Invariably, queer pop stars worship David Bowie, and Dorian Electra is no different. “My dad got me into Bowie from a really young age,” they say. “I looked up to androgynous rock stars.” What’s less common is worshipping Bono. “He was one of my heroes as a kid. I know, funny: everyone hates him. But I really loved him, and used to dress up as him. That was one of my first experiences in what I guess you could call drag, but I would call dressing up. I performed the song Vertigo, just for my family – I drew on a little beard with my stepmom’s eyeliner.”And so, with a home performance of a U2 song, Electra set off on the way to becoming the most lively and witty new pop star of 2019. Assigned female at birth but now defining as gender-fluid, they are about to release their debut album: a brilliant collection of ultra-synthetic, cartoonishly masculine pop, delivered wearing a perfect pencil moustache.
Dorian and Electra are the first two names on their birth certificate, along with two more that they ask me not to divulge (along with their age). “I’ll tell all about everything else!” And boy, do they – their diagnosed attention deficit disorder triggers more than 10,000 words down the phone during our conversation, sentences constantly interrupted with a newer, even more interesting thought.
Electra grew up in Houston to an artist mother and a father who performed covers in a rock band after work: “He’s not the best singer, but he’s got the moves.” The couple split when Electra was five; after that, their mother dated women. “When I was eight, I was like: ‘So this friend of yours is always staying over, are you a lesbian?’ She was like: ‘Yeah, honey, I am.’ And I was like: ‘That’s OK.’ I knew those other options were open to me.”
As a kid, they felt “really androgynous: I wasn’t into the things girls were into, but I hated sports, or playing with GI Joe. I always identified with the word kid more than girl or boy.” In high school, they would have crushes on boys, “but I didn’t feel like a girl liking a guy. Love stories in movies were very alienating to me.”
One of their teachers, an out, “Oscar Wilde type figure” who also worked as the coach of the debating team, beguiled Dorian and the group of “nerdy boys” they fell in with. “We were … I’m hesitant to say the word brainwashed, because that takes away my agency, and he did come from a good place. But basically I was brainwashed to think the state was evil, that you can’t use government to do anything good, because it is an institution of force.”
The teacher was a libertarian, and his politics shaped Electra’s whole youth: one of their earliest viral hits was a song called I’m In Love With Friedrich Hayek, a ballad to the economist who influenced Reagan and Thatcher’s free-market ideology. “I watch a lot of documentaries about people coming out of cults, because I really relate to that,” Electra says. “Where it’s a charismatic leader, of young impressionable people, who are all very passionate and want to change the world. And then being led by this charisma into these ideas that now I’m really embarrassed by.”
It took going to university in Chicago in 2010 to wake Electra up. “As a product of human thought, libertarianism is a very interesting thing to study, but it is really poisonous. First, I thought I could change libertarians’ minds and make them more aware of stuff like feminism, and then I was like: no, this isn’t going to work.” One positive takeaway, though, was realising the power of culture to influence thought, and thought to influence culture – and so they began using music to try and expand minds.
“I wrote songs about Descartes,” they say. “And I did this little collection of songs all about thought experiments. One was a hair metal song called Brain in a Vat.” Electra also created a web series, playing car salesman Don Bogman – a grotesque male character they honed while in real life being quite the opposite: a stripper working in a club near Chicago’s airport. Performing their feminine side to the extreme, they served up “booby shots” dressed in “the most insane push-up bra ever, this tiny fishnet dress and two thongs. You would put this test tube of tequila and orange juice between your boobs, and the person would have to fish it out with their mouth, and that cost $5. Selling shots was just a vehicle to get talking to people. I would also do topless private lap dances. That’s how you really made money. Sometimes I would tell people about Don Bogman, and they would ask me to do the voice. I’m essentially in drag as a woman – that’s how I’m feeling – but I’m telling them I’m this nasty used-car salesman. Some people were not very interested. But the people who were interested, they’d tip me nicely.”
It all fed into their next job at women’s lifestyle website Refinery29, when bosses came across some of Electra’s music and suggested they make songs about sex education. This was their real breakthrough: a series of hilarious high-production pop videos that told the history of feminism, drag, vibrators, the clitoris and high-heeled shoes respectively. In the last song, the rejection of high heels following the French revolution is explained thus: “Monarchy is so last season / The feet of the elite smell like treason.” In another, a dismayed Electra sings of a vaping Dr Freud: “He couldn’t see / all stimulation happens clitorally.” It’s like the comedy trio The Lonely Island, if they read up on intersectionality.
