Lesbian Musicians These Days: More than Just Women with Guitars
In its July issue, Curve features a list of "101 Essential Musicians", admitting that the list doesn't "do justice" to a majority of the lesbian artists working today. We'll help Curve fill out that list, here.
I recently rediscovered one of my favorite albums from the '70s, Janis Ian's brilliant, confessional Between the Lines. I've listened to it so many times over the years that I have every song memorized.
Listening to it anew, though, I found myself offering commentary on the lyrics, courtesy of the knowledge garnered from living a few more years. For example, in the song "The Come On", Janis opens with the line, "I haven't been loved by a man in quite a while". I couldn't help answering the CD player in my car with "That's because you're a lesbian!" During "In the Winter", she tells her ex, "Lovely wife/You have a lovely wife", yet it's easy for me to picture her talking to another woman
Of course, such thoughts weren't in my head the first time I heard the album, since Ian had yet to come out. In fact, five years after Between the Lines' release, she married a man. (Since divorced, she has married long-time partner, Patricia Snyder.) Her sole recognition prior to that had been 1967's "Society's Child", about a girl involved in an interracial relationship with a black boy in a time when such things weren't done; the song went Top 40 when Ian was just 16.
Ian's 1976's Between the Lines marked a commercial high, garnering her a Grammy nomination for Best Album and reaching number one on Billboard charts, while single "At Seventeen" climbed to number three and won Ian the Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal and a nomination for Best Song. In subsequent years, she has released over a dozen albums, as well as recorded songs for the films The Bell Jar and Foxes; although not a "pop star", Ian has built and kept a loyal fan base.
Given the continued excellence of her work over a 40-plus year career, it's not surprising that Ian has achieved Lesbian Icon Status. She's not alone in having gained the title of Lesbian Icon: Music Category; however, many of her fellow icons have followed similar career paths as Ian, staying in the closet in the first part of their careers, either due to self-confusion or label pressure, then announcing their sexual orientation only to see their mass popularity wane somewhat (for example, the Indigo Girls, Joan Jett, Melissa Ethridge, and k. d. lang, all of whom enjoyed their greatest broad-spectrum success before their sexual orientation was widely known).
Typically, lesbian and bisexual women musicians have fallen into one of three categories: blues (Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith), rock (Ethridge, Jett, Ani DiFranco, and Beth Ditto), or contemporary folk (lang, the Indigo Girls, and Joan Armatrading). In its July issue, Curve features a list of "101 Essential Musicians". The list features the expected (Ethridge, Jett, Chely Wright, Tegan and Sara, Sleater-Kinney, to name a few), but it also features lesser known lesbian artists, who primarily make their livings performing in lesbian bars and coffee houses. Nevertheless, the magazine quickly admits that it doesn't "do justice" to a majority of the lesbian artists working today. Here, then, are a few examples of lesbian artists that Curve didn't have room for on their list.
Swedish singer and lesbian Nina Ramsby, who certainly falls into the "woman with guitar" category, recorded her first CD, Uasculture, with Salt in 1995. In subsequent years, Ramsby has been best known for her collaborations with other artists. While many of her live performances highlight the folk singer persona, her work with other artists best shows her willingness to venture outside of her primary musical genre. For example, Ramsby collaborated with Swedish DJ and producer Embee to come up with a hit sure to crowd European dance floors, "Desire to be Free":
Two years ago, one of the emerging talents in rhythm and blues in the United States was Kaylah Marin, an out lesbian whose musical styling favors Stephanie Mills (and for those who don't know Mills, that's a compliment). Her debut album, Loving Life, features some old school '80s R & B diva singing, as on "You and Me", while the title song has the smooth, upbeat sound of early Luther Vandross. Like Ramsby, Marin was packing the dance floors, with a song that her website proclaims went to number four on Billboard's dance club tracks chart. Marin's video for the song makes no secret of her lesbianism, as she cavorts onstage with her dancer:
It's not hard to picture drag queens worldwide working it for a dollar to this song. Unfortunately, no new music has been forthcoming from Marin, according to her website, which, apparently, was last updated in 2009. However, her Facebook page indicates that she is still travelling and performing.
More recently, Lesbian Music Movement Nation hooked up with Rainbow Noise Entertainment to launch the Sounds of Pride tour this past July. The tour initially included a few dates in the beginning of the month, but promises that other acts would be added, lending hope that future dates will be planned. Nonetheless, the line-up insured an evening of hip-hop excellence, with such performers as DJ Jai Syncere, YOUNG KAii, and Smokin' Aces on the bill.
It's gratifying to see Rainbow Noise Entertainment get a small slice of the attention they deserve. Their 2011 single, "Talk of the Town", hits hard, yet is one hell of a danceable single. Still, it's their song for the It Gets Better Project that bests represents the LGBT community, as well as sending an important message in a format with which today's youth can relate:
Rainbow Noise Entertainment consists of several artists, lesbian and gay, who apparently record together as well as separately. Currently, the group is promoting its latest single, "Imma Homo".
If Rainbow Noise is progressive, Patricia Racette could be said to be kicking it old school. Real old. A couple of centuries old, in fact. Opera Soprano Racette is widely admired for her extraordinary voice. Still, it was her announcement that she was a lesbian and in a long term relationship with singer Beth Clayton that garnered her the most mainstream press. Since coming out in 2002, Racette and Clayton have married, and Racette has revived the role for which she is best known, Madame Butterfly. Critics have hailed her as one of the greatest Butterflys to date. I'm no opera aficionado, but this is some damn fine singing:
Racette's place as the first openly lesbian opera singer can't be overvalued. As a recognized artist in her field, Racette shows that LGBT individuals can be out and successful in any field, even one as steeped in conservative tradition as opera.
Despite the work of Racette, along with Rainbow Noise Entertainment and the other organizations mentioned here, lesbian music will most likely be associated with the "woman with guitar" stereotype for some time. Most likely, it will take young lesbians reaching out to contemporary artists such as Kaylah Marin to change that perception. Still, should the day come when lesbian music is recognized for the broad range it covers, don't forget about the foremothers. Someday, when you're in a reflective mood, throw Janis Ian's Between the Lines into the CD player, and let the great storytelling consume you.
Cheers, Queers to the proliferation of gay-oriented radio stations available through the web. My personal favorite, available through iTunes Radio, is Pride Radio North East UK, guaranteed to get you out off your desk chair and gridin' it. Here's hoping that internet radio soon provides as many stations aimed at lesbian audiences as gay audiences.