The Go-Go’s were just about gone-gone by the time this video came out in late 1984. As documented in VH1’s Behind the Music, the Go-Go’s were fracturing under the pressures of fame. Belinda was snorting buckets of cocaine, guitarist Charlotte Caffey was a heroin addict, and they were fighting all the time.
MTV heavily promoted Turn to You, but it disappeared quickly from MTV’s rotation. Ironically, it’s the most expensive and lavish video of their career. The Go-Go’s weren’t much of a video band. Until their third album Talk Show, they were a rare sighting on MTV. Their most iconic and popular song, We Got the Beat, doesn’t even have a video. On Youtube, the song yields only TV and concert clips, but no official video. They did make one memorable early video, Our Lips Our Sealed, which is a sublime early 1980s masterpiece featuring the band playing at a club (no audience) intercut with shots of them driving around the Westside of Los Angeles in a big convertible on a beautiful sunny day. It evokes the Monkees in its silly, light-hearted, and distinctly California mood. They laugh at themselves being rock stars making a video. It famously ends with them splashing around together in a public fountain. It’s a cheap but effective video.
Vacation was a little slicker and more produced, showing them pretending to be on waterskies, mimicking their album cover of the same name. It’s campy fun, but less relaxed and spontaneous than Our Lips Our Sealed.
Their third album Talk Show yielded Head Over Heals, a slick performance clip on a colorful set featuring fashionable clothes. This is their official “sell-out” video. It lacks any irony or sense of rebellion. The Go-Go’s had joined the corporate machine. There is no trace of punk in Head Over Heads. Each band member is carefully positioned like a mannequin or marionette. Everything seems forced. It was heavily played.
Turn to You followed Head Over Heals. No expense was spared. They even made a documentary about the making of the video as they were filming it, like with Thriller. It’s on Youtube.
Years later, the video’s queer themes are surprisingly blunt. Perhaps this is why the video disappeared so quickly, despite the heavy promotional campaign. I can’t say for certain, but it’s certainly one of the era’s gayer videos. There are many possible explanations. At least one of the band members (Caffey) is a lesbian. Their use of drag and gender interplay might have seemed “punk” and rebellious. Maybe the idea was foisted upon them by male music industry executives who thought it would be cute to see the Go-Go’s play dress up or perhaps subtly hint to their heterosexual adolescent male audience that they’re all secret lesbians.
This last point is a major trope in the history of rock and roll: the idea that all-girl rock groups are lesbian. The music industry sometimes deliberately creates this impression. Advertising and deceptive headlines implied that the Wilson sisters from Heart were lesbians in the 1970s. The Go-Go’s had similar moments. The cover of Beauty and the Beat shows them all wearing towels and mud masks, like they’ve just taken showers together and are about to have a big kinky slumber party. The fountain scene from Our Lips Our Sealed, the culmination of their sunny drive around sunny LA, reeks of foreplay. The video ends with them soaking wet, but what happens next? Let a 15-year old heterosexual male see where that fantasy goes. The Go-Go’s may have started as a punk band, but the male-dominated music business ultimately transformed them into “girl on girl” masturbation fantasies for straight adolescent suburban boys. No wonder they broke up.
Turn to You lacks the orgiastic straight porn-fantasy of their public fountain splash, instead relying on a butch-femme theme in sync with actual lesbian culture. Through male drag, many of the band members end up looking like butch lesbians in the video—real lesbians, not those of heterosexual fantasy. You didn’t see many “butch” women on MTV in these years. When Annie Lennox seemed too male in Love is a Stranger, MTV panicked and stopped the video during its premiere. MTV much preferred hyper-feminine women with big hair, tons of make-up, slutty clothes, and gaping cleavage (like the ZZ Top women).
Each Go-Go in the video plays a male and female character. The “femme” versions of the band members have big 1950s era hairdos and wear elaborate formal dresses. The “butch” (or male) versions wear sharp male dress clothes.
Despite all this queerness, there is also an underlying conservatism in the video’s 1950s prom setting, like it could be an episode of Happy Days, feeding into the Reagan era valorization of 1950s values. Take out the gender-bending queerness and it’s a very square video. This incongruous juxtaposition of 1950s nostalgia and queer overtones implicitly suggests that homosexuality might have existed back in the good old 1950s. What a shocking thought!
The video has no central narrative, instead consisting of little scenes of flirtation, partner changing, and Rob Lowe-wooing. There is a beginning, middle, and end signified by the characters’ arrivals, dancing, then going home at the end, but there is no central storyline holding it all together. At least half of the video shows the band performing on stage as the prom band—all in male drag, except the drummer. Little scenes interjected throughout the performance clips hint at drama but don’t delve too deep.
Before the song kicks in, we see a band member in her 1950s “femme” guise flirting with Rob Lowe as he sneaks booze into her drink. The camera takes us into the prom and up to the video’s first significantly queer image: a shot of the drummer in male drag lighting a cigarette of her (his) femme date. The camera swoops by quickly, so at first it looks inoffensively gendernormative, but the second or third time you realize it’s actually a masculine woman lighting another woman’s cigarette.
As the song starts we get our first good look at Go-Go’s onstage in their male drag (except for the “girl drummer,” whose overstated femininity provides a visual contrast to the other band members’ maleness throughout the video.) They are strikingly butch, especially Belinda who snaps along to the beat wearing a white broad-shouldered suit with a purplish shirt and tie. Her hair is cut short above the ears and combed slightly upward. She wears no makeup, earrings, or other jewelry, making her more conventionally masculine than 95 percent of MTV’s male stars, who usually have long hair and/or earrings. I must confess, I find her attractive dressed like a man.