“I wrote them like an essay: the thesis becomes the chorus,” they explain. “I love geometry and formal logic, I’m really analytical. So it’s easier for me to make a song like that than it is for me to be like: let’s dig deep into myself, and pull out some subconscious association and poetry. I’m not romantic at all.”
Writing the songs also set Electra on a path to defining their gender identity. After wearing their trademark moustache in a photoshoot for the first time, “I had never felt more like myself than I did in that picture. It communicates man, masculine, within these two little symbols. Putting it on, all of a sudden it makes me feel grounded.”
They don’t define as a drag king though – “I’m not a woman dressing as a man, it’s so much more complex than that” – nor do they feel like a man all the time. “When I came across ‘gender fluid’, I was like: that term actually really resonates with me,” they say. “But the core of my being is not gendered at all – even ‘gender fluid’ is a form of identity that can put somebody in a box.” They say culture is currently at a moment of admitting: “Hey, there are many boxes. And then eventually, if humanity survives, it’ll be like: actually, we don’t need these boxes any more. I do think that the labels are incredibly empowering though, and for people to fight just to be in the other box as male and female, as a trans person, is still enormous.”
The songs on their album – made collaboratively with a team of songwriters and producers who have ridiculously hip names such as Mood Killer and Absrdst – poke holes in society’s boxes and make faces through them. Career Boy casts Electra as an office drone finding an erotic allure in overwork; the video has them shackled bondage-style to filing cabinets and stapling themselves, before burning out, dying and being revived by a coffee IV. It lampoons the obsessional “let’s get this bread” mindset in the US, but also sympathises with it. Electra says the song “tries to take a little piece of Wall Street and make it queer”, and queer people tell them that the song helps motivate them through their 9 to 5 – indeed, wearing the business clothes of the establishment can be a kind of enforced drag. “It’s how you survive in any capitalist or governmental structure,” Electra says. “Trying to be aware of it and how it’s bad, but in order to cope with living, being able to embrace some of the irony of it.”
In Daddy Like, Electra appears as a sugar daddy – a rich person who funds someone’s lifestyle in exchange for intimacy. They say there are too many songs “that play into that dynamic without challenging it”, but doesn’t want to tear the daddies down, either. “It can be sweet. I have a lot of friends who do sex work and have sugar daddies, to fund their prolific, amazing art careers, and would not be able to do that if they didn’t have that support. So it was also about getting rid of some of the shame and stigma around that.”
The staggeringly good, utterly OTT Flamboyant, meanwhile, is a celebration of foppishness. “Flamboyant is a word that’s been used in a very derogatory way, like ‘flagrant’: an obvious gay, effeminate person,” they say. So Electra took the term back to its origins in French gothic architecture, to describe flames in stained glass. “Anything colourful that’s begging to be looked at and is out there and bright – those meanings all came together. My work is all about using pop, which I love, to show something a little bit different. Not falling into feminine pop tropes, but still being able to take a bit of the Britney Spears vibe in what I do, and the polish of the sound and the visuals. And being like: hey, I’m just me.”
For Electra, flamboyance is a symptom of camp, an “inherently queer” state. “Camp sees outside of the status quo, and also has a sense of humour, to cope with it, that’s knowing but also sincere.” No wonder they are about to go on tour with Charli XCX, another pop star who walks that line. Electra recently appeared in a music video by one of the masters of modern camp, Paris Hilton, and they celebrate Hilton’s “over-the-top self-awareness, in a camp way: her being a parody of herself, but a really savvy businessperson in her branding. The coolest thing about her is that she still has the finger on the pulse of where she stands culturally, whereas you see a lot of people like that lose touch, and think they are still perceived as the person they were back then.”
Like a vaping Freud, it is tempting to do some armchair psychology: when Electra dresses up as a matador, a gladiator and a boxer for the song Man to Man, is it to hide their vulnerability? “I wonder how much of me loving these masculine things – dressing up like a knight or a cowboy – how much of these things are not good, and maybe a product of my own internalised misogyny,” they ponder. “But I do feel very empowered and strong. I’m always so grateful for the support system I’ve had emotionally, and being able to be who I am. Maybe my work offers that to other people – maybe it resonates because they are finding strength in reclaiming the things they were bullied by, or were told they couldn’t be a part of. I can be a gladiator in a cultural sense.” In that sense at least, Dorian Electra is slaying.