Monday, January 28, 2008

There Won't Be A Problem Till The Girls Go Home

I don’t make any claim to historical completeness in what follows; I’ve not mentioned numerous performers who’d be relevant in a complete discussion of queer popular music. I don’t follow music and journalism/criticism as I did before the early 1990s, so I’m not sure I’m right about the trend I describe; this is just how it looks to me. With that in mind….
For me personally, how little has changed for gay people in the US can be summed up in one question:
Where’s the gay popular music?
It may be a generational thing. I know from that gay performers are releasing CDs. The ones who get attention on are, of course, mostly young, male and photogenic. Whether their music is any good or not, I can’t say. More important, I can’t tell how much of it has gay content – that is, whether they sing love songs to other males.
We have some out gay and lesbian performers, but few of them actually sing same-sex love songs. Has Melissa Etheridge recorded any love songs explicitly addressed to women? I’ve heard some live recordings by her covering other singers’ songs, like a magnificent dyke version of “Piece of My Heart,” but her own material? How about k. d. lang? Has Elton John sung any lyrics addressed to a male since “Daniel”? Rufus Wainwright will talk about his life in “gay hell,” but can he record a love song to a cute boy? (This is a generational thing, I’m sure. I found Wainwright’s first album boring, hate his voice and his preening performance style, and refuse to spend money on his later work.)

I remember reading a joint interview with Elton John and his lyricist Bernie Taupin, laughing derisively because their 1973 song “Daniel” had been interpreted by some people as “homosexual.” “Daniel” was included on the 1996 Love Songs compilation, which seems to concede that those people were right. Jackson Browne wrote some ambiguous songs of male friendship that I added to my own repertoire, like “Song for Adam”; I also appropriated his “For a Dancer,” whose subject isn’t gendered, but which always made me think of a gay male friend I used to dance with. In that vein there’s also Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy in New York.” And I hear Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” as a love song to a man; that’s how it makes most sense, as Dylan’s most open-hearted and generous love song to anyone. Whether it’s “gay” is another question, though “Ballad of a Thin Man” surely is. (So blatant as to be almost invisible: “Jailhouse Rock” and the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun.”)
Glam rock and genderfuck never interested me much. I was haunted and tantalized by a 1974 album on Apple, “Brother”, by two Dutch brothers, Lon and Derrek Von Eaton. The cover showed the two young men, shirtless, cuddled together. I never cuddled like that with my brothers.
Here’s the ironic thing: there seems to have been more gay/lesbian/queer pop music recorded and released on major labels in the 1970s and 1980s than there is now. Much of that music is admittedly problematic in terms of “positive images”: David Bowie’s queer songs often depicted (male) homosexuality as decadent, doomed, deadly. The same is true of Jobriath, or Gary Numan, or Mitch Ryder, the Ramones, or The Smiths. But often the songs were ambiguous and ambivalent: is Bowie’s “Queen Bitch” a positive or negative song? Ryder’s “Cherry Poppin’”? Others were simply matter-of-fact, like some of the Buzzcocks’s work and Pete Shelley’s witty, wicked “Homo Sapien.” For many gay people, just the fact that the songs had been recorded and released was positive, and the music was important in their coming out.
There was also lesbian music, not just on Olivia and other small women’s labels, most notably Nona Hendryx, both as a member of LaBelle and in her solo work; and more recently Toshi Reagon. But the women’s music movement and festivals were important in giving exposure and space to women-loving women. Gay men preferred drag queens – men impersonating this or that diva, ventriloquizing their desire for other men through a female mask. It was Gloria Gaynor's version of "I Am What I Am," the draq-queen manifesto from La Cage aux Folles, that was played in the gay clubs; I'm not aware of any version by a male singer that was even released, aside from the Broadway cast album. (I'm not complaining because a woman recorded it; only that gay men evidently weren't interested in hearing it sung by a man.)
I’ve found that most gay men I’ve talked to about this are at best apathetic about hearing men sing love songs to men, and a surprising number are homophobically hostile. (When I’ve performed before gay audiences, the men’s faces would contort into disgusted grimaces when they realized I was singing gay material. I got a much better reception from straight audiences, probably because they didn’t realize what I was doing.) The gay male tradition involves identification with female actresses or singers, whether popular or operatic.
I was already out when this music appeared, so it whetted my appetite for more. At the time I took for granted that these beginnings would be followed by more and better. To my surprise, it was the opposite: the seventies and eighties were the high-water mark of queer pop music, and since then gay/lesbian material has been pushed back to the margins. This is at least partly because gay people don’t seem to be interested in it, but there actually was a backlash in the male pop music mainstream. Lester Bangs (who’d coined the term “punk rock”, maybe unaware that a punk is the kid who gets punked – fucked – in jail) called Bowie “the chicken-headed king of suck rock” (a great name for a band, I think). When the Ramones emerged in the 70s, the Village Voice celebrated their leather-jacketed scrawniness with a front-page tribute: They’re Not Queers. (Which didn’t keep them from recording the odd love song to boys. And I admit, I bought their first album just for the cover photo.) There was the whole “Disco Sucks” thing, and then hip-hop’s overt homophobia gave white – not to mention black – boys license to yell “fag” as much as they wanted. (It gave their misogyny free rein too.)
Yes, I know that gay people are a minority, quite a small one. But there are lots of niches in pop music. Does it matter how many people listen to klezmer, for instance? And homosexuality, construed as failed manhood and butt sex, obsesses straight males, especially the younger ones who are the main constituency of pop music.
I don’t demand constant overtness. I like ambiguous material, like Elvis Costello’s “Secondary Modern”, which may or may not be about a high-school boy pitching covert woo to another boy at a party: “But there won’t be a problem till the girls go home.” But I do also want overtness, by which I don’t mean necessarily sexual explicitness but rather unmistakable expression of love, romantic passion, what have you. (See Pete Townshend’s amazing, ambivalent, aggressive “Rough Boys”, from 1980.) The play Falsettos didn’t impress me much, but I was still thrilled and moved to tears by the sight of two men singing duets of love to each other. I want more; can I have a little more? Evidently not -- or, as Harvey Fierstein might say, Not enough.