Dorian Electra was only into pop ironically in high school. "Junior year, my friend made this birthday card, parodying things about me, and one of them was, 'Listens to Lady Gaga ironically, but secretly loves her,'" they recall, laughing. "I was like, 'I'm too good for that.'"
We're sitting at midtown's Oscar Wilde-themed bar, a literary Disney attraction positioned to scoop up tourists strolling down Broadway from Times Square. A bronze statue of the author leans on the long marble bar; floral wallpaper is barely visible under an avalanche of ornate, gilded mirrors, clocks, portraits and other pseudo-Victorian artifacts. Its menu offers dishes like the "Wilde Burger," "Cottage Pie" and a "Writer's Block" cocktail.
The effect is profoundly tacky, and Dorian loves it. They've actually been to the bar a couple times prior to when we meet in August, a few days before their first and almost entirely sold-out solo tour supporting their debut album Flamboyant. The bar appeals to their love of all things campy and archetypal. After all, Dorian (whose birth certificate reads Dorian Electra) is named after Wilde's iconic dandy, the protagonist of his 19th century classic The Picture of Dorian Gray. The character's lacy-collared, classical masculinity is one of the many clichés Dorian has made a career out of subverting.
Dorian's career is now, of course, pop star. The same teenager who sneered at Gaga would go on to share a good number of fans with her. They'd even be described in similar glowing cascades of adjectives, like "pop visionary."
The first time Dorian read about their namesake, it didn't strike a chord. But as they began to discover they were queer and gravitate towards androgyny in high school, their interest was reignited. "I romanticized Wilde's gay dandies," they say. "I was like, 'That's the romantic ideal to me,' because I hated any fucking love story or romantic comedy. I just gagged at all that stuff. Because I never liked any depictions of romance." We muse about the conspiracy theory that Wilde and Walt Whitman had a one night stand, staring up at a portrait of the former.
Dorian's disdain for romance is unusual, given they work in a genre that's a cottage industry of the stuff. But then again, Dorian doesn't make "normal" pop. In fact, Dorian's music is so meticulously aware of and analytical about pop conventions, gender and performance, that it could be easily confused with theater or comedy — artforms which lend themselves more obviously to cultural commentary.
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Indeed, the immaculately crafted, over-the-top music videos that they garnered attention for leading up to Flamboyant sometimes resemble SNL sketches more than traditional pop visuals. Their songs double as club bangers and mini-treatises on gender politics. When they started out, at least, their neon, hyper-synthetic electro-pop sound seemed to be a part of the satire, as well.
In their breakout single "Career Boy," Dorian portrays a cartoonish workaholic finance bro, driven mad by capitalism and a Wolf of Wall Street ideal of masculinity. "Cheap office coffee/ Is pumping through my veins/ I work for the man, yeah/ But you know I love the chains," they sing in a low, sultry growl, before smashing a glass coffee pot over their head and humping a conference table. "I'm addicted to the pressure," they groan, punching staples into their hands — an act of corporate BDSM that only slightly hyperbolizes modern professional's willing participation in their own submission to capital and dom-sub workplace relations.
All the single-video combinations leading up to Flamboyant followed this model, with character sketches that functioned as vessels of critique. They're a glorious buffet of masculinity: Dorian is a macho boxer in "Man to Man," a sleazy DJ in "VIP," a Liberace-Austin Powers Casanova in "Flamboyant" and a Hugh Hefner proxy in "Daddy Like." Dorian styles, produces and co-directs most of their videos along with their partner Weston Allen (occasionally handing the reigns over to friends like Charlotte Rutherford, who did "Career Boy"). Each video is its own distinct, fully visioned world. However, Dorian's a pop star, so of course they have their signatures. No matter what costume, you'll find them adorned in a thin penciled-on moustache, which fans now mimic at live shows.
This afternoon, without their recognizable beauty look, Dorian looks only a bit freakier and cooler than your average Brooklyn queer who wandered uptown, while they describe growing up as a precocious, nerdy kid in Houston.
