Top 10 Gender Bending Covers of All Time
Is that a boy or a girl? In order of release date, we present to you Sleevage’s Top Ten Gender Bending Covers of All Time.
David Bowie: Aladdin Sane (1973)
Aladdin Sane was the next persona Bowie created after Ziggy Stardust.
As Bowie imagined him, Ziggy Stardust was an alien that came to Earth with a message of hope. In his home planet Ziggy was the ultimate rock star – high on promiscuous sex and drugs; destroyed by his own success. Ziggy’s otherworldliness would give Bowie license to create an androgynous, theatrical persona that set the template for many of the gender benders of the eighties.
Aladdin Sane was both an extension of his Ziggy Stardust character and his “idea of rock-and-roll America”, Bowie later explained.
The music and persona were created while Bowie toured the States, where he wanted “to be up on the stage performing my songs but on the other hand not really wanting to be on those buses with all those strange people… So Aladdin Sane was split down the middle.”
This “schitzophrenia” was symbolized by the glittery thunderbolt, although the divide could easily be interpreted as a reference to his bisexuality. Bowie has said that being honest about his sexuality was a blow to his career and he still believes to this day that it badly affected his sales in the States.
As recognizable and cannonized as it is today, it’s important to remember just how dangerous this image was in the early seventies. Aladdin Sane was one record cover no parent wanted to find in their teenager’s bedroom.
Patti Smith: Horses (1975)
You can read a full Sleevage post on this inimitable cover here.
Prince: Dirty Mind (1980)
Way before Borat rocked the Mankini, Prince made a splash in 1980 by getting around in bikini briefs.
Some mistakenly believe Dirty Mind to be Prince’s debut album and while he had previously released two records, in many ways it did introduce the “Prince sound” that would come to dominate 80’s pop.
Its cover features a confronting image – Prince’s lithe little body and feminine attire contrasting with his abundance of pubic and facial hair. The camp intensity is matched by the sexualized lyrics of the album, which includes the classic single When You Were Mine.
The confusion would run throughout Prince’s career, from songs like If I Was Your Girlfriend to the creation of his infamous Love Symbol, which combined the symbols for male (♂) and female (♀).
One thing that has always been clear, however, is Prince’s appetite for the ladies. While his explicit lyrics and outrageous get-ups during the Dirt Mind tour cost him one religious backup singer, he was busy getting off with another, named Jill Jones. Throughout the 80’s he would be linked with many of the hottest women on the planet, including Carmen Electra, Madonna, Susanna Hoffs, Kim Basinger, Stevie Nicks and Sheena Easton.
Pass the bikini briefs, would you?
Grace Jones: Nightclubbing (1981)
A previous Sleevage entry on Island Life can be found here.
At nearly six foot, with an athletic and exotic beauty, Jones’ was seemingly born to be a star. With the backing of Island Records and the assistance of her photographer, boyfriend and image-maker Jean Paule Goude, the model carved out a successful career in music that began with a series of disco hits in the late seventies.
As her look became even more severe and daring, with a square-top hairdo and angular clothes, her music evolved and gained greater credibility. Nightclubbing is arguably her career high and was both a commercial and critical hit.
They say that when a man cross-dresses, it’s called drag; when a woman cross-dresses, it’s Armani. Fittingly, the cover of Nightclubbing sees the stone-faced Jones in an Armani jacket and pillbox hat, her skin a shiny metallic.
The gender lines were further blurred in her concept tour, A One Man Show, and throughout her music. Sting wrote the song Demolition Man for her, which featured lyrics that perfectly matched her fierce image:
I’m a walking nightmare, an arsenal of doom
I kill conversation as I walk into the room
I’m a three line whip, I’m the sort of thing they ban
I’m a walking disaster, I’m a demolition man
Eurythmics: Touch (1983)
In the early eighties, the Eurythmics’ run of hit pop songs was accompanied by Lennox’ one-woman war on gender conventions.
Touch was speedily recorded and released in 1983 to capitalize on the unexpected success of the single Sweet Dreams. Lennox, finally tasting success after an exhausting period that caused her nervous breakdowns, is both appealing and terrifying on the iconic cover. The dominatrix mask, the flexed muscles and the orange, boyish hair contrast with her red lipstick and nude flesh.
The music video for Who’s That Girl further showcased the image, as Lennox in a feminine blonde wig makes out with a male Lennox, complete with facial hair.
