Various Artists: Blacklips Bar: Androgyns and Deviants – Industrial Romance for Bruised and Battered Angels, 1992–1995

Of course, the album sets us in a much earlier period—one of punk, camp, and the fury of ACT UP. The record’s generous sprawl encompasses a couple of tracks by late players in John Waters’ Dreamlander ensemble, Divine and Edith Massey. The latter charms her way through “Punks, Get Off the Grass,” one of the spirited, magnetic singles she released with her novelty band the Eggs. There are club-kid acts from the influential 1988 film Mondo New York, which inspired ANOHNI and Johanna Constantine—these include ubiquitous drag artist Joey Arias and queercore pioneers Dean and the Weenies, whose defiant, sax-laden “Fuck You” is one of the record’s hilarious highlights. Inimitable frontman Dean Johnson insults an unnamed nemesis: “I wish you’d choke on a fashion accessory,” and later, “You’d look cooler if you wore a Frigidaire.” Other tracks harness the era’s agitprop energy, among them Diamanda Galás’ virus dirge “Double-Barrel Prayer” and Vito Russo’s exhortation for gays to take political action without worrying about appeasing straight people. Many of the selections seem like intimate moments in ANOHNI’s own tale of self-realization: Russo, for example, was a visiting professor at University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1990 while ANOHNI and Johanna Constantine were undergrads. Mere months before he died of AIDS, Russo encouraged ANOHNI to move to New York. 

The tracks by troupe members are often doleful, thanks to a considered curatorial agenda. ANOHNI dispenses with Blacklips’ parodies of songs from movies, recognizing that ironic takes on Hollywood weren’t their most singular contributions to the world of drag performance. Instead, we have Ebony Jet’s “Satellite of Love” and Sissy Fit’s “Sister Morphine,” two haunting covers that draw out real desperation from the outlaw perspectives of their source material. ANOHNI’s originals highlight her mature style, ignoring the haphazard spoofs for which one can find video evidence online. Her wordless humming elevates the Johanna Constantine duet “The Yellowing Angel” into a near-religious paean to finger-fucking, while the brief “People Are Small” is a virtuosic display of her upper range. Organ-driven “Love Letters,” a 1961 Ketty Lester hit that ANOHNI performed under her drag name Fiona Blue, rises out of camp’s confines, leaving familiar terrain behind. Her singing reminds us of how Blacklips, at their most progressive, treated drag: not as something humorous, arch, or pop cultural, but instead sincere and introspective, a means of accessing selfhood.

The group’s final play, 13 Ways to Die, produced on March 13, 1995, pushed their interior melancholy outward, connecting it to the AIDS pandemic and a changing city and world. Androgyns and Deviants impressively captures elements of the evening, sequencing them into a short suite near the compilation’s end. We hear an introduction from Dr. Clark Render, whose comic monologues opened the troupe’s shows for years; a soundtrack of Minty’s dance cut “Useless Man,” which features commanding vocals from the sensational Leigh Bowery; and lastly “My Final Moments,” a poignant soliloquy by Kabuki Starshine. “Dear X,” Kabuki recites: “You understand it’s nothing personal against you/and I must apologize if you feel abandoned/but we’ve all got to go some time or another,/so it may as well be now.” After, the entire cast staged their own deaths, and as the companion book shows in a series of images, “RIP NYC” was scrawled on one character’s buttocks.