In Their Flop Era


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Teddy Pendergrass performances are basically the only thing I use YouTube for these days. I’m obsessed. If I could go back to any time in history it would be to the filming of the 2005 comedy-drama Rumor Has It, to the reporting of New York Magazine’s iconic Gossip Girl cover (specifically to hear that one mean Blake Lively quote out loud), and to see Teddy Pendergrass perform live. (I am a woman of simple tastes.) The hips, the drip! Sometimes Teddy Pendergrass performances are the only thing I get onto the internet for at all. I spend hours watching them, finding more: Simply who else was doing it like my man?!

Look at that Ebony cover. The open chest, the beard, the scarf, necklaces layered just so. The grin! My God. It is a disgrace that my coming of age came during the era of Marvel’s pointless brawn. (My friend and role model E. Alex Jung wrote a little about this phenomena for Vulture in 2017: “The past few years have seen our male stars’ physiques inflate at a level unmatched by anything but college tuition.”) My aunt got to have a crush on Paul Newman. I had to pretend to tolerate Joseph Gordon-Levitt when (500) Days of Summer was shoved down the throats of every 14 year old with wifi.

Few things are more interesting to me than men presenting themselves, submitting themselves to a female gaze. (Part of that is one reason I liked A Star is Born: Bradley Cooper can live life as a no-lipped seven, but he knows he could dab on that Tom Ford bronzer and drop that voice three octaves and be a 10.) Teddy Pendergrass knew he looked good. He knew women liked him looking good. He played to that desire. Maybe there’s a power there straight men are freaked out by. I try not to talk to them so I haven’t asked.

This video of Teddy Pendergrass is what I feel like talking about tonight, this week, this lifetime. Here he is in 1979, playing “Close The Door,” my favorite song of his:

It’s rare that I am rendered completely speechless. But there aren’t even words to describe that. I didn’t know someone’s basic movements could be so powerful. This woman speaks for me:

On Saturday night, I watched D’Angelo on Verzuz. D’Angelo live feels like the spiritual extension of Teddy Pendergrass live, or how I’d imagine it. There aren’t a lot of set pieces, not a lot of circumstance: all the drama and tension and desire is just there, in him. Whenever I think about D’Angelo I think of GQ’s profile of him, by Amy Wallace, from 2012: “To D'Angelo, good and evil are not abstract concepts but tangible forces he reckons with every day. In his life and in his music, he has always felt the tension between the sacred and the profane, the darkness and the light.” You have to understand one to harness the other.

On Friday night, I’d watched Everybody Wants Some!!, the Richard Linklater baseball movie from 2016. I love this movie, the way its dumb pitcher-prophets will do anything for an excuse to dress up and talk to girls. They shuttle between parties in complementary outfits, so obsessed and impressed with their own presentation.

These random thoughts in my brain — about D’Angelo, about Teddy Pendergrass, about Everybody Wants Some!! — all keep me thinking about this tweet from Kyrell, from December:

(Kyrell’s newsletter Blessed Images is very special. You can find it here.)

When was the last time I’d watched a performer so willingly let himself be consumed by — absorbed by! — the female gaze. When was the last time I’d watched an American movie about guys doing everything we pretend only women do: get dressed up, fuss over this outfit or that one, get hopeful, miss out. Not that flirty, teasy Drake stuff; not his weird projected love-savior-confusion. Not the misplaced thirst traps (“Vote Early…”) that make me laugh or the sensitive ignorance of a Lucas Hedges character. Not the Marvel ironic-everything, and not something earnest or or big-hearted, either. So much entertainment with an eye towards desire or intimacy ends up flattening these experiences into something consumable or relatable. The double feature of Linklater’s hilariously overconfident baseball boys peacocking and D’Angelo and Teddy Pendergrass’s everything makes me think: Men generally — men conceptuallylow key fell off.