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How Work It’s Keiynan Lonsdale Danced His Way To Queer Villainy

Dia Dipasupil/FilmMagic By Mitchell Kuga As he prepared to audition for the role of Jake Tailor, the straight love interest in the coming-of-age dance comedy Work It, Keiynan Lonsdale did something unexpected: He asked to read for a part previously written for a woman instead. There was something alluring about the queen bee of the…

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How Work It’s Keiynan Lonsdale Danced His Way To Queer Villainy

Dia Dipasupil/FilmMagic

By Mitchell Kuga
As he prepared to audition for the role of Jake Tailor, the straight love interest in the coming-of-age dance comedy Work It, Keiynan Lonsdale did something unexpected: He asked to read for a part previously written for a woman instead. There was something alluring about the queen bee of the Wood Bright High School dance team, who embodied a trope of Mean Girls wickedness he wanted to turn on its head. “I’ve never seen a guy play this role before, a queer villain in this capacity,” says Lonsdale, noting that director Laura Terruso and the film’s producers (which includes Alicia Keys) were “completely open” to the change. Part of the appeal was playing evil, a departure from the good-guy roles he’d explored in movies like Love, Simon, in which Lonsdale played the sweet-faced love interest, or the superhero sidekick in CW’s The Flash. “I also generally try to be a nice dude in my life,” says the 28-year-old Aussie over Zoom, a week before Work It’s August 8 Netflix release. “So I wanted to unleash the dragon.”
What emerged is Isaiah, the fire-breathing leader of the Thunderbirds dance team who goes by Juilliard now, a name-change he hopes will manifest an acceptance letter to his dream school. Played by a pink-haired Lonsdale with a pinch of camp expressed most pointedly through a white feathered dance ensemble, he’s conniving and singular in his ambition to attend the prestigious performing arts conservatory — even if it means destroying the hopes of protagonist Quinn Ackerman, the overachieving do-gooder with two left feet, played by Sabrina Carpenter. After Juilliard rejects her from the Thunderbirds, Quinn forms her own rival team, a ragtag crew of high school misfits, including Quinn’s horny best friend, Jasmine, played by YouTube star Liza Koshy. Backstabbing, a budding romance, and schoolyard dance-offs ensue, with all roads leading to the Work It dance competition.
Lonsdale spoke to MTV News from Sydney, where he’s been quarantining for the last two months. Creatively, he’s using the time to work on visuals for Rainbow Boy, his debut LP that he released in May. (On the horn-studded breakout single “Gay Street Fighter,” he channels some of Julliard’s over-the-top bravado: “Bet they wanna taste the bussy so good.”) But quarantine has mostly been a way to recenter, the longest Lonsdale’s been home since he moved to the United States nearly seven years ago to pursue acting. “In a lot of ways, when I was living [in Sydney] I wasn’t comfortable with who I am,” he says, describing the last two months as a process of “reconnection” —including taking dance classes at the studio where he used to teach. To his surprise, many of his students are now adults, pursuing their dreams in ways that fill Lonsdale with pride. “It’s cool to see your friends go for what they want.”
Elly Dassas / NetflixMTV News: You studied dance at a performing arts high school and played a dance student in the Australian television drama Dance Academy; did playing Juilliard feel like déjà vu in some ways? 
Keiynan Lonsdale: It was lovely to be in another dance production and the camaraderie definitely mirrored that. There’s something about constantly sweating with people, you form a fun bond. But in Dance Academy, my character, Ollie, wasn’t very comedic. He was very serious. It was my first TV role, and it was all ballet-focused for the majority of it. Both characters had big egos, but with Work It there was a lot more sass.
MTV News: Was Juilliard inspired by anyone you went to school with? 
Lonsdale: We never had one person at my school who was the top bully, but we had our fair share of drama and fun, and we were all little divas in some way. So I pulled from different people; sometimes teachers, sometimes other people I would meet at dance competitions. Not necessarily in terms of the meanness Juilliard has, but just that fire.
MTV News: Was there space for you to inject your own style or choreography into the dance numbers, or was it pretty set? 
Lonsdale: The routines were fairly set but there were a lot of moments where Aakomon Jones, our choreographer (Pitch Perfect, Black Panther), allowed Julliard to have his flair. They would just allow me to freestyle or experiment, excited about whatever was going to fit on my body. But even in those moments, I did want to make sure that I wasn’t adding in Keiynan, that I would still keep it in the vein of what Juilliard would do, how Juilliard is dancing. It was fun to dance as someone else.
MTV News: I noticed some vogueing elements in the freestyle. 
