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“Pose” Captures the Glamour and Struggle of 1980s Ball Culture, With a Soundtrack to Match

Note: This article contains light spoilers of “Pose.”

The FX drama “Pose” is set amid the glamour and grit of New York City’s 1980s ball culture, but its pilot episode takes a brief detour to the comparatively drab Allentown, Pennsylvania. In a humble dance studio, a teenager named Damon Richards (Ryan Jamaal Swain) is beaming his way through barre exercises set to “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from The Nutcracker. Back at home, he digs a cassette tape out of a box hidden under his bed and dances like no one’s watching to Donna Summer’s “On the Radio”—until his father bursts into his room and snaps off the stereo. Minutes later, Damon has come out, taken a beating, and been physically thrown from his house. The next time we see him, he’s asleep on a Manhattan park bench.

This is the origin story of one extraordinarily talented member of the House of Evangelista, a fictional crew founded in the premiere by HIV-positive ballroom veteran Blanca Rodriguez (MJ Rodriguez) as a way of securing her legacy. The sequence sets up the show’s central dichotomy of fantasy vs. reality: When he’s dancing, Damon enters a blissful dream world. But without Donna Summer, he’s just a gay, black, suburban teen with parents who think porn is sinful. On “Pose,” the fantasy often ends at the precise moment when the music stops.

Co-created by Ryan Murphy, with a diverse writing staff that includes the trans author and activist Janet Mock, the show was inspired by the real gay men and trans women of color who vogued their way to renown in Reagan-era New York. “Pose” inhabits the sphere that (consulting producer) Jennie Livingston documented in her classic, controversial 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning—and that Madonna notoriously appropriated around the same time. At the center of this culture (which is still evolving, as the recent doc Kiki reaffirmed) are “houses” like Evangelista and their rivals, House of Abundance, that double as surrogate families for displaced queer and transgender youth. At balls, participants bring glory to their houses by dressing up to walk in categories such as Butch Queen in Drags and Schoolboy Realness. The goal of the “realness” contests is to believably impersonate, and in some cases parody, a successful member of the straight world.

Realness is more fantasy than reality—an idealized simulation heightened by costumes, attitude, and music. In “Pose,” contestants flaunt their Executive Realness looks to Klymaxx’s campy dance-pop single “Meeting in the Ladies Room.” Angel (Indya Moore), another Evangelista woman, dominates the spectacular “Weather Girl Realness” category to the Weather Girls’ “It’s Raining Men.” And Diana Ross’ swaggering disco hit “The Boss” scores Blanca’s victory over her haughty former house mother, Elektra Abundance (Dominique Jackson), for the coveted Femme Queen trophy.

There’s wit and whimsy in these danceable selections from music supervisor Amanda Krieg Thomas, who’s previously worked on “The Americans” and “Claws.” What’s more crucial, though, is the way the songs deepen the glamorous atmosphere that makes the balls in “Pose” so enticing to both the characters and the viewer. In reality, the ballroom is a nondescript banquet hall. But when competitors in homemade finery pack the space, walking and flirting and gossiping beneath pink lights to Grace Jones cuts, it’s the hottest club in town.

Off the makeshift runway, life isn’t so glamorous. To make ends meet, characters work in nail salons, at peep shows, and on the corner. A few of the women are “kept” by rich, white men; Elektra has a longtime beau who refuses to fund her gender confirmation surgery because he prefers her the way she is. Heartbreaking family histories like Damon’s are the norm. And the specter of AIDS is everywhere. Music—or the lack of it—marks the disconnect between the ballroom and the daily grind. Composer Mac Quayle’s sparse, classical-inflected score lingers in the background of some of these quotidian scenes, but “Pose” values silence, too. As characters await test results in dingy clinic consultation rooms, the absence of any sound at all can be agonizing.

The boundary between the ballroom and real life is permeable—sometimes crushingly so. In the most recent episode (airing July 8), which Mock directed and co-wrote, Blanca’s confidante Pray Tell (Billy Porter), a middle-aged fashion designer who emcees the balls, is reeling from his own positive HIV test and the impending AIDS-related death of Costas (Johnny Sibilly), the man he loves. The Evangelista crew realizes something is wrong when Pray Tell won’t stop playing MSFB’s “Love Is the Message,” a proto-disco hit from his own mid-’70s glory days. Later in the episode (also called “Love Is the Message”), he and Blanca serenade Costas’ hospital AIDS ward with a Whitney Houston–style arrangement of “Home” from The Wiz, giving their mortally ailing peers a rare taste of transcendence.

There are frontiers beyond the streets and the balls, too, and these are the spaces where Blanca, Elektra, and their children work to bridge the gaps between their big dreams and their often rough realities. Each milieu has its soundtrack. Classical music suffuses scenes of Damon at dance class and watching his first New York ballet; The Nutcracker, a tale of magical wish fulfillment, becomes a recurring theme. When Angel meets married Trump employee Stan Bowes (Evan Peters), their connection transcends that of sex worker and client, and 10cc’s prog-pop ballad “I’m Not in Love” foreshadows a relationship defined by false starts. At Stan’s house in Jersey, Christmas sounds like Johnny Mathis’ stodgy “O Holy Night,” but at the Snow Ball, Angel takes the Stone Cold Face prize as Kurtis Blow’s “Christmas Rappin’” blasts.

Wherever they fall on the spectrum spanning fantasy to reality, sprawling New York stories are stories of discrete cultures colliding—and the music here reflects that, too. “Pose” is attuned to the intersecting oppressions its characters face, from racism in the LGBT world to the way ball culture can body-shame trans women. Continuing her quest to champion her community, Blanca tries to integrate a popular West Village gay bar, where she is misgendered, beaten, and ultimately arrested simply for trying to drink alongside its white, cis-male clientele. The music in this queer space, by pop acts like Debbie Gibson and Bananarama, is miles away from the diverse blend of disco, dance pop, and hip-hop that plays at the balls.

Still, the collision of worlds also yields some of the show’s most beautiful scenes. “This song is gonna be our song,” Angel tells Stan when Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” comes on the car radio after their first tryst. English art pop isn’t either of their home turfs, but Bush’s lyrics encapsulate the potent mix of desire, difference, and impossibility that fuels their love: “If I only could/I’d make a deal with God/And I’d get him to swap our places,” she warbles over the synths. “I’d be running up that road/Be running up that hill/With no problems.” At the end of the episode, after offending Angel, Stan tracks her down to apologize. They drive off as “Running Up That Hill” blares. It’s the sound of fantasy overtaking reality, if only for a moment.


“Pose” airs on FX at 9 p.m. on Sundays. Read more of Judy Berman’s TV Eye column, focused on the intersection of music and television.

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