THE TOPP TWINS, PROVINCIAL NEW ZEALAND AND THE POLITICS OF HUMOUR
This is the text of the talk given by Dr Nick Holm of Massey University on 25 May. Due to the presentation’s length, it has been divided into two separate posts.
With their unique blend of country music, comedy and political activism, the Topp Twins are not only some of the most important figures in the history of New Zealand entertainment, but also a striking example of the power of popular culture to influence the way we think about the world. More than simply entertainment, the music and humour of the Twins have for decades challenged New Zealanders to reflect on how they understood their country and culture. To understand the Topp Twins is therefore to understand more than just New Zealand’s favourite music and comedy duo (with apologies to the Conchords); it’s also to understand how comedy has the power to unsettle ideas around gender, sexuality and what it means to be a New Zealander.
A DETOUR TO LAS VEGAS
However, before we get onto the topic of the Topps in more detail, I’d actually like to start someplace place poles apart from the style and ethos of the Topp Twins: Las Vegas. In particular, I’d like to start in the Liberace museum, sadly now closed, but which in 2006 still provided an unparalleled insight into the life and fortunes of Władziu Valentino Liberace— “Mr Showmanship” himself—one of the most successful and beloved entertainers that world has ever seen. Though not a figure that tends to be discussed or even widely remembered these days, in the 1950s Liberace was the host of The Liberace Show: one of the most popular television shows in the world with over 30 million viewers in the US alone. The basic formula of the program involved Liberace playing the piano in an emphatic and performative manner and in-between songs he would talk to the audience in a folksy manner: making little jokes and providing some context for the music. One of the first real show-biz professionals of the television era, Liberace knew his appeal was as much about the presentation as the piano-playing and he cultivated a contradictory persona that was both showy and humble, corny and glitzy, extravagant but sympathetic. These aspects of his act only became more pronounced in the 1960s and 70s when he established himself as a presence in Vegas and developed an ever more opulent act and accompanying celebrity image: he would wear elaborate sequined outfits with fur, feathered plumes, sweeping capes and high cowls; something like a cross between a flamingo and Dracula. It is these costumes that were lovingly displayed in the Liberace museum in 2006, alongside other artefacts such as his collections of bejewelled pianos and chandelier-glass-studded cars that served as monuments to his singular life.
On my trip to the Liberace museum, the guided tour through the collection took about an hour, during which time we were introduced to the man’s life-story, regaled with tales of his performances, his quirks, and the passion with which he transformed himself into an icon unlike really anything anyone had seen before in mainstream entertainment. And while as a young person from Aotearoa New Zealand I didn’t really know much Liberace before I’d entered the museum, by the time I’d seen several bedazzled capes and ruffled sleeves, I began to formulate a few hypotheses about who Liberace was and what sort of potentially radical presence he might have been in 1950s America. Which is why an exchange near the end of the tour took me absolutely by surprise and has subsequently stuck with me in the intervening years. Given that the tour had taken us through the story of his life, it made sense that it would end with his death in Palm Springs in 1987. “But how, exactly, did he die?” an older man on the tour wanted to know, which looking back on it now was a fairly grim question. And the answer, as the tour guide explained, was that the Liberace died from pneumonia due to complications from AIDS. At this point—and I remember this very distinctly—there was a sharp, and audible intake of breath from several members of the tour. This news had clearly come as something of a surprise to them, but at the same time they also apparently had little doubt about what this information meant regarding the context in which Liberace had contracted HIV. It was if they’d had confirmation of a dark family secret: one that they were dimly aware of but had chosen to never fully grapple with or really even think about.
On some level, this is understandable. After all, Liberace intentionally muddied public conversations about his sexuality by engaging in public relationships with female stars, like his good friend Betty White, and taking out libel suits against publications that implied that he was a homosexual. And yet at the same time, there was a clear reason that Liberace engaged in such counter-intelligence: his act was premised upon the cultivation of such an arch-camp persona that anyone even passingly familiar with the relevant cultural codes would surely note the ways in which Liberace challenged dominant ideas of mid-century masculinity. Even if it wasn’t clear at the time, surely in the intervening decades, with the increasing acceptance and visibility of queer ways of life, it would have occurred to his fans that maybe in retrospect there could be some connection between Liberace and the nascent homosexual subcultures of the time: at least insofar that it wouldn’t be an absolute shock to find out in 2006 that he had contracted AIDS?
