The Fans

The Music And Meaning Of 'Paris Is Burning'

Performers featured in Jennie Livingston's 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning. i i

hide captionPerformers featured in Jennie Livingston's 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning.

Off White Prod./The Kobal Collection
Performers featured in Jennie Livingston's 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning.

Performers featured in Jennie Livingston's 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning.

Off White Prod./The Kobal Collection

In 1990, documentarian Jennie Livingston released Paris Is Burning, a poignant film about the patrons of the then-still-burgeoning vogue ball scene. A safe space for disenfranchised, often poor, gay and transgendered Blacks and Latinos in a time when it could be deadly just to walk down the street as such, the vogue ball of the late '80s and '90s was a site of transformative glamour, beauty, and empowerment — a tradition that continues to this day. Featuring gorgeous voguing and runway legends like Willi Ninja, Pepper LaBeija, Avis Pendavis, and Venus Xtravaganza, Livingston's documentary immortalized a very specific moment in both gay and trans culture and in New York City, before both were changed forever by the dual clouds of AIDS and gentrification.

But for years, Paris is Burning was its own kind of legend. Difficult to see except at late-night art house showings and on vintage VHS, only a few years ago did some kind soul uploaded it to YouTube. But even that was a drag: the quality was low and fuzzy, and loading a full movie in ten parts on a tiny screen was deflating and time consuming. However, recently the film was added to Netflix streaming — and now it's available for the first time on iTunes, coinciding with a resurgent interest in both the past and current ballroom scenes. Of course, the soundtrack was essential to the visuals, and Paris is Burning showcased a range of hits that have influenced vogue music to this day.

YouTube

Music fills Paris is Burning's background, and the link between the songs on the film's soundtrack (never released commercially) is more thematic than genre-based: the songs reflect joy, struggle and innovation. Arthur Russell symbolized the fusion of downtown New York art-house and uptown discotheques, but it was the 1980 track "Is It All Over My Face" with his ensemble Loose Joints that's been his best-known and enduring. Never mind the sexually explicit double entendre of the lyrics — "Is it all over my face? / I'm in love dancing" — the deep bass grooves and keyboard funk prophesied the coming popularity of house music. In the film, this plays at a somewhat anticlimactic moment at the end of a ball, but it's important, too — at a point when the commentator announces the next party, at the Elk's Lodge at 129th Street, placing the vogue scene in the heart of Harlem, where it both originated and still flourishes.

Moments like this — different for each song, and for each viewer — continue to resonate more than 20 years after the film's release. If only to celebrate the fact that Paris is Burning is now a little easier to find, we asked musicians influenced by the ball scene how the film, and its music, affected them.

Music And 'Paris is Burning'

  • Prince Language

    Prince Language
    Ruvan Wijesooriya /Courtesy of the artist

    "While it's not explicitly about music, Paris Is Burning is one of the most poignant and vivid documents of an urban culture's relationship to music. It's one thing to hear these records on your stereo, or even in a club, but to see them come alive in the context of the balls and parties in the film is another thing altogether, and was completely revelatory when I first saw it in a theater as a kid with my mother.

    "The music that animates the movements of the dancers in the film, especially the lyrics, provides a subversive and sometimes even shady commentary on the politics and aesthetics of drag and ball culture. The use of Cheryl Lynn's 'Got To Be Real' is the ultimate example of this, brilliantly touching on drag's invocations of and insistence on 'realness,' and the film shows how balls and dancers ultimately question the very notion of of what is 'real' in the context of identity, and how we each create and construct our own 'real' selves. 'I'm looking for realness,' the ball MC in the film constantly intones, and the courage, creativity and fierceness of the men and women captured in Paris Is Burning is nothing if not the embodiment of that."

    Prince Language is a New York City-based producer and DJ known for his remixes of artists such as LCD Soundsystem, Azari & III, Lindstrom and The Rapture, and edits of classic and obscure disco tracks on the Editions Disco label.

  • Big Freedia

    Big Freedia i i
    Courtesy of the artist
    Big Freedia
    Courtesy of the artist

    "When Paris is Burning came out I was just a kid in the local choir in my church in New Orleans. I remember how much I loved everything about it — the characters, the costumes, the music. I couldn't believe there were gay Black and Latino men being portrayed like that on screen. It meant a lot to me and in many ways inspired me to do something different and follow my dream, no matter what others said. In many ways, Bounce is the new ball culture. We're making a film called Bounce Queen about Bounce music — Katey Red, Sissy Nobby and I can only hope that our film does for others what Paris is Burning did for me."

    Big Freedia is the "Queen Diva" of the New Orleans Bounce scene, and is known for her sometimes sexually explicit yet addictive dancefloor anthems.

  • Gabriel Andruzzi, The Rapture

    Gabe Andruzzi
    Courtesy of the artist

    "There are so many amazing tunes in the movie. I don't think there is one that makes me mad. I'm not sure how many of these songs where actually 'underground' at the time. I assume that they were are all hits on the radio or in the clubs. 'Sweet Dreams,' 'Never Gonna Give You Up,' 'Got To Be Real,' and 'Who's Zoomin' Who' were all pretty big R&B or pop hits. To me, it's interesting to see how these songs have meaning across different contexts and that they weren't necessarily 'owned' exclusively by any singular context or culture."

