"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
In July of 2002, Mark Simpson introduced Salon readers — and the U.S. — to his impeccably turned-out love-hate child the metrosexual. Here is his definition from that now infamous article: “The typical metrosexual is a young man with money to spend, living in or within easy reach of a metropolis — because that’s where all the best shops, clubs, gyms and hairdressers are. He might be officially gay, straight or bisexual, but this is utterly immaterial because he has clearly taken himself as his own love object and pleasure as his sexual preference. Particular professions, such as modelling, waiting tables, media, pop music and, nowadays, sport, seem to attract them but, truth be told, like male vanity products and herpes, they’re pretty much everywhere.”
Since then the metrosexual has become even more ubiquitous. In this accelerated age he’s grown up in a matter of months and become something Very Big in marketing. Thousands of newspaper, magazine and TV items on metrosexuals have appeared around the globe. There are now more than 25,000 hits for “metrosexual” on Google. Books have been written about him. Several well-known men have “outed” themselves as metrosexual, including Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean (to prove metrosexuality has no political preference, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has also accepted the label). TV has also gone gaga for male narcissism: This summer’s biggest hit TV series was Bravo’s metrosexual makeover program, “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” Metrosexuality even appears to have conquered Middle America, at least on “South Park” — in a recent episode, all the town’s males turn metrosexual after watching an episode of “Queer Eye.”
Here Simpson answers some of the many questions he has been asked in the last year about what he has called his “Frankenstein monster with perfect skin, terrorizing and sashaying the globe.”
Why has your term, which you first used 10 years ago, caught on so widely now?
When I wrote about metrosexuality back in the dark days of 1994 most were in denial about this new social problem. Metrosexuals themselves didn’t want to confront who they really were. They were ashamed, not of their love for themselves, of course, but of what the world would think of it. They feared, probably correctly, that their partners and friends wouldn’t understand, didn’t want to understand. Although the media at that time was already full of metrosexual males, all of them were in the closet. There were no open, well-adjusted metrosexuals willing to be role models to young, isolated metros wrestling with their deep yearning for scruffing lotion and Lycra-rich underwear.
So when I returned to the subject on this Web site last year I decided it was time to be ruthless and name names: I outed several leading metrosexuals, including David Beckham, Brad Pitt and Spider-Man. After the initial shock and protests subsided it became apparent that my recklessness had shattered taboos and brought about, if I may say so myself, a seismic shift in social mores. Suddenly, decades of accumulated steam has been released. People now feel able to talk — endlessly — about a subject that couldn’t even be acknowledged before. A chain reaction ensued as hundreds of thousands of metrosexuals around the world who had been cowering in their walk-in closets felt empowered to out themselves — or at least their friends and partners felt empowered to do so on their behalf. In the place of the pathological, slightly pervy-sounding “male narcissist” of the inhibited 20th century, there stood the out-and-even-prouder metrosexual, urban and erotic and very 21st Century Boy. And everyone wanted him.
In the 18 months since that article appeared online, the word “metrosexual” has become almost as ubiquitous as the phenomenon it described. Maybe more so. Metrosexuality is now a textually as well as a visually transmitted disease.
Much of the responsibility for this global epidemic of metrosex-mania, however, lies not with my irresistibly contagious prose, or even Salon’s worldwide e-popularity, but the very canny trend-spotter for a giant global advertising company who picked up the concept and, with the help of some research that seemed to show that metrosexuals really did exist, made over the metrosexual into a marketing tool with which to seduce the world media. Snarky sociology, which is no good to anyone, was transmuted into highly profitable demography, which everyone wants a piece of.
How did you first come up with the term and what did you mean by it then?
When I first deployed the word in 1994 in the Independent, a British newspaper, I did so to describe a new, narcissistic, media-saturated, self-conscious kind of masculinity. This was the version of masculinity produced by Hollywood, advertising and glossy magazines to replace traditional, repressed, unreflexive, unmoisturized masculinity, which didn’t go shopping enough, and which thought — ha! — that it was enough to earn money for wives or girlfriends to spend. In the ’80s it had seemed as if this kind of man only really existed in ads. By the early ’90s, it was already alarmingly clear that life was imitating bad art. At least to someone like me, who had spent too much time thinking about such things.
