rather special trait: they are dandies.
“What is a dandy”?
“He is an affected, artificial, playful person who believes he is something special. He thinks he has something important to say, and he tries to say it in an original way. A pop dandy expresses this through his music as well as through his visual image,” explains Hawkins.
The dandy’s persona is typically wry and challenges the conventions of gender, according to the music professor.
“Dandyism conflicts with traditional heteronormative masculinity, which is strong and dominant. The dandy’s affected style often seems feminized – he is a show-off, to put it simply.”
Powerful political weapon
Many people will associate the concept of the dandy with Oscar Wilde, the controversial Irish author (1854-1900). Wilde was known to be a well-dressed, witty, provocative and openly gay man. But homosexuality is not a criterion for dandyism, according to Hawkins – quite the opposite.
“Ninety percent of the cases I analyze in my book are heterosexual. By the same token, they play with and challenge conceptions of identity and sexuality. Take the dandy Mick Jagger, for example: On stage he flirted unabashedly with the male guitarists – in private he was married to supermodel Jerry Hall, who in her time was considered to be one of the world’s most beautiful women,” says Hawkins.
He interprets the dandy’s play with gender and sexuality through the work of queer theorist, Judith Butler, whose concept of gender performativity and her analyses of drag as a performance of gender.
“The dandy often plays out gender and sexuality in an exaggerated, almost farcical way. But this game is a powerful political weapon,” asserts Hawkins.
“In what way?”
“Remember that these men are stars – famous and admired. This gives them enormous influence. Robbie Williams, for example, is a kind of crude working class dandy. Women desire him and men imitate him. He pushes the boundaries,” says Hawkins.
In an otherwise rather homophobic sports world, the dandy David Beckham has played the same role, according to Hawkins.
“Beckham is so feminine that 20 years ago he would have been taken for a homosexual. In more recent years he has become a hero. This clearly has a connection to what has happened in the pop world,” says Hawkins.
A balancing act
“How do dandies manage to defy the norms in this way and still remain popular”?
“People are fascinated by things that are different. We like anti-heroes and are attracted by individualism. The desire to rebel lies in all of us, and the dandy lives this out for us.”
“At the same time, the dandies must stay within certain boundaries in order to sell albums. Pop music balances on a tightrope, between strange, challenging representations and the commercial,” Hawkins adds.
One condition for popularity, according to Hawkins, is that an audience must perceive the artist and his music as authentic – in other words, heartfelt, distinctive and sincere. He believes that dandyism challenges the divide between the authentic and the constructed.
“Whereas some artists – like Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young – try to stress their authenticity through simplicity and modesty, pop dandies come across as calculated and staged. But by exaggerating the theatrical, the dandies show that pop music is about staging and that image is always constructed, which is true for Springsteen and Young as well,” says Hawkins.
“David Bowie was one of the first to do this with his Ziggy Stardust character. The dazzling costumes and dynamic theatrical performances left no doubt that we were witness to a spectacle.”
But it is also possible to combine dandyism with a more traditional form of authenticity, according to Hawkins.
“Steven Morrissey, who is one of my favourite dandies, has managed this by giving of himself both on and off stage. The audience feels that they know him through both his music and biography. When he gets the chance, Morrissey always says something important or funny. He has a lot of Oscar Wilde in him,” says Hawkins.
Many would describe both Wilde and Morrissey as typically British. This goes for pop dandies in general, according to Hawkins, who points out that the world’s largest producer of pop stars, the USA, has hardly produced a single dandy.
“The only one I can think of is Prince. And Jimi Hendrix, but he developed his dandyism after he moved to Great Britain,” says Hawkins, who came to Norway from England about 15 years ago.
“Why is this so?”
“In general, European audiences seem to prefer more colourful artists than Americans do. Another aspect is that manly femininity has a much stronger history in Europe than in the USA. Dandyism arose in France as a form of protest, whereas the British variant developed with the arbiter of male fashion, Beau Brummel, and his moral confrontation with contemporary ideas and conventions. Since then there has been an ongoing exchange between Great Britain and France in this area,” says Hawkins.
He also believes that the rigid British class system is one reason that pop dandyism has become a particularly British phenomenon.
“Dandies have always stood in opposition to the class system. An obvious example of this is when Pulp’s dandy vocalist Jarvis Cocker pokes fun at the wealthy in ‘Common People’. Robbie Williams’ shameless vulgarity, which clearly has an aspect of working class masculinity, is what we British call ‘lad culture’, and this can also be understood as oppositional to the stark social differences within British society,” asserts Hawkins.
Translated by Connie Stultz