Co-opting Straight-Boy Style

Co-opting Straight-Boy Style

Downtown at Boysroom, Jonny McGovern throws a frat house bash with faux college nostalgia

The bartender’s watch strikes twelve midnight on Friday in the East Village. The muscular barkeep switches gears. He nods to the other shirtless drink-slinger.

A stadium buzzer goes off in Boysroom, a small bar at the end of Avenue A. When it does, a party called Boys Gone Wild begins. Go-go boys storm the room and take positions on platforms above the crowd. Spotlights are swirling. Sirens are blaring. It feels like a homecoming game in miniature.

The erotic dancers who have climbed the bar seem like jocks in the locker room after practice. They hold U. of Wherever caps to the their crotches, in deference to the city’s cabaret code, which regulates nakedness as much as it does decibels. One of the six dancers is the popular Jay, who smears football lamp-black on his cheeks to keep the starlight out of his eyes in this dark little meeting place.

Tequila is brought down from the shelf. Free throat-pours are now available for the cute volunteer who can get to the bottle first.

A deejay sports a headset with one speaker flipped off his ear, but he’s just pretending to spin. He has someone else work the console. It’s part of the illusion he creates as master of ceremonies. He nods his head calmly to the music blaring big hip-hop beats.

The chorus of his song “It’s Friday Night!” is sung in high operatic gusto by a diva named M. In response to her crescendo, the raspy-voiced MC, Jonny McGovern, intones: “at Boys Gone Wild.”

McGovern is the six-foot, four-inch boy-faced man who lords over the party from above in the turntable booth. The song he’s playing is his definitive anthem for gay New York nightlife on Friday. He wrote it, recorded it with the help of his friends and has been playing it every week at the Boys Gone Wild party since it began at Boysroom last year. People come because Jonny McGovern’s reputation says that he knows how to strike the right vibe “for having fun, getting drunk and getting laid,” as he puts it.

Still employing what New York magazine once called his “faux Southern accent,” McGovern has made his voice sound deeper than on past albums or in performances earlier in his career. His drawl is smooth and increasingly influenced by hip-hop, where he had once been better known for boy-band flare and pop beats.

This transition into a harder persona has taken place at the Boys Gone Wild party. The weekly event is where McGovern has been experimenting with the next phase of his performance character, Gay Pimp Daddy.

Audiences were introduced to the Gay Pimp when McGovern made two music videos that have become cult classics. Both depict a superhero club kid whose sleeveless black T-shirt has “Gay Pimp” spelled in rhinestones across the chest. He uses dance moves familiar to “Thriller” fans to thwart would-be gay bashers. On the “Lookin’ Cute” video, the Gay Pimp defeats “homohaters” picking on a giddy boy in high school. On the “Soccer Practice” video, he helps a “straight jock” to try “dirty gay stuff.”

The Gay Pimp began as a performance character McGovern created for an open mike night when he came to New York City from Boston University in 1997. McGovern worked up the concept into a nightclub act. Two years ago, he imagined the Gay Pimp as a superstar, and created a Janet Jackson-inspired extravaganza for Zipper Theater on West 37th Street. Riki Lake’s producer was in the audience and McGovern was soon hired as a regular panelist on her show. His defense of gay teens on “Riki Lake” against representatives from, for example, made him a go-to gay person for casting agents on cable TV.

Comedy Central soon debuted his music video “Soccer Practice” and VH1 included McGovern in a program that reviewed and recreated stories of young adult performers’ careers.

When McGovern released his “Dirty Gay Hits” CD, and produced two music videos to accompany the album, MTV2, MTV Europe and MTV Asia picked them up, and he enjoyed some inkling of mainstream attention for his Gay Pimp Daddy superhero. His video features the character rendered into cartoon, doing flips like a Ninja against homophobes.

The next manifestation of the Gay Pimp Daddy was born in the Boys Gone Wild party in the East Village. McGovern’s taste has graduated from high school and moved on to the halcyon days of college, remembered by many of the partygoers as a time and a place where straight frat boys were expected and encouraged to have lots of sex.

A beer funnel attached to a long tube is brought out for the party. A man wearing a faded U Penn T-shirt steps up to the stage, puffs his chest and looks around for witnesses to impress. The young man then sticks the flexible plastic tube of the drinking apparatus in his mouth, and chugs a can’s worth of Pabst Blue Ribbon without gulping.

McGovern’s party is the place where gay men can live out a nostalgia for the Spring Break fantasy denied many of them. His party is less parody than co-opting adaptation—why should straight men be given the wink and the nod to do as they please in college, while gay men are denied the license to sow their wild oats? Such reasoning is the closest McGovern will get to what he calls a political opinion.

McGovern hopes to bring his nightlife sensibility into larger uptown clubs later this year when his “Gays Gone Wild” CD, already much anticipated, is released.

Where McGovern successfully created an image as hero for high school kids, he is now conquering the college aesthetic, and its storehouse of under-exploited homoeroticism. The fantasy of freedom he creates then takes an even more revolutionary step into total abandonment. Television screens above the bar depict men having sex without condoms in the 1970s. The longing look back that infuses the Boys Gone Wild party is not just for lost collegiate paradises, it’s for a pre-HIV time, when wild sex was sans latex.

“We just pop whatever in,” McGovern said about the barebacking videos.

McGovern plays a complicated role in the scene that unfolds during Boys Gone Wild. The end of the week has come. Young men feel they have earned the sexually-charged fun and even the oblivion they’ve paid for. McGovern creates a catharsis for the anxiety typical in the merging of hyper-masculine frat style and gay desire. He is championing an attitude to gay sex that rejects these anxieties, and is doing so in a language familiar to any consumer of popular culture. McGovern is subversive in this way.

The Gay Pimp is explicitly a heroic construct. McGovern poses as a mentor who wants to “tell you about dirty gay stuff,” as he sings in the “Lookin’ Cute” video. Whatever that “dirty gay stuff” is exactly, it’s what makes people who will never try gay sex uncomfortable. That McGovern sings about anal sex in pop forms, for teenagers and young party-goers, is what makes his role unprecedented.

In a “Song for the Hookers” from his upcoming album, the Gay Pimp professes to sing on behalf of those who usually don’t get a song—“get drunk, get laid, even better if you’re paid.” In a line from “Lookin’ Cute,” anal sex is described as an enviable virtue where practitioners “get to do it both ways.” No one has discovered a popular language to talk about gay sex at once so euphemistically and so explicitly—and with such a compelling goal of doing so for the masses. McGovern may well build on his previous success with his new album, and gain more fans looking up to him for his vision of gay identity.

That fantasy is not much like his own life. The Gay Pimp enjoys a monogamous relationship with his boyfriend.

Meanwhile, many among the young men for whom McGovern performs never witnessed the decimation caused by AIDS. If anyone is going to encourage condom use, it just might be the guy who can get a crowd to scream “Gay Pimp Daddy!” when he sings “tell me what my name is.” A step like that might make the simulated brotherhood of his frat parties that much more real.

If monogamy has no place in the Gay Pimp’s vision, McGovern’s imagination can at least find a way to tell Boys Gone Wild to stop barebacking, and the choice of video porn would be a first step. If someone of McGovern’s creativity concentrated on the problem, he might just find the language to make safe sex popular again.

The moment to talk about the popular opinion powers of someone such as Jonny McGovern is before we hear more disturbing news about superviruses. Should we expect anything less from a superhero who wants to save people?