The Magnetic Fields’ new video “Andrew in Drag” was released this past week to moderate fanfare; the song has been called a “return to form” for using synthesizers where the band hasn’t since 1999’s 69 Love Songs. To me, the return to form seems to be the explicitness of the sexuality, the sheer gayness of it all, the sense of sex and romance as playful and tragic all at once – which has also been downplayed or absent since 69 Love Songs.
The narrative of “Andrew in Drag” is of (surprise!) a drag performance which throws all stable sexual and gender concepts – for both performer and voyeur – out the window. Pronouns are thrown out dizzyingly often, and what first appears as a consistent narrator is questionable on repeat listens. Is he a fag or a ladies’ man or a mama’s boy? Is ‘he’ even a ‘he’? Rather than the drag show challenging gender categories in and of itself, it throws the narrator’s self-identity out the window: “I’ve always been a ladies’ man and I don’t have to brag / but I become a mama’s boy for Andrew in drag.” What ‘he’ is left with is his attraction – to what, to whom exactly we cannot be sure as his “tail” wags “like a little wiener dog for Andrew in drag.” The video expertly takes the dressing up and down of drag and turns it into a performance unto itself. Instead of the product we get the process; the ritual preening performed before the camera-as-mirror. We watch, step-by-step as the stable grounds of gender are called into question and collapse into a grey area. As each body approaches the limits of female and male we’re left wondering: when does the body transform? At what point have the borders of gender been crossed-over, and when do they return to stability? And, importantly, which one of these bodies is Andrew in drag?
The video, as all drag performances, leave these questions open, ambiguous, and unknowable. The clothing and the two bodies themselves blur together – both thin, white and androgynous it is difficult to discern who is who, at what stage of dressing or undressing they are at. What is perhaps most striking is that there is no transformation, no moment of gendered transgression, instead a fuzzy and incremental approach of the vast grey area between ‘male’ and ‘female.’ The final shot underscores this ambiguity with a half made-up face, make-up smeared as the camera falls out of focus.
Director Scott Valins and songwriter Stephin Merritt talk about “Andrew in Drag” here. Both Valins and the author Dan Raby talk a lot about ‘transformation.’ As the band says on their website, “the video is NSFW, if your workplace doesn’t appreciate nudity”: