Joni Dorian isn't content with the canon of American pop music. Neither is her new drag revue, Femmes of.
"I think America could do with a lot of outside criticism," says Dorian. "Also, I think a lot of the queer community could do with a lot of education, and a big passion of mine is music history."
Dorian's Femmes is a biweekly, music history lesson-meets-drag show at Northeast Portland's Local Lounge that aims to teach audiences about femmes who have influenced modern music and society. That might sound dry, but it's just as glamorous and high energy as any other drag revue, and you'll leave having learned something new about severely underappreciated, trailblazing musicians.
Dorian helms the series in drag as Rita Lynn, along with her co-host Diane Rott. Since its launch at the end of last year, Femmes has paid homage to femme contributions in punk, R&B, New Wave, disco, soul, art pop, Latinx music and rap. Dorian casts each show with drag queens who demonstrate a connection to that week's genre, and allows each performer to pick her own musician, song and routine. The queens write introductions for each femme they honor. Dorian encourages performers to pick femmes the audience might not know much about.
"I define femme very loosely as a femme-identifying person, whether that's a cis or trans female, whether that's a queer man or a gay man, also trans men," she says. "Femmes seems somewhat exclusionary of trans men, but I have made it clear I essentially don't want to showcase cis straight white men."
Dorian is a trans femme who sometimes uses the pronouns they and them. Dorian grew up in southern England and moved to Portland in 2014 to study at Reed College. Although she didn't care for Reed, she fell in love with Portland and the city's queer social scene. Dorian completed her master's in American studies at the University of East Anglia, focusing on queer American punk music history. She got married, moved back to Portland last winter and reintroduced herself to Portland's drag scene.
Dorian described Rita Lynn as "pushing gender signifiers to the extreme and being so fucking extra with gender that it's terrifying and confronting," though her approach has softened over time. Onstage, Rita Lynn fearlessly confronts topics like Western imperialism, which takes on added significance in Portland thanks to Dorian's perspective and education.
For a show last January, Dorian hired American Sign Language interpreters Fingers Crossed Interpreting. That show was attended by Philip Wolfe, Portland's first deaf City Council candidate, who challenged Commissioner Nick Fish for his seat in 2018. Dorian says Wolfe vowed to bring enough people to the next show to pack Local Lounge's capacity.
At Femmes of Rap, the series' most recent installment, Local Lounge hosted more than 60 people, several of whom communicated using ASL. Drag performers paid homage to rappers from Missy Elliott and Queen Latifah to Azealia Banks and Iggy Azalea. During an intro for Nightmare Ada's performance, Rita Lynn informed the audience that Kelis—whose music career first took off in the U.K.—does not identify as a singer or rapper, but had to change her image for the United States because the American music industry pigeonholes black artists as either rap or R&B.
The upcoming Femmes of Electronic will pay homage to musicians across the genre, which the show broadly defines to include as many interpretations as possible. Peaches, Stereolab, Kim Petras and Sophie will be among the femmes honored. Rita Lynn will pay homage to Alice Glass, and will remind audiences of the abuses Glass allegedly suffered at the hands of her former bandmate Ethan Kath.
"Women are abused, and women are fucked up in this industry, in this world," Dorian says. "And this is really difficult confronting, but that's an important space to be held, and I want to make people uncomfortable. It's an uncomfortable song, and it's difficult to listen to when you know this context, but also it's fucking life."
SEE IT: Femmes of Electronic is at Local Lounge, 3536 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, facebook.com/Ritalynnpdx, on Tuesday, March 26. 9:30 pm. No cover, tips accepted. 21+.