This moment and that question stuck with me for many years, although I primarily understood it simply as an example of Middle America’s ability to delude itself. However, when I first agreed to speak on the Topp Twins—to coincide with the Te Manawa exhibit celebrating their lives and work—this experience recurred to me as an example of something else entirely: the way in which queerness can exist—can even be embraced—in the context of mainstream entertainment in ways that acknowledge, but also repress, awareness of that queerness. Reaching back to the success of Liberace can help us illuminate and understand the success of the Topp Twins as an example of how popular culture can help audiences come to accept forms of identity and ways of life that could otherwise be encountered as threatening or troubling for some members of a community. Perhaps we could even conceive of Liberace as evidence of the possibility of a popular “avant-garde” that runs in front of wider cultural attitudes, and in doing so prepares the conditions for significant changes in mainstream attitudes and politics. With direct reference to the Topp Twins, I’m thinking here of a scene from 2009’s Untouchable Girls—a documentary about the lives and careers of the Topp Twins—where Don McGlashan shares an anecdote about Lynda Topp. On the occasion of the anecdote, Lynda is visiting the strip club, Showgirls, and she’s doing it in character as one the Topp’s most well-known and beloved characters: the good old Kiwi bloke, Ken Moller. A group of farmers, up from Tuakau for a night out, recognise the character of Ken and invite him to join them at their table for the evening and they have “a great rip-roaring night, leering at the pole dancers” in McGlashan’s words. Reflecting on this story, McGlashan wonders whether the farmers were thinking that they were having a great night out with a gay woman dressed in a suit and wearing a stick-on moustache, or whether they thought they were hanging out with Ken from the TV. The answer, I think, is neither. I simply don’t think those farmers bothered to resolve this disconnection: I don’t think it concerned them because they had nothing to gain from thinking through that specific problem.
On the one hand, I think we’d be doing those farmers from Tuakau a massive disservice to think that they couldn’t distinguish between TV and reality (and therefore believed that Ken was a real person). On the other hand, though, as McGlashan somewhat sceptically notes, it might also be a bit of a stretch to assume that these farmers are absolutely alright with having a woman with a fake moustache join them in leering at the pole-dancing (though perhaps this is a bit unfair – perhaps these were a group of particularly progressive and ‘woke’ Waikato farmers). However, there is another option here: the farmers were engaging in a bit of wilful cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the act of holding two incompatible ideas in your head at the same time. That is to say, the anecdotal farmers may well know that Ken is actually a woman, but so long as they’re not made to acknowledge that fact, then they’re not really too worried about what’s going on. Instead, they just enjoy it. In an academic article on the Topp Twins, Anita Brady at Victoria University of Wellington, suggests that this inability to make definitive sense of such a situation might even be a source of pleasure. And while that might sound a bit odd, I think it’s actually the key to understanding the success of the Topp Twins and their influence on New Zealand popular culture. It’s something about the Topp Twins—their performance, their affability, their infectious commitment to an un-ironic embrace of ‘good old fashioned fun’—that makes such a position possible. This, then, is where I want to draw a connection between the Topp Twins and Liberace, who share not just an earnest commitment to a folksy, authentic forms of popular culture but also hold in common the experience of living a queer life in full view of a frequently homophobic society that responds by absolutely embracing and cherishing them. Moreover, I also don’t think that these two things should be understood as separate: rather, I want to suggest that there is something about the ways in which both Liberace and the Topps approach entertainment and comedy that opens up spaces for, if not utter mainstream acceptance of queer lifestyles, then for at least increased recognition of the legitimacy of non-heterosexual relationships and forms of sexuality.
