The genderfluid and non-binary pop star wants to use their position as a cultural "outsider" to critique the inside. "Being outside allows you to see the frivolousness of it.”
Each month, Billboard Pride celebrates an LGBTQ act as its Artist of the Month. Our July selection: Dorian Electra
It’s a humid day in Manhattan, but the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a cool oasis. Dressed in tight black pants, suspenders, and a billowing white blouse that would make Adam Ant swoon, Dorian Electra sticks out among the tour groups bearing clunky guide books and shuffling in orthopedic sneakers.
“There couldn’t have been an exhibit that was more curated to my personal tastes, ever,” the sorbet-haired pop artist says of the colorful Camp: Notes on Fashion exhibit we’ve just walked through.
“The portrait of Louis XIV was definitely amazing,” Dorian says of Hyacinthe Rigaud’s famed 1701 portrait of the French aristocrat currently on display in the exhibit, on loan from the Louvre. “I first came across that portrait when I was researching the history of high heels for a music video. It’s so iconic and I’ve come back to that so many times for fashion inspiration. I didn’t know I was going to see that very famous piece of art in-person.”
Dorian, who identifies as genderfluid and non-binary, lives and breathes camp in both their art and everyday life. The 27-year-old counts Liberace, Prince, and Austin Powers as some of their personal icons, though they chuckle when they reveal the latter. “I was 6 years old when I watched that movie and it became my favorite. I didn’t get the joke that he was supposed to be gross -- with the bad teeth and stuff -- I just thought Austin Powers was this sexy male protagonist. That became my masculine ideal.”
As a kid, Dorian was obsessed with “Oscar Wilde and dandies and the baroque era,” yet they owe their introduction to the concept of camp not to this historical record, but rather to science fiction. “The first time I remember encountering [camp] was a teacher trying to explain it in the context of Star Trek. I was 14. My friends were all nerdier than me, from the debate team and stuff, and they were trying to explain it. But I didn’t get it. There’s a superficial level where you’re like, ‘I get it, it’s so bad and cheesy that it’s funny, right?’ But it’s more than that. It’s a very hard thing to explain to someone without examples.”
Dorian grew up in Texas, so you might imagine they struggled to find their footing in the dissonant space between the state’s conservative politics and its campy image of rhinestones, rodeos and big hair. There were some challenges, which primarily involved clashing with a deeply religious step-mother (who their father has since divorced) over topics like evolution and anatomy. Fortunately, the entertainer says they were “lucky and privileged to have come from an otherwise supportive, open family,” especially being raised in the progressive “liberal bubble” of Houston.
Dorian’s family, who are “ethnically Jewish, though not religious,” also existed outside of the dominant, largely Christian Texan culture. “I can share all my work with my grandma, who’s proud of me and super down with it. But it’s not normal, so we have to be grateful for what we have because the rest of Texas is an embarrassment," they say. “My mom and dad have always been weird and encouraged me to be weird at a young age. It made me comfortable with the idea that I was outside of the mainstream norm. My goal now is to share what I got to experience with other people through my art. Even if they don’t have that community at home, they can come to one of my shows or watch a video and feel like, ‘Well, if there’s this freak like me out there doing it….’”
Dorian first made an impact in 2010 when they released “I'm in Love With Friedrich Hayek,” a bohemian ode to the Austrian libertarian of the same name (Dorian notes they have not identified with libertarian beliefs since college and "find the ideology to be extremely problematic and deeply flawed."). They released a handful of somewhat esoteric indie tracks over the next few years, with lyrics about economics and social politics. By 2016, they had been comissioned by Refinery29 to create a series of intersectional feminist music videos about topics ranging from the clitoris to the history of drag, their musical style morphing into something both more avant-garde and pop-oriented along the way. It was during a photo shoot the same year where they accidentally stumbled upon their now-signature style marker: a thin, pencil-style mustache that helped them discover they “identify more with a feminine man rather than a masculine woman.”
