Back in the day, the ultimate camp icon was Liza Minnelli—a mascara’d trainwreck who was beloved nonetheless for those pipes and that legacy. Today, we’ve got Christina Aguilera. Sure, she’s a diva who packs on weight, blows her live performances and is at once lovable and tragic, but she’s no Liza, alas—especially now that she’s judging vocalists on NBC’s ultrastraight The Voice. Lady Gaga? Sure, she name-checks Liberace and dresses like a drag king, but she’s more popular than just about any pop star besides the Carmen Miranda-esque Katy Perry, and she’s too controlled, too calculating, to self-aware to be camp.
Even General Hospital has lost its camp appeal—somewhere around the time James Franco decided to turn it into a piece of postmodern performance art.
The cognoscenti are opening their arms to cult art: This month, Raquel Welch will receive a career retrospective at Lincoln Center in February. Sure, fans will turn out for One Million Years B.C. and Bedazzled, but the tough ticket will be Myra Breckinridge, that camp Rosetta Stone (also starring The Observer’s own Rex Reed). On the phone, Ms. Welch recalled the film’s misbegotten ambitions. The director, Michael Sarne, “wanted it to be a Fellini thing, all wild and crazy,” she said. Instead, “It’s a curiosity.” The novel by Gore Vidal “is going to be something that people will refer back to,” she added, “and then they’ll go to the movie and say, what happened here?” That what happened here reaction, taking place at a midnight screening or around a passed-around VHS, is how the brain metabolizes camp; at Lincoln Center, it’s a historical relic.
The campiest thing on Broadway, Hugh Jackman, isn’t campy at all—though he might appear so to the out-of-town crowd. (You’d think that a movie star who rose to fame by brandishing his claws would be a little less earnest.) The great camp hope, Todd Graff, who directed queeny indie flick Camp in 2003, has now gone mainstream with this month’s Christian-choir melodrama Joyful Noise: the gay-musical-comedy equivalent of Dylan going electric. When the campiest diva out there is prestige queen Meryl Streep, whose every performance or awards-show speech feels like a thicker slice of ham, you know you’re in trouble.
And speaking of the Oscars, anyone who doesn’t get enough of Marilyn in Smash—“She certainly is having a moment, isn’t she!” noted Ms. Hilty—can see Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn or in full peroxide glory on the covers of GQ and Vogue. A world in which dressing up as a tragic dead celebrity can score you Oscar buzz instead of a gig at Lucky Cheng’s is a world in which camp has been replaced by good taste.
Camp is borne of passion, but its generally misplaced passion. The creators of camp spectacles are generally the last ones in on the joke. Camp is really a product of the audience, which grasps at these misfit entertainments, endeared by what Sontag called “a seriousness that fails.” Smash, in its pilot, never extends itself far enough to be a failure; it’s too professional to be truly passionate. So, too, are other projects on TV that look campy only when one squints.
Glee, for all its exploitation and explosion of beloved clichés, is at heart a conventional high school show studded with quotation marks. It’s too much of a moneymaker to go garish, and too square to be camp. American Horror Story, another production by gay dynamo Ryan Murphy, is a mashup of every midnight monster movie. It’s pretty liberal-minded, with a gimp-suited demon and a pair of murderous gay ghosts, but its sensibility appeals to the audience’s hyper-awareness of various cultural referents (camp being one of many) more than it does create a genuine mood of astonishment at the unexpected.
“Probably, intending to be campy is always harmful,” Sontag wrote; certain entertainments “want so badly to be campy that they’re continually losing the beat.” Sontag might as well have been talking about Jessica Lange’s dessicated-baby-doll performance on American Horror Story. Or the tightly structured reality competition RuPaul’s Drag Race. Or the in-on-every-joke female female-impersonators of The Real Housewives franchise.
All of the above are dressing themselves in the accoutrements of camp—a sort of drag routine, actually—aping the formula for a wised-up audience that has seen everything and can be counted on to “get it,” albeit without the delight of actual discovery that animates true camp. It’s camp in a can.
“The kind of stuff that I watch that’s campy is stuff that was intended to be mainstream—without a wink,” noted Frank DeCaro, the Sirius radio host and author of The Dead Celebrity Cookbook, a collection of dishes favored by various tragic icons. “I don’t want them to do the winking for me. Showgirls is campy. Glee has a big gay sensibility. I’m not sure where one ends and the other begins.”