Lonsdale: Yeah, in the battle scene. That was actually great because I haven’t done a lot of vogueing. In school, we had it every now and then, and I was exposed to so much of it over the course of my life, but it was the first time in person having some of these moves and intentions broken down for me. I remember feeling stopped in my tracks because, energetically, I was like, I get it. I really get it. Not in terms of getting perfect lines — there was a lot of work I needed to do — but in terms of the attitude and the intention. It’s a special art form.
MTV News: I love that you basically created this queer character for yourself out of a female role. Since coming out, do you find yourself either pursuing different characters or being offered different roles than before? 
Lonsdale: I think it’s opened things up, for sure. But I feel like I’ve been very fortunate to be able to go for an array of different characters. It hasn’t been limiting in any way — or perhaps in some ways it has and I don’t know about it. I’m not focused on that. Our stories have gone untold for so long. It’s really exciting to see all the different places we get to go now. That’s going to keep growing, and it’s just cool to be a part of that.
Courtesy NetflixMTV News: Is there a queer character you’re hungering to play that doesn’t exist yet? 
Lonsdale: It would be great, one day, to watch or be part of a queer superhero group. Just like, you know, some of the biggest and baddest players in the game. That would be really fun. I would also like to make my own characters, whether that’s in my music or my life. Anything with the ability to destroy stereotypes while not taking away from the character’s authenticity is cool with me. Also, anything that’s going to shock a few people, because a lot of people haven’t been exposed to what queer culture really is, and I think they’ve got a lot to learn from it. They would be some of the best roles ever, some of the best stories ever. There’s going to be a wealth of them.
MTV News: Coming from Australia, has the Black Lives Matter movement changed the way you think about your work or the industry, in general?
Lonsdale: I first came to America in 2014 and it was the first time I had heard of it. I was in Atlanta so, coming from Australia, it was the first time I was surrounded by so many people that looked like me in my life. Everything started changing for me then. Even working on The Flash and having my cast family, Jessie Martin and Candice Patton, that became such a hub of an education for me — a Black education, and an African-American one, more specifically. For me, growing up in Australia, it was just different. I hear people in America say they were not taught a lot about the truth and I think, well, we didn’t even get a quarter of that information in Australia. So, for my music, I made very conscious decisions with the lyrics I chose, working with the kinds of people who have the right intentions. It’s in the choices I’ve made with film and TV. It’s at the forefront.
MTV News: When did you realize you were passionate about dancing?
Lonsdale: Dancing will always be my first passion. I was born into it, you know? I started in the living room as soon as I could stand. I was, like, two years old, the youngest of six, and tried to go to dance classes, but I was too shy. I didn’t go back until I was four and was on stage since I was five. I just needed to be on stage dancing, constantly. I didn’t really know how to communicate with people, I just knew how to dance. So that was it. I was born loving it.
MTV News: So you were the type who was super shy backstage but, once you got on stage, it was a completely different Keiynan?
Lonsdale: I didn’t know how to look people in the eye when I was a kid. I walked around like this for years [puts face down] just terrified, but then I’d get on stage in my sparkly jacket, like, [raises arms in the air triumphantly]. I’d give it my all and then I’d become terrified again when I got off stage. Eventually, my mom had to figure out a tactic to get me over my fears, so she was like, “You won’t be able to dance anymore if you don’t start talking to people and looking at people.” And so I quit dancing for a couple of months because I’d rather just not look at anyone. I was also getting bullied at school because I was a boy dancing and all that stuff. And then, eventually, I couldn’t resist. I went back to [dancing] and made the deal. Started talking to people. Started looking up more. So thank you, Mom.
MTV News: Circling back to Work It: Is there any one message you want audiences to take away from this film? 
Lonsdale: I want people to dance, you know? This life is crazy. I want people to dance. Dance is the thing that brings me back to a sense of normality, a sense of strength that I often forget I have, and clarity. Even if you don’t think you’re the best, even if you don’t think you have any rhythm, everyone has rhythm. It’s in human nature. You just have to find that space where it’s just you and your favorite tracks. It’s just a matter of connecting to it. I feel like this movie will do this for people. I think dancing changes your life and it creates a community, as you see in the film, of misfits. But really I think dancers are the only sane people in the world.

