[23 February 2009]
A nicely dressed young man is escorted into a bar by a butch, leather-clad buddy. In no time, he finds himself mobbed by the leather-wearing, mostly male crowd. His jacket is stripped off, he is urinated upon, and he winds up riding his buddy like a horse. Finally, he and the buddy are tied down to a revolving table while the gyrating crowd gathers around and cheers.
The scenario for a gay adult video? Perhaps (well, probably, to be fair). But those who are older are more likely to recognize the scene as the plot of the first video for Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax”. The song, with its suggestive lyrics—the mid-song cries of “I’m coming”—was banned by the BBC back in 1984, and the video version didn’t help win over fans among the staid conservative executives of TV and radio stations. Today, though, the song and video can be accessed anytime on YouTube.
On its face, “Relax” is not explicitly about gay sex or homosexuality, although the song has been embraced by the community as a gay anthem. Other club songs of the era, such as Bronski Beat’s “Hit that Perfect Beat”, Patrick Cowley and Sylvester’s “Do You Wanna Funk?”, and The Weather Girls’ “It’s Raining Men”, were also huge hits in the gay bars, but enjoyed considerable success in straight clubs, as well. Whether disco or techno, dance is the music form most associated with gays and lesbians and honestly, we do love to dance.
Contrary to what many may believe, the genesis of the gay and lesbian music scene dates back to before the locker-room antics of the Village People or the glam stardust of David Bowie. Actually, one could make a strong case that the first top 40 hit to explicitly acknowledge the GLBT community was 1970’s Kinks hit, “Lola”, but numerous gay songwriters have included veil references to their sexuality. Knowing Cole Porter’s proclivity for same-sex extramarital relationships causes one to view with new eyes lyrics such as “I’m sure sometimes on the sly you do it/ Maybe even you and I might do it” and “I’ve tried so hard not to give in/ I’ve said to myself this affair will never go so well/ But why should I try to resist, when baby I know so well/ That I’ve got you under my skin”.
Gay artists really didn’t become visible until the ‘80s. Certainly rumors had circulated about performers before, such as Liberace and Johnny Mathis in the ‘50s and Jagger, Bowie, and Stewart in the ‘70s, and denials did little to squash speculation. The ‘80s was the first time during which performers could be honest about their sexuality and still sell records.
For the most part, though, they were members of bands, and it was the band that received press more so than the individual members (Andy Bell of Erasure, Marc Almond of Soft Cell). Still, there were those whose sexuality was a part of the act, such as RuPaul, Boy George, and Bronski Beat, whose 1984 album, The Age of Consent, generated as much press for addressing such issues as gay bashing as it did for its club beats.
Like most aspects of our history, gay music has grown out of the shadows, from veiled insinuations to bold declarations of love. Do a search for “gay wedding songs” and you’ll be surprised how many independent singers have such a song in their repertoire. Further, numerous openly gay or lesbian singers and bands are gaining exposure and fans. Despite these gains, can one point to a genre of music and say that it is “gay/lesbian” music? Or is gay and lesbian music simply that which expresses same-sex love, regardless of the genre?
When one refers to gay and lesbian music, one must think beyond popular music. Much has been made of Katy Perry’s recent “I Kissed a Girl”, which has dragged up memories of Jill Sobule’s 1995 song of the same name. This past year, country legend Willie Nelson released “Cowboys are Frequently Fond of Each Other”, in support of a long-time friend and manager who had come out.
Beyond the occasional popular song that acknowledges same-sex orientation, gay and/or lesbian couples have been featured in videos for Bright Eye’s “First Day of My Life”, Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful”, Eloy de Jong’s “Angel in Disguise”, and both Tom Baxter and Boyzone’s versions of “Better”, to name just a few. And the recent battle over Proposition 8 in California brought together artists of all genres and sexualities to fight together for gay rights.
However, the gay and lesbian music scene reaches beyond these popular examples, from independent singer/songwriters playing local bars to hardcore, safety-pin wearing punk bands thrashing garage parties in college towns. Most closely associated with the scene are those well-known performers who have come out, such as Elton John, Melissa Etheridge, George Michael, Lance Bass, Michael Stipe of REM, k d lang, Janis Ian, and Rob Halford of Judas Priest.
Janis Iain - photo (partial) by John Leonardini
However, in all the examples mentioned, the star didn’t publically acknowledge his or her sexuality until after the peak of his or her commercial success. (Although one could argue that all are active and busy musicians, their Top 40 successes mostly occurred before coming out.) Therefore, struggling with and embracing their sexuality is not reflected in their most noted works, and some of their work is blatantly heterosexual in nature.
Etheridge, though, managed to be ambiguous in her most popular songs, such as “Come to My Window” and “I’m the Only One”, phrasing her words in such a way that one can imagine the object of her attention to be either gender. “Some other woman looks like something/ That could be good for you” could be sung to man or woman.
