I have never wanted to go to Las Vegas, ever. The entire concept of it—people losing their money in unbridled gambling, hideous conspicuous consumption, extravagant (although essentially tacky) hotels that ignore basic creature needs—strikes me as repulsive. Never mind that this is all going on when the world economy is crumbling. But, political resolve aside, when I was offered two nights at Caesar’s Palace to see Bette Midler at the hotel’s Colosseum Theater, I immediately said yes. Having written extensively on gay male culture I decided that this trip could be an anthropological look at the Divine Miss M and her 40-year journey from 1970s gay male icon to beloved mass culture diva.
At age 59, I seemed to be on the younger side for Midler’s audience, which was, as far as I could tell, almost completely heterosexual, in contrast to every other time I had attended a Midler concert. Not that the Vegas audience didn’t enjoy the show—they loved every song and dirty joke. Clearly, Midler’s signature brassy persona and bawdy sense of humor have resonated with a far wider audience than the core queer group who helped make her a star in 1972.
On the surface, Midler’s current show seems essentially the same. As she enunciates in the opening number, "The Showgirl Must Go On": "You came here for glitz, hits, and tits and we’re going to give them to you." Backed by a leggy chorus line she dubbed "the Caesar Salad Girls," as well as her own back-up group the Harlettes, Midler ran through all of her most famous songs, including those from early in her career, such as "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," "In the Mood," "The Rose," "Hello In There," and "When A Man Loves a Woman." But, by far, the most popular songs of the evening were the sentimental and culturally pasteurized pop ballads "Wind Beneath my Wings" and "From a Distance," songs Midler recorded in 1989 and 1990 when she was working on becoming more mainstream. She also inserted her usual stream of topical comic patter—Bernie Madoff and Sarah Palin jokes laced with irreverent observations. The finale included her famous Sophie Tucker jokes that were charmingly vulgar. This is the format that Midler has used since her earliest Broadway shows, such as the 1973 "Clams on the Half Shell" and which, with its vaudeville structure, edgy sense of humor, and alternative culture, has always served her diverse and quirky talents well.
Although some of this sexual material shocked audiences in the 1970s, it has now become so mainstream as to be conventional. Sure, popular culture has changed, but I’d argue that it has changed, to some degree, because of Midler. She has been, as a conduit of gay male culture, as responsible as anyone for the queering of America. Yet the fact that her entire act and persona emerged from a gay male camp culture seems all but forgotten.
This isn’t her doing. Midler never hides the fact that her solo career started as a gay male bathhouse chanteuse or that her success has been fueled by gay male audiences. Historically, it is easy to see how this queer sensibility has shaped her art: the camp references, the use of female sexuality for aggressive humor, the recycling of old popular songs in updated arrangements, and the transgressive use of sexuality that runs through her show all resonate with late 1960s urban, gay male cultural preoccupations and norms. Midler’s uniqueness in gay male culture is that she actually straddles a pre-and post-Stonewall divide. While the pain of a Judy Garland ballad or performance defined a pre-Stonewall gay sensibility, Midler took that material and made it aggressive and even political. No surprise she performed her song "Friends" at New York’s 1971 Gay Pride Parade.
So why is Midler so popular with a mass audience that she can pack a 4,000 seat theater several times a week in Las Vegas in 2009? When she first began appearing on television in the early 1970s, some critics dismissed her as cheap camp, an off-shoot of what was understood to be a decadent and socially irrelevant minority humor that substituted parody for actual content, flippancy for a sustained vision, and mocked sex and traditional cultural values in ways that were considered anti-social and unhealthy. Not that they didn’t have a point. Camp, which rose out of an urban homosexual experience of disenfranchisement, was all of those things. It gave a unique voice to men who had been outcast from "polite"—i.e., moral and righteous—society, thus allowing them to ridicule the hypocrisy of that society. Camp’s emphasis on female sexuality, often at the expense of male sexual egos, was an attack on patriarchal attitudes about sexuality and gender. Midler’s drawing upon this queer male culture and sensibility has worked for her because she has carefully gauged the shifts in public approval and sentiment without ever stepping over the line. In her earlier shows, when asked to tell a particularly raunchy joke, she would respond: "No way. I know just how far I can go with the American public."
This raises a question: has the world become so accepting of a gay sensibility that it now welcomes it with open arms? Politically, the answer is that homosexuals still face a wide range of social and legal discriminations. Sure, things are better these days, but there is still a lot of homo-hatred. There have been two important changes, however. The first is that homosexual characters and themes have become commonplace. Gay characters have been on such television shows as "Will and Grace" and "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." Films like Philadelphia, The Birdcage, Rent, and Milk are popular and win awards.
Second has been the influence of a gay male sensibility, a way of viewing the world, which has changed American culture. A more overtly sensible attitude about sex, a comic disavowal of traditional morality, an ironic understanding of social status and positions, and a flagrant, in-your-face approach to more "serious" topics all embody this renegade sensibility. The influence of this outlook on popular culture has been enormous. So much so that Bette Midler is now the toast of the most mainstream of mass culture: Las Vegas.
"The Showgirl Must Go On," is less about the showgirl as it is about the changing sensibility of the average American spectator over the past 40 years—consistently rejecting some of the oppressive paradigms of the past and embracing alternatives that give them pleasure and place them in opposition to more traditional popular culture.
Alas, this progressive move looks insignificant in the context of the consumerism and sheer Moloch-like capitalism that pervades Las Vegas, but it is important to remember that it is still a move forward. The emergence of a disruptive gay male sensibility—even when it is commodified—is evidence that when offered new ideas about sex, pleasure, and personal freedom, audiences may be tempted to embrace alternatives to mainstream patterns of mass culture.