During my brief trip to Texas, I went to the video premiere for Christeene’s ”African Mayonnaise” at Cheer Up Charlie’s. I was pretty excited to see the final product, as I knew it was a tense shoot. I also heard it was Christeene’s best video to date. I can vouch for it. Given Christeene’s impressive videography, that’s saying something. It is an exhilarating video. It has dense, beautiful imagery that requires multiple viewings to unpack all the stuff that’s going on. It demands you watch it more than once. It’s a statement video, one that I might place alongside Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”. But it’s a lot more fun to watch than most statement videos, particularly since they tend to be overlong yet short on ideas, Artistically Significant yet ultimately shallow, and include dialogue. Get to the hook already!
The song is about celebrity–the mutual dependence between star and fan, the malleability of image, the tricky business of turning a person into a constellation of symbols, the star’s contentious relationship with the camera, the acrid deliciousness of scandal. The video mirrors that concept in its attempts to create iconographic imagery and reveal that those images are made possible through surveillance. In addition to what PJ Raval and his crew shot and edited, the video also includes footage–mostly taken from smart phones–from fans and onlookers.
One of the major themes of the video–perhaps Christeene’s entire M.O.–is invasion. The video shows Christeene and her back-up dancers shimmying in front of the Austin Motel and sashaying through a food court, a supermarket, a barber shop, a hair salon, a gym, a patio bar, the UT South Mall, Starbucks, a Scientology center. Christeene also poses in front of the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe and is displayed on a television monitor placed in a chicken coop apparently belonging to the artist. I don’t see malevolence behind these moments of invasion, though some of the men do look uncomfortable about receiving dances from Christeene and her minions. I even think there’s potential moments for community formation. Certainly the dance party at the end of the video celebrates Austin’s queer scene. But I see such gestures of good will and inclusion in Christeene high-fiving a woman at the gym and waving to a young girl at the grocery store. I think the collaborative nature of the video’s shoot reflects this spirit as well. In taking a piece of Christeene, many people are part of the process of constructing her.
But the charged moments–what made the film infamous in friend circles before its premiere–were the scuffles with authority. Police officers escorted Christeene and the crew off the premises during the shoot at various locations. In particular, staff members at the Church of Scientology of Texas locked their doors and confiscated equipment. Folks also harassed the star and crew with hate speech. At least one person cried godless and I like that this moment is reframed as a joke about the stupidity and destructiveness of queerphobia. I think such moments of brutality and intolerance, and the willingness to share them and package them as part of a music video, are what’s so powerful about this clip. Celebrity may have power over us, but it’s useless without people using that platform to challenge larger social and institutional problems. It’s thrilling to watch a queer artist, dressed in unconvincing drag, confront such phobia in public. Christeene does it through humor and an invitation of inclusion, but the stakes are fucking high in the war against individual freedom. Cops might rough you up. People might yell at you because you tucked in your dick and flaunted your ass in public. Cult practitioners may take your stuff and make threats. It happens off-camera.
Christeene also reclaims space as a star. Stars often accommodate the context they’re in, particularly at red carpet events and photo shoots. Teams of people make them into whatever they need to be for a film premiere, magazine interview, or concert. Even stars photographed without makeup is a construction no different from a band breaking out an acoustic guitar to do an “unplugged” performance. Stripping down is as much an act as wearing a safe Armani gown. I don’t know if many would label Christeene a star. She’s not starring in an action movie based on a board game, though I’d love her to play Queen Frosteene in Candyland: The Reckoning. She’s not performing for a televised award show, though she’d show up in an outfit at least as eye-catching as Björk’s swan dress. She doesn’t have a hit album, though I think that might come. Have you heard her music? The production’s really good and the singles are ready for the clubs.
But Christeene is a star to me, perhaps in the way that Courtney Love and Sinéad O’Connor insisted upon their own fame and found an audience with their outsize talent and personality. Christeene wasn’t groomed for celebrity. Quite frankly, I don’t think she has interest in grooming of any kind. Yet she has become a star for some on the basis of her formidable imagination and her total ownership of this invented persona. It continues to blow my mind that Christeene and Rebecca Havemeyer share Paul Soileau’s body. Frankly, I’m intimidated by the kind of creative person who can breathe these beings into existence even if I’m thrilled that such a person can take pop iconography and make something truly punk out of it. That’s probably why I write about it instead.
But actually, the challenge to write about Christeene is also exciting for me. Lokeilani Kaimana might attest that it’s hard to do. A friend of mine at school recently did a job talk about sketch comedy and used Funny or Die as a case study. I wondered how a figure like Christeene, who used the site as a distribution platform, might disrupt how we conceptualize FoD’s viewership and comedy more broadly. I attempted to explain Christeene to the speaker and the audience, grasping at words like “bad drag,” “gold tooth,” and “rectum.”
She’s especially difficult to talk about in terms of race. I believe this is deliberate on the part of the artist, but no less dicey in execution. “African Mayonnaise” refers to the mixture of cum and fecal matter on a spent penis after anal sex. The use of the term “African” to connote darkness and shit is … yikes. Many might say it’s outright racist, and I’m not sure I have an argument against such an appraisal. In a lot of ways, Christeene’s dangerous play with race as a white drag performer reminds me of Nitsuh Abebe’s excellent piece on CocoRosie and artistic risk. There are certainly perils and limits to playing with race, not the least of which is alienating an audience.
I don’t want to applaud these artists and call them brave or misunderstood simply for making people angry or uncomfortable. I know their work might play into rather than challenge other people’s racist assumptions. But I think there’s something valuable to not only acknowledging that such assumptions exist in the culture, but that they must be confronted, mutated, and roughed up in the process (working with a gay filmmaker of color who was a cinematographer on Trouble the Water doesn’t hurt either). Anyone can make millions from an anthem about individuality and perseverance that makes vague claims toward and cynically leaches off of a queer audience. But it takes something more to position yourself as a star and base such fame on the abjection of stardom.
Some may make comparisons between Lady Gaga’s crutches and Christeene becoming someone else’s (or her own) santorum. For one, what an uninspired comparison. For another, celebrating one’s own abjection, framing it as explicitly queer, and making angry, giddy, political, participatory art out it feels a lot more transgressive to me than some of the music passing as such these days. She may never win a Grammy, but I’m no less challenged, outraged, and awestruck. Sounds like pop to me.