    Gabriel Andruzzi is best known as a multi-instrumentalist member of the dance-punk band The Rapture. As DJ Druzzi, he has compiled a number of DJ mixes focusing on house, disco, techno and beyond.

  • Del Marquis, Scissor Sisters

    Del Marquis i i
    Courtesy of the artist
    Del Marquis
    Courtesy of the artist

    "Most institutions exclude the study of LGBT history in education, but this documentary is one of the main chapters we will look back on. Paris Is Burning is a time and place I would never choose to grow up in, but for younger people (both gay and straight) it helps us to understand the dynamic qualities of underground culture, and how oppression by the mainstream forces the invention of new and dynamic expressions in dance, music and social gatherings."

    Del Marquis is the lead guitarist of the Grammy-nominated dance band Scissor Sisters.

  • Zebra Katz

    Zebra Katz i i
    Courtesy of the artist
    Zebra Katz
    Courtesy of the artist

    "When I moved to New York City I started learning more about ball culture and the balls on YouTube. So that's where I started, learning about the present. And then a friend of mine sat me down to finally see Paris Is Burning in 2005 and it was incredible. It sheds light on a community that is rarely paid homage to.

    "Ball world culture inspires me, the sound inspires me. I'm a dancer, so the moves inspire me. There's so much to be inspired by in Paris is Burning and the culture itself. They go hand in hand. The movie sheds a little bit of light, and if you care to further your research and interest, you'll find it. The community's there. It's been there; it's always been there."

    Ojay Morgan, who performs as the character Zebra Katz, wrote the single "Ima Read," (link NSFW) which he says is an homage to the ball community documented in Paris is Burning, seven years ago. It didn't hit wider circles until this spring, when it was re-released on Producer Diplo's record label and soundtracked designer Rick Owens' fashion show.

  • Andy Butler, Hercules and Love Affair

    Andy Butler i i
    Courtesy of the artist
    Andy Butler
    Courtesy of the artist

    "Seeing the movie was really enlightening. The intensity of the subculture, the familial nature of the participants, the intense competition — all of it was very new to me. It was shot during a time when vogue culture was very New York-centric, and I when moved there it was more popularized and regenerated in different cities."

    Andy Butler is the founder of the New York-based experimental disco collective known as Hercules & Love Affair. Hercules' live shows have included a number of up and coming vogue dancers from NYC's vibrant ballroom scene.

  • Vjuan Allure

    Vjuan Allure i i
    Courtesy of the artist
    Vjuan Allure
    Courtesy of the artist

    "More than any other song, 'Love Is The Message,' by MFSB, is the epitome of what a ballroom song should be: the beat, the feeling and all the drama! When I first heard this song I didn't understood it, and was NOT into it at all. I liked the faster uptempo songs in house, which were exciting to me and pushed my dancing to amazing heights. Many clubs in NYC in the early '90s played this as a closing song and the floor would FILL. Me — being young and underage — sulked, protested and pouted on the sidelines. I told my friends how I HATED that 'Philly Sound' song. They would laugh at me and say, 'ONE day it will hit you!' Not long after, I learned how to vogue and loved it, and the next time I heard 'Love Is The Message,' it finally hit me. I felt the strings — I was HEARING this song for the first time, and in dancing to it I finally and fully understood what my friends had been talking about!"

    International DJ Vjuan Allure created the "Ballroom Beatz" genre.

  • Light Asylum

    Light Asylum i i
    Jeff Elston III/Courtesy of the artist
    Light Asylum
    Jeff Elston III/Courtesy of the artist

    Bruno Coviello: "The Paris is Burning soundtrack is one of the greatest lists of the best dance music ever made. 'Silent Morning' by Noel is a freestyle essential! I love freestyle, I grew up on this kind of music. The beats are unmistakable — the call and response of the kick and snare and the punchy moving basslines. And the vocals, like on this song, [were] always so romantic and emotional. It sounded electrifying to hear for the first time.

    "The movie brings me back to when electronic music was fresh and underground, inspiring all sorts of kids to dance in new ways and lose themselves on the dancefloor. And most importantly, to be themselves on the dancefloor."

    Shannon Funchess: "The reality or disparity and rawness of living the 'American Dream' in the movie really spoke to me as a young, gifted, gay, black female youth. To live this 'American Dream,' one usually makes sacrifices. The 'Mothers' of the houses, the balls, the real drama of 'living the life,' the forming of gay family, the AIDS epidemic — all that was exposed to the public in Paris is Burning if you watched it and paid attention or cared. The dancing and sense of working together as a community was essential. Everyone seeks a sense of belonging no matter how dysfunctional the group or community."

    Shannon Funchess and Bruno Coviello are Light Asylum, an industrial-dance duo from New York City. Their self-titled debut LP will be released this May on Mexican Summer Records.

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