Revisiting Divine’s Overlooked Musical Career

Anyone casually aware of Harris Glenn Milstead, who died 25 years ago today, will most likely know him as John Waters’ muse Divine, the pudgy drag queen who ate shit in Pink Flamingos and played Ricki Lake’s agoraphobic mother in Hairspray. As far as legacies go, that’s not a bad one, but it does kinda sell him short. In particular, it rather ignores his oft-underrated musical career, which flourished briefly in the 1980s and remains a largely undocumented influence on the evolution of club music, particularly the gay club-centric Hi-NRG sound that would in turn go on to influence the development of house and techno. And, more importantly, it was a whole lot of fun.

Notwithstanding all the ’80s nostalgia that’s flourished in recent years, it’s easy to forget how different that time was from the age we live in. It was a surprisingly liberated time as far as sexuality went, and flamboyant, sexually ambiguous performers abounded — there was Boy George, Elton John, Prince, all of Duran Duran, the then-closeted but still decidedly camp George Michael, and, of course, the ever-fascinating David Bowie. It was no stretch to imagine Divine among their number, and indeed, for a short period in the early 1980s it did appear he might be destined for a career as a bona fide pop star.

For reasons that have always remained unclear, he was particularly big in my native Australia. His single “You Think You’re a Man” actually made the national top ten, and in 1984, he appeared on Countdown (above), which was basically Australia’s equivalent of Top of the Pops, in a performance that was so flaming that it probably alarmed the municipal fire brigade. In retrospect, it’s amazing that this actually happened — the performance above was on a national station at dinner time in a country that was still largely conservative and not exactly accepting of larger-than-life transvestites and shirtless dancers in tight pants.

For a while, his videos were to be seen on national TV frequently, and as a kid, I remember being thoroughly impressed at the sight of this outlandish woman proclaiming, “I’m so beautiful!” from the television. The fact that she wasn’t conventionally beautiful didn’t really occur to me — nor, hilariously, did the fact that she wasn’t in fact a “she” at all. At six years old, I had no idea what a drag queen was, or a Hi-NRG gay club anthem, or what “gay” even meant — all I knew was that there was something that was kinda amazing about this fantastic figure.

In a parallel universe, Divine might have been a massive star. Sadly, though, he failed to capitalize on the growing success of his music career — he made three albums between 1982 and 1984, but despite the fact that each was progressively more successful (with 1984’s The Story So Far actually troubling the charts), he returned to focusing largely on film and his quest to be taken seriously as an actor rather than a cross-dressing novelty. (Sadly, this quest appeared to be on the verge of fulfillment with a role on Married With Children at the time of Milstead’s untimely death at only 42.)

The result is that he remains a cult hero, his musical output a footnote to the ’80s. But still, it remains remarkably influential, and revisiting the music now, it’s impossible not to notice how its sounds have surface in all sorts of dance music since. Some of his work, in fairness, was hilariously derivative — listen to how shamelessly “Love Reaction” rips off “Blue Monday” — but a lot of it holds up rather well. Take “You Think You’re a Man,” for instance, which was an early collaboration between upcoming producers Michael Stock, Matthew Aitken, and Peter Waterman, who’d got their start making Hi-NRG club tracks and would later go on to global success with Bananarama, Kylie Minogue, and this gentleman. You can hear the legacy of its pumping, side-chained synth sounds in the house and techno music that’d emerge in Chicago and Detroit a few years later, and today in the work of producers like Deadmau5 and even (shudder) Skrillex.

Clearly, this isn’t Divine’s legacy alone, but Hi-NRG was definitely a key influence on the development of the sounds that would go on to shape the next couple of decades of electronic music, and for a while, Divine was that genre’s most recognizable exponent. It’s a shame that his work isn’t more widely known, so if you’re in need of some motivation at work today, we humbly submit that you could do worse than honoring his memory and cranking “Native Love” or “I’m So Beautiful” in your headphones. We’re all beautiful, can’t you see?