Androgyny is nothing new in rock music. Little Richard was not exactly gruff back in 50’s with his shocking stage antics and makeup. Years later It would be David Bowie who would bring the concept to edgy middle American youth in the 1970s. With the Stonewall riots behind it the 1980s would be the decade when the concept really went mainstream – or as close as it would ever get in the age of Ronald Reagan and the Moral Majority. On one end there was nearly androgynous hyper-sexed Prince who flirted with raunch and The Culture Club’s Boy George (George O’Dowd) would follow the template of the gay camp underground.
The ideal of the girly man advanced to the top of the pop charts when Kissing to Be Clever arrived in late 1982. As MTV was still spreading across the country, many viewers saw what they thought was a deep voiced exotic woman with a soulful voice. Only the most seasoned drag queen could have known what was really under that dress, but a million teenage boys were convinced otherwise.
Culture Club’s charms went far beyond Boy George’s visual impact because like many English bands,they did their homework when it came to studying vintage American R&B. While Kissing to Be Clever was only the band’s first album, it came across with the kind of big label sound and purpose of seasoned veterans. After all just two years before O’Dowd was a backup singer for Bow Wow Wow.
Kissing to Be Clever was propelled to the upper reaches of the charts thanks to its first single ‘Do You really Want to Hurt Me’. Borrowing from the tone of classic soul, the single was a true global hit. The song even poked the R&B top 40 chart in America.
As the word got out that The Culture Club was fronted by a cross dressing man, its popularity never suffered. The band continued to release compelling singles, like the follow-up ‘Time (Clock of the Heart)’, another track borrowing the mojo of classic soul. ‘Time” reach #2 on the charts in the US and established The Culture Club as one of the biggest new musical events of 1983. Kissing to Be Clever cracked the top 10 albums list of 1983 at #9 making it one of the premier British pop recordings of that year – a year when the “Second British Invasion” was gathering steam.
Combining, soul, post disco and dance influences, Kissing to Be Clever had a little bit of something for everyone. Like many blue-eyed soul acts from Europe, The Culture Club had its share of (obnoxious) Caribbean influences, but it was clear that the intoxicating mix of George’s stage presence and catchy melodies went across cultural lines. Sweet music even helped gloss over potentially homoerotic lyrics coming from a man in drag as in ‘White Boys Can’t Control It’.
Even as word got out about Boy George’s affair with drummer Jon Moss, the band’s popularity would not suffer. America clearly loved Boy George and The Culture Club. Girls though Michael Craig, Roy Hay and Jon Moss were cute in their conventional poster boy roles. Confused or liberated boys and girls wanted to be Boy George, or at least experience his level of social freedom.
Boy George may have been an unlikely gay rights advocate, but he paved the way for American acceptance of more camp acts like Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Dead or Alive. During the 1980 it was very likely that most Americans just assumed that many English pop stars were queer anyway, so The Culture Club’s image would have been par for the course.
In the end it would be The Culture Club’s expertly crafted pop songs that made their image work. As Madonna and Annie Lennox would later confirm, America happily accepted androgyny when the music was first.