‘I bang my own drum, some think it’s noise, I think it’s pretty…’
Not in the case of the samba bands, I’m sorry to say. The samba bands were definitely the low point of an otherwise flawlessly fun evening. To be fair, Madrid’s Gay Pride was suffering from the usual organisational chaos that that city seems able to conjure out of even the simplest of operations. The samba bands were only ever meant to be fleeting side events – the wall of sound that was supposed to space out the big truck and bus-mounted soundsystems of the cavalcade. As it turns out, the trucks and buses are stuck in a tunnel two kilometres up the road and the rest of the parade is improvising frantically in the hopes of stringing out the entertainment. There is a complication: in about ten minutes the Spanish football team are about to kick off against Paraguay, hoping to secure their place in the World Cup semi-finals. A great deal of the people here are clad in the national colours, or are waving Spanish flags. A great deal of the people here are wearing or waving rainbow flags. Some, in an unfortunately garish clash of colours, are swathed in both. It’s thirty-seven degrees in the shade and some of the multi-flagged bodies are visibly melting under all that polyester. Pity then the unfortunate walking groups – the Christian Gay Society and LGBT La Rioja; the Biological Motherhood Rights for Lesbians and the Transgender is Not a Disease, whose moment out in the Spanish sun is fast being overlooked in favour of a bunch of men running around chasing a ball. A phalanx of Roman gladiators in small pants brightens things up for a little while, stopping to pose for photos with giggling girls; a pair of achingly beautiful boys in spike heels and studded collars turn some heads, but really, it’s mostly awkward-looking people carrying banners interspersed with the ubiquitous cacophony of drums being beaten at almost-random by people who don’t spend a lot of time practising. This is my first Gay Pride and I’m desperately trying to look like I’m enjoying it. After all, if I drop the rictus smile and stop nodding my head to the somewhat difficult-to-discern beat, people will think I’m a yucky old homophobic Clarkson-type, all bums-to-the-wall and don’t-bend-over-if-you-drop-your-wallet jokes. I’m bored. A poignant scene: cardboard cutouts of hanged figures representing the fate of gay men and women in various countries of the world. It should have made me think ‘for fuck’s sake, what kind of animals put people to death for nothing more than their damned choice of bedmate?’, but instead I catch myself thinking: ‘Could they not have made a bit more effort with the effigies? Those are corrugated cardboard figures with hand-written slogans. Shoddy.’
I give it another half-hour, then plod off to a bar to watch the second-half of the Spain game. At this point, I’m not even sure if I’m going to bother hanging around to watch Kylie Minogue, despite it being the primary reason for coming here in the first place. I mentioned on Twitter that I was thinking of going to see Kylie and was met with nonplussed questioning. ‘Why do you want to see Kylie?’. Well, for one thing, it’s free. The answer to that was ‘Free shite is still shite’. True. So why go see Kylie? Well, I do think Kylie’s an interesting phenomenon. Somewhere along the way, she made a transition from happy-go-lucky, SAW/Neighbours lightweight, to her current status as Queen of Pop/Dance Diva. It’s interesting that she has gathered together some sort of musical credibility from beginnings that were utterly devoid of any such gravity. Even her most recent incarnation is nothing that could be called serious or innovative pop. Yet somehow she seems to have an aura of dignity around her, of professionalism, of quality. Whether you believe any of these things of her, it’s hard to deny that there are many, many people who do. Was it the cancer, perhaps? The fact that she didn’t use her illness or it’s treatment as a pathos-ridden generator of publicity? Or the fact that, despite her high-visibility public profile being almost ubiquitous, it’s not the furious scrabble for every scrap of column-inches that typifies Christina Aguilera’s or Lady GaGa’s aprroach to self-promotion. Funnily, and this is a matter of opinion rather than a solid fact, Lady GaGa seems to have a much better grasp of musical technique and pop-songwriting, but it’s glaringly obvious that Kylie will still be selling records long after GaGa has run out of shock tactics and nipple tape. I still can’t quite figure out what game Minogue played to put herself into this position of pop royalty – her voice is thin, reedy and devoid of character; her songs are very forgettable. That said, she’s managed to carve a role for herself that must consume her flesh-baring, dry-humping, ‘risque’ contemporaries with the greenest of envy. Apart from all of this, the simple fact is that she sells millions of records. BlancoMusic doesn’t. Not that we’re going to go all poppy anytime soon, but the truth is, there’s got to be something we can learn from her.