The concept grew out of my 1994 book “Male Impersonators,” which analyzed the effect an increasingly aestheticized and inauthentic world was having on masculinity. I meant “metrosexual” as cheeky satire, but also as sober social observation. I think it’s unlikely that I was the first ever to utter the word, but it appears that I was the first in print and the first to elaborate a concept behind it. Something I will have to learn to live with.
How do you feel about some people using the term without crediting you?
Relieved, in many cases. In the U.S. I’ve almost been credited too much — at least after Warren St. John at the New York Times took the trouble to “contact trace” and finger me as the source: Patient MetroZero. In the U.K., however, it doesn’t appear as if a single journalist writing about metrosexuals — and there have been scores of them — has bothered to even Google the word. Most have lazily — and cravenly — attributed it to “New York admen.” Which does make you suddenly much more proprietary about your concepts, much less inclined to see ideas as homeless, delightfully fickle, promiscuous things. Maybe the dramatically different response on opposite sides of the pond has something to do with American journalistic professionalism and the fact your country was founded on a literally religious investment in original texts. Or maybe it’s just that it’s much easier to sue in the U.S.
Is there really such a thing as a metrosexual? Or is it just a convenient pigeonhole?
Well, “metrosexual” is a rather ludicrous category, but no more ludicrous perhaps than “heterosexual” or “homosexual.” I’d say he’s as real as either of those categories. Arguably more so. The metrosexual is a recognizable species; you can point to one. Pointing to a heterosexual or homosexual is generally not as easy, without following them home to check. Not least because of the proliferation of the metrosexual.
What do you think of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”?
Clearly it’s meant to be “Metrosexuality: The Reality TV Show.” In a makeover culture it’s the ultimate makeover show because what is being made over is masculinity itself. However, the basic premise is, it has to be said, a lie. I know this will come as a shock to millions, but gays are not necessarily more stylish than straight men. Exhibit A: the gay fashion “expert” on “Queer Eye” [Carson Kressley] who dispenses sartorial advice while dressed like the Children Snatcher in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”
And Exhibit B? Well, me. The queer daddy of the metrosexual, ladies and gents, is more of a lesbosexual — though this is no doubt a terrible slight on the stylishness of lesbians. I hate shopping and make one trip a year to a huge out-of-town sportswear warehouse to buy my year’s supply of manmade-fiber clothing. Yes, I go to the gym, but mostly because it’s the only club that will let me in, in my lesbianwear. Urban, fashion-conscious gays accessorizing masculinity and desirability may have provided the prototype for metrosexuality, but they’re the discarded, beta version.
Ironically, part of the reason for the popularity of “Queer Eye” may be that it reassures the audience that the “queer eye” belongs to queers, rather than to the millions of nongay men at whom metrosexual advertising is aimed.
In your original definition, the sexual orientation of a metrosexual is immaterial. Yet in most of the coverage and the marketing literature he is described as straight. Why is this?
Partly, as I say, because all gays are assumed to be stylish and well-presented. This is what “gay” means, apparently. However, describing the metrosexual as being straight is slightly silly. But then, advertising always sells things as being the opposite of what they are. Yes, most metrosexuals go to bed with women, and will only ever go to bed with women, but there is nothing “straight” about metrosexuality. It “queers” all the codes of official masculinity of the last hundred years or so: It’s passive where it should always be active, desired where it should always be desiring, looked at where it should always be looking. That most metrosexuals aren’t gay or bisexual only makes things even queerer. A hetero metrosexual checks out 1) himself, 2) other metros — how else to know what’s “in” this season? — and 3) women that match his key colors. Not necessarily in that order, but then not unnecessarily in that order either.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about metrosexuality is that it represents the beginning of the end of “sexuality,” the 19th century pseudo-science of sexual preference that said that personality and identity are dictated by whether or not your partner’s genitals are the same shape as yours. In a hyperconsumerist post-industrial age like ours, identity and personality are not permitted to be inherent — it would put most ad agencies out of business — and are instead based on lifestyle choices, consumption patterns, brands, social circles. As a measure of this, there are even glossy lifestyle magazines for same-sex and cross-sex couples. Love — and also reproduction — is a lifestyle. The sexual orientation of metrosexuals is obviously important to them and their partners, but their identity is not based on it, and from a cultural-commercial point of view it is almost immaterial.
