The Sewers of Paris, a new podcast hosted by Matt Baume, is an examination of gay culture through pop iconography, classic films and an exploration of trans-national differences in gay culture.
‘Each week my guest plucks a piece of entertainment from their past and answers the question, “How did this change your life?”’ Thus begins a unique voyage into the question of how the culture around us makes us who we are.
Named after the legendary gay bar in Southern California which operated in the 1970s (Baume dangles the titbit that the most famous drink they made was called the ‘Manhole Cover’ in the promotional ‘Welcome’ teaser), the show presents a fluid view of LGBT history which moves from the past and the present with ease.
The double-entendre of the ‘Manhole Cover’ cocktail drink serves as an idea for the mix of high and low culture that each episode serves up. ‘Glitz and glamour above,’ Baume says, ‘filth and sleeze below.’
An episode about E M Foster comes not long after an episode centred on the various incarnations of Little Shop of Horrors, and that this seems perfectly reasonable is what makes it great.
The first episode, ‘Camp is Like Pornography,’ is an exploration of gay media representation, drag and Eurovision as seen through the eyes of Janis, a man from Latvia, before and after the end of the Cold War. This episode really lays the groundwork for each one that follows and presents what is best about the series.
Baume manages to create an atmosphere of casual conversation dipped in cultural and self-analysis. Even as each guest explores their sense of identity, the show never seems solipsistic and rare moments of navel gazing end before they dominate.
Camp (or Campiness, and there is a difference) runs through most of the episodes as an underlying theme. In the second episode, ‘I was Quite Happy to be the Villain,’ there is a long discussion between Baume and Tork Shaw about the difference between ‘camp’ and ‘campy’—particularly the way that Americans tend to use ‘camp’ as an idea and refer to a person as ‘campy,’ where their British counterparts say that someone is ‘camp.’
Such distinctions seem trivial, but the result is that the listener is let in on a complex analysis of this perpetually floating signifier—‘camp’ being a word that can mean anything and nothing at the same time. The show might be the first work to seriously address the concept of camp and camp culture since Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” was published in 1964.
Episode three focuses around that mainstay of gay male identity, The Wizard of Oz. Particularly notable is the inclusion of a rare deleted song from the 1939 film version with Judy Garland, which features Dorothy singing a tearful reprise of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ that will make you tear up just a little, unless you have a heart of stone.
Oz always struck me as an interesting part of gay culture as very little about the film seems to be directed at gay audiences. The show makes the listener conscious of the way media can be categorized—from media intended to be about/consumed by queer people (Maurice, Pink Narcissus) vs. media in which a queer identity is grafted on later (The Wizard of Oz, Eurovision).
American listeners will probably be blown away by the discussion of the Julien and Sandy characters from the classic British radio program, Round the Horn in episode two. I for one have always been slightly surprised by the openness and frequency of camp characters in British media in the last forty years—even when homosexual acts were a punishable offence.
In listening to The Wizard of Oz episode, I was reminded of how the viewing of the film—either in a second-run theatre release or as a holiday event on TV—seems to have been a moment of conscious or unconscious awakening for gay men around the world in the time before VHS or DVD copies were widely available. (As someone who had a very limited access to television growing up, I remember seeing the The Wizard of Oz for the first time on TV; then being taken to an anniversary screening when I was so young that I was frightened by the images which had been so familiar before being blown up so large on the screen and had to be escorted home. Like the best children’s entertainment, it’s still a little scary even now.)
Fascinating discussions of Polari—both traditional aspects and modern additions to the lexicon—pop up fairly frequently. As someone who is always amused by new slang, this is one of the most rewarding parts of the program. One of the reasons it works so well is that the spoken word format, without a visual counterpart, places an emphasis on the way we use language and interpret who we are through language. (Episode Five puts this front and centre: ‘There is no word in Afrikaans for gay.’)
While some episodes are less entertaining than others (and we can’t really fault them on that, it’s unreasonable to expect everything to be knocked out of the park 24/7), on the whole this podcast is a fantastic new addition to the LGBT internet realm. It’s witty, charming, touching and intriguing at once, with a kind of intelligence and humour missing from so much in the online din.
The Sewers of Paris is available on iTunes and at http://www.mattbaume.com/sewers-shownotes/.