"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)
Topics: Entertainment News
“I love to dance. I love my body, and I love to take my clothes off.” – Brian, 28, of VH1′s “Strip Search” explaining his life’s passions
This guy’s a freak, right? Wrong. Let’s call him a smoothie, the modern version of a pretty boy, a waxed-chested breed that’s far more prevalent and far more high-maintenance than those dabbling urban metrosexuals. The smoothie transcends the scope of “Queer Eye” and is centered not in the big cities, but in the small towns where decades of boy bands and hair products and Chess King fashions have filtered into the cultural groundwater, until most young men have a grasp of personal hygiene, style and flamboyant behavior that the older, crustier and less hygienic among us can hardly fathom.
If the heavily primped contestants of VH1′s “Strip Search” seem to constitute a particularly skewed sample, take a gander at MTV or the WB or other young channels, where the men not only look uniformly cleaner than they have since the ’50s, but their bodies are totally hairless, their hair boasts triple-processed highlights, and their behavior wavers between prancing, posturing, exhibitionism and Madonna-style outbursts. Next, check out VH1′s “Kept,” where a gaggle of smoothies competes very sincerely and fiercely for the chance to become Jerry Hall’s arm candy, enjoying her wealthy and fabulous lifestyle while presumably accompanying her to events, following her orders, and servicing her engine in exchange.
If that doesn’t convince you, flip over to “Blow Out,” where each week we witness a stiffly gelled yet demonstrably straight hairstylist don the James Dean white-T-and-jeans look that was once a gay club boy staple, start catfights with business partners and stylists in his salons, then retreat to therapy to cry his eyes out while the cameras roll. Or, check out Wes of “The Real World: Austin,” whose audition tape included footage of him dancing in a G-string, and a confession that he’s always had a secret dream of becoming a male stripper. And if these examples don’t convince you that a sea change in the definition of masculinity is reaching the masses and not just the cloistered urban elites, look around your average college campus. These kids keep themselves so trimmed and ironed and clean and buff, even sprawling state campuses have the preening, swaggery feel of a huge outdoor gay nightclub.
This vast movement of shiny, swashbuckling heterosexuality engulfs the “metrosexual” tag like the whale swallowing Jonah. While the metrosexual spends a lot at Barney’s, shops for heirloom tomatoes at Dean & Deluca, keeps his CD collection carefully alphabetized, and nurtures a wide range of house plants without help from his gay friends, the smoothie is a horse of a different color. He isn’t necessarily an effete city dweller; more often than not he lives in Iowa or Florida or Oregon or California. His interest in fashion isn’t about keeping up appearances — he’s not some slick lawyer with a penchant for Armani or some young actor trying to look appropriately hip. The smoothie’s interest in his “look” is more deeply felt and sincere than that, not to mention slightly misguided and disturbingly meticulous: Baseball caps are molded, painstakingly, into the perfect C-shape; stubble is trimmed into the perfect Don Johnson-style 5 o’clock shadow; “distressed” jeans, with their calculated faded patches and hemmed rips, are cleaned and pressed and tugged just below the waist; eyebrows are waxed, as is back, chest and (gasp) the family jewels to boot. The smoothie spends a lot not just on clothes and haircuts, but on highlights, spray-tans, manicures and pedicures, bodybuilding formulas, gym memberships, dry cleaning bills, man jewelry and hip-hop classes. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the smoothie is like a cross between a frat boy and Britney Spears.
Whether this shiny, pretty new take on masculinity is the product of decades of primped heartthrobs, a redefining of gender roles that’s finally come to fruition, or just the result of an endless onslaught of marketing campaigns by the fashion and beauty industries in pursuit of the single male’s dollar is anybody’s guess. Maybe the definition of masculinity has been so limited for so long that young men have decided to stretch its boundaries in ways that appear daring or even odd to the rest of us. Sure, there have been plenty of boundary-pushing fashion trends for men over the years — the sequins and tight pants and audaciousness of David Bowie and Mick Jagger in the ’70s, earrings and tapered pants and blousy rayon shirts of the ’80s — but they were adopted by urban hipsters or artists or alternative types. The smoothies aren’t on the fringe, they’re part of mainstream America.
Plenty of pop cultural anthropologists — not to mention the publicists at Bravo — would be happy to sum up this movement as the direct result of the popularity of “Queer Eye,” but the shift predates the premiere of “Queer Eye” two years ago. These guys aren’t new to the game, having just recently cleaned up and polished their looks. They’ve been into this stuff since they danced along to “New Kids on the Block” when they were in diapers.