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Art & Culture

Janelle Monáe Leads The Revolution In Stirring ‘Turntables’ Video

YouTube “We are in the middle of a revolution right? What’s a revolution without a song and a song without a revolution.” That’s the question the Grammy-winning artist Janelle Monáe posed to Entertainment Weekly when describing her latest single, “Turntables.” The song was released on and flips between cleverly rapped lines about “liberation, elevation, education” and a harmonic…

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Janelle Monáe Leads The Revolution In Stirring ‘Turntables’ Video

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“We are in the middle of a revolution right? What’s a revolution without a song and a song without a revolution.”
That’s the question the Grammy-winning artist Janelle Monáe posed to Entertainment Weekly when describing her latest single, “Turntables.” The song was released on and flips between cleverly rapped lines about “liberation, elevation, education” and a harmonic refrain with clear gospel influences. It’s Monáe’s take on a contemporary protest song, a call for a political sea change, in the vein of, say, Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” or Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.”
Courtesy of Atlantic RecordsAnd on Tuesday (September), Monáe released a moving music video — or, as she calls it, an emotion picture — that solidified that message. The visual opens and closes with the singer walking along the beach in a beige trench coat and military cap. At times, she can be seen singing into a retro microphone before an American flag; in others, she moves through staged breakfast scenes, with a family reading through newspaper headlines as they mouth her lyrics. The visual flashes through archival and contemporary footage depicting inspirational figures past and present: Where one scene shows the model and activist Jillian Mercado at a photo shoot, another depicts a conversation with lifelong activist Angela Davis.
What rings true without is a hopeful cry for change and for equality, and a recognition of those who have been leading that fight for decades. Monáe wrote “Turntables” for the new Amazon Studios documentary, All In: The Fight for Democracy, that shines a light on voter suppression, particularly through the lens of Stacey Abrams’s failed bid for the Georgia governorship. “Right now, I am focused on turning the election in our favor,” Monáe told Entertainment Weekly, “and I hope this song can inspire those who are on the ground doing the work.”

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Joe Keery’s Reinvention, Mxmtoon’s Carly Rae Jepsen Collab, And More Songs We Love

Getty Images/April Blum The search for the ever-elusive “bop” is difficult. Playlists and streaming-service recommendations can only do so much. They often leave a lingering question: Are these songs really good, or are they just new? Enter Bop Shop, a hand-picked selection of songs from the MTV News team. This weekly collection doesn’t discriminate by…

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Joe Keery’s Reinvention, Mxmtoon’s Carly Rae Jepsen Collab, And More Songs We Love

Getty Images/April Blum

The search for the ever-elusive “bop” is difficult. Playlists and streaming-service recommendations can only do so much. They often leave a lingering question: Are these songs really good, or are they just new?
Enter Bop Shop, a hand-picked selection of songs from the MTV News team. This weekly collection doesn’t discriminate by genre and can include anything — it’s a snapshot of what’s on our minds and what sounds good. We’ll keep it fresh with the latest music, but expect a few oldies (but goodies) every once in a while, too. Get ready: The Bop Shop is now open for business.