From a marketing perspective, though, it makes perfect sense to maintain officially that metrosexuals are all straight — after all, advertising is trying to persuade as many men as possible to relax their sphincter muscles, cooing in their ear that there’s nothing gay about being fucked by corporate consumerism. Which, ironically, is true.
Are hetero metrosexuals really latent homosexuals?
Certainly it would make life easier and less worrying for retrosexuals if this were true — and I notice that in certain slightly, shall we say, clenched circles, metrosexual has become another word for “homo” or “fag.” Unfortunately for these threatened types — and also for me — this is just wishful, over-tidy thinking, homophobic housework. Hetero metros are not “really” gay — they’re just really metrosexual. In point of fact, hetero metrosexuals are probably rather less “latent” than retrosexuals. They are, after all, rather blatant — in their flirtatiousness. Their identity is not based on a constant repudiation of homosexuality. What the retrosexual finds repugnant in the metrosexual is his invitation of the gaze — a gaze that is not and cannot be gendered or straightened out. They’re equal-opportunity narcissists.
Homoerotics, rather than homosexuality, is an inevitable and obvious part of male narcissism — just as it is for female narcissism, hence “lesbian chic.” Which is one of the reasons why it has been discouraged for so long. This isn’t to say that most metrosexuals want to go to bed with other men — not even so as to generously share their beauty with the half of the human race so far deprived of it — it’s just that they aren’t necessarily repulsed by the male body in the way that many retrosexuals like to assert, repeatedly, they are. By extension, their interest in women is not necessarily driven by self-loathing or a need to prove their virility; it’s a matter of taste and pleasure. Which I suspect many women find something of a relief, not to mention a turn-on. Though admittedly some women may feel that the metrosexual is too much like competition.
Who best personifies the metrosexual, besides David Beckham?
Tom Cruise. He’s in his 40s now, but he uses all the technology of beauty and fashion to remain a desirable, smooth-skinned, buffed boy with a tarty grin. He’s still Maverick from the definitive ’80s movie “Top Gun.” Actually, he’s still the adolescent with no pants jumping up and down on the sofa in “Risky Business.” Hence the “Missy Impossible” movies are really all about his impossible quest to remain eternally youthful and desirable — and the sex object of his own movies. This is the narrative that all metrosexuals are destined to act out, though most with rather less help from Hollywood makeup artists, filters and CGI. Metrosexuality is just a ticking clock away from mutton-dressed-as-lamb-ness. I understand that in his latest film Tom’s finally grown a beard, but I’ll bet you ready money that it’s full of hair products. Like the metrosexual, there is no “mystery” about his sexual preference — his stunningly successful film career is a testament to his passionate love affair with … Tom.
Is the metrosexual a product of Gen X? That is, having no heroes, does a man then turn inward and start adoring himself?
It’s more a case of having no father. Metrosexuals are all “bastards” inasmuch as they want to be their own special creation, though they perhaps end up being the offspring of corporate culture. They do have heroes, but usually only aesthetic ones. Men who are famous for their looks and style, rather than, say, their political or military achievements. They do admire sporting heroes, but generally only the ones with the best (media) profile and product endorsement deals.
Is Howard Dean, who briefly outed himself as a metrosexual, really metro?
Well, he’s a modern politician. So of course he desires to be desired, particularly by the media. And as we know, the metrosexual is the favorite love object of the media these days. Perhaps Dean also had heard from the marketers about how “female-friendly” the metrosexual supposedly is. I notice, however, that he ran back in the metro closet shortly after outing himself.
Arguably, though, all politicians operating in Western democracies have to be at least a little bit metro these days, to attract flattering media attention as well as female and male X’s. They’re all a little bit Mel Gibson in “What Women Want”: admen trying on women’s underwear and beauty products in the bathroom to “get inside” women’s … minds. Some are less openly metro than others. When Air National Guard absentee George W. Bush dressed up in Cruise’s “Top Gun” costume and used the USS Abraham Lincoln as a giant, nuclear-powered strap-on, that was as brazen an exhibition of cross-dressing as there’s ever been. But it was represented by Bush’s P.R. machine as evidence of his “real,” “down-home,” “all-guy” masculinity.
What about Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has been called metrosexual?
