Momus And The Virus

I suppose the roots of my musical culture are in the Glam Rock I absorbed as a child in the 70s. It seemed perfectly natural to listen to fops and transvestites like David Bowie, Lou Reed and Marc Bolan at a boarding school in which an authoritarian facade of strict discipline covered up a secret world of sexual encounters between housemasters and boys, between boys and other boys.

Despite - or because of - the two-faced nature of this education, in which I learned not only the vices of housemasters but also the precise Latin terms for them, I have managed to remain immune to the need for vagueness, innuendo and euphemism. It seemed perfectly reasonable to me to sing 'When I left home I already had five years of self-abuse under my belt' or 'God is a tender pervert and the angels are voyeurs'.

I found that writing clearly and openly about sex became a key to writing clearly and openly about everything hidden, everything hypocritical. It seemed to me that all corruption came from the separation of the private world from the public one, in other words the separation of the actual world we experience as individuals from its representation in art, conversation, the media, politics.

Just like my boarding school, I found the adult world alarmingly happy to leave its public speech completely unconnected with its private activities. And I found gay people exemplary because they were a community who had defiantly become private in public. Risking the wrath of hypocrites, gay people had made their sexual activities the basis of their public status. I could think of nothing more subversive, or more likely to heal, by its example, the disastrous split between the public and the private worlds.

And then AIDS happened. And it had two very different effects. On the one hand it foregrounded sex as a matter of crucial public importance. On the other it gave conservatives (those who wanted to keep their cock from their bull, their private vice separate from their public discourse) ammunition for their argument that public tolerance of polymorphosly plural sexual practice inevitably leads to death and decay.

For a while, to these conservatives, it looked as if dying of AIDS was simply the price to be paid for the mistake of including sexuality in one's public persona. And that, now the lessons of restraint and tact had been learned the hard way, silence about AIDS was the best response.

I was determined that the conservatives would not use AIDS to pull a shroud over public discussion of sexuality. I saw gay artists all around me dying and decided to embrace gay sensibility and gay aesthetics myself, even if I wasn't technically gay. My 1988 album 'Tender Pervert' took homosexuality firmly as its theme.

Since then I've looked at AIDS from just about every angle. As a rebuff to the positivism of our technological optimism ('Enlightenment'). As a new way for the authoritarian populists to designate certain people 'Untouchables' ('Love On Ice'). As a timewarp back to a Medieval conception of mortality ('What Will Death Be Like?'). As an invention of sex-hating government agents ('The Girl Who Invented Sex'). And as a portent of what Karl Kraus called 'The Last Days Of Mankind'.

But rather than dignify the virus by seeing it as one of the horsemen of the apocalypse, I think I've tried to show (as Susan Sontag does in her 'AIDS and its Metaphors') that to believe AIDS has a moral dimension is teleological, it implies some sort of anthropomorphic meaning in the universe: a punishing God, or a cruel Destiny. I don't believe in either. A virus doesn't care about 'punishment', it simply wants to perpetuate itself.

I've lost some of my most valued allies and collaborators to this stupid blob of nucleic acid, people like writer Kris Kirk or film-maker Derek Jarman, but I know that it was also only the virus which brought us together and gave our work its shape and weight. If all had been right in the world, gay and straight artists would probably have stayed in separate orbits.

I think that now, after more than a decade of AIDS, the argument that the spread of the virus is the result of too much public acceptance of sex has been crushingly defeated by the argument that because of AIDS we must construct our public identities with our sexual practice right at the centre. If my records have had any part in the swing to this new consensus I haven't lived in vain.

Momus, Paris, 1995