madison moore is the author of Fabulous: The Rise of the Beautiful Eccentric (Yale, 2018). He obtained his PhD in American Studies from Yale University, and did postdoctoral research at King’s College London before becoming an Assistant Professor of Queer Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is also a DJ who has played sets in London, Amsterdam, Berlin and New York. His work has appeared in The Paris Review, Crack Magazine, Interview, Thought Catalog, Art in America, Theater, The Journal of Popular Music Studies, among many. He was a recent guest of The School Of Life in Melbourne and the Perth Writers Week.
We met at 2pm on the Monday he was scheduled to speak at The School Of Life. He wore a black sequined bolero, gold bangles and a studded ring that span two and a half fingers. I wore my pastel pink wig and Wild Barra leggings. After the interview, we discussed the prospect of him DJ-ing in Melbourne. In less than 24 hours, we found ourselves promoting a free-entry book reading and techno dance party event at Evie’s Disco Diner in Fitzroy, which took place on Wednesday. He flew to Perth on Thursday and will be back teaching in Virginia by the time you read this interview.
Angelita Sofia Biscotti: So you were a classically trained violinist. And then you became a DJ, a pop culture critic, and a queer studies academic. How did that happen?
I often get asked about my different practices. To me, they’re not different practices. It’s the same thing. When I’m writing a piece or DJ-ing or writing a book, it’s still about sharing knowledge. I have a point of view and maybe I’ll use a DJ set or maybe a book or the classroom to get across a point of view. That’s really what it is. I always have tried to just be myself. I know this sounds New Age and mystical, but just be yourself. But to be honest, I don’t have a secret. I don’t have a special trick that I use or a special potion or something. Literally I just did what occurs naturally. I don’t know how else to be. So I don’t know how not to see this (fingers sequined bolero) and not wear it, or like not be interested in something and not pursue it. I don’t have things all figured out. I just do what interests me.
ASB: The title of the book is Fabulous. I guess the opposite of fab is drab. Or boring. Is there something dangerous about being boring?
MM: (evil laugh) Diabolical laughter. I think boring, or boredom rather, is fundamentally about norms. The status quo. Stasis. I remember hitting the men’s section in the department stores: I didn’t understand why all the fun stuff was in the women’s section. Why was it over there? But of course. Culture and norms and family values tell you to have to be in the men’s section and I didn’t want to be in the men’s section.
We suppress ourselves to make other people comfortable. And fabulousness, as much as it is fun and exciting and voluminous and full, that it is also about choosing when you can do it. Sometimes you just can’t do it. Sometimes you just don’t want to do it. Sometimes you don’t have the energy. It’s an ebb and a flow.
If you are 100% comfortable how you are in your body, how you are in the world, and you don’t want to make any changes, good on you. For many people who are marginalised that is not necessarily the case. We live under whiteness, under white supremacy, and are told that our bodies are not desirable because we are not thin enough, not white enough, our hair is not blonde enough, because we don’t have enough hair, we don’t speak a certain way, we don’t have the right accent.
ASB: In the book, there’s a section—and I don’t know if it was you or someone you were interviewing—and they said, ‘you or they felt more themselves wearing makeup and wigs and a full look’. And I remember a therapist judging me for wearing wigs everyday, as though I was being ashamed of my ‘natural self’. And that’s not the reason why I wear wigs. I wear wigs because my skin is extremely sensitive to colouring material and it’s also very expensive to lighten my hair enough to naturally colour it the way I would like. Would you say there is something problematic about the idea of ‘the natural?’
MM: Of course, there is. Biology and what’s considered natural are always socially, historically and medically constructed. And largely by colonialism. In that interview, the person who said that at the time was an untenured university professor. She told me her real self is when she’s in makeup and heels. That is her real self. But it’s norms and systems and departments and individuals that make us feel like we have to turn off those aspects of ourselves because they don’t like it or because it makes them uncomfortable. And that’s what I was saying about the danger of boredom. It forces us to think we have to blend in. If you want to blend in and that’s your tea, run and go with it and live your best life. Do what you gotta do. But if that’s not for you, you should not be penalised because you want to wear wigs everyday, or wear makeup, or get dressed up a certain way.
ASB: Onto things that are most definitely not boring: say, clubbing. You’ve written about how clubs in Europe get community grants. And you’ve also written about the legendary club Berghain in Berlin and how it feels like a church. So, I want to ask what makes the club such a special place? And what makes a club good?
MM: The US doesn’t have a club culture in the same way that you’d find in Europe. I’m not sure that there would be a night club that would be taxed at the same rate as the New York Philharmonic. That blows my mind. It’s the idea that it happens less the sort of result or the why.
Club culture in Amsterdam, or in Berlin or, to some extent, London—it’s seen as a cultural engine, it drives culture. It’s a force, an idea. I’m thinking about how a couple of weeks ago, there was a review in the New York Times about a venue in London called The Yard. In a New York Times-way, the club has been there for five years but they’re only writing about it now. They’re so late. Which probably means the club is reaching its peak.
But the point is the article was saying ‘wow, this is a night club, this is a theatre space, all in one’. And I’m like, “Where have you been?” but also that’s the model. I would love to see more of that kind of space; a club that has club nights, but is also a theatre space, but also has concerts and maybe is also a gym. Maybe also a coffee shop. So, you go there during the day to hang out, do some work. Maybe you also go there at night to club. But the point is that the club or the venue is a space that has multiple purposes so different people can find their way in.
What makes a club memorable, what makes a club worth talking about, is the owners have invested in creating a particular experience, a world, that people are desperate to be a part of. Because night life is often about escape, finding community, through music and through people.
