A crowded concert hall in Munich fills with applause. The orchestra begins playing as Klaus Nomi enters the light. His full Elizabethan regalia hides the lesions and wounds covering his body. Every step he takes is delicate and deliberate. As he approaches the microphone, the applause fades and he begins to sing.
What power art thou, who from below
Hast made me rise unwillingly and slow
From beds of everlasting snow?
See’est thou not how stiff and wondrous old,
Far unfit to bear the bitter cold
I can scarcely move or draw my breath
Let me, let me freeze again to death
This is his final performance. He seems to know it. Less than six months later, on August 6, 1983, Klaus Sperber, better known as the pop operatic alien Klaus Nomi, died of AIDS.
He is one of the first public figures to fall victim to the disease. Even the name is new — less than a year old. Some anchors on the evening news are still referring to it as ‘gay cancer.’
Yet, most of his friends are in shock. Wasn’t Klaus simply asexual? He had kept much of his personal life a secret.
Ever since evolving into Nomi at a New York Vaudeville show in 1978, his identity was obfuscated; swallowed by the concept. Man Parrish, fellow East Village creative, recalls this night:
I remember running downstairs and standing in the balcony and there was Klaus, standing in a blue pool of light and dry ice and smoke all over the stage in a clear vinyl cape, singing a piece from Samson and Delilah. Something had just landed on this planet and I thought, this guy’s not lip syncing, this guy’s not a drag queen, he’s really doing this — wow!
Klaus’ distinct mixture of rock and roll, opera and new wave could only make sense in the packaging of an extraterrestrial creature. Of course he sounds, looks, and acts strange – he was from the planet Nomi.
Artists and musicians were recruited and converted to the Nomi species, and the band lived and breathed the aesthetic, night and day.
“Klaus and I decided we were the future,” says Joey Arias, friend and collaborator. “We formed the Nomi family. We lived as if we were on the space shuttle. We ate little bits of food — space food.”
Ann Magnuson, manager of Club 57, knew him well. “Klaus brought the transcendent into the transgressive. We are living in such a conservative climate that what he did 25 years ago still seems radical. Whether it’s in art, music or fashion, the pinnacle of success is always to leave people absolutely speechless — and who better to make you feel awe than someone who claimed not to be of this world?”
Self-identifying as an alien gave Klaus the freedom to express himself authentically. To be unapologetically gay in the public eye would be a dangerous life; anything to abstract that notion was an act of subversive expression.
As Nomi puts it himself, “I approach everything as an absolute outsider. It’s the only way I can break so many rules…I take a familiar experience and put it in an alien environment.”
If they saw my face
could I still take a bow?
will they know me, Nomi
know me now?
The alien metaphor repackages a queer experience for mass consumption in a straight world — a red herring encasing a secret message to social misfits everywhere. It wraps aesthetic intention around behaviors and body language usually mocked. It’s not gay, it’s avant-garde.
Director Andrew Horn explores the connection in his documentary The Nomi Song. “Being gay was not overtly part of his act, although it clearly came from a gay sensibility. He never appeared in drag, for instance, but then he had his own very specific personal drag.”
Nomi is not the first to deliver his queer identity in an alien character, and he certainly is not the last.
On December 15, 1979, before his first record deal, Klaus Nomi performs as a backup singer to David Bowie on Saturday Night Live. Bowie wears a Bauhaus-inspired fiberglass tuxedo, which inspires Klaus’ signature look for the next four years. The suit feels appropriate on both performers; an angular, minimalist abstraction of traditional manhood.
Together, with Joey Arias, they sing “The Man Who Sold The World.” Fifteen years after Nomi’s death, Bowie elaborates on the meaning of that song. “I guess I wrote it because there was a part of myself that I was looking for…when you know that there’s a piece of yourself that you haven’t really put together yet. You have this great searching, this great need to find out who you really are.”
The kinship between David Bowie and Klaus Nomi is not coincidental. After all, it was Bowie himself who pioneered accessible androgyny in alien drag with his Ziggy Stardust character 7 years prior. The same year, Bowie had become brazenly honest in interviews about his fluid sexuality. He had simulated oral sex with his guitarist Mark Ronson in front of 15 million viewers.
With his much discussed insatiable, pansexual appetite, Bowie wiped out the narrative of the tragic queer (always punished in Hollywood films and dying in novels) and replaced it with one of power and pleasure. Simply put, Bowie made being queer look not like something one must suffer but something one could revel in: not only bearable, but desirable.
Queer sexuality is always at the vanguard of liberation — our experiments and experiences spill out into wider society. When Bowie showcased the erotic potential of an effeminate, androgyne in rouge, even straight boys painted their nails and drew on the eyeliner, because they recognized it would help them catch the eye of a glam rock girl.
This particular performance was promoting David Bowie’s latest album, Lodger — the third album made in Berlin, the same city in which Klaus Sperber had both his first music lesson and his final performance.
One of the primary reasons for Bowie’s extended stay in Berlin was Romy Haag, a transgender nightclub owner who was both Bowie’s lover and muse.
Haag’s influence on Bowie can be felt throughout Lodger, particularly on the song ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ — a playful satire of maleness and heteronormativity.
When you’re a boy
You can wear a uniform
When you’re a boy
Other boys check you out
You get a girl
These are your favorite things
The music video features Bowie in a tailored grey suit taking the lead vocals, supported by three femme backup singers played by Bowie in drag.
