Rock’s queer evolution – gay musicians – Cover Story

Barry Walters

It’s 1997, and a female folksinger who runs her own label according to her own free-spirited, feminist agenda — the same impulse that guided the women’s music pioneers 25 years ago — has the full attention of the media. Ani DiFranco’s multicolored hair, pierced eyebrow, rubber clothes, and hide-nothing stare grace the covers of Spin and countless other magazines. Major labels court her in vain: She turns them down, preferring to stay independent and in control of her own career. Meanwhile, she sings love songs directed explicitly at women, proclaims herself queer, and regularly sells out her concerts, largely due to her dedicated and highly vocal lesbian following. The mood of her shows is much like the women’s music circuit, where DiFranco got her start — sisterly, celebratory, and highly cruisy. The difference is that it’s talking place under the eye of the mainstream, with plenty of sensitive straight guys in attendance, and for a performer who’s considered one of the most vital and of-the-moment musicians in rock. The difference is that DiFranco — and her lesbian-inclusive phenomenon — is now the mainstream.

The power and success of this “righteous babe” (the name of DiFranco’s record label) isn’t an isolated occurrence: Things in the mainstream don’t happen that way. Every time k.d. lang releases an album, she ends up on nearly every talk show out there, and although she came out only a few years ago, this trailblazer’s sexual orientation is now a given, akin to her vegetarianism or being a Canadian. The same goes for Melissa Etheridge, who used to agonize over the paradox created by projecting a strong female image from within the closet. Nowadays the proud queen of VH1 appears on magazine covers with her girlfriend, the perfect picture of a happy couple. Meanwhile, plenty of up-and-coming alternative rock singers and band members declare their lesbianism with as much consequence as would greet a prominent tattoo or extra piercing: As far as the Murmurs and the women of Sleater-Kinney — or Kate Schellenbach of Luscious Jackson, Yva Las Vegas of Sweet 75, Patty Schemel of Hole, Skin of Skunk Anansie, and Me’Shell Ndegeocello — are concerned, it’s a part of who they are, and they’re willing to discuss it, but their sexuality doesn’t seem to get in the way of anybody’s appreciation of the most important thing — the music.

The mainstream’s recent acceptance of lesbian rockers is part of its new-found across-the-board approval of female pop talent. Not so long ago any woman who wasn’t a ballad, disco, or country singer was an aberration, a suspicious invader of the boys’ club, a sexy novelty at best. Rock’s emotional center has for decades been the cover of that first Led Zeppelin album — a giant phallus inspiring mayhem, reverence, and maybe a little envy. The phrase rock and roll began as blues slang for sex, and whether that sexual energy has been physical, emotional, spiritual, or social, it’s either coming from a straight man’s perspective or drawing attention to itself because it’s not all about traditional masculinity.

Rock is just as testosterone-driven as the sports world, and if you’re a woman in rock, you’re almost expected to be lesbian. Even if you’re not a lesbian, you have to deal with the fact that you may get labeled a bitch just because you have enough balls to take control of your career. Chrissie Hynde, Annie Lennox, and Patti Smith all felt they had to come out as straight. A journalist once told Etheridge she didn’t count as an exception to the male rock rule because she is a lesbian, and that meant she had male energy going for her.

But just as rock began as a penis thing, it’s also a rebellion thing, and as it has grown into a multibillion-dollar corporate-funded international, language-transcending establishment, rock has also rebelled against itself. Whenever there’s a shift in style and everything’s up for grabs, more women crash the party. Think of when Elvis went into the service — in came the girl groups. Sure they celebrated teen angels and leaders of the pack who were inevitably male, but in doing so they gave themselves and other hair hoppers the license to be “bad,” and the songs they sang were written for and often by women.

When Beatlemania shifted from fans’ screaming at those cute mop tops in concert to pondering the greater meaning of their concept albums with a head full of weed, Janis Joplin, Janis Ian, Laura Nyro, Joan Baez, and Grace Slick appeared on the scene to let it all hang out, bras not included. Ironically, it says volumes about the sexually fluid pre-Stonewall ’60s that the first four of these five women either are lesbians or have had well-documented lesbian affairs.