David Villa manages to hastily bounce the ball over the Paraguayan goal-line in an arms-legs-heads-and-shoulders penalty-area scramble that launches the bar I’m in into a roaring, flag-waving hive of red and yellow football experts who are now busily hailing the scrappy goal as a piece of football excellence worthy of Pele. Minutes later Spain’s goalkeeper manages to make an absolute mess of a save – the ball slipping through his hands, bouncing off his knees and out into the penalty area at perfect volley height. Luckily there are no Paraguayans there to hammer it into the net, and so the save is hailed as an all-time great by the, ahem, slightly partisan crowd. Still, when the final whistle blows, the city is transformed. Madrid will always catch me out. No matter how long I live here, I will never grasp the fact that everything starts later than I expect it to. Midnight is genuinely considered a reasonable time to sit down for dinner; your local bakery doesn’t even open before eleven in the morning; people don’t even use the phrase ‘good afternoon’ until after four p.m. When I step out of the bar it is dark, the temperature is in the high twenties and Madrid is bouncing. On the parade route the soundsystems have finally arrived, thronged with muscle-Marys in boots and briefs and booming out hardhouse at ear-busting levels. Cock? Cochlea, more like. Impossible not to dance, because everyone else is dancing, everyone else is laughing, and more than anything, everyone is laughing at themselves. It’s all the cliches – old ladies somehow accidentally caught up in the parade dancing with six-foot trannies; young lads in football tops figuring out that if they go dance with the group of body-glittered men, that the very beautiful and flimsily-clad girls who are also in the group might give them the time of day. There are gimps in full rubber bodysuits who must be losing a pint of sweat with every pace; two guys dressed GaGa-style in crime-scene tape; a septugenarian man in stiletto heels and rouge. And booze. Industrial quatities of booze. Beer, kalimotxo (a wine/coke mixture – rocket fuel on the night, a hangover like Dante’s inner circle), Caipirinha, Cuba Libre, Mojitos in huge plastic cups. Forget eveything you’ve ever heard about European café culture and dignified restraint. Does Spain have an alcohol problem? Well, insofar as they can’t actually fit their whole head into their cocktail bucket, yes.
I mentioned to a neighbour the night before that I was headed into Madrid for the Pride festival. Quickly-applied liberal head-nodding, chin-stroking. Of course, yes, it’s a big fiesta, one of the biggest. Quite safe, by all accounts. The woman I was talking to said that her own son had asked if he could go. She wasn’t sure, someone might take advantage. Actually, that’s my phrase, she really said ‘tomarse por el culo’, which is a bit more graphic. She’s in her late forties and, surprisingly, a minor figure from Madrid’s ‘movida’ movement – that artistic and liberal flourish of avant-garde lifestyle that bloomed briefly after the death of Franco. It’s an attitude that exists all over – probably more damaging than open homophobia. Certainly the small Irish town that I grew up in was awash with it. Theoretically, gays (or immigrants, or Protestants, or whatever), are fine. As an idea, fine. Individually, fine too. Somewhere between the abstract concept and the concrete experience though, there is a realm where the Other is not welcome. The dominant attitude in our culture is that the jocular clannishness and togetherness of the establishment (in this case, heterosexuals) depends on the unspoken belief that, despite the obligation to show politically-correct attitudes in public, amongst friends we can drop the pretense and say what we really think (the politically-incorrect stuff). That much is pretty obvious, everyone’s seen the extent to which Jeremy Clarkson has built his career on this very trope. The problem is the nudge-wink presumption that having politically correct attitudes marks you out as a sheep-like victim of the hand-wringing liberal mind-police. Very locker-room, emotionally constipated, grey thinking. It would be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous. But apart from the huge strides it helps gain for the likes of the BNP and the neo-cons and the intolerant, it also has a horribly restrictive, mentally-enslaving effect on the people who apply it. I remember seeing a famous Diet Coke advertisement when it first came out – the one where the women run to the window to ogle and groan lustfully at the builder working opposite their office. When I saw it I remember thinking how sad it was that women were now under the same conformist pressure to react with an overexaggerated pack instinct to the opposite sex as men have been for decades. The women reading this will be outraged at what I’m going to say now, but this is the truth. For every group of builders yelling obscenities at women passing by, most of those men are thinking ‘if I’m the only one not going ‘phwoarr’, they’ll think I’m a puff’. Some of the men are thinking ‘she’s not even that pretty, why do I have to show my ‘appreciation’ of a girl I’m not even attracted by?’; others are thinking ‘now if a good-looking bloke came along I might be tempted, but then I’d not be able to come to work any more’. The thing is that, in all these cases, people are complicated and random, and pretty nearly any stimulus will provoke a different reaction in every different case. What is sad and restrictive and pathetic is that we temper our reaction to reflect some preconceived idea of what will be acceptable to the group we find ourselves amongst. Why? Because we’re weak, and scared, and desperate for acceptance. That’s why people will react with a ‘don’t bend-over-if-you-drop-your-wallet’ joke when you say you’re going to a Pride march, even if in their own thoughts they know that what they’ve just done is imply that ‘homosexual’ and ‘rapist’ are interchangeable concepts. Am I guilty of doing the same? Yes. Ashamed to say it, but yes.
What is so intoxicating about Madrid Gay Pride is not the risque thrill-at-a-distance of being amongst leather-clad transvestites or snogging lesbians or even any sense of self-congratulatory ‘hey, I’m cool with it’ savvy liberalism. What is genuinely intoxicating is watching and feeling the whole edifice of thought referred to in the preceding paragraph falling away. Genuine freedom to be what you are, really, in that whole ‘life ain’t worth a damn, if you can’t shout out, I am what I am’ sort of way. Oh, I know that even the healthiest gay scene in the world is riven with factions, and that it is as crippled with it’s own orthodox thinking and restrictions as the straight world will ever be, but (and it’s a huge but) not tonight, not here in Madrid tonight. Tonight, we are all free of that shit.