St. Vincent ft. Yoshiki: “New York”

St. Vincent, the intuitive musical goddess that she is, must have sensed our collective need for another quarantine ballad. Enter “New York [Feat. Yoshiki],” a classical arrangement of the standout single from 2017’s Masseduction. An added string section courtesy of Yoshiki, a Japanese multi-instrumentalist, beautifully complements the song’s original piano instrumentals. What more can I say? “New York isn’t New York / Without you, love” just hits different in the middle of a pandemic. —Sam Manzella

Djo: “Keep Your Head Up”

Last year, Joe Keery (of Stranger Things fame) released a glossy solo album under the moniker Djo. It was titled Twenty Twenty, and its sparkling arrangements ended up being quite far removed from the overall vibe of 2020 the year, but who could fault him for his optimism? Keery has also long been a contributing member of Chicago psych band Post Animal, but Djo is simply Joe — and latest “Keep Your Head Up” feels like several Joes ripping open a vortex in the funk-time continuum. This is a groove, peppered with buzzy synths and icy falsetto and an honest-to-god sax part. It’s akin to Todd Terje doing Tame Impala, a lightheaded cocktail rush that feels both clubby and bedroom ambitious. Positively galactic. —Patrick Hosken

Mxmtoon ft. Carly Rae Jepsen: “OK On Your Own”

When Mxmtoon’s Maia said she recorded “OK On Your Own” for the girls and the gays, she wasn’t kidding. The mellow bedroom-pop bop soundtracks a journey of self-reflection after a breakup, complete with the soft ukulele instrumentals that put the 19-year-old singer-songwriter on the map. Is it revelatory? No, but with pop icon Carly Rae Jepsen lending her sugary-sweet vocals to the second verse, it doesn’t have to be. Now I’m just waiting for “Party for Two.” —Sam Manzella

Video Age: “Aerostar”

Pleasure Line, the third album from emerging indie pop quartet Video Age, delivers perfectly escapist ’80s new wave vibes for when you need to get outta 2020 for just a moment. “Aerostar” is its punchy center, a hip-twisting, shoulder-shuffling groove that delivers quirky robot dance commands (“Slide to the left, now! Shimmy to the right!”) over hoppin’ funk synths and a kickin’ drum machine. It all harkens to a simpler time, one where dance floors were actually a real thing. Oh, the ’80s! —Terron Moore

Ruel: “As Long As You Care”

About a year ago, Australian middle-part heartthrob Ruel told MTV News that for him, “songwriting is exaggerating to an extent.” On his latest, the technicolor, soulful “As Long As You Care,” his exaggeration is so seamless, you’d be forgiven for believing the 17-year-old is actually a time traveler. The neo-soul groove he rides propels everything upward, even as the sound cheekily looks backward. “As Long As You Care” has one amazing hook, coupled with sonic candy that makes his upcoming third EP, Bright Lights, Red Eyes (out October 23) one to watch. —Patrick Hosken

Alycia Bella ft. Boogie: “Cue the Sun”

Something magical happens two-and-a-half minutes into “Cue the Sun,” the exploratory new collab between striking R&B voice Alycia Bella and rapper Boogie. After piping in the aural equivalent of stage smoke via jazzy piano and gorgeous vocalizations — “It feel like being lost in the right direction” — Bella’s song enters a more sparkly realm for Boogie’s recitations. By the end, you’re lighter, like your mind’s been cleared of all the cobwebs. Cue the sun. —Patrick Hosken

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Michael Love Michael’s XO Is A Service To Their Queer Ancestors