Still, when the hosts of “Strip Search” announce that the guys get to go on a shopping trip, and the room explodes into cheering and high-fives, it’s like watching the tides change suddenly and drastically. Even the two hosts laugh and look at each other, completely confused. “Oh my god, they’re so excited! I had no idea they were gonna get that excited!” Downstairs, we cut to the guys singing together, “We’re going shopping! We’re going shopping!” as they hurriedly change clothes to leave.
What’s really interesting about “Strip Search” is that many of the guys aren’t dancers, have no experience performing, and didn’t necessarily consider becoming strippers before they auditioned in their hometowns. Nonetheless, they’re all extremely determined to make the final troupe of seven men, fashioned after the popular male revue “Thunder From Down Under.”
“I know everybody in this house wants it more than anything,” says Jason, 19. “This is everybody’s chance. This is everybody’s ticket.”
And so we watch them snap and shimmy through dance routines around the clock, stopping only to swill beer, give each other hell, and rub self-tanning lotion onto each other’s backs. Keep in mind, these are guys who actually see the term “pretty boy” as a compliment. “I don’t mean to be vain or arrogant but I think myself, Sean and Ryan are the pretty boys of the house,” says Brian, who’s a cable technician from Kentucky, “Because I think that we’re probably the top as far as body-wise, and we always have a good time.”
Shiny, smooth-chested, meticulously styled Danny of “The Real World: Austin” has similar kind words for his buddy in the house, shiny, smooth-chested, meticulously styled Wes. “Wes is a typical frat guy,” says Danny, “and I love that about him! We get along great.”
It’s no wonder they get along great: They both love ogling the hot girls in the house, high-fiving, getting drunk, and jumping in the hot tub. Does Danny know that Wes gyrated in a G-string in his audition tape, or that his secret dream is to become a stripper? Somehow, given the nature of their friendship, which seems to alternate between macho posturing (puffed chests and “whatever, dude” nonchalance) and girlish gushing (grinning, giggling and confessional talks about which girls they like the most), this new bit of information shouldn’t be a problem.
Then there are the boys of VH1′s “Kept,” who compete with startling sincerity to be Jerry Hall’s arm candy. The guys are not only willing to jump through absurd hoops to win Hall’s favor, from learning table manners to posing nude, but they become very jealous when one of the other guys has a successful date with Hall — successful meaning he makes pleasant small talk and kisses up to her fabulous friends with enthusiasm.
That’s not to say that Hall is looking for a pretty boy: When Ricardo, a self-involved guy who talks endlessly about his good genes, substitutes a strip tease for an improvised dance, Hall and her friends roll their eyes and send him packing. The other guys certainly see Ricardo and his primping sidekick Slavco as a joke, but they’ve all surrendered themselves to Hall’s wishes and don’t seem at all ashamed at the thought of assuming a very public role as Hall’s trophy boyfriend.
You would think that “Average Joe: The Joes Strike Back” might offer one last stronghold against the smoothie onslaught, but no such luck. In its first season, this show was trumpeted as a chance for a regular-looking guy to win the heart of a hot babe, but the producers couldn’t help slipping a few smoothies in at the last second. This season, not only is the usual herd of smoothies invading just when the skinny nerds and big, hairy guys are starting to get some game, but each week, one of the rejected regular joes returns after an extreme makeover. The first reject, Nick, a dorky magician, gets a haircut, some new clothes, a little cosmetic dentistry, and plastic surgery to remove extra fat under his eyes and to help define his jaw line. He’s also told by a lifestyle coach not to talk about magic or show girls magic tricks quite so often. In other words, act like your head is made of hamburger, just like a smoothie! The results? Nick doesn’t look any better, and now he’s sure to have no personality whatsoever.
Meanwhile, the herd of smoothies elsewhere on the TV dial are straining their hamburgers just to keep the camera interested in their empty himbo lives. Take Alec, 29, of SoapNet’s “I Wanna Be a Soap Star”: “I was blessed with pretty good abs to begin with, and I take care of them,” he tells the camera. Then, when pressed, he adds: “Girls often come up to me and ask me about my abs, yes. Yeah, they might want to touch them, too. They’re out there, they’re there to be seen and touched.”
Remember how, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the camera was attracted to almost any tall, big-breasted blond, and we often had to sit through their rambling thoughts as well? Thanks to the work of pioneers like Fabio, today the camera loves the smoothie even more.
Men who indulge in careful grooming and enjoy showing off their bodies aren’t limited to reality TV shows, of course — anyone within spitting distance of a college campus or an Abercrombie & Fitch chain can see that. But to really get up-close and personal, rent a copy of “Guys Gone Wild” and check out a steady flow of ripped abs and meat Chiclets, punctuated by the occasional flash of some completely hairless genitalia. After a few such visions, you’ll start to think that every guy under 30 gets regular Brazilian waxes.
