The artist known as Icky Stardust is preoccupied these days with an uncertain and potentially ominous future.
Icky—an East Tennessee-based drag performer who’s the co-organizer of a local partnership called Punk and Drag—is, like so many of their contemporaries, keeping a watchful eye on legislation in the Tennessee General Assembly that could very well make what they do as an artist and performer illegal.
“Senate Bill 3, and House Bill 9, would ban all drag from happening in public places, and it bans all people under 18 from attending or even witnessing a drag show,” they told me recently. “That means if there’s a drag brunch happening downtown, and someone under 18 witnesses it through the window, that drag performer can be charged with a misdemeanor. And on the second offense, it’s considered a felony punishable by up to six years in prison.”
Drag shows and drag performers are hot topics among conservative commentators, so much so that right here in Maryville, drag performers at a toy drive fundraiser brought out a handful of white nationalist protesters waving banners that included a swastika. That makes the alliance between local queens and the local punk community even more important, believes Mike Billups, founder and owner of Coffin Curse Records who established Punk and Drag with Icky.
On the surface, the two couldn’t be more different. Icky’s exotic wardrobe, elaborate makeup and sinewy frame as “the alien rock star” make them indeed seem otherworldly. Billups is a big man who shakes the stage when he’s behind the drum kit with his own punk band, Reckless Threat, and his tattoos and aggressive style of playing might be intimidating for first-time attendees of Punk and Drag events – like the one coming up Saturday, Feb. 25, at The Bird and the Book in Maryville.
At heart, however, both are fierce believers in equality, inclusivity and unity, and while drag queens sharing the stage with punk rockers might seem radical in the eyes of some, it makes perfect sense as means of expression and celebration in a place where both types of performers have struggled to find outlets.
“Having been a part of the punk community for more than 25 years, it’s one of the most welcoming and inclusive communities out there,” Billups said. “With our events at The Bird and the Book (located on East Broadway Avenue in the roundabout), we want to make our events open to anyone. We want to show people that our community is wholesome and loving, and that even though the music might be aggressive and might be loud, we just want people to have fun and dance and leave their stresses behind.
“We’d love to see Maryville College students join us, because we know how stressful college life can be, when you’re dealing with a class load and you feel like your back is always against the wall and your head is always in the books and you don’t have a lot of money. This is a good release, a place that’s welcoming, where you can come and enjoy yourself, and it doesn’t cost a thing.”
Because of the sponsorships Billups and Stardust have secured, the “Murvul Punk Anti Valentines Bash” is free and open to those 18 and older (younger patrons are allowed is accompanied by a parent or guardian). In addition to four drag performers — including Stardust and co-host Tyra Von Shade, Alexandra Cartier and Therapy Dupree — there will be sets by four punk bands, according to Billups: Rough Dreams, emo-punk rockers from East Tennessee for fans of Thursday or Taking Back Sunday; his own group, melodic hardcore outfit Reckless Threat; Nashville-based skate-punkers secondSELF (for fans of groups like No Use for a Name); and the evening’s headliners, Ohio-based band The Raging Nathans.
“They’re on their way to blowing up and are getting ready to go on a nationwide tour with The Queers,” Billups said. “This will be one of their only non-tour shows before they leave for that, and then they’re headed to Europe. They’re not a household name yet, but they’re getting ready to break, and I think they’re probably within a year of being one of the bigger bands in punk rock.”
In addition, 13 vendors will be selling wares that, Billups pointed out, make excellent residence hall décor, from “more on the spooky side of crafts to holistic to metaphysical, selling clothing, apparel, vinyl records, music” and everything in between. Again, however, money is no object, because admission is free, and if anybody welcomes poor college students into the fold, it’s punk rockers and drag artists. Your presence and support, Icky said, means everything in these trying times.
“This bill is so vague that it’s unconstitutional, and it could be interpreted to mean that trans individuals can be punished just for being themselves in public,” they said. “This could mean no Pride parades, no festivals, anything that includes gender expressive people and drag artists. This bill is so vague that it puts a target on people in the LGBTQIA community, and for what? For expressing ourselves through art and fashion?”
The “Murvul Punk Anti Valentines Bash” kicks off at 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 25 (doors open at 6) at The Bird and the Book, 1509 E. Broadway Ave. in Maryville (below Southland Books and Café). Admission is free.