camp history, from Little Richard to Lil Nas X
Although camp is hard to define, it probably doesn’t need much description.
Since 1956—when former teenage drag queen Little Richard began paying homage to anal sex, “Tutti Frutti,” while sporting a six-inch pompadour, tweezed eyebrows, and eyeliner—camp has increasingly more integrated into social acceptance and understanding. It has been adopted and adapted by celebrities such as Dolly Parton, Prince, Elton John, Ru Paul, Lady Gaga and Lil Nas X. It was the theme of the 2019 Met Gala, prompting many comments about what camp is all about. .
Susan Sontag, whose work inspired the theme for the Met Gala Ball, wrote in Notes on Camp (1964) that camp is about “artificial and unnatural”, a “way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon “. The camp, Sontag continues, is “the spirit of extravagance”, as well as “a kind of love, a love for human nature”, which “savors rather than judges”.
Sontag also writes, however, that the camp sensibility is “disengaged, depoliticized”, and that it privileges the “decorative…at the expense of the content”. But camp is intimately tied to homosexuality, and is anything but disengaged and merely decorative. On the contrary, by subverting social norms and rejecting easy categorization, it has a long and radical history.
The political beginnings of the camp
For many working-class gay men in urban centers like New York at the turn of the 20th century, camp was a tactic of communicating and affirming non-normative sexualities and genders. This was adopted at Coney Island men’s pageants, Harlem and Midtown drag balls, and in the streets and saloons of downtown Manhattan.
As historian George Chauncey established in his book Gay New York, the so-called “fairy resorts” (nightclubs whose attraction was the presence of effeminate men), which sprang up in downtown -city, have established the mainstream public image of queer male sexuality. This was defined by cultivated or realized effeminacy, including makeup, falsetto, and the use of “camp names” and feminine pronouns.
These men challenged gender categories, and did so by behaving “camply”. In this way, camp evolved as a visible queer signifier. It has helped some queer people, then and since, to “make sense of, respond to and undermine”, in Chauncey’s words, “the social categories of gender and sexuality that serve to marginalize them”.
Decades later, in late June 1969, not far from the old “fairy resorts” of New York City, a group of gay and trans teenagers used the camp to dramatically alter the outcome of the Stonewall uprising. A series of protests against the closure of a popular gay bar, these protests are often credited with starting the gay rights movement.
Facing an elite armed police unit, the youngsters put together their campest street repertoire, joining arms, kicking the air like a precision dance troupe. They sang “We are the Stonewall Girls / We wear our hair in curls”, and called the police “Lily Law” and “the girls in blue”. Once again, the camp performs a mighty subversion, this time of presumed machismo and police authority.
Camp offers a critical position that stems from the experience of being labeled deviant, emphasizing the artificiality of social conventions. For writer Christopher Isherwood, whose 1939 novel Goodbye to Berlin became the darkly camped musical Cabaret (1966), camp was underpinned by “seriousness.” To deploy it was to express “what is fundamentally serious for you in terms of pleasure and artifice and elegance”.
Two of the campest artists of the 20th century, Andy Warhol and Joe Brainard, took Isherwood’s position on camp seriously and based much of their careers on the belief that “love” was a valuable aesthetic. Both are famous for their excess of camp imagery, producing work that featured multiple iterations of camp imagery.
For Warhol, it was Marilyn Monroes and Jackie Kennedys. For Brainard, thoughts and Madonnas. Even, in Brainard’s case, a transgressive and dramatic account of how much he loved Warhol, with the words “I love Andy Warhol” repeated 14 times. Warhol also embraced camp as a personal style, executing a theatrical effeminacy that amounted to strategic queerness designed to unnerve those of his contemporaries who considered him “too chic”.
Warhol’s use of camp finds an echo, in the 21st century, in the work of Lil Nas X, a musical artist who similarly deploys Sontag’s iteration of camp as “a mode of seduction – one who employs flamboyant manners liable to a double interpretation”.
His hit “Old Town Road” (2019) is a queer country/hip-hop crossover, whose music video is full of glitter, tassels, leg warmers and choreographed dances. Much of this was overlooked by some fans who only seemed to notice Lil Nas X’s commitment to camp when the video for “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” (2021) was released.
Montero features the biblical Adam kissing with the serpent in the Garden of Eden, before happily descending a stripper pole into Hell where he performs a lapdance for Satan (all characters are played by Lil Nas X). Like Warhol, Lil Nas X uses a camp style to put visuals on repressive narratives and double standards.
In particular, it vindicates camp transgression for black queerness, once again taking a critical stance on the contradictions and condemnations that serve to marginalize those who do not or cannot conform. Her work confirms, in other words, that camp is much more than a quirky outfit. That it’s a strategy, as much as a style.