Jonathan of “Blow Out” may be the most shameless smoothie of them all. What he lacks in pumped-up physique he makes up for in behavior, parading his petty grievances, temperamental outbursts and crying jags like a pampered diva. But all that matters to Jonathan is “beautiful hair” — a fact that he reminds us of over and over as he travels from his West Hollywood salon to his Beverly Hills branch to his therapist’s office. Whether he’s pitching a fit about the low quality of his product samples or insulting a member of his design team or refusing to follow his fashion-designer client’s plans for a fashion show, Jonathan is only doing it, you see, because he cares so deeply about beautiful hair. The world is a tough place for Jonathan — we learn this at his therapist’s office, where he wipes away tears and says that he feels like he’s being pulled in a million directions at once.
But it’s not the tears or the narcissistic streaks or those tweaks he gives his gelled hair constantly that make Jonathan such a rubbernecker’s dream. He’s a thoroughly modern character that many of us haven’t met before: the swaggering sensitive guy, all raw nerves and sculpted ends and tight T-shirts. He’s an unfamiliar type, a sniffling, bossy princess who makes Jessica and Ashlee Simpson look like stoics by comparison. Even his girlfriend is in on the joke: When Jonathan climbs the stairs on the way out of his girlfriend’s office and quips, “We’re just like Romeo and Juliet!” his girlfriend responds, “Goodbye, Juliet!”
So, how did the gay male ideal get adopted by so many straight guys, or more important, how did the smoothie upstage the metrosexual? Well, first of all, the smoothie is actually an exaggeration of the gay male ideal: He’s more buff, more hairless, more tan, and yet there are little bits of macho “whatever” clothing thrown in as a hedge, a little signal that he’s not, in fact, gay. In a recent New York Times article about the rise of this gay-vague look, Alice Eisenberg, who works the doors at several gay bars in New York, asserted that she can still tell if a guy is straight or gay, from this telling “whatever” hedge: “The jeans were right, the loafers were right, and he had a good body,” she said of one gay-vague customer, who turned out to be straight. “But the shirt was completely untucked, and I think it was Old Navy.”
If you’re David Beckham, of course, your job is your hedge. British soccer god Beckham, the poster boy for both metrosexuality and smoothiedom, is so confident of his macho image that he has confessed to wearing his wife’s panties, he was recently photographed frolicking in a Speedo on a beach in St. Tropez, and last week he lamented that Gavin Henson was supplanting his place as the favorite among gay admirers. “I think I have lost a lot of my gay fans to Welsh rugby star Gavin Henson,” said Beckham. “It is a shame as I really love them.”
Now, maybe Beckham and Jonathan and the guys on “Strip Search” represent a new, more flexible form of masculinity that’s wild and free and unafraid of seeming gay. Maybe the smoothie can show off and enjoy being objectified without feeling self-conscious about it. Women have had far more freedom to express themselves or hide in masculine clothing for years; it makes sense that men would follow suit eventually. We should probably applaud the newfound freedom and the joy these young men take in being objectified; we should probably stand up and cheer when these shiny boy toys shake their asses and pout like Britney; we should encourage them to dress with flair and enjoy those spa treatments and dream their big Chippendale’s-style dreams.
We should, but we can’t. Because these men might be looking for visual perfection, but we’re not. There’s just something a little bit unappealing about men who spend far more time on themselves than most women do. When the previews for next week’s “Average Joe” flashed an invasion of blond ab monkeys in matching red sports cars, flashing white teeth and spiked hair and shiny, tan six-packs, all I could think was, Where’s the variety? Who wants a bunch of pumped-up clones with the exact same body type?
And what’s so wrong with a little chest hair, anyway? Doesn’t anyone remember Tom Selleck, with his perfect, dark hair-patches that accented his fit-but-not-too-fit barrel chest? To plenty of women and gay men, chest hair gives the bare chest a signature touch or adds a unique feature to an otherwise featureless landscape. Sure, we loved that hairless, buff body in the black-and-white Soloflex ads when we were teenagers, but that was before every third jerk on the street had one.
Plus, it’s more than a little unnerving to feel disheveled and style-less and hairy in comparison to a man. Even if you’re neat and fashionable, there’s still something disturbing about the idea of your boyfriend rubbing self-tanning lotions on his biceps, or lying on his back with his legs spread, getting a Brazilian wax.
But then, maybe I’m just old-fashioned.
Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.More Heather Havrilesky.
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)