When the Fab Four called it quits, former girl-group songsmith Carole King found her solo voice, and the first major wave of female singer-songwriters was born. As classic rock grew stale in the latter half of the ’70s, punk-rock queens like Smith, Hynde, and Debbie Harry shook up the charts by coming on stronger than the guys. Meanwhile, Donna Summer, Grace Jones, and Amanda Lear pushed the envelope of acceptable pop sexuality, fanning the flames of Saturday Night Fever. And when disco and new wave went kaput, Madonna and her wannabes took over the dance floor. Whenever rock undergoes an actual progression (as opposed to revivalism and nostalgia), women usually supply the power behind it and are also the ones who most benefit from it.

There are reasons for this. Concurrent with rock’s transformation from a white appropriation of black rhythm and blues to a worldwide multiracial youth culture was the rising claim for civil rights, which rock soon embraced. When black power, women’s lib, and the gay pride movement demanded that voices from outside the mainstream be heard, popular music became the clarion call of change, the most direct and yet most widely accessible method for young people to talk with and about one another through the media. It is significant to note that both Rolling Stone and The Advocate celebrated 30 years of publishing in October and that both Stonewall and Woodstock took place in the same summer: 1969.

Because gay men participated in rock from the start (although usually in the closet or behind the scenes), their expressions bloomed in the mainstream soon after Stonewall, while lesbians took the time to create their own network of women-only venues, much like the chitlin circuit of yore. Ray Davies of the Kinks fell in love with a drag queen named “Lola,” and Lou Reed was similarly trans-fixed by Warhol’s fag-tastic Factory scene in “Walk on the Wild Side,” while Elton John sang a love song to brother “Daniel” and David Bowie warned, “You gotta make way for the Homo Superior!” Early ’70s glam rock employed shock tactics to shake rock from its post-Beatles doldrums, but at a cost: Androgyny, flirtatious bisexuality, and flamboyant gay imagery was, in retrospect, most often a means to an end, not the sincere expression of proud identity, even if those tactics helped young gay men comprehend their own. It can be argued that Davies, Reed, John, and Bowie all have gay sides to their spirit and their sexuality, but all have been married and have at one time or another renounced their gay ways. Of the original glam rockers, only John now identifies as gay. Freddie Mercury had to die of AIDS complications before the queer bent obvious to his gay fans became apparent to the rest of the world.

Women’s music began as a separatist enterprise not only because of community-based collectivity: Once a major label had its Joni Mitchell or its Carly Simon, it felt it didn’t need another. Sisters in the ’70s discovered they had to do it for themselves, and so they created labels like Olivia Records to nurture their own talent. Future major players like Holly Near and Ferron paved the way for DiFranco’s independence by running their own labels. That do-it-yourself approach has proved hugely profitable, as the rise of punk, disco, rap, and techno labels — as well as the boom of home recording studios — attests. The music industry has been forced to accept autonomous work ethics of all sorts. These days the lesbian-owned labels Chainsaw and Candy-Ass or the lesbian-friendly label Kill Rock Stars aren’t considered corny or granola-flavored: They’re hip, and the major labels want a piece of the action, even if they still don’t comprehend the politics. Rap taught the straight white guys of the music mainstream that there are profits to be made in what they don’t understand.

When alternative rock settled into a predictable rut of grumpy grunge boys throwing blaring guitar tantrums, female artists appeared more appealing to public and industry alike. Their diversity was one way to interrupt the flow of Nirvana soundalikes, and all it took was the success of a few key artists — lang, Etheridge, Courtney Love’s Hole, and, of course, Alanis Morissette — for radio stations, record companies, and the music press to court female talent once considered too radical or cultist. Now there are countless female bands, women musicians in mixed-gender bands, female singers fronting guy bands, and female solo acts. Rod Stewart and Eric Clapton are still going strong, but few young solo male singers currently rule the charts. Unless you’re a one-man electronica band, a hat-wearin’ country boy, or an R&B lay-deez man, a guy needs a gang of four to court record-company interest. Considering the locker-room mentality that prevails in male rock bands, it’s understandable why many gay musicians stay in the closet — or avoid rock altogether.

After disco hit the glass ceiling of the homophobic, racist “disco sucks” backlash and after the English new wave that generated such gay-leaning pop-dance groups as Bronski Beat, Culture Club, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Erasure, and Wham! subsided, pop’s gender-bender boom of the ’80s appeared to be over.