"I was really lucky to live in the middle of the city, in a really open-minded community," they say. "My school was super open and chill. As a kid I was androgynous and definitely felt weird, but it was sort of okay. I wasn't into the other stuff that all my friends were into. Whenever we'd play games, they'd have me be the boy. We'd play Titanic, and I'd be Jack and everyone else would want to be Rose. But I wouldn't really mind. I was like 'Oh, this makes me unique?' I kind of like this."
Dorian has "pretty much always" been openly queer. This wasn't that hard to reckon with, given their mom, a singer and artist, previously identified as a lesbian and now as asexual. "It had never been a big deal to me," they say. "I have a trans family member, and there's always been tons of queer people in my life."
Still, articulating their identity took time. Dorian didn't start using they/them pronouns or find the term genderfluid until college, when they became ensconced in the Chicago drag and queer music scenes. "I learned so much from being around all those people, folks who were like 'I'm trans nonbinary, not just trans or nonbinary," they say. "The word that really clicked was 'fluid.' It seemed so obvious, implying a looseness, a chillness, a mix of neither, both, in-between, something completely outside the spectrum. That felt really good."
Their boldest and most outrageous queer statement yet arrived this month, with the video for "Adam & Steve." In it, Dorian proudly queers the Christian creation story — re-tooling the titular slur as an origin story for a queer utopia. The whole thing resembles a soft-core porno or pulpy romance novel brought to life.
Slick with fake sweat, Dorian and an Adonis-bodied Steve fall from the garden of Eden after giving into desire (the apple is replaced with its queer counterpart: the peach). It nods to anti-LGBTQ violence, as a crowd pelts a museum portrait of "Adam and Steve" with bottles (meanwhile, others capture the spectacle on Instagram) and Dorian undergos a conversion therapy-esque exorcism at the hands of gimp-masked priests. But the moody, explosive song ends in a declaration of love: "God made me, and Adam and Steve/ God made me and Madam and Eve/ God made me and he loves me," as Dorian ascends to a heaven full of clubwear-adorned angel strippers. It's a seemingly endless assault of queer aesthetics, simultaneously hilarious and profound.
Unshockingly, Dorian used to be into both comedy and theater. "I watched a lot of SNL with my mom as a kid," they say. "That was hugely influential, like the iconic SNL of the '90s and early 2000s. I dreamed for a while of being on the show. But I didn't like stand-up, I only liked character acting. Then I started doing theater, when I was in fourth grade. I was really awkward with my body back then. That's when I really found confidence on stage."
Their hyper-referential grasp of pop culture follows a childhood TV habit. "All I did was watch TV as a kid," they say, laughing. Beyond SNL, their diet included Nickelodeon cartoons and British comedy. "Ren and Stimpy, Rugrats and Spongebob, those were my top three," they list, pausing to specify that, to many's surprise, they were never into anime. They also name the Monty Python movies, and the British '90s TV show, The League of Gentleman. "And then, when I was six years old, my dad took me to see Austin Powers for the first time and that definitely changed my life."
In fact, their pop aversion can be explained by their dad: a musician who played in classic rock cover bands and has been to "around 100" Rolling Stones concerts (Dorian's been to 11). Dorian recalls taping up photos of Alice Cooper, David Bowie, The Who and The Ramones in their middle school locker. In the era of *NSYNC and the Spice Girls, nothing was more rebellious than loving classic rock. Notions of absurd, hyper-sexualized masculinity they imbibed as a teen, from Mick Jagger to Austin Powers to the Monty Python knights further underscores how they play with gender now.
The band that got Dorian into making music, however, were the British gender-bending psychedelic punks, The Horrors. "They had this really intense fanbase, I was super obsessed," they say. "Their aesthetic was like '60s garage rock, psychedelic, but also goth, Victorian, mod. I started to dress like that. They were what really inspired me to make music because it was this simple, '60s rock four-chord part. I was like, 'That sounds simple enough.' So I got a keyboard and started messing with Garageband."
Dorian first experiment with creative direction was making DIY fan music videos for The Horrors. "My best friend had just gotten a laptop with a webcam and iMovie," they say. "We would dress up as them, and do our interpretation, and put it on YouTube. It was cool, because we were dressing up as guys, and [The Horrors] are already really androgynous."
