You don’t have to speak with Dorian Electra for very long before you begin to see the fluidity in everything in the world around you: gender, masculinity, strip clubs, whether the protagonist in their splashy seminal single “Career Boy” is a sub or Dom. This open-minded thinking is exactly what has led them to become a beloved underground pop icon, using their glitchy, glamorous pop as a sledgehammer to strike down cisnormativity and binaries.
“You can make people think, but then also make people dance and have a good time,” they say over the phone from their native Houston. “It doesn’t have to be explicitly educational, but if it makes somebody challenge their own ideas or thoughts about something, I consider that to be a good goal for me and my work.” It’s a refreshing take on pop music, which isn’t typically seen as an academic tool in the mainstream. For Electra, it’s an outlet for their impressive yearslong education in philosophy, history, and productive discourse, first displayed in a series of historical bops they created in 2016. “It was really cool to be able to directly apply all the stuff that I learned about Freud and the history of anatomy to pop music,” they recall.
Since then, they’ve released back-to-back hits that apply different ideas to pop music; namely, gender fluidity and the gender spectrum, as well as rethinking cisnormativity. “Man to Man” reframes masculinity as vulnerability, “Adam & Steve” remixes the biblical story of the creation of man, and “Flamboyant”—the title track from Electra’s July 2019 debut album, and arguably their most successful single—embraces a word that has been used as a weapon against the queer community. What’s more, Electra makes it all look damn good, having established a lush, playful aesthetic for their visuals and wardrobe, with their pencil-thin mustache as the cherry on top.
Here, Electra reflects on how they came to merge gender fluidity with academia and pop, what personal experiences inspired Flamboyant, and, yes, whether Career Boy is a sub or Dom.
The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.
I’d love to start with your introduction to music. Tell me a bit about how and when you started creating your own music.
My dad introduced me to a lot of rock bands and would take me to concerts from a really young age, and my mom did musical theater and sang in a band when she was younger. So music was always a big part of my life in that way. I did musical theater myself as a kid, then, when I got to high school, I started getting more interested in actually playing music and trying to learn stuff on the keyboard. I had a bunch of friends who were also into music, and we started producing songs on GarageBand and different programs, and getting really into synths. And I would always do projects and book reports in song form and video form. Summarizing info that I was learning about in school, in a song—I feel like that’s where all that started for me.
…if our idea of masculinity is being brave and courageous, then true masculinity would be being brave and courageous enough to open up and not be afraid to be vulnerable.Dorian Electra
It sounds like your family laid a solid foundation for you to pursue all these different interests, and to explore your identity, too.
I just feel so lucky. My parents have also been supportive of my friends, especially queer friends that don’t have necessarily like the most supportive family backgrounds. So many of my friends throughout high school would always hang out at my house. I feel like we opened up our whole family to be that for my friends, too.
Your music and videos are known for being thought-provoking. Why is it so important for you to have such an informed take in your music?
It’s just really cool to be able to blend academic ideas or philosophy with something that’s really accessible like pop music. It’s taking those ideas out of the realm of an academic context and making it fun. You can make people think, but then also make people dance and have a good time. It doesn’t have to be explicitly educational, but if it makes somebody challenge their own ideas or thoughts about something, I consider that to be a good goal for me and my work.
How would you say that applies to Flamboyant? What are the thoughts you sought to inspire or inform within people who listen to the album?
It was a really interesting personal exploration for me. I had this desire to explore these different masculine characters in the music as a way to explore myself. It wasn’t always as academic or heavy as people write about, or that I’m able to talk about after the fact. When I was making the songs, I was just like, “I want to write a song about me being a person that wants to be castrated, and make it a pop song.” It can be analyzed him after the fact: “Oh, that’s a critique of toxic masculinity.” It is, but also as an artist, it’s important to just have the personal exploration be the initial driving factor in [your work]. It doesn’t have to be, “I’m going to teach people about this or that;” sometimes it’s just subconscious. And that’s kind of the place I am at now where I’m thinking about the new music I’m going to start making soon.
But I definitely want to challenge ideas of toxic masculinity, make people think about gender, and challenge norms in pop music by switching up pronouns and [creating] more unexpected combinations of music—be gender-bending and-genre bending. And also tell people, “It’s okay to be yourself. It’s okay to be uncool. It’s okay to be weird and flamboyant.”
