Gay performers have long been prominent in the pop industry. However, it’s only in recent years that coming out has become the norm, writes Caomhan Keane.
Dorothy Parker once said that heterosexuality is not normal, it’s just common. Which is why the proliferation of openly gay popstars is likely to be a huge boon to the multitude of gay kids taking their first steps out of the closet. Considering that 12 is the most common age a person discovers they are LGBT, and 16 is the age when they first tell someone, much of what they glean about what it is to be the way they are, comes from popular culture.
“You absolutely do need people who are speaking your language,” says Martin Aston, author of Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache: How Music Came Out. “While Madonna and Lady Gaga, I’m sure, feel that they very much have a kinship with the gay community, it’s vital for young people to have artists who project the authenticity of experience, a sense that maybe they have gone through what you might be going through and got out the other side.”
The author remembers the effect David Bowie’s coming out had on him in the 1970s. “There was life before seeing ‘Starman’ on TOTP… and life after. I was 14 and couldn’t articulate my own mindset, but I felt like I had a champion, someone who would say I was normal, who showed an alternative way to live life.
“But Bowie was an alien from Mars. He didn’t mirror me in the way I might have wanted to be mirrored, so that I didn’t feel so alone.
“Young people still feel that sense of isolation, of being different. They feel disapproved of by their family. They need more than Kylie just saying she loves her gay fans. They need people out there who they can see themselves in. And, thank god, they have that now.”
The last five years have been revolutionary in terms of gay representation in pop. From Sam Smith topping the US charts (and even bagging an Oscar) for his Bond song ‘The Writing’s On The Wall’, to Years & Years front man Olly Alexander using male pronouns in their hit singles and promoting HIV screening in interviews.
Frank Ocean has emerged from the notoriously homophobic hip-hop scene to claim the title of America’s pop laureate with songs that reflect on desires that are longing, fleeting and sexual. As Myki Blanco, Brooke Candy and Young Ma (along with close to a dozen others) invert the swagger and machismo of rap to wax lyrical about gay sex — all the while reclaiming the genre’s camp aesthetic and making it cool again.
In a previous era, being gay was a sin so egregious you threatened legal action if media outlets speculated about it (Ricky Martin). You hid and obscured your homosexuality with sham relationships (Stephen Gately) as, despite a few notable exceptions, coming out was something saved for when you were past your sexual and artistic prime, like shingles or bridge.
Mark Feehily and Lance Bass waited until their fans no longer fantasised about being their wives before whipping up the veil.
Growing up in a country that had only just recently decriminalised what I did in bed, being gay, for me, meant aping Alan Turing, poring over the lyrics sung by lads licked in eyeliner, trying to crack the code of their true affections.
When George Michael suggested we might be practicing the same religion on ‘Fastlove’, it was a burning bush moment, the voice of a messiah who knew the way out of the oppression that surrounded me.
Publically outed two years later, he sent a St Bernard of pop perfection back to those he left behind in the closet, in the form of ‘Outside’, a single whose video deliciously lampooned his arrest, while perfectly encapsulating not only the desire to be free… but the fear of it.
Best, though, was the late singer’s anthem, ‘Freeek’, perhaps the most sexually aggressive gay song since Frankie went to Hollywood, utterly debauched, mocking and in your face, a rare case of a gay male owning his own licentiousness.
For me, each new discovered gay artist burst the stitches of a heteronormative life that refused to take. Seeing Placebo perform ‘Nancy Boy’ on Top of the Pops on my 14th birthday exposed me to a garish slut-strut that delighted in affronting the Manc affectations of the Oasis fans I loathed.
Over four swooshing albums Rufus Wainwright walked me through the perils of falling in lust with friends who were never going to reciprocate. While the discovery of Labi Siffre was a revelation. An openly gay singer-poet of Nigerian and Barbadian descent, who’d been with his partner since 1964, he wrote ‘It Must Be Love’, one of the sweetest love songs of all time for him.
None of these songs contained the cloying platitudes of Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’, where a chainsaw beat met a pez dispenser of queer identities lacking the genuine sense of an artist having lived and survived and come up with original to say about an experience.
Worse was Macklemore’s mass marriage at the Grammy’s, which turned the most prescient civil rights issue of the day into a stunt that cheapened the act of matrimony in the way conservatives always worried us queers would.
(Doubly egregious was his seeming appropriation of the baseline of gay rapper Le1f’s ‘Wut’ for Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s follow up hit ‘Thriftshop’).
And is it any wonder that so many mothers think that homosexuality is just a phase, when so many of there own idols admitted they’d steeped out of faux closets once the controversial, or artistic appeal of fagging it up stopped bearing fruit?
“My older friends talk of Bowie like he was the second coming, “ says Matthew Todd, former editor of Attitude and the author of Straight Jacket, How to Be Gay and Happy. “And regardless of whether he was straight or bi, his experiments with gender and makeup got people asking questions like ‘Am I a boy or a girl? Do I like boys or girls?’ It was revolutionary.”
But there is a generation of popstars who are divorced from just how monumental Bowie’s public proclamations were. Toying with sexuality has become a rite of passage where stars, who haven’t experienced homophobia, don’t understand the sensitivities that come with talking about such things.
“It’s woven into the fabric of entertainment,” concludes Martin. “A bit ohh, a bit ‘ahh, but do they mean it?’.
“But, would you rather them never do anything that has any suggestive? Some artists play with homosexulaity because they feel it, others cause it has a cache. For some people in the gay community ‘Born This Way’ was almost too obvious, like a sales pitch. But it resonated. And any positive representation is great.”
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