Divine was an icon. A drag queen, an actress, a muse, an iconoclast: she was a performer extraordinaire.
She was also a musician. A good musician? Not necessarily but most drag queens aren’t good musicians. Divine’s “music” was less her style but more a sonic vampirism, a copying of a famous song with her trademark lewd swagger croaked atop of it. It’s ridiculous, it’s stupid, it’s something you can’t stop listening to.
In many ways, she was queering the top forty by applying the female impersonation model to song creation. Not necessarily the mainest stream of songs got riffed on but most definitely songs that got the gays a’moving were her targets. She was good at that. For example!
Her song “Shoot Your Shot.” Arguably her biggest hit, the song is an audial squint of both the Giorgio Moroder and Patrick Cowley versions of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.” It even includes the spacey introduction! She saw what the gays were loving in 1977 and exploited this sound to an extreme degree in 1982. Add a little semen to “I Feel Love” and you get a Divine twist on a classic.
Then there’s “Shake It Up” which also sounds like “I Feel Love.” It’s like recreating a recreation of a creation. It’s looking at a mirror looking at another mirror. It’s a fascinating move for a musician. The lyrics are almost homonyms too! “Shake it up,” “shoot your shot.” Tomato, tomato. This isn’t a bad thing because both songs are fantastic but it’s so fucking absurd that these songs made it into the world, weren’t complete failures, and are still vaguely discussed.
Want more? Try “Love Reaction,” her direct rip of New Order’s “Blue Monday.” It was released in 1985 and was, apparently, designed by request to be this big of a rip. The funniest part of this is that the chorus, her screaming “Love reaction!,” is almost the same vibe as “Shoot Your Shot.” Again: that song was her biggest hit. This song also makes you realize that Divine was essentially a female impersonating queer Billy Idol.
Then there were songs that seemed to predict others, that were vaguely ripping off this ripoff artist. This is the funniest to me – and 1984’s “You Think You’re A Man” is clear proof. The song is very strikingly similar to that of 1986’s “Venus” by Bananrama (with some tones of 1984’s “Relax” by Frankie Goes To Hollywood). Coincidence? Yes, most likely, because most new wave songs are abstractions of each other. That’s part of the fun, really! Good, absurdist, cannibalistic fun.
Jumping off of that, 1982’s “Native Love.” It sounds familiar! But is it? I couldn’t pinpoint exactly but I could tell that it has been sampled now by Roisin Murphy via her 2007 “Cry Baby.” This is, perhaps, the most perfect incarnation of cat copying cat because Murphy is both a queer icon and an abstraction of a drag queen herself. It all comes full circle, doesn’t it? Oh the art of imitation. It never stops!
(And, by all means, if you can pinpoint these songs – or others of hers – to their ripoff counterparts, I’m all ears for this sonic drag, this Top 40 queering. This is what being gay is all about!)