[Masculinity is] not, “I’m not gonna back down”…but rather, “I’m going to have enough confidence in my own ideas to openly doubt them and hear out others that are saying the opposite of me.”Dorian Electra
You mention the album is somewhat of a personal exploration, so what personal experiences inspired the message behind the title track?
I think a lot of it came from when I first moved to L.A. I’m talking around early 2018. I was seeing all these other people doing this, like, minimal pop that they thought they were supposed to do because it was going to pop off on Spotify. I loved all of that music, but I felt pressured to make music like that. Then as I was making more music and working with people, and playing shows, I realized that what makes me unique is my strength as an artist. I was feeling self-conscious about needing to tone myself down, or make myself into something that was more palatable or appealing. I put like “Career Boy” out, then I did “VIP” and “Man to Man,” and realized that people were gravitating towards me. I was so surprised by the amazing reception and how much people loved it. I thought people were going to write [“Career Boy”] off as some goofy thing or they weren’t going to get it, but then seeing people’s reaction to it, especially from the queer and trans community—with me being this masculine-presenting, nonbinary person doing pop music—it is so validating. Other people have expressed that they feel validated by the fact that there’s an artist out there like me, but it was just as validating for me to get the reaction from the audience. So I feel like that gave me the confidence to be one hundred percent myself. I’m not going to tone it down or turn it down for anybody or anything.
To what extent did working at a strip club in the past inform your definition of masculinity as it’s expressed in songs like “Man to Man”?
It definitely did inform so many of my experiences. I wasn’t a stripper on the pole, but I did private and topless lap dances, and sold shots—I don’t want to take away from people that are pole dancers because that’s a whole skillset I do not have and wish I did. [Laughs] I definitely saw some instances of toxic masculinity for sure, but I also saw a lot of really tender moments. There were really emotional, beautiful experiences where people were really just coming in and looking for human connection in any form: somebody to talk to, somebody to be close to. There were some really touching experiences that really exceeded my expectations, and things I just could have never predicted. That was the majority of the experiences I had more so than really negative ones. It definitely taught me a lot about the dynamics of masculinity and femininity. It also really shaped me and made me a lot more comfortable with my body too, as a performer. It gave me confidence because people were actually paying to come see me and my body. It was sexy to me and arousing in that way, too. I think that like helped open up a lot of things that I’d been so uncomfortable about with my own sexuality as well.
It’s funny: you’re known for the way you reframe ideas in your music, and here you are doing it naturally in conversation. But all of that considered, how do you define masculinity? Based on “Man to Man,” you see a vulnerability in it.
With “Man to Man,” what I’m trying to say is that if our idea of masculinity is like being brave and courageous, then true masculinity would be being brave and courageous enough to open up and not be afraid to be vulnerable. That’s my bite-sized definition of the positive form of masculinity. But I also feel it’s so abstract and kind of hard to talk about, too. I talk about in almost every interview but then I’m like, “Well, what does this mean again?”
So what does it mean specifically for your own identity? How does that positive form of masculinity play a role in who you are?
As a kid I’ve always identified more with masculine things in a way, from my heroes and people I looked up to, to traits that I identified with: being outspoken and assertive, and those things that are traditionally viewed as masculine things. But then, in high school, I had a lot of experience with Socratic dialogue and was on the debate team. I actually wasn’t very good at debate, but my interests then became more about dialogue. I was learning about dialogue and how to have peaceful civil discourse where people can come to mutual understandings and really hear each other’s ideas out. That was a big part of my life. Even the college that I went to was dialogue-based. It’s why I chose to go there. No lectures or textbooks, just reading original source texts and discussing it together as a class with the teacher. So when I’m thinking about my kind of masculinity, in a positive way, it’s not, “I’m not gonna back down” or being aggressive or those those things that are sometimes associated with masculinity, but rather, “I’m going to have enough confidence in my own ideas to openly doubt them and hear out others that are saying the opposite of me.” It’s being able to have patience with someone that’s being combative with you.
I definitely want to challenge ideas of toxic masculinity, make people think about gender, and challenge norms in pop music by switching up pronouns and [creating] more unexpected combinations of music—be gender-bending and-genre bending.Dorian Electra
Switching gears to talk about your visuals: I know you’re pretty hands on with them, and you have a signature style. How did you develop your directing skills?