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The Horrors were also Dorian's first brush with fandom. Dorian's dad once took them and their best friend up to LA to camp out at show. They arrived at 3 PM, and found the band at soundcheck, presenting them with CDs of homemade music videos. "We were stans before that word existed," Dorian says. "It was cool, because we were so obsessed with them, but they were also so creatively stimulating, and inspired us to be artists in our own right." Dorian now has their own baby fandom, called The Holy Church of Electra. A good number of worshippers dressed up as Dorian this Halloween and regularly DM them fan art.
Dorian's pop epiphany finally came in college. "It really took me until I was a sophomore, when I started getting into some Katy Perry songs, then "American Girl" by Bonnie McKee, as well as hip-hop," they say. "I was dating someone who helped me see the value in pop. I finally realized it was cooler not to care about what people think of your taste. The coolest thing is to like the music that slaps. At that same time I was starting to make music, and I was like, 'I want to make pop music.'"
The emotional immediacy of pop appealed to Dorian. But in their creative world, music has always served many purposes. By high school, they were regularly submitting educational parodies instead of essays (their first song ever is a cover of "Please Mr. Postman" by the Marvelletes, rewritten as a book report about Emily Bronte). Their first real foray into pop — as well as the beginning of Dorian's pop war on heteronormativity — were a set of commissioned feminism 101 songs for Refinery29. Standard synth-pop tracks with history lesson lyrics like "Clitoris," "The Dark History of High Heels," "The History of Vibrators" and "2000 Years of Drag," are their first official releases.
"What I started to love about pop was how accessible it can be," Dorian says. "When I was doing those [Refinery29] songs, that was so cool because it was a way for me to take something that's not accessible intellectually or academically, and break it down in a simple way that everyone can understand."
When asked if there's any single artist who Dorian feels paved the way for them, they respond: "Definitely Charli XCX," both musically and literally. Dorian's college partner introduced them to Charli, and convinced them to go one of Charli's 2013 True Romance-era shows in Chicago. That night was the first time Dorian and Charli met. Since then, they've become frequent collaborators and now tourmates. Dorian helped Charli cast and choreograph her 2017 performance of "Boys" on Fallon. In 2018, the duo co-hosted a "Femmebot Fantasy" party tour, and Dorian will hit the road with Charli again on the European leg of the Charli tour.
Dorian's most mainstream song to date is a feature on Charli's A.G. Cook-produced Pop 2 track "Femmebot," alongside Mykki Blanco. On Dorian's verse, they switch between their signature throaty deep croon and a femme robotic tone: "You're just my human toy/ I am programmed to search and destroy." Dorian, whose made masculine tropes their discipline, might seem like a strange feature on a song called "Femmebot." But the song reduces gender to an arbitrary mechanical quirk — and humans as genderless hunks of metal and wires. Charli's one of many artists today utilizing futuristic aesthetics to imagine queer utopia, in the same way that Dorian's doing with past, with Flamboyant's history-inspired visuals and idiosyncratic, vintage instrumentation.
Charli is something of a godmother or "cult leader" to all the LGBTQ undergound pop mini-worlds that Dorian also straddles. There's SOPHIE, Hannah Diamond, and post-Body Talk Robyn: unchartable, dance-focused, experimentally produced pop that's both emotionally intense, and sounds like it was made by robots or aliens. Another, exemplified by Chester Lockhart, Mood Killer and Weston Allen, is rooted explicitly in queer aesthetics, using satire, camp and drag to lay into power, gender and social norms. A third, is '00s revivalism, headed up by the likes of Kim Petras, Slayyyter and LIZ.
"Going beyond genre and gender is what groups all of that music, that I've been so personally inspired by," Dorian says. "It's so cool to work in that community, and see everyone working together on projects. Like Dylan Brady of 100 Gecs produced on the Charli record, and Umru and Robokid doing Slayyyter's project. It feels like this community of like-minded artists. Being an artist can be so isolating. We're constantly being inspired by each other, trading aesthetics."
