Rufus Wainwright
Photo: David Gahr / Dreamworks Records

A Portrait of Rufus Wainwright As a Gay Pop-Rock Prophet

In 1998, Rufus Wainwright seemed like someone new: a pop-rock performer on a major label who didn’t have to come out because he had never been in the closet.

Rufus Wainwright
Rufus Wainwright
19 May 1998

It’s the 21st century, and a new song is playing. The music is piano-based pop-rock, sweetly melodic but melancholy, the kind Harry Nilsson made in the latter half of the 20th century. The singer isn’t Nilsson, who died in 1994 and doesn’t really sound like him. It’s a young man whose expressive voice ranges from a rumble to a whine, with stops along the way for controlled vibrato. 

Rufus Wainwright, yes? No, it’s not him, but whoever it is owes some debt to Wainwright. That’s one legacy of Wainwright’s eponymous debut recording, released in 1998: keeping alive this particular kind of pop-rock. If Wainwright hadn’t done so, at a time when doing so wasn’t fashionable, when lovers of this genre viewed him as a messiah, this new song and others like it might not exist or might have taken very different courses.

In 2023, if the young male singer is openly gay, that’s another legacy of Rufus Wainwright. The performer also seemed like a gay messiah. There have been gay performers for as long as there have been performers, of course, and they have lived and worked in various degrees of outness. But in 1998, Wainwright seemed like something, someone, new under the sun: a pop-rock performer on a major label, named Best New Artist of the Year by Rolling Stone, who didn’t have to come out because he had never been in the closet. He was simply, openly, obviously gay. His attitude and self-presentation made clear that if you had a problem with his gayness, that was your problem.

In his 2004 song “Gay Messiah”, Wainwright declined that status, declaring himself the baptist, the prophet, instead. In a 2023 interview with Billboard, Wainwright cast his openness in pragmatic terms. AIDS was very much a threat in 1998, and he didn’t want to be forced out of the closet if he contracted AIDS—to be dealing with fallout and illness simultaneously. Perhaps so, or perhaps some hindsight informs that explanation. It’s hard to imagine Wainwright’s sustaining and enduring the elaborate subterfuge of being anything other than gay. Indeed, imagining a non-gay version of Rufus Wainwright—the cover art, the songs, the aesthetic, and the aesthete behind it—becomes a combination of fan fiction and science fiction.

One precedent for, shall we say, coming straight out with it was the English pop-rocker Tom Robinson. His 1978 anthem “Glad to Be Gay” (as in, “Sing if you’re…”) still seems astonishingly brave.

Consider that two decades after Robinson’s anthem—in 1998, the year of Rufus Wainwright—Rob Halford came out as gay after having been the lead singer of the heavy metal band Judas Priest for 25 years. Even in 1998, Halford’s spur-of-the-moment declaration left him worried about negative effects on his career (there were none—way to go, metal fans!).

“It would be hard to explain how homophobic the music industry was at the end of the 1990s into the early 2000s,” the singer Anohni, a Wainwright compatriot, stated in The New York Times in 2023. In that same year, another 25 years after Halford’s declaration, the lead singer of the rock band Greta Van Fleet, Josh Kiszka, made headlines when he came out. Among the first celebrities to publicly support him was Rob Halford. His support was great (way to go, Rob!), except for the fact that it’s still necessary (you have a way to go, world!).

Unbelievably to some of us, people’s sexual orientations remain big deals, sources of endless speculation, targets of abuse and backlash, and subjects of laws. In some parts of the world, punishments for homosexuality include imprisonment, torture, and death. In other parts, where freedom gets touted as a leading feature of democracy, antigay conservatives aim to counter social progressivism and turn back the clock.

So a quarter-century after his debut, Rufus Wainwright seems like more of a pathbreaker than ever. This is not to say that he and Tom Robinson placed all the stones on that path. By 1998, Little Richard, Dionne Warwick, Elton John, Freddie Mercury, Boy George, the Indigo Girls, k.d. lang, Melissa Etheridge, and George Michael were among the huge pop-rock stars who were undeniably gay, even if their closet doors were sometimes ajar, sometimes not so much. To give some examples: lang came out in 1992, eight years after releasing her debut album. Etheridge came out in 1993, five years after releasing hers. In 1998, Michael was sentenced to a fine and community service for engaging in a gay sex act in a public toilet. The resulting public shaming led him to come out 15 years after he became a celebrity with his duo, Wham!