Yes, definitely, but not, as has been suggested, because he wears Prada shoes. As a multimillionaire film star, what else is he supposed to wear? Flip-flops? Rather, Arnie is an example of (early) metrosexuality, proto-metro if you will, because, after watching too many Steve Reeves movies as a boy, he became devoted to his physique, turning himself into a spectacle, a sign, a commodity, one that was eventually noticed and bought by Hollywood — and used to seduce hundreds of millions of other boys around the world into turning themselves into commodities. This is the new American Dream: Don’t live it, become it. Arnie was a new kind of working-class hero, one who works on himself, laboring for aesthetics. As we now know, beefcake can become the most powerful man in the wealthiest — and most metrosexual — state in the U.S. Arnie may have been accused of groping women in real life, but it was mostly men’s bodies that he assaulted and aroused at the movies, which, because these were early days for metrosexuality, had to be “action” movies which frantically disavowed the passivity — and redundancy — of his aestheticized body.
How different is a metrosexual from a yuppie?
A metrosexual would never wear padded shoulders. He’d be wearing a sleeveless shirt to show off his deliciously developed deltoids and designer tattoos. Yuppies, anyway, are now a defunct and meaningless category because since the ’80s everyone in the Western world has become one, or wants to be one. Give or take a few anti-capitalist protesters in balaclavas.
What’s the relationship between metrosexuals and bourgeois bohemians, known as bobos?
A bobo would rather go to a gallery opening than the gym. A metrosexual would probably rather read the Abercrombie & Fitch catalog, or Wallpaper, than David Brooks’ “Bobos in Paradise.”
So, really, what’s the difference between a metrosexual and a homosexual?
Metrosexuals are better dressed. Homosexuals are so last season.
What role will the homosexual play in the future?
Do metrosexuals have to be wealthy or middle class?
This is a common fallacy, partly based on the idea that working-class equals authentic and middle-class equals inauthentic. It’s actually a matter of spending priorities. Most metrosexuals in Britain, for example, are probably working class. David Beckham, like most of his male fans, is from a working-class family; he may have rather more money than most and get his togs for free, but this just means that he’s been able to continue his metrosexuality longer and on a larger, more frightening scale than most working-class men. Who, until recently, have had to give up these tendencies when they take on a family.
Partly as a legacy of the now-expired British aesthetic youth movements of teddy boys, mods and glam rockers, working-class men in the U.K. spend more per head on clothes and cosmetics than any other group in Europe. They tend to live with their dear old mums longer than middle-class boys, so much of their income is disposable; and because of their status they tend to be more keen to advertise. They also tend to have a more direct — and historical — relationship to the male body than middle-class boys. Though now they go to the gym instead of doon tha pit, if I can go all D.H. Lawrence on you for a second.
Are metrosexuals really such a modern phenomenon? What about dandies?
A metrosexual wouldn’t be caught dead in a powdered wig — though he might be tempted by the stockings and buckled shoes. Sorry to be pedantic, but dandies were an 18th century phenomenon. Metrosexuals belong to the 21st century. Dandyism was the pursuit of an elite, mostly aristocratic, or wannabe aristo group of men and was largely a way of advertising their wealth, idleness and refined taste. Metrosexuality is a mainstream, mass-consumer phenomenon involving the complete commodification of the male body. It takes Hollywood, ads, sports and glossy magazines as its inspirational gallery, rather than high classicism. The metrosexual desires to be desired. The dandy aimed to be admired. Or at least bitched about.
That said, there are continuities. Oscar Wilde, probably the most famous and most populist dandy of the last century, would have understood metrosexuality and might even have approved of it — he did once declare: “To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.” Even if he could never have lived up to its exacting, athletic standards himself. It was Wilde’s trial and imprisonment for “gross indecency” at the end of the 19th century that popularized the Homosexual: The word was coined in 1860 — and, like “metrosexual,” is a forbidden and unfortunate conjugation of Greek with Latin. It also symbolized the triumph of the Industrial Age notion that male sensuality, aestheticism and narcissism were pathological, perverted and criminal. At least when you did them right. It was the decidedly middle-class concept of “sexuality” that killed the dandy. Now, fittingly enough, the metrosexual is killing sexuality.
Would the metrosexual still exist if the media didn’t pay attention to him?