Yes, it’s my first Pride. Yes, I’m being a bit of a big girlie about the emotion of it all, but that’s the bloody point. It is, in all but name, carnival. Everything’s upside-down and inside-out and it’s the healthiest thing possible for a society of people who have to coexist without driving each other stone mad to have a night where they get to just be free. The beats coming from the Privilege soundsystem are filthy and huge, so much so that I’ve stopped worrying about how sodding drab and dull I look next to all these glittery, glam, false-eyelashed people and just let myself dance alongside it as it makes its way down the Gran Via. It’s funny, because despite all the liberal thought in the world, when I came here first some of the men made me feel uncomfortable. It fucked with my head, having a eye-linered man blow kisses at me. Especially as the guy knew it was fucking with my head, was doing it because it was fucking with my head. As a teenager I got the crap beaten out of me on regular occasions for being ‘queer’. I’m actually straight, but had a bit too naive a love for Soft Cell and Bronski Beat and their sartorial style to realise that it would be construed as a reason for a good kicking. I always felt though, that I’d be better able to cope with a night such as this. A night where, unlike any propositions from men I’ve had in the past – which were discreet and tentative – the orthodoxy was, for one night only, gay. Flamboyant, proud, assertive. Comfort zone? I do remember having one when I arrived, it was flittered to hell by eleven. I suppose I could have gone running home, a bit disappointed, having to admit that maybe I’m not naturally as PC as I’d hoped. Luckily, I stayed, and bit by bit the mental chains began to break; bit by bit I stopped flinching whenever a man brushed against me or grabbed my hand to dance. Sod it, it’s too much fun to waste on introspection. Somewhere along this street, I really believe this, there is a group of lads come down to have a laugh at the freaks. Maybe one of them stumbles, and is caught by one of the more flamboyant freaks in question, or, I don’t know, drops his wallet and has it handed back, or shares a water bottle, or something of that ilk. The atmosphere is so light of heart that you start believing these little fairytales – that someone goes home with the idea that, actually, the freaks are ok, really. Maybe those lads were never guilty of thinking the negative stuff in the first place – perhaps I’m the one bringing the oldskool Irish Catholic negativity with me, unwitting. I don’t know what current attitudes are, I won’t claim to. I was a teacher in central Ireland for a while in 2006, where I spent a lot of time being taunted with the same old names I used to get called when I was a schoolkid myself. I can confirm that homophobia is still alive and kicking over there. Right here, the only people looking uncomfortable are a group of middle-aged men in linen trousers and shirts, immaculately barbered and shod. They are the Gay Society of somewhere in Texas (can’t read the banner very well), and they look terrified. I’m sure they’ll loosen up eventually.
So, Kylie. Well, she was slick and professional. Note-perfect, no discernable use of Auto-Tune, but it was hard to tell over the noise of the crowd. Watery songs, but with catchy-enough hooks that the whole crowd (somewhere in the region of 50,000, if I’m guessing) could sing along. She worked the crowd well, although they were so easy an audience they were verging on reverent. Her costumes and dance routines might have brought a certain glamour to a different crowd, but to be honset, there was much more flamboyance, drama and spectacle happening in the audience than there was on stage. When there’s a bloke in a pink gasmask and thong in the audience, dancing on top of the traffic lights, it makes your chaise-longue and chandelier stage set a little drab in comparison. She only played a few songs, about forty minutes in all. All the Lovers got an encore, the crowd rapt. Something in the clinical precision of the show, encore included, left it seeming sterile. Although her between-songs banter referenced Madrid, there was no sense that the place was anthing more than another stop, another city. The dance routines were step-perfect, but may as well have been recorded for Top of the Pops. It’s hard for any act to make the audience feel special, as if they’re the only one that really matters. It’s difficult, yes, but it’s part of the job, dammit! I was strangely reminded of newsreel footage of some wartime starlet sent to entertain the troops. She had that air of puzzled detachment that comes across in those clips. ‘Oh, you boys, you’ve come all this way for little old me?’ Frankly, it could have been Thora Hird up there on stage, it was never going to be anything but adulation.
Oh what the hell, she played well and kept a fun night fun. I can’t help wondering what a decent synth-band with impact would have been like instead though. Something with a bit of grit, a bit of danger in their sound. Something that actually enhanced the atmosphere rather than just keeping it at its previous level. Or maybe silly pop was just right for the ocassion. No need to be jaded or elitist, just wave your hands in the air and be free for a night. Because it can be nice to throw all that stuff off for a little while. The human spirit isn’t designed to be grey and dull and hammered into straight lines. We’re very good at doing that to ourselves, whether it be in our attitude to silly pop music or to men in pink boas.