- Music & Camp ed. by Christopher Moore and Philip Purvis
Mae West’s witty quips, Jean Cocteau’s plays, Mick Jagger’s onstage antics, Liberace and his candelabra—artists, musicians, and writers considered “campy” have long been fixtures of popular culture, although it was not until the early-twentieth century that the French verb se camper (to posture boldly) began to be applied to specific examples of exaggerated, theatrical style. A notoriously slippery aesthetic to define—often confused with kitsch, reflecting bad taste that may or may not be intentional—camp achieved its first serious recognition in Christopher Isherwood’s novel The World in the Evening (1954) and later in the writings of Susan Sontag, whose seminal 1964 “Notes on ‘Camp’ ” continues to inform virtually all scholarship on the topic. Defining the style as saturated with “artifice and exaggeration”, Sontag provides a detailed yet incomplete taxonomy, emphasising elements of camp style and its special appeal to gay audiences (Susan Sontag, “Notes on ‘Camp’ ”, in A Susan Sontag Reader [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1982], 105).
Previous authors on the topic have focused on film, television, and aspects of gender and sexuality, with music typically given short shrift. In Music & Camp, co-editors Christopher Moore and Philip Purvis greatly expand the conversation in a diverse collection of twelve essays. Rather than focusing exclusively on concert music, the contributors explore various subtopics, ranging from the Hollywood musical to modern film, music videos, and sing-along events. Organised into three large sections, the book reveals numerous insights into the ways camp has been employed in popular culture and beyond.
Part One, subtitled “The Saccharine and the Sacred”, opens with Mitchell Morris’s exploration of Canadian-born entertainer Beatrice Lillie, whose song “There Are Fairies at the Bottom of Our Garden” became an unexpected hit when performed on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1952. Mitchell reminds us that “the use of ‘fairies’ as code for effeminate gay men was long current when the song was written” (p. 11), and that the question of whether or not the song represents intentional or unintentional camp endures. Classic Hollywood films are rife with campy overtones, as Lloyd Whitesell illuminates in reference to Carmen Miranda—a single viewing of “The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat” (1943) reveals why this is a bona fide camp classic. Whitesell focuses on three films released in the 1930s and ‘40s, with “You Stepped Out of a Dream” from Ziegfeld Girl (1941) as arguably the most iconic, featuring a saccharine vocal [End Page 63] melody, massive sets, and flamboyant costumes that stretch the limits of good taste. Stephen Pysnik’s chapter on Vincente Minnelli’s The Pirate (1948), featuring Gene Kelly’s flashy performance of Cole Porter’s song “Niña”, reveals how the aesthetic of camp became an important marker of gay identity at a time when most homosexual artists remained closeted. Here, Conrad Sallinger’s overwrought instrumental arrangement of “Niña” only serves to heighten the effect.
Among the unexpected gems in the collection is Ivan Raykoff’s “The Camp Sincerity of Christmas Carols”, a genre falling somewhere between “the hallowed and the hackneyed in its contemporary cultural reception” (p. 49). A central issue of camp, that of sincerity, emerges several times via Raykoff’s nuanced discussion of holiday fare by, among others, Luciano Pavarotti, Bing Crosby, and Bob Dylan. While the author posits Pavarotti’s well-known version of “Adeste Fideles” as sincere (and therefore not camp), the same cannot be said of Crosby’s take, featuring sweeping strings, wordless chorus, and solo soprano descant. As for Dylan’s version, featured in the 2009 album Christmas in the Heart, the singer’s ragged vocal timbre and questionable pitch is described as “preemptive kitsch” (p. 60), although to this writer’s ears it fails as both kitsch and camp. At the same time, Alice...