No, but then he’s a product of the media, so it’s a trick question. You can’t have metrosexuals without the media; you can’t have a global media without metrosexuals. Metrosexuality is one of the most flagrant symptoms of a media-tized world: The male body was the last frontier and it’s now being thoroughly explored and mapped. Though admittedly, the media’s gangbang of the metrosexual, their own love child, is slightly incestuous, or at least nepotistic.
Have glossy women’s magazines helped create metrosexuality? Do the magazines influence the woman, so that the woman influences the man?
Possibly, though again I think men’s relationship to consumerism and temptation is more direct and not something that we can blame on Eve’s shamelessness. Metrosexual men are the way they are because they like what they see in the mirror. Women’s glossy magazines have had an influence on men mostly via men’s magazines, which have become, like women’s magazines, gender manuals, maps and bibles.
Is metrosexuality related to transvestism or transsexuality?
I suspect the rise of metrosexuality may actually lead to a decline in male transvestism. Or, at least, it will no longer be noticed. Beckham, after all, likes to wear sarongs and his wife’s knickers but is not seriously accused of being a transvestite. In a metrosexual world it will no longer be necessary for men to change sex surgically or sartorially in order to indulge their narcissistic and exhibitionistic tendencies. Which is progress of a kind, I suppose.
Is metrosexuality a sign of male confidence or a sign of weakness?
Very good question. I’m rather conflicted on this one. But then, so is the metrosexual. The answer is: both. Metrosexuality depends on a certain kind of anxiety about identity — as a creation of advertising, the metrosexual couldn’t be anything else. Metrosexuality also represents a switch in the power relations between the sexes and, in traditional terms, an “emasculation” of the male. On the other hand, metrosexuality is a sign of a certain kind of sexual confidence or “liberation” on the part of men — they can express “unmanly” desires they have always harbored but have had to repress for generations. It can also be a way of asserting a new, aesthetic power in an aestheticized world. A wealthy, successful male like Beckham can enhance his success and wealth via a “submissive” metrosexuality, and even be perceived as a better athlete as a result. Someone who looks like a male masseur at a Palm Springs spa can become governor of California.
Did you know that “metrosexual” means “motherfucker” in Greek?
No, but thank you for pointing it out. It does make a certain kind of sense. Metrosexuality is the sensibility of the New Matriarchy. It’s post-Oedipal. Dad is largely out of the picture, replaced by Nike and Playstation. The metrosexual family romance, the cradle of male narcissism, is just Junior and an adoring Mom. It’s why, from a certain perspective, Italians have been metrosexuals for years.
Is a metrosexual a straight man in touch with his feminine side?
This common definition is a more polite version of the “straight men who act gay” line. Implicit in it is the laughably mistaken notion that gay men are by definition in touch with their feminine sides. Actually, male homosexuality could be characterized as less an attraction to men and more of lifelong flight from the feminine — a terror of the womb-tomb and suffocating domesticity. Arguably a straight man is the one who really gets in touch with his “feminine side” — when he gets married. Admittedly, though, gay men — all of them, without exception, even lesbosexuals like me — are no stranger to the phenomenon of male narcissism. And narcissism has been seen as the feminine quality par excellence — even though Narcissus was in fact a bloke.
Again, it was the hallmark of the sublimating 19th century and its division of labor that all desire, beauty, sensuality and “weakness” had to be projected onto the female. It’s why the female nude replaced the male nude in art (the male nude had been dominant since ancient times) and why women became so pathologized. It is the hallmark of a metrosexual world, where the male nude sometimes seems to have replaced the female, that what is masculine and what is feminine are no longer quite so self-evident — perhaps because they never were.
Is the metrosexual a good or a bad thing? You have made fun of him quite a bit.
I have to confess I’ve been something of a deadbeat dad. I’ve been very hard on the metrosexual. I’ve taken some cheap shots, pointed and laughed at him and then abandoned him to the marketing people and the media. I’d like to think I was just trying to toughen him up, but probably it was reverse-Oedipal: I’m just jealous of his complexion and all the attention he gets. He isn’t without some redeeming and naturally attractive features, which I’ve tended to overlook. But as for whether the metrosexual is, in the long run, all things considered, taken as a (w)hole, a good or bad thing, I can’t say. It might be said that metrosexuality represents a certain kind of liberation of the male, but I suspect it’s another kind of enslavement, albeit a better-dressed variety.
The only thing that’s certain about the metrosexual is that he’s the kind of man that the modern world deserves.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)