Jesus to a Child
US: 6 Feb 1996
Considering any anthem for coming out, I naturally look back to my own experience sixteen years ago. It is therefore several chansons from 1992 that facilitated that DJ’s saved my life. Kids like me heard a strong and clear message in:
I can’t help falling in love/I fall deeper and deeper the further I go
My mother had gone to California for the summer between my junior and senior years in high school. The state had yet another budget stall, employees were given cash against future checks at local credit unions, but mostly state employees weren’t receiving any pay. Moreover, the state’s backlog infringed upon plenty citizens’ rights to due process, hence these relief recruits from all around the nation. My mother became involved in this quandary in order to help push along the process of disabled Californians to receive state benefits, however meager.
Having denied myself for years, my sexuality became undeniable at age 16. Perhaps I could see the light at the end of the tunnel: graduating high school a year later meant leaving the Bible Belt for good. Janet Jackson had come out as bisexual, too, and though portrayed as a media trend, the concept of alternative sexuality was now ‘out’ there in my universe. This was also the year Madonna came out. In her videos, she’d play with gender and sexuality rather straightforwardly, yet by 1992, she was ready to affirm her bisexuality. Finally, one could discuss the topic, for example, with friends at school without any direct reference to the self—without coming out. This was a typical way of gauging the temperature of peers around sexuality. What felt as the most taboo subject after race, which often got diluted in mixed company, to mean racism. Similarly, any discussion of sexuality would always get reduced to petty epithets of hate or whitewashed diversity. None of this addressed the kid standing before them, struggling to understand difference, yearning for any context where we could fit it.
The words you could not say, I’ll sing them for you
Growing tired of media gossip and what at the time seemed to him as an irony in being a sanitized teen pop idol-broaching sex and sexuality that effaced his own—George Michael finally understood the importance gay icons. He began to rage against the machine, taking great shots at Sony with his tongue-n-cheek super model videos, all but announcing himself as a sissy (can you imagine 50 Cent in a video with that much naked feminine flesh and not tap any of that ass?). Yet at that time, his sexuality was clearly unspeakable. Ain’t nobody loves me better, sang George, covering Chaka Khan at the 1991 concert where he met the man whom he would eventually consider the great love of his life. Where lay people struggle to find gay love reflected in the pop culture, it must sting an actual pop artist to conceal his own love, particularly when love is flaunted and easily trampled upon by his colleagues and cohort.
As an artist, George Michael would not be able to sing openly about this love and eventual loss- Feleppa succumbed to AIDS-related brain hemorrhage—until years after that faithful night in Rio. Even still, the artist waited years before publically acknowledging that relationship. I’ve been loved/So I know just what love is…Oh the lover I still miss/Was Jesus to a child, sang the balladeer softly in 1995.
Where Madonna and Janet were painted as predictably and effectively licentious, George Michael’s ‘secret’ was balled around in the press as deception. Moreover, as a gay teen, it did feel like his deception were betrayal; only our deep love of Luther saved him from the same fate. George Michael and L.V. used feminine pronouns for their love interests in every song—some of the best love ballads of their generation. Creep, creep, creep, creep! Gay love was made visible by Madonna and Janet’s media antics, but silenced and effaced by the real gays. Creepy.
Ladies and Gentlemen: Jesus to a Child
Madonna really came out in her Sex picture book my senior year in high school. I had joined a gay youth support group, and had met many more queer youth during the months of media trashing 1992’s Erotica and 1994’s Bedtime Stories, where mistress Dita wore her queerness on her sleeve as keenly as she had turned the tables a year earlier- chaining herself like a junkyard dog, superficially reversing the patriarchal role to reflect men working to titillate women: “Don’t go for second best, baby … make him express himself.” This was not a contestation of power, but S&M fantasy reinforcing the way things already were. Bleaching her hair silly, Madonna showed that she was prepared to “trade fame for love,” as she would later reveal nearing 40.
Even in high school I found her interactions with her black-and-tan ‘chain of fools’ to be maternal, portraying blacks as juvenile, and the whole thing as play, much like her feigning fellatio on a bottle in Truth or Dare. In Erotica’s video, which MTV banned, as well as in Sex’s scenes with the definitive supermodel Naomi Campbell, and rapper Big Daddy Kane, my favorite Material Girl appeared like an overseer. Lily White, a n*gger wench and a n*gger stud; she even invited over an older European sophisticate to come play with her toys. Instead of this liberated sexuality, I saw rather retrograde images of white supremacist fantasies, which ultimately just showed that a woman could do anything a man could.
Again, this was S&M both superficially- there were whips, chains, (p)leather bras and the whole bit- but also in the profoundly clear projections of white supremacists fantasies of the gender, race and class hierarchy. Images of the supermodel’s fake making-out with the big black rapper, or with some contrite visual composition, like Madonna standing nude as if hustling on a wide Los Angeles boulevard reminded me of that poor little motherless Italian girl, growing up in Detroit (Oh Father!), finding refuge with the blacks who were ready to accept her, and even teach her to dance as she admitted early in her Material career. Blues, jazz, funk and hip-hop have always masked white transgression, aiding generation upon generation to distinguish themselves from the conservative norms of whiteness bequeathed them; here was our generation’s Elvis, mocking and masking anything authentically black, trading love of the craft for sheer fame. And here on the black and white pages of Sex, she was showing us her beautifully dark skin friends, bragging about how much of a bad girl she was.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.