Big Freedia and the Divas | DJ Drace The Firebird July 21, 2012
Big Freedia and her Divas came wiggling into the Firebird on Saturday. It was an unusual show. Unusual how? Let's cut straight to the end of a four-minute, logic-defying a capella freestyle from Freedia herself, half drum-line precise flow and half church choir wailing. That's when she started up one of her many trademark call-and-responses.
For full impact, let's turn to the crowd for a second. Somewhere not too far south of a hundred, from all walks: High-schoolers to people who could be (actually were, in some cases) their parents, hip kids and jocks, black, white, gay, straight...
So Freedia - who is transgendered, not incidentally - has this whole mess in the palm of her hand, and she gets unanimous response when she yells:
BIG FREEDIA! QUEEN DIVA! DICK EATER!
It was an euphoric moment, whether you like sucking dick or not, whether you have one or not, because those sorts of minor distinctions had been so brazenly, thoroughly trivialized by the hour-plus of Big Freedia using her substantial charisma and will to get everyone to shake everything. It's Kumbaya with louder bass and more sweating.
If you need a primer on bounce music, I'd recommend an authority better than me. Diplo, who has been an ambassador for all kinds of musical pockets, spent a few minutes acting more disinterested than he really is in New Orleans. The New York Times wrote an authoritative feature on Big Freedia back in 2010, although a few of its observations about her crowd are out of date. What remains true is that Big Freedia and other gay rappers in New Orleans have found success playing everywhere from clubs to sports bars, and that, yes, there are plenty of straight rappers, male and female, performing bounce - there have been for two decades. What seems like it might be shifting, based on this weekend's show in St. Louis and the evidence from elsewhere around the country, is how this is received.
The Times (and Diplo, actually) observe that bounce music -- the subset of gay bounce artists in particular -- attracts an overwhelmingly female audience, and the men follow because the women are there. I'm sure that's still part of it, but in the past two years bounce has become a nation-wide destination unto itself. Freedia is a big enough star that you can credibly say that most of the people there on Saturday went to see her and not to see the people dancing. And while there were definitely more women than men at the Firebird, there wasn't the gender division described in the story - everyone just danced. Still salient is the point made about the creation of a safe space: Big Freedia is in fact big. She's well over six foot, solidly built and has a commanding personality to match. And she's pretty serious about encouraging dancing at these shows. Anyone making the sort of advance that might cause someone to feel uncomfortable and therefore stop getting freaky risks incurring Freedia's wrath, and I'm guessing she isn't tested too often.
There are challenges facing bounce as it grows, namely its almost exclusively prurient lyrics ("Pussy Train!") and clipped, jackhammer construction (the name of the game is repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition). The chorus of "Ass Everywhere," one of Freedia's hits, is, "Ass everywhere ass everywhere a-a-a-ass everywhere ass everywhere ass everywhere a-a-a-a-asss everywhere."
So the labels didn't know what to do with it and the radio stations can't play it. But you don't really need either of those things anymore, and video clips of reckless dancing do just fine on the Internet. Standard and convention have no sway there.
But if bounce music is going to have its heyday, it won't owe its success to Facebook shares and YouTube likes. It's going to be because most of those people who went to the Firebird are going to bring two of their friends the next time Freedia comes to town.
Personal Bias: I went as a tourist and left as a fan.
By the Way: Shout out to hometown DJ Drace, who manned the decks with skill and energy and proved equal to the considerable challenge of keeping the place breathing before Freedia hit the stage.
Setlist: Seriously? Seriously?!? She played the old hits like "Rock Around the Clock" and the newer ones like "Excuse." It really couldn't matter less.