I have been directing videos since high school, just for fun or school projects. I started working with my partner Weston Allen and Mood Killer in 2013 or something, when we were in college. We’ve done so many videos together, for my stuff and for Mood Killer’s and Weston’s stuff as musicians, for other bands, and educational projects. Weston edits all the videos, Weston and I co-direct, and I style my own videos. We do all of the roles ourselves. At first it was out of necessity, like many small productions where you’re doing all of the aspects of it because you don’t have another option or you don’t have the budget. But now, we’re still operating in that same way, even though it might look like it’s a bigger production. I produce the videos: I get the crew together, rent the space, rent the gear. It’s really just a community of our cinematographer, Taylor Russ, that works with us, and a few other key people that just really make it happen. It’s that kind of DIY spirit that has enabled us to develop our own style. Even when I’m in the studio writing songs, I’m oftentimes thinking about, if I were to do a music video for it, this is what I’d be wearing, and this would be the color scheme. My mind is very visually oriented, so I tend to think of the visuals like as I’m thinking of the music, too. I always want to tell a story that’s bigger than just the music alone.
Makeup is very much so a huge part of that story as well, but it seems as though it’s a lot more than something cosmetic for you. What value does makeup have for you?
Throughout my life I’ve had a mixed relationship with makeup. I was into it as a kid, loved playing around with my mom’s makeup, and then when I was older, I used it because I was really self-conscious about my skin. I’d also draw on beards and huge lips for funny little characters in videos. Later I started feeling like if I wore a ton of makeup, I’d feel too feminine. I got more involved with the drag community and started to see makeup as a means of self-expression that was beyond covering up or feminizing. I saw it as this whole avenue for creating some alien creature version of yourself. I was also hanging out Chicago club kids and was super influenced and inspired by them. And then I started drawing the mustache.
How did the mustache make you feel that first time you drew it on?
Amazing. It looked incredible. I felt like I could put on tons of makeup and still feel like it’s grounded by this masculine element. That just allowed me to explore all kinds of super feminine makeup that I actually really love, but then feel like it’s grounded by this mustache. I like to be playful with it and subvert expectations, and make people think. It’s really fun.
It’s okay to be yourself. It’s okay to be uncool. It’s okay to be weird and flamboyant.Dorian Electra
Being that you’re so open about your identity, a lot of outlets refer to your music as “queer pop.” What’s your take on that?
On one hand, I think it’s really cool because it’s highlighting queer artists and I think that that’s really the most important thing: giving a voice to people. Queer and trans people of color are making amazing art, and to make sure to highlight their voices, especially, is super important. Ideally, we’re moving towards all of those artists being just artists and held in the same regard as other artists. But in the meantime, it is important to specially acknowledge these people’s art. It’s actually cool because in a way it groups together all these people that share something in common, but the music styles itself can be really different. I see people grouping together artists like King Princess, Kim Petra and Dorian Electra, and that’s really cool.
Let’s get into the questions from our Salty Members. Nina asks: As a landscape architect, I’m very interested in how outdoor spaces can reflect, support, and nurture freedom of identity and creativity, and ways of living. What would your fantasy public park or your own garden be like?
Oh, that’s cool. I’ve thought about this a lot. In the past, I was into architecture and had a bunch of friends on the same campus as me that were studying architecture in Chicago. I like the idea of having physical spaces where communities can come together and have dialogue that aren’t consumer-based. People can gather at the mall but the purpose there is to shop. It’s not like having like public parks where people can come together to do yoga or play sports or have a reading group outdoors. Or even live shows and music concerts, having outdoor space for that. That’s really important for creating community. The school that I went to, we didn’t have desks but we had work areas for groups. We also had these big community meetings where there was electrical tape in a circle or square on the ground. Every morning, that’s where we’d do our lessons. Everybody’s facing each other and engaging with one another.
I thought people were going to write [“Career Boy”] off as some goofy thing or they weren’t going to get it, but then seeing people’s reaction to it, especially from like the queer and trans community…is so validating.Dorian Electra
Finally: Is Career Boy a sub or Dom?
There’s a classic sub element in there, for sure, in terms of getting whipped and wanting to be a slave to the work and all of that. But I also like the idea of erasing that binary between sub and Dom. Even though people do fall into those categories, even as tops and bottoms, I feel like it can be the same way that saying “masculine” and “feminine,” or “man” and “woman” can close your mind off to other possibilities and ways of being. I’ve found that I like to try to approach those things as fluidly as I can to keep options, identities and experiences open to myself.