Today, countless gay and lesbian performers openly discuss their sexuality in their art and in the press, with few repercussions. In fact, being an out gay performer can lead to bookings that wouldn’t be available otherwise, thanks to LGBT festivals, marches, street parties, and balls. Matt Albers, Dan Gillespie Sells of The Feeling, and all-female band Sister Funk are three acts who have been enjoying success.
In terms of artistry, Sister Funk is the most diverse of the three. This lesbian band based in Connecticut throws out some wicked Middle Eastern hip-hop on “Crazy”, while “Loves Promises” has more of a New Orleans blues/funk feel to it. “New on the Old Side” is what I imagine would have been the result had post-Natalie Merchant 10000 Maniacs singer Mary Ramsey fronted for Heart. Despite their numerous sounds, the band is always hard-hitting and fun. If there were one complaint that could be made about Sister Funk, it would be that their tour schedule rarely takes them out of the Northeastern part of the United States.
Unlike Sister Funk, The Feeling contains only one gay member, lead singer Dan Gillespie Sells. Sells speaks frequently about his sexual orientation, and it is clear that his bandmates are supportive. The band has become top-sellers in the UK off the strength of such songs as “Sewn”, a ballad of growing intensity, and “Join with Us”, which is equal parts the Beatles at their most playful and XTC, with a touch of Metallica thrown in at the end. Sells follows in the footsteps of such gay frontsmen as Bell and Almond.
My personal favorite, though, is Albers, who released his first CD, Hide Nothing, last November. The lead song of the album, the haunting and melancholy “Monarch”, is one of last year’s more honest and intelligent songs. “Field Trip Buddy” looks at an area that is often overlooked, the adolescent crush of a gay youth, while his romantic video for “End of the World” features a slow dance and kiss between two men in an old-fashioned barber shop.
Although Albers has been compared to gay icon Rufus Wainwright, and one could imagine his relaxed style also drawing comparisons with Michael Buble, he is really more reminiscent of the great Janis Ian, writing music that is sometimes brutal in its honesty, reflective and intimately personal, yet with an occasion touch of whimsy. However, Albers is more than just another pop singer; music lovers should visit YouTube to check out his excellent countertenor voice on “But Who May Abide” from Handel’s The Messiah, performed with baroque orchestra Musica Angelica.
But Who May Abide - Handel’s “The Messiah” - Matt Alber
The distinct styles offered by Sister Funk, Sells, and Albers again raises the question, “What is gay/lesbian music?” and seems to offer the answer that there is no such thing. Certainly, one couldn’t classify music as gay or lesbian by genre, as there are gay and lesbian rappers, balladeers, country singers, choruses, rockers, punks, opera singers, and pop stars. Further, it would be difficult to classify music as gay or lesbian by lyric. Some songs, such as “Field Trip Buddy”, are unmistakably gay in content, but what about songs that allude to gay romance or imply a same-sex relationship without explicitly stating it? Or songs by gay artists in which the object of the song is genderless, as in “I’m the Only One”? Do “straights on the outside looking in” songs such as “I Kissed a Girl” belong in the catalog of gay songs?
One can only hope that we progress as a society to the point where songs aren’t classified as “straight” or “gay”, and that a performer’s sexual orientation isn’t a factor in building an audience or a career. It’s great to think that a few more people might check out Matt Albers or Sister Funk after reading this column, and I would like to think that maybe I helped them sell a couple more CDs, but my hope would be that the CDs sold because they contained great music, not because the artists were homosexual.
What’s important about the gay and lesbian music scene is that artists can openly sing about their lives as gay men and lesbians and audiences think nothing of it (with the usual exception of those dragged to hear someone they don’t know—“Hey, she’s signing about another woman!”). Young LGBT individuals can put in a CD and hear songs that relate to their life experiences, an important part of feeling acceptance and normality. And such songs add insight to our public discourse on what it means to be an LGBT person today.
Yet, to be cliché, music is the universal language, and good music resonates with listeners regardless of the singer’s personal life. The moodiness of Boy George’s “The Crying Game” and the fierceness of Etheridge’s “Bring Me Some Water” lose or gain nothing by knowing that the singer is gay. Likewise, one needn’t be straight to empathize with the heartbreak of Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven”, the pleading of Toni Braxton’s “Unbreak my Heart”, or the silliness of Brad Paisley’s “Online”.
Today, what shocked and appalled in 1984’s “Relax” video is just another plot point on CSI. Our sensibilities are no longer so easily shocked, in large part thanks to the gender-benders and androgynous acts of the ‘80s. LGBT artists can flourish as themselves, not hiding behind euphemisms and fictional record label biographies. For those of us who love music, whether gay or straight, that’s cause for celebration. Because the best music, regardless of genre, is honest and speaks to the soul.