Books

'David Bowie Made Me Gay' Raises the Question, How Do We Define LGBT Music?

The World's Worst Records blogger is funny, catty, and gossipy. Capturing the history of LGBT music in book form, however, outwits the author.

David Bowie Made Me Gay: 100 Years of LGBT Music
Darryl W. Bullock

Overlook

Nov 2017

Other

For the past ten years or so, Darryl W. Bullock has been making hilarious and detailed entries in his blog, The World's Worst Records. His queer and British knack for witty put-downs combines easily with his genuine interest in preserving the memory of obscure tunes. Not only is it an excellently researched archive, he's usually able to post recordings of the songs right there to play as one reads about them. In 2016, he put these skills on display in print, authoring a biography of Florence Foster Jenkins to capitalize on the release of a film about the un-tuneful one, starring Meryl Streep. Now he's returned with a second book of much grander ambition, David Bowie Made Me Gay: 100 Years of LGBT Music.

Such a project could certainly fill a set of encyclopedias, and Bullock's job clocks in at a swift 320 pages. Surfing through any compendium like this, readers invariably hold themselves in suspense until they reach the treatment of their favorite LGBT musician—an unsatisfying prospect in this case where even the most substantive and pioneering figures seldom rate more than two pages and many top out at one paragraph. To look at those listed in the index, Bullock has crafted a solid skeleton by squeezing just about everybody in there, but to look at the actual word count devoted to any given musician shows there's often no meat on the bones.

Bullock has collected a truly admirable array of researched detail, including posters or photos from his personal collection that are by now one-of-a-kind artifacts. Instead of using these to best effect, he often prefers to stray into gossipy territory or give a stinging, one-sentence summary of a musician's life based around major dramas and failures, rather than highlighting particularities about their creative output that advance an understanding of their musical legacy beyond statistics. The author's inclination toward cattiness in tone and in detail selection prevents the book from gaining the gravity it could have had in a slightly more academic or carefully considered vein. In cobbling together the factual elements and large block quotes, he often sacrifices his ability to analyze common threads or historical themes in the material he's assembling.

What is it that readers should be looking to find in this collection? Bullock's introduction states plainly enough that the influence of LGBT people in the music industry has been hidden for too long. Well, sure. There are harder questions, however, that should have driven the refinement of this book's vision. How do we determine the definition of LGBT music? Must it be made by somebody who self-identifies as queer, like Phranc? What about allies, like Ani DiFranco or Cyndi Lauper, who pretty much live straight but are making music with supportive messages? What about those who never actually came out or those who went back into the closet, like Luther Vandross or Little Richard? What about straight musicians produced or managed by queers, like Clive Davis or Brian Epstein? All these people rate a mention from Bullock, but none of the questions they raise end up under proper consideration.

To Bullock's credit, he spends the last few chapters on international examples from Russia, Kenya, Jamaica and so on, though the bulk of the book necessarily emphasizes musicians in the US and UK. Several early chapters devoted to American precursors to rock 'n' roll focus heavily on black artists like Ma Rainey and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and yet the author doesn't take any great pains to explicitly discuss the intersection of race and sexuality. Bullock is somewhat better in his sensitive descriptions of gender fluidity, especially in an early chapter on female impersonators at the turn of the 20th century and then later in highlighting a number of transgendered musicians.

Should a collection such as this spend more time on the struggles of an LGBT musician's life? Or should it give greater consideration to the LGBT messaging of the music? Does it need to give historical context and weight to an LGBT person's contribution to the field of music at large, or to the narrower field of future LGBT musicianship? Sometimes Bullock is burning up precious page space simply having to try to account for how queer or not queer particular musicians were, giving greater emphasis to their bona fides as queers than as musicians. So many of their career arcs are snapped off with a quick mention of how they failed to hit it big and retreated into obscurity—the rest are snapped off by litanies of AID-related deaths. While the book ends on an upbeat and forwarding-looking note, it's at times a quite depressing read.

This is an overwhelming undertaking for 300 pages, especially compared to something like the 700-page tome covering glam rock alone, Simon Reynolds' Shock and Awe (Dey Street, 2016). David Bowie Made Me Gay is unquestionably a worthy undertaking and a decently fun read, but it falls far short of either a properly encyclopedic guide or an academic analysis of LGBT cultural influence. In transitioning from his terrific blog to this very unwieldy project that doesn't quite know how to set itself on a clear course, Bullock has bitten off more than he or perhaps anyone can properly chew. That said, this is a good starter kit to give a queer teenager who doesn't know anything about all the music that comes before Lady Gaga, or for older queers who tuned out new music after the second decade of Elton John.

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