Those performers have been boldface names, in some cases household names, for decades. Rufus Wainwright emerged as a boldface name, but he has never become a household name. When telling people my own Rufus Wainwright story over the years, I almost always have had to explain who he is.

Truth be told, his boldface status stemmed partly from who he was, an openly gay pop-rock performer, and partly from who his parents were: the once-married folk-pop-rock performers Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright. That pedigree is not quite as exalted as, say, being the son of Yoko Ono and John Lennon, but it started Wainwright off at a considerable advantage.

Father and son have a notoriously complicated relationship, but Loudon handed Rufus’s demo recordings to the musician and producer Van Dyke Parks (best known for his collaborations with Brian Wilson). Parks passed the demos to Lenny Waronker, an executive at DreamWorks who signed Rufus to the label. Partly arranged by Parks and marginally coproduced by Parks and by Pierre Marchand (best-known for work with Sarah McLachlan), the album was mainly produced by Jon Brion (best-known for work with Aimee Mann and for composing high-profile soundtracks). Rufus and Brion played most of the instruments, with guests including keyboardist Belmont Tench and drummer Jim Keltner. Rufus Wainwright seemed poised to become—but what? The next Elton John? The next Harry Nilsson, who was straight but had a multi-octave range and a knack for knocking out Beatlesque pop-rock hits and nonhit gems? 

It has never been easy to pin down just what kind of music Wainwright makes. In that sense, he has been a gay male Fiona Apple. Her second album, 1999’s When the Pawn…, was produced by Jon Brion, and her third, 2005’s Extraordinary Machine, was initially produced by him (then re-recorded). Indeed, there may not be a rivalry between Wainwright and Apple, but each one has covered the Beatles’ “Across the Universe”, and have the two of them ever been seen in the same place at the same time?

Apple has developed into a beloved, highly respected craftsperson by following her muse but keeping that muse on a fairly tight leash on walks through a pop-rock park. Even her most out-there recording, 2012’s The Idler Wheel…, put its OCD percussiveness at the service of some delicious, hook-laden confections. In other words, Apple consistently provides artistic vision and toothsomeness.

Wainwright, by contrast, has followed his muse into unexpected places: a repeated cover of a live Judy Garland album, bare-bones settings of Shakespeare sonnets, full-scale operas, a tribute to Canadian songwriters, and most recently Folkocracy, a 2023 collection of folk covers with celebrity guests. These esoteric projects can yield pleasures for audiences beyond Wainwright’s fan base, but they make his brand unwieldy, even untrustworthy. Liking any of his baroque pop-rock recordings won’t guarantee liking any of these other works. For that matter, liking his baroque pop-rock recordings, the ones where he sometimes aims for a Phil Spector‒esque Wall of Sound built from layers of dissonance, won’t guarantee liking his more stripped-down shots at the pop charts.

According to Brion, even on that first album, Wainwright complicated some of the material against his producer’s advice. Striving, as Wainwright does, just doesn’t always yield perfection. If you must have perfection in your pop-rock, Rufus Wainwright’s music might not be for you, or you might want to stick with individual tracks you like and not try to absorb the albums. The albums may be beautiful bouquets, but they always present thorns.

So where does this preamble leave that first album? A quarter-century later, even after assorted and sordid sociopolitical developments and all his subsequent work, Rufus Wainwright sits pretty much where it sat in 1998. It combines a youthful sense of promise with a veteran’s confidence, that premature and perhaps preternatural confidence seemingly the product of familial inheritance, personal temperament, and record-company support. The album offers a surehanded depiction of the artist he thought he was at that time. It suggests he had listened to Nilsson, the Beatles, Tin Pan Alley standards, show tunes, opera, and various kinds of folk music, though you wouldn’t necessarily hear the music of his parents if you didn’t try to. (Rufus Wainwright‘s 2023 remaster adds a banjo-driven version of the blues standard “Saint James Infirmary” that does sound like his parents’ music and indicates that the album could have taken a wholly different sonic direction.) The record also sounds old-fashioned—not dated, exactly, but not like state-of-the-art pop, rock, or pop-rock of 1998 (or 2023). 

