For as long as there has been theatre, audiences have been obsessed and mesmerised by a very simple subversion: the presence of a man dressed in women’s clothes. But, as ancient as this form of drag is, (drag being the name given to the form of entertainment where people dress up and perform, often in highly stylised and subversive ways), it is still just as important a part of cultural life today as it was all those centuries ago. And there is no finer example of the enduring power of drag than The Cramps.
The roots of drag can be traced back to ancient Greece. In ancient Athens, for example, women were banned from participating in almost all areas of civic life, and the theatre was no exception. As a result, female characters such as Medea were played by men and boys, a practice that continued well into Shakespeare’s day, when the British playwright began exploring the way in which our clothes shape people’s perception of our gender in plays like Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Fast forward around 400 years or so, and Lux Interior, the cross-dressing, latex-clad frontman of The Cramps, is doing precisely the same thing. The group – which came to embody a uniquely gender-bending form of punk – used fashion, sex, and music to subvert the machismo of traditional rock.
In a TV interview in 1990, Lux Interior and The Cramps’ guitarist Poison Ivy – to whom Lux was also married – were asked about their decadent and androgynous fashion sense. “Lux, buddy, what have you got here?” the interviewer – all teeth and hair – asks hesitantly. “Uhh these are some not-so-high heels and this [pulls at his hot-pink bodysuit] is cere nylon. It’s French,” Lux answered.
The sincerity with which he speaks about his clothes reveals an understanding of their power, a power that he used to full effect throughout his music career. With The Cramps, Lux took the bouffant excess of Iggy Pop and cut it with skin-tight slips, sex-shop PVC suits, and spray-on leather trousers, gyrating on to the stage with all the watch-me eroticism of a 1960s go-go dancer. For some, Lux was the most mesmerising and bewildering rockstar they’d ever seen. For others, he represented freedom of expression, a celebration of the diverse and miscellaneous identities available to us.
However, it wasn’t just Lux Interior who helped The Cramps redefine on-stage gender dynamics. While Lux lurched about the stage, Poison Ivy stood stock still, staring out at the audience through her mess of red hair. Thrashing at her low-slung hollow-body guitar, she conveyed almost the exact opposite energy of Lux, her vibrato-laden fretwork absorbing her entirely. Where Lux is almost sadomasochistic in his servitude to the crowd, Poison Ivy is free from domination, detached from everything around her. It is this performative dynamic – in which it is the man who is objectified – that allowed The Cramps to undermine so many decades of rock gendering.
Another vital aspect of drag that The Cramps embraced was excess or camp. Specific forms of drag embrace excess as a way of drawing our attention to the fluidity of gender identity. The Cramps’ brand of anarchic rockabilly was equally fluid, blending aspects of Elvis-era rock, punk, psychedelia, surf, and goth. Combine that fiery mix with camp horror aesthetics and intentionally on-the-nose sexual innuendo, and you’ve got something that’s bound to attract outsiders — and that’s exactly what happened. The Cramps carved out a velvet-lined niche somewhere between punk and theatre, which became a home for people who weren’t drawn to the minimal nihilism of CBGBs or the spitting and gouging so favoured by UK punks. The Cramps seemed to say: “Come in, this place is for everyone”.
The concept of the alternative identity is also an essential aspect of modern drag. The National Center For Transgender Equality website puts it best: “As part of their performance, many drag queens and kings have a separate drag persona in addition to the self they live as every day.” Alter-ego has always been an essential fixture of rock and roll, especially in glam rock. David Bowie, for example, basically built his entire career on it. But punk attempted to do away with all that “posturing”, regarding it as excessive over-indulgence. For Lux Interior, however, it was an essential part of the performance, one that allows artists to imagine worlds not yet in existence but which – through representation and collective effort – could be. It is perhaps for this reason that Lux Interior became an LGBTQ+ icon despite being in a heterosexual marriage. He imagined a world in which the boundaries between gender are entirely permeable, in which identity is unfixed.