The Topp Twins rode through town last night, earning a standing ovation at the NEW Fest in Manhattan for their suggestion that the gays could save America.* Actually, the standing ovation was for their documentary, Untouchable Girls, which has the distinction of being the biggest box office doco in New Zealand’s screen history.
Jools: “We even beat Al Gore!”
Lynda: “Yeah, that was really inconvenient for him.”
I just bloody love the Topp Twins. I love their honesty, their swift quips and their, well, what’s the opposite of subersive humour? Because their dirtiest secret is that they’re not subversive. They are, and always have been, front and centre in their beliefs, causes and intention.
“Are there any straights here tonight?” they asked the crowd at the School of Visual Arts. I gamely threw my hand up to prod the inevitable punch-line.
“Welcome! It’s lovely to see you here. Some of our best friends are straight people…” (B’doom ch).
“There’s nothing wrong with you…”
“…No, we like you. We just don’t want you teaching our kids!”
Good one. The Arani Cuthbert-produced, Leanne Pooley-directed doco went down well here last night, and if all is right with the world it’ll lead to a theatrical season in America.
The film concluded with a standing ovation. The Topps began their post-screening Q&A with a waiata, “because we share our country with the Maori”. Then they showed off Lynda’s yodelling skills, threatening:
“We’re going to teach you New Yorkers how to yodel!”
“… The doors have been locked.”
Somebody asked “Where the hell is Huntly?” Someone else wanted to know how Jools is, post-cancer. “I am good now. I am good on this day.”
I asked how they write their songs. I’ve always wanted to know. They’re so seemingly inseparable that I imagined the Topp Twins songwriting process naturally involved the pair of them. Not so. “We never write together, and we never know when it’s going to come,” said Lynda (or was it Jools?! Goddamned identical twin lesbians…) “You might wake up in the middle of the night with an idea for a song, and hope you can find a tune for it in the morning.”
But while the writing process isn’t scientific, they were very firm on the process once a song has arrived. “We sing it once, and it’s in the repertoire.”
What’s fascinating watching Untouchable Girls with a foreign audience is that things I take for granted about New Zealand got flipped on their head. In the Q&A session, one man asked how it was that a “conservative little country” like New Zealand could open its heart to the Topps.
But, fair call. If you have no concept of the past 50 years of New Zealand social history – which makes up a good chunk of the film – then the documentary’s incredible archive footage, from Bastion Point, from Hamilton during the Springbok Tour, from the anti-nuke and pro-gay rights protests – could make us look like a nation constantly at civil war. With the Topps at the centre of it all.
I loved Lynda’s straight answer to the question. Why did New Zealand open our collective heart to them? “Because we are not judging anyone.”
This is a huge part of their popularity. It’s the thing that enables the Topps to connect with incredibly diverse audiences; an ability to make people feel comfortable in their skin to the point where they’ll go anywhere with you. I’ve mused before, in this post, about how the way you set up a show at the beginning can directly influence how far you can take your audience.
But for the Topps it’s not the beginning of the show that matters; it’s the beginning of an artist’s life. Jools: “There are people who don’t agree with us, but they respect us, because right from the beginning we told the truth about who we are.”
It means, she said, that they “can give 100% to the audience”, because nothing’s being held back.
And they did it again last night. You’d think (well, I thought) that being a lesbo-gay-trans-bi film festival, the friendly crowd would make it an easy gig. But the Topps didn’t take the easy road. The Q&A ended with a full-on call to arms; with eye-opening, controversial statements, about Jools being “sick of pink” (the never-ending, pink-themed breast cancer fundraisers that so far still haven’t produced a cure), and about how wonderful it is that America has “Mr Obama”, their first black president, but that there’s still a heck of a lot of work to do.
“This is a very political time right now,” they reminded us. The crowd shifted in their seats as the Topps reminded them, “You are the Government. You put those people there.”
People, they said, are always asking ‘how can I help?’. “You just stand up. You just stand up and go somewhere, and the people will come with you.
“The best way to do it is, don’t protest, just celebrate who you are.”
Lynda illustrated this thought with a suggestion that America’s gay community could be the answer to the horrendous oil spill. She encouraged the crowd to take one weekend out of their life, collect up all their friends, and all the old feather boas and sparkly tops in New York City, get down to the gulf and say:
* “We’re here to help mop up!”
And in the future, she said, people will remember “way back then, when the gays saved America!”
It was a funny moment, but as Jools and Lynda busted into “Untouchable Girls”, the laughter had an edge to it. Like I say, I just bloody love the Topp Twins. They cut close to the bone.
Postscript: If you’re reading this from America, Lynda and Jools will be in Northampton, Provincetown and San Francisco over the coming week.