If those components sound appealing, you might like this music or at least some of it. Perhaps—perhaps? a very strong perhaps, verging on probably—the biggest divider between lovers and haters will be Wainwright’s voice. That instrument isn’t some wayward redefinition of singing like Bob Dylan’s voice or Leonard Cohen’s. It’s an expressive instrument that ranges from a rumble to a whine, with stops along the way for controlled vibrato. Some listeners find it hopelessly affected, “phony”. Others, such as those of us who’ve seen him in concert numerous times, find it often spellbindingly beautiful and moving.

Rufus Wainwright opens with a statement of intention that will put listeners on either side of the divide. “Foolish Love” begins with solo piano, sweet but not sweetened, and then Wainwright sings slowly, drawing out the lines: “I don’t want to hold you and feel so helpless / I don’t want to smell you and lose my senses / And smile in slow motion with eyes in love.” I don’t know how anyone could hear these declarations as anything but honest feeling translated into an instantly recognizable voice, but that honesty itself may be off-putting to some, and the voice—strong, self-possessed, but unpretty, with a bit of grit, a bit of bleat, a bit of drone—just doesn’t please all ears. It never did, and it never will, but surely Wainwright has known that since he first opened his mouth and started receiving both accolades (for example, winning Canada’s Juno Award for Most Promising Male Vocalist at age 17) and brickbats (haters gonna hate). 

The voice trails off. If this were a conventional three-minute pop song, especially an album opener, that three-line verse would be an introduction, and here the tempo and texture would shift, most likely into high gear. As in, Okay, off we go, into catchy, fun, or propulsive rock.

Instead, Wainwright plays more solo piano, then continues in that ruminative vein, making his dawdling way for another four lines. In fact, he doubles down on the rumination, the lyrics both addressing the effect and introducing alcohol as a contributing factor: “I twist like a corkscrew, the sweetness rising / I drink from the bottle weeping.” The singer, seemingly having imbibed and dragged himself into a pitiable or perhaps pitiful state, grinds to a halt with a lament: “Why won’t you last? / Why can’t you last?”

He has addressed love, and love, being a cosmic force, hasn’t answered. What’s a lovelorn boy to do but pick himself up, dust himself off, and start all over again? “So I will walk without care, beat my snare / Look like a man who means business.” Basically, the song begins again, that “So” signaling the decision not to give in to melancholia. So love has proved transitory? So what? 

“I’ve got a life to lead / I got a soul to feed / I got a dream to heed,” Wainwright declares in 2007’s “Going to a Town”, his riposte to the United States, which even then had taken “advantage of a world that loved you well”.

Love takes strange turns, and unfortunate acts are committed in the name or in spite of love. In “Foolish Love”, the singer’s declarations aren’t directed at love or a loved one but rather at life, himself, or both. And as the singer declares his intention to move on, the music moves with him. Which is cause and which effect we can’t know, but we feel the mood improving as the tempo increases and the instrumentation builds: “Go to all the poshest places with the familiar faces / Terminate all signs of weakness.”

Here comes the chorus, wherein the singer makes clear that he’ll do all these things “for the sake / Of a foolish love”. His heart remains open to possibility, and the swirling music distributes technicolor dreams, weird stuff about ‘hang[ing] with wolves who are sheepish’ and ‘flow[ing] through the veins of town’.

Cinematic strings usher the chorus back in, and when Wainwright returns to solo piano, his approach is spirited—even, for him, joyful (for him, joy always comes qualified, tinged with wryness, sadness, an awareness of vicissitudes). The verses envision “Noah’s Ark float[ing] down Park [Avenue]”, which prompts the singer to riff on his own ways of seeing. Whatever else they’ll be, they’ll be his own “for the sake of a foolish love”.

Only a fool would doubt the singer’s determination. When Wainwright repeats the opening three lines, they’re transformed. The singer still doesn’t “want to hold you and feel so helpless”, but he hardly seems likely to feel helpless. The bewilderment and sense of being at a loss no longer apply. Even if the singer repeats the same actions, holds you, or what have you, his moves will have different significance because his understanding of them, of love, and of himself have changed.

By opening with this nearly six-minute compositional and technical tour de force, Wainwright makes two points. First, at his most inspired, he doesn’t just write songs. There’s nothing wrong with writing songs, but if you can do something more, and if doing that thing sets your work apart from others, why not do it?

