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A drag queen at Mighty Hoopla festival
Mighty Hoopla festivalPhotography Luke Dyson

Why do gay people like past-it popstars so much?

Visiting London’s Mighty Hoopla festival, one writer asks if there’s a queer affinity with failure, or whether pop music offers the true, sincere joy it has always promised

Mighty Hoopla, the south London festival now in its third year, has firmly established itself as one of the go-to events of London’s gay calendar, rivalled only by Pride. After three long summers on the sidelines, bitterly watching it play out on social media, I decided that it was finally time to get in on the action – despite knowing very little about it. When I checked out the line-up – Liberty X... Kate Nash... Samantha Mumba – I was surprised at how cheesy some of it was, for a lauded festival in 2019. However, unlike the line-up of a provincial Pride event, where the naffness of the acts seems like a result of budget constraints, with Mighty Hoopla it appears to be more of a considered aesthetic decision. Why do gay men like washed-up popstars so much? Is there something queer about failure? Or am I just being a music snob? First, I spoke to the festival and Sink the Pink’s co-founder Glyn Fussell to find out more about the aesthetic of the event.

When I ask Fussell to explain the curation process behind Hoopla’s line-up, he replies astutely: “I'm like a little punk. I do stuff that feels rebellious against the norm, the status quo. Everything I’ve done has always been a reaction to what is going or what isn’t going on.”

What does he think Mighty Hoopla is a reaction against? “London is so serious in its ‘coolness’,” he tells me, “and I want to shit on that from a great, giant, glittery height. People sometimes don’t understand that when we book a pop act that feels a bit ridiculous – that’s the point! It’s tongue-in-cheek. It’s taking you back to those nostalgic times. It’s not so much about the music for me, it’s about the joy that pop gives to people. It is just ridiculous. Mighty Hoopla feels like an adults’ playground of nonsense.”

I say to Fussell that some of the line-up feels a little bit cheesy. Does he think that’s a fair description? “What I think is cheesy or naff might, to someone else, be the most amazing thing ever. The reality is it just doesn’t matter. People get so caught up on other people’s music taste. If anyone’s being too serious, I just tell them to fuck off,” he says.

But does he consider these acts genuinely good, musically? “Maybe not good musically, but maybe some of them are entertaining, or some of them might be ‘lol’... and I’ll leave it at that. You say it’s ironic but for a lot of people it’s not ironic. They’re obsessed.”

I suggest that my insistence on seeing it through the lens of irony or kitsch stems from a failure of imagination, that I just can’t quite bring myself to believe that people enjoy this kind of music in the same way I like the music I like. “I think,” Fussell drawls, “it’s because you’re a terrible person.”

I enjoyed speaking to Fussell, who has an obvious passion for what he does, and spoke about all of the acts I mentioned with an admirable degree of respect – despite my best efforts to entrap him into slagging them off. The following Saturday I attended the event itself and, as much as I had come to it with a degree of cynicism, I struggled not to find it charming. It was bright and colourful, everyone seemed to be having a nice time. The much-vilified ‘Clapham gays’ (read: white, upper middle class, basic, gym-fit) were out in force and I began to understand the vitriol directed at their presence. After all, as a gay man, there’s nothing I hate more than seeing handsome men with their shirts off.

“I feel like the terrible, campy, tragicomic lives that these ex-pop stars live appeals to the white gay imagination. They’re not these perfect Beyoncé-type figures. They’re within grasp”

There was none of the grating boisterousness (or even aggression) that’s common in straighter festivals. It felt a lot like Pride. In light of a homophobic attack just days prior which left many queer people feeling profoundly troubled, there was a particular feeling of community spirit and defiant revelry. It’s hard not to find large numbers of queer people congregating together touching or empowering and Mighty Hoopla was no exception.

But I was there to find out why gay people liked cheesy pop music, not wax lyrical about queer solidarity. Many of the people I asked – who mostly responded to my slightly obnoxious question of ‘so why do you like shit music?’ with good grace – told me that it was simply a matter of nostalgia. But this seemed strange; why, when gay people’s childhoods are often so traumatic, is this something to which they’d want to return? If we’re talking about gay men here, I think it’s fair to say that the more feminine – or otherwise gender non-conforming – you were in childhood, the more likely you are both to have been really into pop music and to have had a horrible time.