Ross Days It can be tempting, as a writer, to compartmentalize, to define by a set of fixed words or parameters. Pinpoint the detail about your subject that most interests you — an unexpected gesture, a prime soundbite pulled from an interview — and flesh it out into a full story. But in the case…

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Michael Love Michael’s XO Is A Service To Their Queer Ancestors

Ross Days

It can be tempting, as a writer, to compartmentalize, to define by a set of fixed words or parameters. Pinpoint the detail about your subject that most interests you — an unexpected gesture, a prime soundbite pulled from an interview — and flesh it out into a full story. But in the case of the New York-based artist Michael Love Michael, who last month self-released their debut album XO, it’s simply not possible, in part because they do so much.
As the former culture editor at Paper magazine, the 32-year-old “Cancer-Leo cusp,” who grew up between Chicago and Gary, Indiana, crafted celebrated profiles of such disparate musicians as Paramore’s Hayley Williams and cyborg sensation Poppy, while also serving up weekly playlists packed with the best bops from Megan Thee Stallion, Yves Tumor, and beyond. One day, it seemed they were stomping a runway in New York in a leather tank top and a cherry pout for the queer designer Willie Norris; the next, they were escaping to a farm to study permaculture at an undisclosed location “out West.”
XO, by design, rejects easy categorization. The collection, which was produced in under a year in collaboration with Michael’s longtime creative partner Rich Dasilva, fluctuates dramatically between glittering power-pop — as on the synth-heavy “6 Jaguars,” which dissolves at the bridge into a biting rap (“They call me bitch if they don’t like me… Does that tell you who I’m voting for, honey?”) — and lush, emotional ballads. Michael’s voice boasts a similarly wide range, whether as a groaning whisper in a spoken-sung segment closing “The Hatred,” or as a looping, crystalline falsetto as they perform as their own backup singer on “Blueberry.”
Their first comprehensive artistic statement, Michael tells MTV News, was intended to dispel any notion of essentialization, particularly as a Black, nonbinary artist making their mark in the industry (in June, they left Paper, citing its treatment of its Black staffers). “I think Black, queer people can sometimes just be lumped together in sort of this really offensive, monolithic way, and it’s just a way of me saying that I have multitudes,” they say. “I am a very tender, spiritual, sensitive person. And I’m also fierce.”
Ross DaysMTV News: Did you record XO while you were on the farm, or was that all done before?
Michael: I basically worked on it from April until late July, so there was part of it that was finished here, but most of it was done during quarantine in New York, four or five tracks. I started recording my vocals on my iPhone and my computer, and I’m really happy with how it all turned out, because, at least in my opinion, none of it sounds like it was done at home. It has a uniformity, and it sounds kind of expansive in a lot of ways.
MTV News: I really connected with the song “Blueberry,” and there was this sound on it that reminded me almost of a dulcimer, though I couldn’t quite make it out. Given that much of it was produced at home, was there a lot of live instrumentation on this?
Michael: So there’s acoustic guitar, there’s whistling, there are actual finger snaps, and then the rest is electronic. So then there’s kind of the 808 bass drone and there’s that sound, which is like a fake electronic guitar. But I’m glad you like “Blueberry.” “Blueberry” is very, very sweet and comes from a sad place.
MTV News: Would you tell me about it?
Michael: OK, so “Blueberry” is about an unrequited love. When I was a teenager, I had this really intense crush on this guy who was closeted and involved with this girl as a way to kind of conceal, as we all do when we’re going through that journey. But we always had a connection, and it was very kind of the teenage lust kind of factor. And then, after high school, he went to the Iraq War and died.
There are lines about going off to war but also being brave and being who you are. There’s this line about purple hearts beating wild with red, red blood — the idea of a Purple Heart for bravery, while also referencing the bravery it requires to be out as yourself. There’s also the idea that both of us are sacrificing something, my jealousy and my self-reflection, and the blueberry gates became a place I would go in my mind when I would think of him. I wanted to find a way to talk about having a closeted relationship full of young lust and love, and to speak about what’s involved when two people sacrifice parts of themselves to make things work that can’t work, ultimately.
MTV News: What are some other songs on the album that feel special for you?
Michael: This is almost like my second coming out, as an artist and sharing my music with everybody. Even though I’ve been making music since I was 16, I’ve never actually had the courage until now to release anything. “XO” is my favorite track, because that’s the thesis of the project. It’s about overcoming some of my own personal demons to love myself enough to realize I had something to share and something to say, like a love letter to a damaged former self.
“Mother’s Day” is another one that I really love, because it’s kind of strange and cryptic. This one is more about people’s relationship to all things maternal, how you have to be a reciprocal give-and-take dynamic with whatever those things are, whether that’s the earth, someone you look up to who is a femme person or a mother figure. It has echoes of my own relationship with my mother and my grandmother. There’s a line about planting a garden — “Every Mother’s Day, I plant a garden for you / Every Mother’s Day, I water your flowers that bloom” — and that was something I used to do for my grandmother as a kid.
MTV News: Do you have a good relationship with your mom and your grandmother?
Michael: With my grandmother, yes. With my mother, that’s something that’s very much in process. It’s a tricky song. It’s really complex, obviously. But I love it for that reason, and I love that I feel like I’m learning how to be really good at writing about things that are personal broader and nuanced ways. I can be descriptive and I can also not be descriptive, and all of it’s intentional. It kind of reminds me of a St. Vincent, Brian Eno vibe. It feels kind of stompy, crunchy, stadium rock or something.