ASB: You DJ for a queer techno collective called Opulence. Tell me about that.
MM: I run Opulence with good friends I met in London. We wanted to create a space that was femme-centred, a space that did not revolve around cis white men. A space that’s femme-positive, but also has techno music and experimental music. And it’s really fun to work with everyone on the team because we’re all so different but all so passionate. It’s our child, our queer techno child.
One of my good friends, my sister, Shaun J. Wright, is an amazing DJ. A black queer person from Chicago. He played a show in Pittsburgh and oh my God, he slayed my tits off. These are the kinds of artists we engage with, not the cis white men who’s getting probably paid several thousands of dollars to play at a festival. It’s someone like Shaun J. Wright who’s the heart and soul of the culture. Cis white DJs will always get gigs anyway. So, they don’t particularly need every space. They will get booked regardless. That’s what we care about at opulence. Highlighting everybody else.
ASB: Going back to the idea of fabulousness: the progressive scene can feel so basic, or so grim sometimes. Is fabulousness a fantasy, a distraction, from political goals? Or is it an emancipatory endeavor that reminds us to keep pushing the horizons of our dreaming?
MM: I think it’s both. Fabulousness is absolutely a narcissistic, fun, pleasure-ful space. And by the way, what’s wrong with narcissism if you are in a body that is constantly told that you shouldn’t exist? That you don’t get to exist? That you don’t ever see yourself in movies, or on the cover of magazines? That you are constantly told you are not beautiful, you don’t have the right body shape or complexion? So what’s wrong with a little bit of self-love?
In saying that, fabulousness is revolution. It is about arming yourself through style as a way to make it through the world. What I love about style is it’s taking up space, but it’s also creating possibility for someone else. There may be someone on the tram or in the bus or walking on the street who sees you and go ‘wow, how can I push myself’? The kind of conversation that allows us to speak to each other without words.
So, yes, it is about narcissism and self-love, and it is also about revolution. Staging a revolution through style, through wigs, through sequins.
ASB: I was just thinking about your chapter on vogueing and ideas surrounding cultural appropriation and gentrification. Do you think these can be defeated or slowed down? I am thinking about style and performance as for the lack of better words, cultural and intellectual property. Or heritage. Can style ever be owned? Or can it ever only be sold, as in someone looking at you and saying “I’m buying this” or “I’m not buying this”?
MM: Style always starts on the bottom then goes to the tip-top of consumerism, then makes its way back down to the fast fashion space. Ten years later, it’s at Louis Vuitton then it hits H&M. And when we talk about cultural appropriation, we talk about the question of money: who’s getting paid. You have working-class folks from the hood, who have certain style practices, who have ways of being in their bodies or ways of dancing that are utterly demeaned or seen as inappropriate or not respectable. And then when somebody white does it, it becomes cool.
ASB: Like Iggy Azalea.
MM: I wasn’t gonna say it. You said it.
ASB: She’s Australian, I’m Australian, so I guess I can.
MM: It isn’t only about the practice of taking something that came from working-class communities and doing it. It’s about the fact that they’re getting paid. Millions. In the same way that people who started it—and do it better by the way—are overlooked and told that they are a problem.
One of the things I’m particularly wary of is cornrows or braided hair. One thing I noticed when I was in Berlin was all these white women in cornrows and braided hair and I just don’t understand. I remember how my mother braided my sister’s hair because she was a single mom. She didn’t have time to braid my sister’s hair every day for school so she would braid her hair for a month to save time. This is what I think about when I think about black hair. So when I see white women with braids, it’s not to say that they can’t have braids or whatever, but I’m wondering why: What is it doing? What is the point? What is this for, for you? And I think you have to have a meaningful answer, to be honest.
ASB: They can’t just feel entitled to it and not be able to account for why they do it, because it is an act of family and love and community and sharing and generosity. And to them, it is just an aesthetic.
MM: And they do it because they’ve seen it in Vogue, they’ve seen it in a music video, they’ve seen one of their favourite models do it.
ASB: Tell me: what are you loving right now? Like books, TV, night life, music.
MM: We already keekee-ed about Sex Education which I love. One of my other favourite podcasts is ‘The Read’. It’s two queer black people talking about pop culture and it’s sassy and it gives me everything I need.
What else? There’s a singer I’m obsessed called Moses Sumney. He’s a black singer, and baby he will take you to church (collective squeal) His voice, I’ve never heard anything like it. It’s bluesy, he’s got this impeccable falsetto and you are like what is going on. There’s a track called “Make Out In My Car.”
ASB: If I’m bawling tonight it’s gonna be because I listened that.
MM: And that’s the whole point. I got friends who call me and say, “Baby you made me listen to Moses Sumney, and I am crying. Please send reinforcements!”
Angelita Sofia Biscotti is a model, photo-artist and writer who used to publish work under the name 'Angela Serrano' and tweet as @angelita_serra. She was a 2017 Hot Desk Fellow at the Wheeler Centre. She has been published in Archer, The Lifted Brow, Overland, Peril, Cordite Poetry Review and elsewhere. Her erotic poetry chapbook Else But A Madness Most Discreet is available through Vagabond Press. Her modelling work has appeared in Pencilled In, Hot Chicks with Big Brains, We Are Something Else, and Demasque. Her photography has been exhibited at Midsumma Festival's Queer Economies St Heliers St Gallery and the BlackCat Gallery's Square-Circle show. She is an alumna of the Footscray Community Arts Centre's West Writers Group.
Twitter: @angelitabiscuit / Instagram: @angelita.biscotti