Rufus Wainwright has always been equal parts relatable and out of reach, and it’s this precise combination that makes him so captivating. He was born in Rhinebeck, New York, to Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III (Canadian and American folk luminaries, respectively); after his parents’ divorce, he moved to Montréal with his mother and spent the majority of his childhood there, playing piano by age six and becoming a touring musician at 13. He is preternaturally talented and almost overly cultured, steeped in classical music and literature from a young age due to his pedigree and a private-school education.
This is especially exemplified on his second album, 2001’s Poses. A baroque pop record if there ever was one, its hooks are elevated by string and piano arrangements. It followed Wainwright’s 1998’s self-titled debut LP, which was heavily influenced by his love of opera and cabaret. It wasn’t exactly radio-friendly, but it did earn him acclaim, accolades, and all of the accompanying benefits, which Wainwright welcomed with open arms. On Poses—released on 5 June, when Wainwright was 27 and about a year away from attending rehab for a crystal meth addiction—he is a man deciding whether to be a drug addict or a working musician (because either way, he’d have to commit fully).
Wainwright wrote Poses during a six-month stay at New York City’s Chelsea Hotel, where he decided to embrace debauchery while mining album material. The Chelsea is, of course, the long-term home of myriad artists that has since been immortalized in countless works about the lives and loves of both famous and infamous people. (In fact, Wainwright would later cover Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel No. 2”, which Cohen wrote about his affair at the hotel with Janis Joplin.) The album’s first track, “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk”, opens with these lines: “Cigarettes and chocolate milk / These are just a couple of my cravings / Everything it seems I like / A little bit stronger / A little bit thicker / A little bit harmful for me.”
Right away, we know what we’re getting into.
Poses was meant to be a more commercial album than Wainwright’s debut, with a wider appeal. It’s still full of cultural references for fans of classical music and literature—when Wainwright croons, “One way is home, and the other way is Papa” in “Greek Song”, it’s more likely that he’s referring to his musical idol, Italian composer Giuseppe “Papa” Verdi, than his actual father—but the album’s larger subject matter (partying, sex, addiction, adulthood, etc.) is indeed relatable to a much broader audience.
One of the most layered moments on Poses is Wainwright’s cover of “One Man Guy”, a song written and first released by his father on 1985’s I’m Alright. It’s about being true to yourself above all else (i.e., selfish and self-absorbed): “I’m a one-man guy in the morning / Same in the afternoon / One-man guy when the sun goes down / I whistle me a one-man tune”. The lyrics become incredibly nuanced when delivered by Rufus since his relationship with his father is notoriously fraught. His version also features backing vocals from his sister (and Loudon’s daughter), Martha, and Teddy Thompson (whose father, folk singer Richard Thompson, produced Loudon’s version). When sung by the younger male Wainwright, the lyrics become a potential commentary on several simultaneous subjects, ranging from patrilineal relations (“People depend on family and friends / And other folks to pull them through”) and self-improvement (“I’m gonna bathe and shave and dress myself / And eat solo every night”) to sexuality.
Like its writer, Poses is openly gay (which was obviously a bigger statement 20 years ago than it is now), and that’s part of what makes it so special. On “Rebel Prince”, for instance, Wainwright laments, “Where is my master, the rebel prince / Oh, I can see him now / Though it’s so far away”. Earlier, the rollicking single “California”—about the simultaneous allure and ennui of Los Angeles (“Big-time rollers, part-time models / So much to plunder that I think I’ll sleep instead”)—features a cameo from “my new grandma Bea Arthur”. Despite himself, Wainwright gets wrapped up in it all: “Still those soft-skinned boys can bruise you / Yes, I fell for a streaker”.
The song “Grey Gardens” is named after Albert and David Maysles’ 1975 documentary of the same name, which focuses on a mother and daughter (both named Edith Bouvier Beale) who are the aunt and cousin, respectively, of Jacqueline Onassis. (The film has long had a cult fandom—LGBTQ and otherwise—but it was introduced to a wider audience when drag performer Jinkx Monsoon portrayed the younger Edith, Little Edie, on season five of RuPaul’s Drag Race.) In the song, Wainwright sings to Tadzio: “In between tonight and my tomorrows, Tadzio, where’ve you been”. (Tadzio is the name of the teenage boy in Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice whom the main character, an adult male author, becomes obsessed with.)
Every song on Poses is worthy of mention, but the title track is easily among the best of them. It expertly places you exactly where Wainwright was at this point in his life: “There’s never been such grave a matter as comparing our new brand-name black sunglasses”. In a 2020 feature for Rolling Stone, he says that “Poses” represents his realization that his drug-taking had become more than recreational, adding: “I’m facing the hard truth of my decadent behavior, realizing that I’m completely lost and somewhat in danger”.
With lines like “I did go from wanting to be someone / Now I’m drunk and wearing flip-flops on Fifth Avenue,” he palpably reveals his disappointment in himself (even down to the choice of footwear). It’s worth noting that, in the same interview, Wainwright says the track is actually about someone he was “romantically obsessed with”: “I wrote the song about him, but it’s fascinating how little it really is about him at all, and how much it is about myself”. This is the moment where he has to decide if he wants to “be someone” or eternally walk around New York City in a stupor. “Baby, you said watch my head about it / I know, I know, no kidding”, he sings. In the following track, “Shadows”, he indicates which direction he’s leaning toward: “Fighting through the whiskey / I could be a great star / Still I’m far from happy / Out of these shadows comes the light”.
“Grey Gardens” opens with a clip from the film it’s named after, with audio of Little Edie Beale saying, “It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present. You know what I mean?” Rufus Wainwright knows. He grew up in the shadow of his parents’ success and accomplished what he did due to their connections. Plenty of celebrities’ children are given everything they need to succeed (and more), but they lack the raw skill to produce anything of actual value. Wainwright does not have this problem; his career may have been kickstarted in part by high-ranking producers—one of whom was none other than Van Dyke Parks, who just happens to be a family friend—but Poses is a reminder of how and why Wainwright attracted such noteworthy collaborators in the first place and how far he’s come since then.