Louis, 26, offered an interesting perspective on the type of nostalgia cheesy pop music embodies. “I think that a lot of gays have an affection towards that period in childhood when you’re in primary school and it’s still encouraged for both boys and girls to do whatever and be whatever and dress whatever. I think there’s a nostalgia for that period before the time they got to high school, which is structured around hierarchies of gender, and before they experienced homophobia, when they felt like they could be anything.”

It’s not true for everybody that early childhood represents a pre-homophobia Eden. But there’s a degree of truth in this: it’s often the case that in primary school, surrounded by people you’ve known for most of your life, your femininity is unremarkable, barely even registered. In the most banal sense, you’re just you – it takes an outside eye to notice the shameful fact of your queerness. It’s understandable, then, that there might be some comfort in listening to music which reminds you of the time before this happened.

I ask Louis whether, all this aside, he thinks this noughties pop music is actually any good. “It’s good in the way it makes people feel the same joy they felt for it at one point. Or for going ‘yass’ with the others gays, which gives you a sense of community,” he says. Most of the people I spoke to on the day, along with Fussell, expressed some variation of this idea. There was an awareness that the kind of music I considered ‘cheesy’ was, well, cheesy. But this came coupled with a more earnest respect for the possibilities it presents for joy, community and collective memory. During Jamelia’s performance, as I watched a crowdful of people belting out “Thank You”, I could understand that completely.

After watching a Nicola Roberts DJ set – which gestured at the cooler, more cutting edge present of pop music – I spoke to Otamere, who had a slightly less poignant take on the appeal of naff pop music.

Otamere suggests that, rather than being incidental, the cheesiness is central to the appeal. “I feel like the terrible, campy, tragicomic lives that these ex-pop stars live appeals to the white gay imagination. They’re not these perfect Beyoncé-type figures. They’re within grasp. They’ve got their hunky boy toys and their residencies in Gran Canaria but it feels achievable.”

It would be inaccurate, not to mention a little cruel, to describe any of the acts performing at Hoopla as ‘failures’ – the fact that they’ve all achieved a degree of commercial success and are still being booked to perform at a major festival in London would suggest otherwise – but it’s true that their careers have not reached the heights of, say, Beyoncé’s or Lady Gaga’s. This is arguably part of the appeal. “Failure is queer,” Otamere says, “white gays empathise with that sense of rejection from society.”

He isn’t the first person to suggest that there is something queer about failure. In fact, a whole book has been written on the subject. Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure suggests that failure can function as a subversive critique of capitalistic, heteronormative notions of success. Failing, according to Halberstam, “is something queers do and have always done exceptionally well; for queers failure can be a style.”

Failure is conceptualised as something which “preserves some of the wondrous anarchy of childhood and disturbs the supposedly clear boundaries between adults and children, winners and losers.” Admittedly, it’s a bit of a reach to apply this directly to “Just a Little” or “Body II Body”, but it might help explain why their appeal amongst gay people has proved so enduring. Gay icons throughout history have been defined by tragedy and failure, from the dramatic (Judy Garland’s well documented drug abuse) to the mundane (Liberty X’s Michelle Heaton accidentally inhaling too much helium from a balloon).

“I went to Mighty Hoopla with sneering on the brain but the experience made me realise that some things are actually just quite sweet and benign”

Failure also forms a key part of how American theorist Susan Sontag theorises campness. She writes that one of the essential features of camp is a “seriousness that fails”. Admittedly, this hardly seems like an accurate description of the Cheeky Girls. But it’s true that many ageing pop stars do take their performances extremely seriously – no matter how ridiculous they may appear to the unkind observer.

Take Samantha Mumba’s set, for example, which I thought was genuinely, unironically good. Not only did her vocals sound great, but she shouted out Martha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera (which, at a queer festival, is just so much cooler than some lame ‘love wins, guys!’ platitude), and her back catalogue proved to feature more bangers and bops than I had recalled. There was a seriousness to her performance, and a sincerity to the crowd’s enjoyment of it. But the fact it wasn’t a ‘failure’ is perhaps specific to a queer context: what might have failed in a straight setting – if she’d played Glastonbury or done a set at Boiler Room – at Hoopla became kind of glorious.

I went to Mighty Hoopla with sneering on the brain but the experience made me realise that some things are actually just quite sweet and benign. ‘Let people enjoy things!’ is the most tedious clarion call of modern culture discourse, but in this case I’m going to have to back it. Hoopla might be knowing, aware of the kitschiness of what it does, but it’s certainly not sneering. It’s not even ‘ironic’, really. The belief of the organisers – and most of the attendees – in the joyous possibilities of pop music seems entirely sincere.