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Gay TV: Making Same-Sex Marriage Safe for America

A scene from Rosie O'Donnell's The View.

At the same time that gay TV is shaping the culture, the culture is also shaping gay TV, containing it and restricting it from going "too far".

Nearly every talking head on US television has been telling us that the upcoming November midterm elections are, more than anything, a referendum on President Bush's (mis)handling of the war in Iraq. And that's undoubtedly true. But that's not all they're about. They're also, in some parts of this country, about gay marriage …still.

Nine states have ballot initiatives, often (mis)labeled "marriage protection" acts, that would define marriage as between one man and one woman. Nineteen states already have constitutional amendments explicitly barring the recognition of same-sex marriage. This means that if at least seven of the new ballots pass, more than half the states in the nation will have banned gay marriage.

This statistic is very much in keeping with the findings of a major survey by the Pew Forum, released in July, which shows that Americans oppose gay marriage 56 to 35 percent. Not surprisingly, those who say they have a high level of religious commitment oppose it by a substantially wider margin of 75 to 18 percent. The prospects for same-sex marriage are not looking good.

And yet, turn on the television any day or night of the week and you'd think being gay was, well, no big deal.

Two of the three reining daytime talk show queens, Rosie and Ellen, are lesbians. And, for the first time, Ellen has also been selected to host the 79th Annual Academy Awards, this February. To put that in perspective, one year, the Academy Awards reached a worldwide audience of over 55 million people. The influence of these women is simply incalculable.

This season Survivor and America's Next Top Model both have openly gay contestants. Grey's Anatomy includes among its characters a gay bartender. One of the brothers on the new Callista Flockhart / Sally Field drama, Brothers & Sisters is gay. Queer Eye continues to amuse and educate, Will & Grace can be seen more often than ever now that it's in syndication, and the upcoming season of The L Word once again promises to titillate people of all sexual persuasions.

A few years ago I might have asked, how did gay TV get to be so hot when the gay marriage debate is so heated? But now, while gay marriage remains the source of passionate debate, gay TV is no longer a phenomenon. Instead, it's becoming a simple fact of life. Characters can be gay without being labeled as "flamers" or "dykes". Characters can be gay without their sexual identity being the primary thing that defines them. Characters can even be gay without their gayness causing them angst.

That's amazing progress. And there's no doubt in my mind that the representations of gay characters and people on television have advanced the cause of same-sex marriage. But, at the same time that gay TV is shaping the culture, the culture is also shaping gay TV, containing it and restricting it from going "too far". By playing (mostly) by the rules, and accommodating rather than strictly challenging their mainstream audience, the creative and business forces behind gay TV have accomplished the seemingly impossible. They've made gay TV safe for America.

Take the case of Rosie O'Donnell. After her six-year tenure as The Queen of Nice, she ended her popular daytime talk show, came out, wore her hair in what was dubbed an "angry lesbian" style, was involved in a bitter legal battle with McCall's, the publishers of her self-titled magazine, and produced the Broadway flop Taboo, starring Boy George.

Now, she's making a comeback as the lead personality on The View. I've watched several episodes (merely for research purposes, of course), and here's what I've observed: Rosie was quick to make fun of her angry lesbian haircut phase (admitting that even one of her children was frightened by it) and vowed to only wear her hair in a smooth and bouncy style. (Supposedly, her contract with ABC even stipulates that she cannot style her hair in a manner that scares middle America. Mullets, spikes and buzz cuts are out!) She talks about her four children more than Kathie Lee Gifford ever used to on Live with Regis and Kathie Lee, in one episode even giving extensive advice on potty training to guest host and ABC News correspondent Deborah Roberts (basically, bribe the kids with toys). She refers, lovingly, to her wife Kelli, and she occasionally teases her in-laws. Sometimes she makes the "L" sign with her thumb and forefinger and stage whispers the word "lesbian". She's even explained how a lesbian, despite her sexual preference, could still legitimately have a crush on a "cutie-patootie" like Tom Cruise and how an avowed straight woman like Oprah could still be "a little gay, maybe five percent."

Rosie O'Donnell is doing exactly what she needs to be doing to make same-sex marriage less threatening or offensive to her audience: appearing not so different from any straight counterpart. In other words, appearing as herself.

Rosie’s openness can make a difference: probably not among those who are vehemently opposed to same-sex marriage but, instead, among those who feel that marriage is between a man and a woman because that’s the way it’s always been defined. When a mom in the studio audience or at home hears Rosie talk about wanting to bubble wrap one of her kids because he sleepwalks at night and has hurt himself bumping into things, how can she not empathize? And if that mom was somewhat opposed to same-sex marriage or on the fence about it, the connection Rosie created with her may very well alter how she responds to gay issues in the voting booth.

And, yet, the desire to be liked and accepted and empathized with -- for any of us -- comes with a price. For gay characters and personalities on TV today, like Rosie, it’s de rigueur to downplay any differences from straight people and play up any similarities. The most effective way of doing that, of course, is by taking the sex out of homosexuality -- something that gay marriage by its very nature can not do.

In order to reach out to people who are freaked out by gay sex either because they find it "ewwwwy" or because they've been taught that it's an "abomination", it’s safer for Rosie to talk about poopie diapers than Sapphic desires. It's safer for Carson, the resident wit on Queer Eye, to talk raunchily about gay sex ("It’s a manwich...it’s more than a meal!") than to express anything serious about it. It's safer to reserve gay sex scenes for Showtime or HBO than to "subject" network audiences to them. Think of all the various positions and locations for straight sex (ironically, sometimes in a closet) that take place on Grey’s Anatomy, and then try to think of a comparable scene involving gay men or women on network TV. Kissing is usually as far as it gets.

And so, gay TV has had to make some compromises. How many seasons had to go by before Will was allowed to have a serious relationship on Will & Grace? Remember how Samantha’s short-lived lesbian relationship on Sex & the City petered out because her love interest only wanted to talk and talk and take baths together…but not actually have sex? Consider the irony of the Fab Five on Queer Eye planning the perfect wedding for heterosexual couples while, in real life, grooming guy Kyan’s upcoming marriage to his longtime boyfriend won’t be recognized by the state of New York.

Have these compromises been worth it? I hope so. The real question now is, can gay TV make gay marriage safe for America? Stay tuned. We'll find out more on Election Day, November 7th.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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