Saturday, October 10, 2009
Our Music is so Gay: Music and LGBT Liberation
This coming weekend may very well be the kind that people look back on as a turning point in history. Think the 1963 March on Washington or the helicopter leaving Saigon. The National Equality March, taking place this Sunday, is the first national mobilization around LGBT civil rights in over a generation, powered sheerly by the bottom-up outrage that has risen since the passage of Prop 8 in California last November.
There's no doubt that gays, lesbians, bisexuals and even trans folks have never been a bigger part of our national culture. While on the surface, this might posit a crude kind of equality, the reality is that for most working people of non-straight orientation, discrimination is alive and well.
Author Sherry Wolf points out that "[o]n the one hand, top-rated TV shows and Academy Award-winning movies, such as Will and Grace, the L Word, and Milk, portray gays and lesbians in a favorable light. On the other, federal and most state legislation denies equal marriage, workplace, and civil rights protection for sexual minorities."
This contradiction can be seen, perhaps like nowhere else, in our music. High profile stars like Elton John and Melissa Etheridge are able to be open about their sexuality. Others like Cyndi Lauper and Lady GaGa have even lent their voices to support the march.
Even during the height of the conservative '80s, music provided a space for talk about gay culture that the rest of society wouldn't. Top selling artists like synth-poppers the Bronski Beat, featuring the openly gay Jimmy Somerville, would climb the charts with songs like "Smalltown Boy." Telling the story of a young gay man hounded by his family and neighbors, the song's honesty stood in stark contrast to the turned backs of Reagan and Thatcher in the face of a rising AIDS epidemic.
The '80s in particular would see a great amount of gender-bending within popular music, the space being provided by the rise of post-punk's disdain for aesthetic convention. And while some of this approach echoes throughout today's music, to say this is the whole story would be a gross exaggeration.
While John and Etheridge may be secure enough in their positions to be out of the closet, there remains a very real exploitation of sexual minorities in pop music. Singer Katy Perry went to number one on the Billboard charts with her soft-core porn single "I Kissed a Girl," which The New Gay described as "a classic example of the 'guys kissing is gross, girls kissing is hot' line of thought."
Beth Ditto, front-woman of the Gossip (one of the most underrated bands of our time) pulled no punches when she described Perry's song as a "boner dyke anthem for straight girls who like to turn on guys by making out."
Ditto, an out-and-proud lesbian, also placed much of the blame on the industry itself: "To Katy, it's just a party song. But as a gay person, it's like 'oh, of course this straight person singing about kissing a girl goes straight to Top 40 and people buy the record. Who can give a fuck about real gay people?' That's what's really painful about the whole thing."
Too often, LGBT folks in the industry are forced to play the role of "the visible invisibles." You don't have to go far for proof of this. Compare how many bi, trans, gay or lesbian people you know in your everyday life to how many pop on MTV or the radio, and you'll find the numbers just don't match up. OutMusic.com, an online alliance of LGBT artists and performers, calls it "a silent 'don't ask don't tell' policy'" in the industry.
Mirroring the way in which an untold number of working-class LGBT folks remain in the closet for fear of reprisals, countless LGBT acts have struggled to find a voice. A brief scan of OutMusic's site will reveal a bevy of rock, indie, country and hip-hop acts pushed to the sidelines in light of their sexuality.
In a musical world where sixty percent of radio is owned by one communications company, this might be no surprise--especially when one takes into account that the company, Clear Channel, is owned by a "personal friend" of George W. Bush. By now, though, it's become common sense that the mainstream doesn't represent the last word in popular music.
That might be the best thing our side has going for us. The age of the internet has allowed an unprecedented number of acts to gain notable followings without the aid of the biz. It's no secret that most people want a lot more from their music nowadays.
Likewise, support for anti-gay measures is, Prop 8 notwithstanding, at an all-time low. For every pair of feet that shows up in DC this weekend to march for equality and justice, there will most likely be tens of thousands more at home who agree with them. There exists a gap between the faux-freedom afforded to LGBT's in pop media and the actual freedom to have a voice in everyday life. The feeling is that, to put it simply, people want more. From our music, our culture, and our world as a whole. If that can be taken to heart, then the National Equality March is only the beginning of something big.
This article originally appeared at SleptOn Magazine.