The guitarist has the same pattern and Belinda: suit (dark), shirt, tie (skinny blue), and butch vintage fedora, no make-up or jewelry. The other two band members (bassist and another guitarist) wear plaid jackets, sort of loud and fashionable for the 1950s. The girl drummer wears a sleeveless dress and a big hairdo. The use of the drag is the main theme holding the disparate scenes together, and thematically unites the performance clips with the prom scenes.
The band’s femme versions then appear, starting with the guitarist who arrives with her date only to throw away her corsage like she’s angry or being difficult. Belinda’s femme is truly glorious in its tacky overstatedness, looking very much a male drag queen with her huge white wig and enormously layered white dress, as though she belongs on the top of a wedding cake. In the Reagan era, such an image could be seen as subversive in its ridiculousness, like a Jon Waters movie or the B-52s, or as gently nostalgic, like a slightly exaggerated early 1980s Happy Days episode. Nostalgia provides a conservative masking of the video’s subversive queerness, and the lets the viewer decide which version they prefer. Shots of femme-Belinda looking for Rob Lowe are intercut with shots of butch-Belinda onstage, emphasizing the stark contrast between the two characters who happen to be the opposite gender but are being played by the same performer. Judith Butler must love this video—gender performativity, indeed!
There are a few breathtakingly blunt moments of queerness that result from all the gender confusion. Towards the end of the second verse, femme-Belinda finds Rob Lowe and briefly dances with him until another woman cuts in. After a few seconds, the drummer in her butch persona cuts in to dance with the woman, grinning widely. What makes the scene so queer is that the drummer’s drag is not convincing. Several of the Go Go’s usually wore their hair short in a boyish style, so the drummer here did not look much different than she usually did. She looks less like a man and more like a woman wearing a man’s suit. Thus, their few seconds dancing together are a bit startling. When did you ever see same-sex couples dancing together on MTV in these years? I can’t think of any other videos with same-sex dancing like this. Maybe there were some, but I don’t remember. It’s like the classic pre-Code Hollywood film Wonderbar (1934) in which a fey man humorously cuts in to dance with another man (it’s in the Celluloid Closet).
A similar scene occurs during the guitar solo, when a young lady hands butch-Belinda a corsage in very flirty way. Officially, there is nothing out of place here because we are supposed to believe that Belinda is male. But we still know, in the back of our minds, that Belinda Carlisle is in fact female, and even though she’s not a lesbian (as far as I know), she seems to be flirting with another woman. The scene ends as Belinda, laughing, throws the corsage back at her. Light hearted drag fun, or a cruel rejection?
The videomakers may have gotten away with so much queerness because there is a lot of heterosexuality as well. This is Rob Lowe’s main function in the video. He becomes the object of desire of both femme-Belinda and the femme-bassist, and there’s a protracted scene in which he makes out with femme-Belinda while the bassist vies for his attention. No queerness intrudes upon Lowe in this video, and there is never moment he is implied to be gay. In fact, no man’s sexuality is ever questioned in the video, just that of women. All this dampens the queer vibe and probably helped avoid censorship.
The most exciting moment comes towards the end of the video when butch-Belinda gets in a convertible car with a very femme woman in the driver’s seat. As Belinda sits, s/he bends over the car seat to give the girl a kiss. The camera cuts away just before their lips touch. It’s another example of a near-gay-kiss, like the clowns in Elton John’s I’m Still Standing. Given the broader cultural environment, these near-gay-kisses are significant moments in the history of television and LGBT media representations. Remember how America went completely nuts when Roseanne kissed another woman on her sitcom? That was several years after both these videos. These kisses, in a small way, helped normalize the idea of same-sex desire in popular culture. At the time, such images were almost nonexistent on television, so they are shocking to see.
Officially, again, Belinda is “male” so it’s not gay, but the fact of the matter is that we almost see Belinda Carlisle kiss another woman. And she looks like a lesbian doing it, offering a rare glimpse of a lesbian relationship on MTV. At the same time, the scene contributes to the heterosexual marketing fantasy that they are all lesbians, like the fountain scene in Our Lips Are Sealed, but that fantasy is mitigated by the fact that Belinda is so butch in the scene.
After the near kiss, we see some other couples of ambiguous gender leaving the prom, and it appears that femme-Belinda was stood up and left behind. Rob Lowe leaves with the femme-drummer. After the band finishes the song, the male Go-Go’s act stereotypically male by shaking each other’s hands in an exaggerated butch manner and hitting each other’s shoulders. It’s an awfully queer final image.
Although MTV videos routinely appropriated elements from drag culture, there was very little actual cross-dressing depicted on MTV in its golden years. Before RuPaul, the closest thing on MTV to a cross-dressing icon was Boy George, and only in the later Culture Club videos. But George’s drag was more in the name of genderfuck than in actually passing as a woman. No matter how much he resembled a woman, he was still Boy George. The same can be said for the Dead or Alive singer. Annie Lennox in Love is a Stranger is perhaps closer in spirit to Turn To You by demonstrating different varieties of gender construction on a single body, thus reminding us of the many fictions inherent in how society conceptualizes gender. Turn to You is one of few videos to go beyond mere gender-bending and portray actual cross dressing (Queen’s I Want to Break Free is another). This 100% transformation in turn creates opportunities for viewers to watch forbidden moments of homoerotic intimacy. Given the cultural mood of the Reagan era in late 1984, this slickly produced video may be the most “punk” moment of the Go-Go’s career.