Liberace and His Rhinestone Rappers

On the eve of a Soderbergh biopic, looking back to the OG of ghetto glitter

liberace-ross.jpgLiberace, John Gotti, at the same damn time/At the same damn time, it’s the same damn grind – Rapper Rick Ross, “Same Damn Time”

When Macklemore raps, Yo, that’s $50 for a T-shirt, of his Gucci-sporting contemporaries in newfound cultural touchstone “Thrift Shop,” he just sounds so damn sad.

And why not? We’ve had nearly a decade of Rick Ross’ transparent King Midas hype. Ross’ might be the most brazen and cartoonish, but big-money/big-power fantasies have been a thing as long as there’s been hip-hop. Just check those ’80s pics of Slick Rick in full regal getup, with rings on every finger and an ermine cape around his shoulders and … oh my God ermine, really? Screw the Maybachs, Rick Ross. Call me when you’re wearing something that only the Queen wears.

These boom-bust cycles of excess and humility replay ad infinitum in the pop-music landscape (lest we forget the Great Guns N’ Roses-Nirvana Wars of ’91, the veterans of which still bear the physical and psychological scars), so it’s no surprise that we’re in the middle of it once again. But what you might not have noticed is that if you could point to a jump-off, it happened here with the same swagger and the same socio-economic axes to grind, with Liberace—whose Steven Soderbergh-directed biopic, Behind the Candelabra, comes out May 26 on HBO.

This is a man, let’s not forget, who in 1947 was rolling with a gold-leaf piano (10 years even before Elvis busted out the gold lamé suit). Meaning Liberace was doing his thing about 15 times closer to when we shoved it down Hitler’s throat than when the Sugarhill Gang was twisting up Chic riffs and rhyming, I got a color TV so I can see/The Knicks play basketball. (Fine, status symbols worked differently in 1979.)

“Lee” was never shy about his materialism. After his shows, he used to riff that he “had such a marvelous time I’m ashamed to take the money, but I will.” And when The Daily Mirror carved him up with a thinly veiled outing he replied, “What you said hurt me very much. I cried all the way to the bank.”

Did Liberace drop the 1959 equivalent of “U mad bro?” Because that is a thing that totally happened. And just like anyone else who grew up with holes in his zapatos, he was celebrating the minute he was having dough. Liberace was a kid during the Depression. He also came up as a gay man in the ’40s and ’50s, which makes it impossible to ignore the “Fuck you, look at me” subtext underneath all that hyper-conspicuous consumption that’s also humming right along underneath all that diamonds-and-blow rap. That identity politics-rooted context, by the by, is necessary to make the whole thing work. Otherwise you end up with Kid Rock. No one wants that. Kid Rock doesn’t even want that.

If Lee had his “Oh God, they’re starting to see through the glitz” Macklemore moment, it was when stripped-down, animalistic rock ‘n’ roll achieved cultural dominance in the early ’60s. It threatened to reduce Liberace to an afterthought. Yet when he went to England and discovered the button-covered fashionista movement the Pearly Kings (who, incidentally, would have another moment in the American pop-culture sun as the influence for the style of the White Stripes’ Icky Thump cover) he came back as rhinestone-flashy as ever.

And here we are, back where we started 50-plus years ago, with CeeLo Green running a flaming piano down the Strip for his grand entrance to Loberace. CeeLo, whose own Goodie Mob once rapped, I went to the Goodwill with the $10 bill/Got that London Fog out the back. It’s still the same damn grind.

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