Fittingly, this is one of the three songs David and Klaus sing together during their Saturday Night Live performance. During the live broadcast, censors mute the lines “life’s a pop o’ the cherry” and “other boys check you out,” yet fail to notice that Bowie’s puppet body had exposed its bouncing phallus.
In a 2000 interview with BUST, David explains “the glory in that song was ironic. I do not feel that there is anything remotely glorious about being either male or female. I was merely playing on the idea of the colonization of a gender.”
Klaus Nomi and David Bowie would not work together again after this performance, yet both would seem to have mutual influence over each other’s work.
Joey Arias recalls running into Bowie, years after their performance together:
I saw David years and years later in Paris. He was with Iman and I was in full drag. He kept saying “God, I wish you’d dressed like this when I first met you!” We walked arm-in-arm through Paris and people on the street were going nuts. He was just so much fun. David inspired. He was an alien; his mind was so open. He was like this force, this sponge, that absorbed it all. He was just like a child in that sense, just like a little boy. And he was just full of love.
Janelle Monae has spent a decade as her alter-ego Cindi Mayweather, a tuxedo-clad pansexual android who has broken the law by falling in love with a human. Cindi’s punishment for her crime is deactivation and disassembly.
She has wrapped herself in the same Bauhaus futurist influences for years now, claiming the narrative is fiction and fantasy. When asked about her sexual orientation, her deflective answer is “I only date androids.”
In an interview with the Evening Standard, she elaborates: “I speak about androids because I think the android represents the new ‘other’. You can compare it to being a lesbian or being a gay man or being a black woman … What I want is for people who feel oppressed or feel like the ‘other’ to connect with the music and to feel like, ‘She represents who I am’.”
In 2018, she comes out as pansexual in her Rolling Stone cover story. But not without any concerns. “What if people don’t think I’m as interesting as Cindi Mayweather? I created her, so I got to make her be whatever I wanted her to be. I didn’t have to talk about the Janelle Monáe who was in therapy. It’s Cindi Mayweather. She is who I aspire to be.”
Two months later, Janelle shares a letter addressed to the late David Bowie.
Thinking of you, my Ziggy Stardust moonage daydream. Even in your ascension to another frequency you still manage to guide me, and all of us who you inspire.
You continue to teach me what freedom looks like through the gifts you left behind. You continue to help me and so many feel comfortable during some of our most vulnerable and fearful moments. I often find myself asking, “What would Bowie say, what would he do?” and I just go with that.
Less than a year later, Monae performs “Make Me Feel” at the 2019 Grammys. She’s wearing a black and white, glossy vinyl suit with angular shoulder pads — a clear nod to the Nomi home planet.
The first line she sings says “Baby, don’t make me spell it out for you” — quite possibly a reference to how close she had gotten to transparent honesty on her previous album. Its single, Q.U.E.E.N., was originally titled Q.U.E.E.R.
That’s just the way that I feel, yeah
Please! I can’t help it
It’s like I’m powerful with a little bit of tender
An emotional, sexual bender
For the first time in a long time, Cindi is nowhere to be found. Free from abstraction and metaphorical narrative, Janelle is unapologetically herself in front of the entire country; a queer black woman at the height of her success.
It’s no coincidence that frequent comparisons are made with her new album, Dirty Computer, and the work of Monae’s idol, Prince. The two had a close relationship, and he contributed significantly to the writing and recording of her album before his death. She elaborates on their friendship to The Guardian shortly after:
I dedicate a lot of my music to Prince, for everything he’s done for music and black people and women and men, for those who have something to say and also at the same time will not allow society to take the dirt off of them. It’s about that dirt, and not getting rid of that dirt.
Just this last week, Monae performed at Coachella. The performance was full of expertly crafted Afrofuturism, centering around a subversion of military imagery to promote universal love. Her story is not only one of queerness and womanhood; it’s one of blackness, and the nuanced intersection of those three identities.
One week prior to the performance, Janelle was interviewed by Lizzo for them. magazine’s debut cover story. She’s had about a year to digest the response to her coming out, and sums up her thoughts on the matter:
To be young, queer, and black in America means that you can be misunderstood. You can be hated. It also means that you can be celebrated and loved. And I think there’s a lot at stake when you’re living out loud in that way. One thing I’ve realized even more was that when you walk in your truth, you can inspire and encourage people to walk in theirs.
I think the entertainment industry has not caught up. We’re making some waves, but we can do better. And again, it’s about normalizing and telling more stories, and inviting more LGBTQIA+ folks into the conversation on the front end, and giving us a seat at the table early on. Because we can’t afford to see things in a binary way. That’s not how the world works.
Janelle isn’t the first to explore these territories, but her unique approach is bringing unprecedented visibility to the matter. Her innate intersectionality is a crucial step forward in the evolution of social politics in music.
She’s well aware of her place in history. “There’s some anxiety there, but I feel brave,” She tells Rolling Stone. “My musical heroes did not make the sacrifices they did for me to live in fear.”
“I want young girls, young boys, nonbinary, gay, straight, queer people who are having a hard time dealing with their sexuality, dealing with feeling ostracized or bullied for just being their unique selves, to know that I see you. This album is for you. Be proud.”
Somewhere out there, the hero of the next chapter in this story is listening.
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