Like Liberace before them, the Topp Twins are fantastic entertainers who also happen to be radically ahead of their time and who have gained widespread acceptance and even love through popular culture. Consequently, the Topps exist in a fascinating and productive tension by virtue of their seeming ability to unapologetically reject powerful and normative cultural expectations while also being celebrated as wholesome examples of traditional entertainment. They are a fantastic example, then, of how popular culture can be a powerful force for shaping how we understand the world and our place in it. While we might be accustomed to thinking of popular culture as something that we engage with when we’re trying to escape from more serious concerns, it can also have a profound influence on how we understand ourselves and the world. Popular culture can be a stage on which we play out our anxieties, desires, fears and hopes about the world; it can be a classroom where we learn about the world in ways that are as powerful as they are indirect and subtle; and it can also serve as a platform from which to challenge assumptions and accepted ideas about how the world works, what is valuable and what is permitted, who counts in a society, and what it means to belong to a community. Which is quite a lot of weight perhaps to put on some yodelling and funny costumes, but in the case of the Topp Twins I think this absolutely makes sense.
The reason that I initially accepted the invitation to talk (and then write) about the Topp Twins is because I study humour. However, my experience in this area actually ended up causing me quite a lot of trouble thinking through them and their work. As the Topp Twins have said themselves, “we’re not comedians, we’re singers that are funny”. And they’re clearly right: whereas a standard comedian works by connecting together carefully planned comic moments, the Topp Twins get by more on charm and charisma. This is not meant to be a criticism, but simply the observation that whereas most comedians work towards the construction of a tightly scripted and constructed set, the Topp Twins, by their own account, place much more emphasis on spontaneity and improvisation in their act. Accordingly, both their live performances and television appearances are marked less by a string of gags that we might expected from a sitcom or a stand-up comic, than by a general tone of good natured silliness and an eagerness to engage with their audience and context as raw material for further hijinks. As a consequence, it doesn’t make much sense to pull out one of their jokes and try to take it as somehow indicative of their style, because the Topps don’t tell jokes, or more accurately they do a lot more than tell jokes. When they’re in character, they’re like cartoon characters come to life complete with antics and pratfalls, wry asides and funny faces, and of course a good helping of lewd innuendo. In fact, even when they’re out of character—or playing themselves we might say—they’re looser, and more comfortable improvising than a typical comedian would be. Their style is therefore more akin to older forms like vaudeville or burlesque that flourished in Aotearoa New Zealand before World War 1: The Topp Twins as a two-women vaudeville variety act integrating music, skits and banter. For these reasons then, I don’t think that the Topp Twins are really best understood as humour at all. Instead they make much more sense in terms of a concept that, in its modern usage at least, is much older: comedy.
While we might be accustomed to thinking of comedy as pretty much the same thing as humour—a cultural category defined by jokes and laughter—in its historical sense it can be understood more as a form of culture where everything feels good. This is comedy in the Shakespearian sense, where what separates comedy from tragedy is the fact that the story ends with everyone getting married and having a big party, rather than everyone dying. Think the mass wedding at the end of Much Ado About Nothing as opposed to the mass stabbing at the end of Hamlet. Comedy understood in this way is a very old and very powerful form of culture: a form of entertainment that is defined by nothing so much as joy. Thus, while the Topp Twins certainly tell jokes and incorporate forms of humour and jesting, I think it makes more sense to think about them in terms of the production of joy: a focus which shifts the attention from what is being joked about and instead concentrates on the broader tone of what they do: that is to say how the comedy of the Topp Twins makes people feel.
While this might seem like one of those pernickety little academic distinctions—and hey, it probably is—I also think distinguishing between humour and comedy is really useful for making sense of the Topp Twins. This is because it shifts our attention from the particulars of any given sequence, sketch or song, and instead encourages us to think about their performances as a whole. From this perspective, the truth of the Topp Twins can’t be found by analysing one exchange in detail. Instead, any consideration of their influence and popularity needs to try and account for them in a more holistic sense. To this end, I’d like to suggest that there are three main ways in which we can understand not just the comedy of the Topp Twins, but how that comedy has changed how we as New Zealanders imagine ourselves and our country.
Images courtesy Diva Productions/Sally Tagg
Dr Nicholas Holm is a Lecturer in Media Studies at Massey University, New Zealand where he teaches courses in popular culture and advertising