One model for this approach was, to get a little grandiose, the modernist writer James Joyce. In his autobiographical novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), the verbiage begins simplistically when the main character is a baby, grows increasingly complex through the years, and ends with the educated young man’s diary entries. In navigating different levels of diction and diverse sentence shapes, Joyce aims not just to tell a story—his short-story collection Dubliners (1914) showed he could tell stories—but to do something more. He wants the form to convey the content through a special, seemingly one-to-one relationship. Joyce’s novel Ulysses (1922) develops that relationship even further, employing a different style in each chapter, famously aiming to represent the flow of consciousness. 

Like Joyce (himself a talented singer and musician), Wainwright weds form and content. His music doesn’t just accompany or deliver his lyrics and the feelings they represent but conveys them, illustrating their images, meanings, arguments, and progressions. In this practice, Wainwright positions himself not so much as a musical Joyce but as an heir to those pop-rock inventors, the Beatles, particularly John Lennon, whose solo career can also be seen as a series of quests to marry form and content. A session outtake included on Rufus Wainwright’s 2023 remaster, “More Wine”, indicates, even in 1998, familiarity with Lennon’s solo work.

Lennon was a musical primitive/savant who attended art school, whereas Wainwright grew up surrounded by music and studied its composition. Every talented songwriter works toward the expressive combination of lyrics and music, but Wainwright has the inclination and tools to do it more than most. As a recording artist, he pays special attention to the shaping of sound. As a result, his music—compositions, arrangements, and recordings—work best when his lyrics are most carefully crafted. When the words seem slight or tossed off, the music doesn’t have such interesting places to go, or nuances to explore. Even when striving, he has made far less rewarding pieces than “Foolish Love”, but doing so was inevitable when he set the bar so high.

The second point made by this career-opening bar-setter was that Wainwright would be doing things his own way, defying or ignoring expectations, not ingratiating himself. He titled his 2020 pop-rock album Unfollow the Rules, and you could trace a twisting line through his career pinpointing that practice, just as you could analyze all his work by noting the relationships between form and content.

On Rufus Wainwright, “Foolish Love” announces the songwriter’s ambition but doesn’t set a template for subsequent songs. Wainwright’s second album, 2001’s Poses, takes off from “Foolish Love” in changing the sound of every song to suit the various subjects, from the breezy pop of “California” to the psychedelia of “Greek Song” to the spiraling disco of “The Tower of Learning” to the terrifyingly Wagnerian orchestral rock of “Evil Angel” to the somber, solo-piano meditation of “In a Graveyard”. Both discs of 2003‒2004’s Want explode stylistically, 2007’s Release the Stars reins in this approach only by being a single CD, and so on. 

Throughout Rufus Wainwright, however, the music remains fairly unified. This unity comes as a surprise now if you’re looking from the vantage point of later work. Here, as the songwriter finds his feet, he and Brion craft suitable backing for songs that are either jaunty, even circusy, or languorous, sometimes to the point of maudlin.

From the playfully titled lost-love song “Danny Boy” (“You broke my heart… Not your fault”) to the mother-love song “Beauty Mark” (“I never wanted it… I never had your …”) to the elusive-love track “Sally Ann” (“only my heart did hear him”), it’s a journey through mostly restrained moods. The closer, “Imaginary Love”, recalls the opener with its title but revises it with its sentiments. The singer begins by acknowledging that “every kind of love, or at least my kind of love / Must be an imaginary love to start with.” This sense of self vis-a-vis world captures the essence of Wainwright: wised-up yet questing, using the brain to satisfy the heart. We now know the performer would go through many trials—recordings, relationships, woes, losses, satisfactions—before arriving at some stability.

The music of “Imaginary Love” reflects an awareness of 1970s radio pop but not the desire to duplicate an aesthetic or broaden the appeal for hitmaking potential. In 2023, a new artist might pump up the volume, add a disco beat, make some reference to hip-hop sonics, Auto-Tune the vocal, and achieve an impressive number of streams. In 1998, Wainwright didn’t seem inclined to shape a single out of even the liveliest song (“April Fools”, which had a playful video). That is his wont. Or at least it has been. He most likely will continue to take unexpected turns, and perhaps at some point, he’ll unexpectedly reveal a desire to please the mainstream.