MTV News: What made now feel like a good time to release an album and share this project?
Michael: It was something that I didn’t intend to happen. I was happy with just having some demo recordings and maybe an EP released on SoundCloud, and then I had friends who really encouraged me to think bigger. Also, I had my own aspirations that I buried because I was trying to be realistic and I was trying to hold down full-time jobs and I was trying to be sort of a traditional careerist, and it’s just like, no bitch. Don’t dull your own shine, don’t gaslight yourself just because society gaslights you.
And so, that’s what kind of really motivated me to kind of come out with it all, and I just feel really grateful for the ability to have unlocked this avenue of creativity. Even for this to happening, for us to be talking about my album for MTV is fucking cool. Everything is luxury now, I just get so excited about everything else because creativity begets more creativity. So I don’t take any of it for granted, it’s so fucking cool.
MTV News: Yeah, I can really relate with feeling vulnerable in sharing something creative. 
Michael: This is an exercise in proving something to myself. I really do believe, if you see something missing and you have the capacity to provide or be that missing link, then do that. If you feel empowered and you feel like you can and you have the resources and the energy, do that. Where queer voices are sort of becoming less and less marginalized, people want to hear what it is we have to say. Remember that there are so many people who fought and died for so much of the freedom that I and many of us take for granted. Part of being a person with a voice and sharing it is also being in service to your ancestors who came before you.
MTV News: In listening to XO as a whole, there are songs that are very soft and almost indie-leaning in a way, and then you also have these songs that are very fierce and very hard. I wondered what your intention was, or were you expressing different sides of yourself?
Michael: Well, I love that you picked up on the contrast, because that was the exact point. I definitely wanted to present duality. It’s an introduction to me as a musician and, hopefully, if there ever were any expectations, it surprises, maybe it shocks. Maybe it’s exactly what people expect — I have no fucking idea. I called it XO because I thought of X-O as sort of an expression of contrast, because it’s like hugs and kisses are sort of opposite things, but then so is the idea of being open and being closed.
I think Black, queer people can sometimes just be lumped together in sort of this really offensive, monolithic way, and it’s just a way saying that I have multitudes. I’m a complex, fully realized human being. So it was important for me to show a hard edge and a softer, gentler side, because at the end of the day, I am a very tender, spiritual, sensitive person, and I’m also fierce. The Cancer-Leo cusp is really that, it’s very that.

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