Long before the white contestants of RuPaul’s Drag Race blundered a cultural vocabulary with abominable sentences like “Betty Crocker Making Pancakes On Sunday Morning Realness,” there was Divine, John Waters’ leading lady and eventual disco queen. Divine was punk as fuck, a minority within a minority. He wasn’t putting on a Barbie-shaped coquettish show; he was 300 pounds of sass shoved into a dress usually suited for someone half her size, and he managed to pull that shit off with aplomb. Out of drag and offstage, Divine was a calm, kind person with a pleasant disposition and a quick, but not particularly malevolent, wit (as anyone who can see him responding to the asinine questions on The Tom Snyder Show can attest).
You see, for all the focus on the crazy outfits and outlandish guerilla shooting, not to mention the (literal) shit-eating, the thing that people tend to forget about Divine is the fact that he was a really, really talented actor with an innate sense of comic timing and the ability to make you legitimately forget that the character you are watching him play is not, in fact, a biological woman. Because of this, Divine saves a lot of Waters’ early works from the bumbling of his friends-turned-actors who aren’t as lucky to click with the camera—or manage any semblance of memorizing dialogue and reciting it in a convincing, non-blocky manner. Which, to be fair, is probably difficult to do when you’re freezing and on LSD. This innate star power Divine seemingly effortlessly possesses is the exact reason it’s no surprise he does just as good a job delivering some of Bobby O’s most darling and daring disco/NRG anthems. Well, a little surprising—but that’s more to do with Bobby O.
To talk about Divine’s musical career, we really do have to touch on the guy responsible for writing and producing the songs. So here’s the story. You might not know his name, or his originals, but Bobby Orlando, better known as Bobby O, is probably lurking in your record collection right now. He wrote some of the biggest songs for The Flirts, including “Passion” and “So Many Men (So Little Time)” after he’d already penned dozens of hits for other artists (and a couple for himself). Basically, he treated The Flirts much in the way Prince treated Vanity 6, only stopping short of handling their vocal duties. Other tracks that those who find themselves dancing in rooms filled with the scent of sweat and poppers might recognize from his repertoire are “Heatstroke” and “Male Stripper” By Man 2 Man. Oh, and he was rampantly homophobic. Like, refused to buy an apartment upon realizing that the previous owner was gay rampantly homophobic. It just so happened that his bread and butter ended up being the creation of music for a largely gay audience, and while his aggressive heterosexuality ended some of his work relationships, it didn’t stop him from making a long-lasting impact on gay dance music (or soundtracking countless erotic, man-on-man slow-grinding sessions that probably ended in some wonderfully lubed-up sex that would have surely freaked Bobby O right out).
Bobby O is also known for falling madly in love with Giorgio Morodor’s use of arpeggiator; so much so, in fact, that people who love and loathe him alike are quick to point out just how difficult it is to tell his songs apart for the first 20 seconds or so (or figure out if they are, in fact, Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”). So don’t feel bad for not being able to tell the difference between “Native Love (Step By Step)” and “Shoot Your Shot” until Divine starts singing. Oh, and his singing is punk as fuck, too. Because rather than do a high-production, diva drag Donna Summer imitation, Divine just kind of growls and yells his way through the songs. Which really sells lyrics like “this native love is restless and it’s just not satisfied!” This means that, despite how great Divine looks performing them, these are singles that still work rather effectively at elevating a dance floor at four in the morning…and confusing people as to whether or not they’re listening to something that came out recently, or 30 years ago.
No matter the decade, they pair especially well with poppers and smoke machines.
Whitney Weiss lives in Buenos Aires, where she DJs, throws a party called Father Figures, and is one-half of a band that bridges the gap between Snap! and Quad City DJs. If you want to hear what she's up to, you should visit soundcloud.com/djwhitneyweiss.