Paul Darrah and the Power of “Poof Pop”
The sole proprietor of Brooklyn New New Romantic act Tenant From Zero on the sounds that define his being
Tenant From Zero is a new discovery here at the offices of Rock & Roll Globe.
The name is the recording persona of Paul Darrah, a Brooklynite who evokes the lush romanticism of 1980s British pop on his just-released debut album, Flight.
Since Paul is quick to admit his lifelong fascination with a wide range of gender-bending — and above all, pouting —pop personalities, we asked for his take on the artists who have informed his own musical muse.
I was brought up in the early 1980s on what I like to call “Poof Pop.” Similar to pornography, there is no strict definition but you know it when you see it.
“Seeing it” is a very important aspect of this genre because along with the synthesizers and electronic dance beats, one of the big features of Poof was its repudiation of everything considered “macho” at the time. The artists that captivated me were proud peacocks in make-up, suits with shoulder pads, dainty white leather jazz shoes, and dyed hair moussed to perfection. They spoke about “fashion” and “art” in posh British accents. Basically, all the pretentious and effeminate hallmarks of what is commonly referred to as the New Romantic movement in England.
The words “pretentious” and “effeminate” are still very charged for me. In a good way. Any artist or band described as such gets my attention. Duran Duran, Japan, Roxy Music, Depeche Mode, and The Thompson Twins, among many others, provided hope for LGBTQ teens like myself. We could close our bedroom doors and swap the reality of our gray neighborhoods for the candy-colored escapism of magazines like Smash Hits, Blitz, and The Face.
At the time, A.I.D.S. was taking lives and seizing global headlines; it was a very dangerous time to come to terms with one’s sexuality and be public about it. I recall hearing from gay friends who had been cornered by hostile family members. They would rebuff attack by uttering the same words that comedian Jackie Beat would eventually reclaim for one of her live roadshows in the 1990s —”I’m not gay, I’m New Wave” (Disclaimer: When I think of New Wave, I think of such post-punk artists as Elvis Costello, Devo, and Joe Jackson — performers who could be weird but not exactly unambiguous in appearance and gender presentation).
The reason why I don’t refer to Poof as simply “Gay Pop” is because it really has a lot more to do with affectation than orientation. Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes is the ultimate in arty, poofy display, but by all accounts, he is heterosexual. Ditto for all the members of Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, and Roxy Music. In 1984, even straight boys wanted to look like Duran Duran. So, by degrees, Poof allowed gay kids a sort of comradery with straight fans of the genre, because despite whatever differences in sexuality, we were all sharing the same proverbial eye-liner.
From my perspective, the true “’80s Poof Pop” era ended in 1991 with the opening chords of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I was barely 21 but fully out of the closet and very involved in the tiny gay club scene in my hometown of Philadelphia. My reaction to Nirvana was “OK! This is really wild and new (for MTV), but I do not see myself in this AT ALL. Why is everyone so dirty? Why are they shouting and why aren’t they pouting?”
What I was feeling for the first time was a true cultural disconnect. It was beyond whether I liked Nirvana or not. It was more that I felt a growing gulf from what was technically happening in popular culture, and my place in it. Grunge was a new language from an undiscovered planet. Most of my friends didn’t have as big of a problem with it. They naturally gravitated from The Pixies and other “120 Minutes” bands to Nirvana, but mosh pit exuberance wasn’t my style.
From an artistic perspective, I’ve long since left the looks behind but the sound and vibe of Poof are very much alive in my music. I have a song called “Laugh At Me” (The Nape of Your Neck, 2017) that sounds like a mash-up of Duran Duran and Depeche Mode, and is about a guy who openly pines for the 1980s.
David Sylvian and Bryan Ferry were never far from my mind while I was writing my debut album, Flight, which is released this month. My new batch of songs is about love and loss, regret, and relationships in general. They have nothing at all to do with politics or the state of the world. The subject is myself. And like some New Romantic searching for that “chart-busting MTV sound,” the self as subject is yet another aspect of Poof to which I’ve held.
And, yes, I pout in the album’s first video.
VIDEO: Tenant From Zero “This Can’t Wait til Later”
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