But the gay unprint has remained in full view for those with eyes to see it. Most gay men in the music industry do their thing behind the scenes, where they can feed gay aesthetics to new forms, like music video or technology-dependent dance music, both of which constantly crave the kind of envelope-pushing artistic innovation gay guys seem to have mastered instinctively. They’ve taken disco back underground to reinvent it as house music, a medium that, unlike the highly visual new wave scene, deliberately downplays the star or offers divas as beards to front for gay producers. The dance-music world is largely anonymous and therefore offers to gay men a safe ghetto where they can be — stylistically, at least — as loud and proud as they wanna be without risking professional failure. Gay DJs, producers, remixers, musicians, and record bizzers have contributed immeasurably to the crossover dance times you hear on the radio. But Frankie Knuckles or Tony Moran have no cult of personality: The average consumer doesn’t recognize their names, even if he or she loves those pumpin’ club remixes of Toni Braxton’s “Un-Break My Heart” or Jon Secada’s “Too Late, Too Soon.”

Anyone who’s been to a DiFranco, lang, or Etheridge show knows that the audience is relating as deeply to the soul of the star as they are to the music. Maybe even more so. Personality sells, even if it threatens as many folks as it charms. Contemplate that highly theatrical faux-satanist Marilyn Manson, who is hounded by the Christian right and has millions of metal-leaning fans. But Manson, just like his ambi-pamby glam-rock role models, considers himself neither gay nor straight, and unlike DiFranco he doesn’t sing same-sex love songs. (Manson’s presumed odes to the devil don’t count.) That time-tested approach is the same tactic R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe has taken to deal with those nagging questions, and even Boy George at his Culture Club peak used to say he wouldn’t prefer sex over a rice spot of tea.

It’s an obvious but crucial fact that lesbians are, first and foremost, women and that straight guys — who program the radio stations, sell the records to retail, and call the major-label shots — like women. Lesbians don’t threaten the dudes, particularly when their commercial potential has already been proved.

Gay-male aesthetics sell, time and time again, as long as they’re divorced from gay-male identity. Look closely at several of today’s hottest alternative rock and pop acts: Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor revels in the angst-ridden alienation of his recent touring partner, Bowie, while the Smashing Pumpkins pump up the poetic pretension and camp bombast of Queen. Foo Fighters have moved along the dress-wearing continuum of their leader’s former band, Nirvana. Beck’s groovy pastiche a-go-go is firmly in the gay pop-art movement, just as Aqua’s deconstruction of the Barbie myth is equal parts Roland Barthes and B-52’s. As for those techno punks in the Prodigy, try playing “Firestarter” and Divine’s “Shoot Your Shot” back to back. Let’s not forget all those post-new Kids on the Block harmony groups like Backstreet Boys or Boyzone who appear plucked from the pages of Blueboy or Inches.

And what about those Spice Girls, who are even more like gay men trapped in feminine forms than Madonna is? Just as mainstream film and TV viewers accept a gay character when he’s played by a straight actor, the rock world traditionally wants its gods of androgyny and ambiguity to be straight — or silent.

Yet, as lang and Etheridge have provide all it takes is a couple of superstars to break the barriers of homophobia for other like-minded queers to bumrush the show, and the signs are there that the walls could soon tumble down for gay men. The most popular radio station in the country is New York’s discodominated WKTU, where RuPaul has his own morning show. Rap is downplaying its gangsta side and g to disco oldies for inspiration and samples. (The Notorious B.I.G.’s recent hit “Mo Money Mo Problems” was fueled by an unmistakable slab of Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out.”) Such out-and-proud artists as Daniel Cartier, Future Bible Heroes, Ashley MacIsaac, and Imperial Teen’s Roddy Bottum aren’t breaking any American sales records, and two other gay-fronted hopefuls, Psychotica and Extra Fancy, were dropped by their record companies when they didn’t generate instant massive sales. But at least they’re in the game. Gay executives like DreamWorks’ David Geffen and Reprise’s Howie Klein have come out, while such music-compilation series as Free to Be are proving once again the profitability of both dance music and the gay market. With the rise of queercore punk bands like Pansy Division, a homo answer to the Lilith Fair seems like a natural. All we need is a gay equivalent of Beck or the Prodigy to rewrite the rules of the music business.

Is anyone out there?

COPYRIGHT 1997 Liberation Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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