Culture Club: Waking Up with the House on Fire (1984)
Surely one of the leeriest album covers of all-time, this is also Boy George’s career-high in femininity.
George’s outlandish appearance was first noted by cultural operator Malcolm McLaren, who saw his star potential and invited him to join Bow Wow Wow. When that band only had room for one diva, George became the frontman for Culture Club. They went to the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic with hits like Do You Really Want to Hurt Me and Karma Chameleon.
The openly gay George was widely mocked for his outlandish appearance by the British press, who greeted his camp, feminine persona with headlines like “Wally of the week” and “Mr. (or is it Mrs.?) Weird”.
This lurid cover of Waking Up With the House on Fire sees George defiantly ramping things up. Nonetheless, the new tracks failed to resonate as strongly with buyers and the album was regarded a commercial disappointment.
Dead or Alive: Youthquake (1985)
Pete Burns, another gender-bending frontman, resented the attention afforded to George. The lead singer of Dead or Alive correctly claimed that he was the first to wear braids and camp costumes, to which George correctly retorted: “It’s not who did it first, it’s who did it better”.
The parallels between their careers are marked and, much like the Culture Club singer, Burns first gained attention from promoters based on his outlandish appearance. It was only after giving music a go that he learned he possessed a strong singing voice.
Burns spoke of the influence his mother had on him:
“…as far as parental skills go in the conventional, normal world, she certainly wasn’t a mother, but she’s the best human being that I’ve ever had the privilege of being in the company of. And I know that she had a special plan for me, she called me Star Baby and she knew that there was something special in me.”
While his name doesn’t resonate as strongly today outside of the UK, the band’s hit “You Spin me Around” is one of the most popular hits from the eighties. I think the cover of Youthquake is also really cool, with Burns channeling both a Kabuki and a teenage horror movie victim.
Burns has become something of a tacky fixture of British pop culture, known for his unfortunate plastic surgery and reality TV appearances.
Poison: Look What the Cat Dragged In (1986)
When David Bowie asked John Lennon what he thought of Glam Rock, he reportedly said: “It’s just rock with lipstick on”.
The same might be said for Glam Metal, or Hair Metal as it would also come to be known. We picked Look What the Cat Dragged in for the camp enthusiasm exhibited by the members of Poison, however it just as easily could have been the Motley Crue’s Shout at the Devil reissue.
Both camp up a cover formula made famous by Van Halen and the Beatles.
Poison and many other members of the Glam Metal movement were known for their lustrous hair, pouting lips and heavy makeup. The confusion ended there however – this was, after all, just “metal with lipstick”.
Poison’s debut album featured anthems that included Talk Dirty to Me and I Want Action, both of which left little doubt that while these guys may have lipstick on their face, they’d soon have some on their dick too.
Marilyn Manson: Mechanical Animals (1998)
You can read a full Sleevage post on this cover here.
Antony and the Johnson: Antony and the Johnsons (1998)
It would be easy to look at the impact of Boy George and dismiss him as a camp curiosity. For a young singer Antony Hegarty, stranded in American suburbia, he was a lifeline.
“I saw my reflection in Boy George,” Hegarty told one journalist. “I realised that’s what we do when we’re like this. We become singers.”
Blessed with a voice described by music writer John Hodgman as “somewhere between male and female, between childish innocence and weary adulthood, at once ethereal and earthy,” it was a vital epiphany.
“We didn’t own a TV, so I lived on a lifeline of land-mail subscriptions to British magazines such as Smash Hits and Number One,” Antony recalls. “I was listening to OMD, Kate Bush, Culture Club, Alison Moyet and especially Marc and the Mambas, which was this incredibly dark and emotional side project for Marc Almond. I was probably the only child in America who had those records, special ordering them at the age of 13.”
Unlike any other artist featured on this list, he has described himself as verging on “pre-operative” in his desire to be female. On the Antony and the Johnsons official site, he expresses his belief that -
“patriarchal religions and heirarchies that would rather catalyze apocalypse than admit
that centuries of male domination have almost destroyed us,
a feminist revolution might save our world”
- and spells out his inner-conflict in layman’s terms in the song For Today I am a Boy:
“One day I’ll grow up, I’ll be a beautiful woman.
One day I’ll grow up, I’ll be a beautiful girl.
But for today I am a child, for today I am a boy.
For today I am a child, for today I am a boy.”
The gender bending on the cover of his debut album – and throughout his career – seems not just a product of creative expression or social provocation, but also an act of personal survival.