Today (July 17), Dorian releases their debut album, Flamboyant -- a collection of 11 hyper-glossy, experimental pop tracks that captures the artist’s “unapologetically outrageous” and “whimsically self-aware” performance style. “Trying to reclaim ‘flamboyant’ as a positive thing is really fun because it has a lot of history. It’s been used as a derogatory term -- a coded word for homosexual, queer, effiminate -- and obvious as opposed to secretive, which is what you’re supposed to be in a society that doesn’t embrace you,” the performer shares, explaining the word’s origin stems from a style of French gothic architecture. “Then, people started talking about it as something colorful or flame-like that you couldn’t look away from. It became a way to describe people’s personalities and other pieces of art.”
The album features production and songwriting credits from some of pop’s most exciting innovators, including Jesse Saint John, Bonnie McKee, Umru, and ABSRDST. Musically, it’s a pastiche of disparate yet unexpectedly complementary sonic influences, gleefully pulling from heavy metal, Baroque and Medieval music, new wave, and futuristic electronica.
Harpsichord twinkles crash into dubstep and aggressive trap beats on “Musical Genius,” a tongue-in-cheek Dylan Brady-produced track that “mocks the idea of what ‘cool’ music sounds like.” Swirling sci-fi synths give way to a big, wobbling millennium-era R&B soundscape on “Adam & Steve,” which was written as a “biblical fan-fiction fantasy” about the hypocrisy of religious fundamentalism. Baroque-pop goes ‘80s new wave-meets-Prince on “Man to Man,” a song about “bravado and toxic masculinity” and the folly of cancel culture.
A giddy sense of humor runs throughout Flamboyant, each song brimming with puns and quippy observations about the absurdity of gender roles. “I can’t seem to write a ‘serious’ song,” Dorian admits. “It always felt like I was playing this character, doing drag as an ‘indie pop star.’ I’ve always been goofy -- I mean everything very sincerely."
The singer points to their uber-macho music video for "Man to Man" as an example of the balance between humor and cultural commentary that they aim to strike. "The exaggerated, hypermasculine imagine of the gladiator or matador -- how can that not be funny? It’s an extreme caricature of itself. Masculinity and femininity are funny, as is the idea that they’re polar opposites. Queerness is an awareness that you are, in some way, outside of some set of social norms. Being outside allows you to see the frivolousness of it.”
At the end of September, Dorian will go on tour to support Charli XCX (dates and tickets available here), who they collaborated with alongside Mykki Blanco on “Femmebot," from Charli’s 2017 Pop 2 mixtape. “She’s one of the most interesting pop artists right now, who is also doing amazing things as an ally for the queer community," they say. "I think in order to be a good ally, especially as an artist, it’s important to collaborate. She’s pushing the boundaries of pop. Everyone’s watching her -- she’s very much a trendsetter.”
Aside from supporting Charli in the autumn, Dorian will embark on their own headlining tour this year (dates and tickets available here), during which they hope to “hit a lot of smaller cities” in an effort to reach young fans who might not otherwise see themselves represented on stage. “A lot of queer pop artists don’t come through those cities. I remember my favorite bands never coming through Houston, I was always bummed. Even if we don’t make money, it’s worth it to me. It’s meaningful to make connections.”
Thanks to an album packed with pro-queer messages and musings on gender and acceptance, it’s easy to imagine that those connections will be salient and impactful in the same way history and pop culture was for Dorian as a teenager. But if nothing else, Flamboyant will serve as a manifesto on Dorian’s multilayered self, something which is mirrored in the album’s artwork -- an “otherworldly and surreal” photo of the performer.
“It’s so pop, so retouched,” Dorian muses about the image, which sees them wearing a regal blue brocade jacket, neck ruff, spiked dog collar, and bubblegum pink blush. “I definitely wanted that. I wanted it to say: this is pop music in its super polished form. But it also has punk elements and this badass metal vibe, and other things. I also wanted it to be like Mozart posing for a portrait. Like, ‘Here, this is my musical body of work.’ It’s basically a painting of me that’s gonna hang in the halls.”