We meet the future-pop star and Charli XCX collaborator as they release a video for their new single, ‘Flamboyant’
Dorian Electra hates coffee. This might come as a surprise to anyone who’s seen the video for 2018’s “Career Boy”, where Electra channels the caffeine-buzzed culture of hypermasculine corporate bros. In a post-cardiac arrest hospital bed, the 26-year-old Texan pop singer/songwriter wakes up hooked to an IV coffee drip, eager to wring some BDSM-fuelled sexual hit from the intensity of capitalist labour: “The pain is a pleasure, come on hit me with your ledger,” they beg, chained up with office stationary. “Coffee actually makes me feel horrible!” Electra giggles excitedly, as they pour their scalding confession down the phone from LA.
It’s fantasy, then, but fantasy is something Dorian Electra does very well. They’ve been creating exhilarating visual worlds for the last couple of years now, and writing incredible pop songs that are nevertheless disinterested in pop’s prosaic themes of love and loss. Electra is a musical essayist, writing adrenaline-fuelled mini-theses on philosophy and feminism, laid over heart-tweaking synths and invariably accompanied by detail-soaked videos. Their didactic and artistic instincts merged as a teenager, when they would submit songs instead of book reports to their easygoing teachers at a progressive Montessori school in Houston. Later, at Shimer College in Chicago, an eccentric university once voted the worst in America, their unorthodox educational journey continued, making compositions about unusual subjects like the libertarian economic theorist Friedrich Hayek.
More recently, genderfluid Electra has brought their analytical brain to bear on issues of feminism, gender, and sexuality, and written a series of history lessons repackaged as titillating pop songs for Refinery29. This was when their visual world-crafting came into its own – their video about The Dark History of High Heels rollercoasters wildly between shiny 80s aesthetics and the white-wigged, powdery court of Louis XIV, all while delivering an encyclopaedic retelling of the shoe’s storied past. They investigated the appeal of vibrators with a deliciously tactile film, and their musical ode to the clitoris saw them pose as a Hallyu devotee in a polythene room in the 90s, then immediately board a time machine back to a softly lit Ancient Greek bathhouse.
Since then, Electra’s inspiration has flowed as strongly as the adrenaline thundering through “Career Boy”s expanded veins. The video for their new single “Flamboyant” is even more textually and visually rich than their previous work. Anachronistic references to period fashion are smashed together, the sparkly 70s forced into contiguity with the Edwardian era, and then reupholstered delicately with surgical neons and futuristic pastels (think a Sofia Coppola film set on a gay spaceship full of plush sofas and chandeliers). Their new music thematically deals with heteronormativity and constructions of gender. Last year’s “Man to Man” cycled through caricatures of toxic masculinity, and “Flamboyant” channels the campy, effeminate manliness of Liberace. With a debut album on the way, a support slot with Pussy Riot under their belt, and a verse on Charli XCX’s Pop 2 smash “Femmebot” on their résumé, Dorian Electra is an artist on the rise.
How would you introduce yourself to someone who doesn’t know your music?
Dorian Electra: I guess I would say I’m an artist who’s trying to do something a little different with pop music. I see a really cool opportunity in pop right now where it’s a lot more open for queer and non-binary artists like me to be visible, and not just destined to be super underground.
How did you first get into music?
Dorian Electra: I started recording on GarageBand when I was 14. I had this cheap Yamaha keyboard that I would plug into the computer, and started playing digital synths and Midi. I didn’t have the patience for piano lessons, so I would try to watch YouTube videos and play things by ear. I got some singing training from musical theatre, too. My mom used to sing professionally, and my dad was in classic rock cover bands.
Lots of your songs are like mini treatises, or melodic essays, on academic topics. How did academics and music converge for you?
Dorian Electra: I was just following my interests at the time. I was always very academic – I used to do formal debate, started the philosophy club, all that. I thought for a while I was definitely gonna go to grad school and get a PhD, but I just loved music so much. I did this 2016 series of videos with Refinery29, on the history of the clitoris, drag, high heels, and vibrators. I just loved putting all those things together, where I would do the research, then write the lyrics as if they were an essay. I loved coming up with the visual aesthetics and the styling and the colour palette and everything that would help communicate the ideas.
Your aesthetics are so unique and captivating. How do you construct visuals, and get such disparate references to sit comfortably in the same world?
Dorian Electra: Often I’ll start with the song title in mind before I come up with any of the music, and I’ll always have a visual concept in mind that accompanies the title. So the visuals go hand in hand with the song as I’m writing it. For example, I knew I wanted to do a music video that was inspired by Liberace, and the whole crazy flamboyant Las Vegas aesthetic and that I wanted “Flamboyant” to be the title. I like to juxtapose things musically and have unexpected elements together, like a harpsichord and an electric guitar. I love combining things that historically wouldn’t make sense together, like referencing the 80s with the Edwardian era. My overarching philosophy is combining different elements to create juxtaposition, while maintaining self-awareness of all the tropes and themes I’m pulling from.
“I think some people are sick of hearing the word ‘queer’ used as a marketing tool, but we live in a bubble where it’s normal to us. We have to realise that it’s not normal to the rest of the world yet” – Dorian Electra
Your workaholic “Career Boy” character seemed to be lampooning the ways that people deal with the pressure of capitalism. “Man to Man” also seems to be caricaturing the different iterations of masculinity that society forces on us. Do you find parody and humour helpful to cope with oppressive structures in the world?
Dorian Electra: I think parody and satire are some of the most powerful tools we have to challenge oppressive structures. I think when you’re queer, you’re already looking at social norms and being like, “I’m outside of that.” I think that lends itself to this camp, humorous awareness of the world, and seeing the silliness in the dominant structures. You can see outside of them so it becomes easier to poke fun at them.
But also with “Career Boy”, it’s not just parody, it’s about finding a way to survive in that structure. A lot of people have reached out to me and said “I really relate to ‘Career Boy’, it makes me feel good as a non-binary person in the workplace.” I don’t work in a 9-to-5 environment, so I really admire the people who do and have to find a way to feel good in themselves in that environment.
What can you tell us about your new single, “Flamboyant”?
Fashion is so liberating to me in the video. I can use it to reference all these other subconscious associations from pop culture and communicate to people what my identity is within one second of looking at me. I think that’s why the styling is so important to me as a genderfluid person, to be able to say “I’m a very flaming flammable guy”, and here I am in front of a fireplace – it’s just very satisfying, ’cause that’s how I see myself, but I know it’s not necessarily how other people see me – they still call me ‘ma’am’ and stuff like that.
My art has allowed me to express who I already was, but more than that, I’m becoming who I am every day through my art.
Queer artists who aren’t cis white men are still few and far between in the mainstream. What do you hope for the future of queer pop?
Dorian Electra: I think putting queer and trans people of colour at the forefront is the most important thing that artists, show bookers, and writers can do. So much of queer culture, language, music, and fashion comes from queer and trans people of colour. I think some people are sick of hearing the word ‘queer’ used as a marketing tool, but we live in a bubble where it’s normal to us. We have to realise that it’s not normal to the rest of the world yet.