Underscoring this, Flamboyant is a queer family record. Robokid, 100 Gecs' Dylan Brady, Socialchair, Mood Killer, Absrdst, Umru and Jesse Saint John all have production or writing credits. Dorian doesn't directly mix or produce, but carefully orchestrated the mood across the record. They and their friends' world is rooted in the dancefloor. "I am inspired by club culture and the community and fashion, but personally, I don't go out much unless it's for work, or a friend is DJing," Dorian says.
Whether Dorian's music is satirical or scholarly, there's always sincerity operating at a different level. Album title track "Flamboyant" is a perfect example and, in every way, a mission statement for their work. "You know I like it loud/ Cause that's the only way/ No taste or subtlety/ And no time for restraint," they sing. It's a Wiki entry for "camp," but it's also a song about refusing to mute yourself in order to satisfy others' expectations. If you listen closely, you can hear Dorian demanding the space to be the kind of artist they are and be heard on their own terms. This quality of joking-serious is embodied by Flamboyant's artwork. They appear in a "genderless clown" beauty look, bright blue mullet, medieval jester's ruff, and spiky BDSM collar, while giving the camera a piercing glare. Dorian's kidding, but they're also deadly serious.
Increasing numbers of pop artists critique the world through music. But on Flamboyant, Dorian doesn't simply mock and dissect social norms. Simultaneously, they dream up new ones that reflect the world they'd like to live in. Dorian's world could be the thesis of a book of queer theory. But their medium of choice are pop songs, which disarm and re-purpose these norms, positioning them paper dolls in a world of their own creation. In Dorian's world, "Adam & Eve" are, of course, "Adam & Steve." The Constitution is "fReAkY 4 Life." Everyone lives with integrity and passion ("Live By The Sword"). Gender and sexuality are costumes that everyone gets to play dress-up in ("Guyliner," "Emasculate," "Daddy Like"). We've collectively defeated the human ego ("Musical Genius"). Vulnerability and homoeroticism are basis of relationships ("Man to Man"). No capitalism ("Career Boy"). Duh.
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"My music is personal," they say. "I used to feel like, in order to make serious music, I need to talk about my deepest emotions. But in a way, I am. That's a false dichotomy of the authentic self and the persona. My music is simultaneously artificial and authentic. It's just as inauthentic to use the same sappy love song language that's been used a million ways. A person singing a love song is still putting on a character."
With the album, Dorian says they "really wanted it to be about the music." The base of Flamboyant is the same pulsing, neon, big-bass dance pop as their earlier singles. But many of the album's tracks have a newly theatrical, dark sensibility and idiosyncratic, on-theme instrumental choices. "I really enjoyed taking these elements of traditional music, like religious choral music, Gregorian monk chants, harpsichord or heavy metal that's hyper-masculine. I love blending those with futuristic sounds and giving the middle finger to tradition, putting it in this queer context and exploding it." Through this, sound becomes another part of Dorian's elaborate costumes and sets.
"I'm a very skeptical person," Dorian says, when asked if they feel like, post-Flamboyant, they're approaching a fork in their career. "I know that unless it's insane viral success, like a Lil Nas X situation. I don't expect that when I go back to LA, some label guy's gonna come to my show and offer me a deal. Most of the time, that kind of success only comes from mainstream backers, which means, at some point down the line, answering to old white guys in suits with money, which isn't something I'm interested in."
At the same time, they fantasize about what they could do with more time and resources. They have a publicist and help with booking now, but without a manager, they essentially run a small business on the side of being a full-time musician.
"It's a grass is greener situation," they say. "Sometimes I'm like, 'Damn, I wish I had more Spotify playlisting, more industry support. I would love to find a home with a label that really believes in me, because I know that I'm an extremely hard worker.' But at the end of the day, I'd rather have fewer fans and more meaningful connections, than millions of plays but no actual fans that show up."
Those overflowing shows full of fans grinning through their Dorian Electra moustaches have become an end unto itself. "I just wants to create for people in a way that's as exciting and meaningful to them, as the things I was inspired by growing up. I want to create a world for them."
Photos courtesy of Dorian Electra