The vital role of the queer experience in the narrative of modern pop and rock music
When most of us think of the queer role in popular music, we picture clubs with thumping dance music and a floor full of shirtless men. They gyrate with their hands in the air to any generic song with that distinct thumpa-thumpa. Occasionally, a Madonna, Britney, or X-Tina remix blasts through the speakers to squeals of delight. That's pretty much the connection as most people see it. The truth, however, is that queer sexuality and gender variance are responsible for much of modern rock's evolution of expression and reputation as an art form of the outsider, one that consistently pushes the boundaries and expectations of mainstream society.
So, where to start this particular examination or modern rock? How about the same place every examination of modern rock must begin...
No, you were not just clued in to the best-kept secret in rock history. There were no gay Beatles. Yoko wasn't a beard. John and Paul weren't more than just the greatest songwriting duo ever. Ringo was not the other three's gimp. George Harrison was into wife-swapping, but that's hardly queer. No, their subversion was much more innocent: haircuts.
Much of this seems laughable to think of today as “dangerous” or “edgy,” but back in the ‘60s, those dos were radical. Long hair on men became a rock staple before long; today, when someone says “rock star,” the picture in our heads features a long, flowing mane. In the good ol' days though, practically no boys had long hair. Those who did were mocked and beaten for it. What The Beatles were doing was a subtle form of gender-bending, and breaking those rules is part of what made the fab four so appealing – especially to kids.
In archival footage of the Brits' early tours in the states, a TV reporter interviews a typical teenybopper fan. After she finishes prattling about her limey love, the square reporter asks, “What about their haircuts?”
“I love them,” replies the girl.
“I think they look like girls,” states square reporter.
“They do NOT!” snaps our girl, insulted he would think such a thing.
Kids made the Beatles what they are; we forget that now these fans are all grown up with kids of their own. We're all dying to breakout when we're teenagers, regardless of era or hometown. We hate all the rules of the world; we need to rebel. Mop tops were one of the first overt ways kids could do so. It was among the first ripples in the waters of nonconformity. Were they aware that they were challenging the polarizing gender norms and Stalinesque heterosexuality of our Puritanical history as they brushed their locks from their eyes? Probably not. Why would they need to know all that shit? It was fucking cool.
Glam & Co.
Ziggy played guitar. We all know that. But we forget Ziggy also got on his knees and licked guitar, bit guitar, kissed guitar... sucked guitar.
David Bowie's role in the integration of queer sexuality and gender variance into the narrative of rock and roll can't possibly be hyperbolized. Rock music, along with its forerunners of blues, jazz, country, etc., has a history of belonging to the disenfranchised, the disheartened, and the disillusioned. A back-breaking job, a broken heart, a feeling of not knowing one's place in the world – rock is by, for, and of the outsiders.
Bowie didn't just acknowledge the unique queer perspective on being a round peg in a square world, he shoved it in our faces, just like he shoved his own onto Mick Ronson's throbbing Les Paul.
The makeup, the clothes, the performance, the persona -- all of it was turned up to 10. Along with the (in)famous “guitar fellatio” photograph, Bowie was catapulted into the culture. He was raw sexuality to both women and men, exciting and frightening at the same time. People screamed for his head, in both senses of the phrase. There were no rumors that Bowie was queer; everyone knew. He embraced it, going so far as to declare his homosexuality to the press. Knowing what we know now, this proclamation was only half-true, but that fact is besides the point. Bowie's overt sexuality and androgyny was revolutionary, and the reason people loved it was because he used his queerness as an art form.
If you're a gender-bending, skinny faggot in real life on the street, you're a freak; if you're a gender-bending, skinny faggot on a stage, you're a genius.
This is a simplification of course, but performance is a buffer to a great many things. With this buffer, Bowie could seamlessly blend some glitter into rock. The outsider narrative was enhanced, taken farther. It was “queered.” In industry terms, glam was born. With Bowie as their leader, legions of fans became proud of their freakdom. Being gay or cross-dressing wasn't a secret shame anymore; it was an anthem. You were rebranded a “Rebel Rebel” and snarled that you “Got your mother in a whirl/ She's not sure if you're a boy or a girl.”
While the festive, prideful atmosphere was important and a great place to begin the queer voice in mainstream rock, it wasn't common to all in the movement. Unlike Bowie and most other glam rockers, Lou Reed swapped the celebration of queerness out in favor of revealing its dark underbelly. He also favored swapping his spit with Bowie's for all the press to see, thrusting his sexuality into the spotlight as well. Though Reed's approach to queer subject matter in his songs may be seen as more understated than the flamboyant Bowie, he is just as vital to the cause.
Even pre-Glam with The Velvet Underground, sexuality and gender identity were integral to Reed's songs. “Venus in Furs” describes, in graphic detail, the S&M relationship between two characters in the book from which the song got its name. Submissive and powerless, Severin gets on his knees and kisses the boots of his dominant mistress as she whips him. Female domination inverts our gender roles – men of power become men of vulnerability, oppressed women are authoritarian. Patriarchs become slaves, minorities become masters. The title goes so far as to refer to the leather-clad dominatrix as “Venus,” the Greek and Roman god of beauty and love. Outsider as God – it is obvious why Reed found the subject perfectly suited for rock ‘n' roll.
The mythic “Sister Ray” also centers on the dirty side of sex and gender. As Reed said in an interview with Hannah Levin, “The situation is a bunch of drag queens taking some sailors home with them, shooting up on smack and having this orgy when the police appear.”
Aside from all the “ding-dong” sucking that goes on in the song, we also encounter “Rosie and Miss Rayon/ They're busy waiting for her booster.” The “booster” in question is an injection of female hormones. Miss Rayon is revealed as transsexual, and an underprivileged one at that. Miss Rayon cannot seek medical care for her condition or obtain her hormones from a pharmacy; she instead must score estrogen on the black market – the same way she scores smack. Her medical care has become criminalized.
Reed's image of queers has a dingy, unglorified realism. Listeners are confronted with the lack of rights, or more simply, the lack of respect from society as a whole, toward an oppressed, unfamiliar minority.
A softer song in the Velvet's catalog, “Candy Says,” delves into the personal side of transsexualism. Written for actress and Factory favorite Candy Darling, the song reveals the depression that can accompany issues of sexuality and, in Candy's case, gender identity. “Candy says I've come to hate my body/ and all that it requires in this world/ Candy says I'd like to know completely/ what others so discreetly talk about/ What do you think I'd see/ If I could walk away from me.” She despises her body and all she needs to do in order to live the way she must. Candy's self-administered hormone treatments ultimately led to her death from cancer around the age of 30, another instance of discrimination and unfamiliarity leading to lack of proper care.
Transvestism and transsexuality surface repeatedly in Reed's work. In fact, one could argue it's the theme of his career, the most well-known instance being “Walk on the Wild Side”'s talk of Holly, who “Plucked her eyebrows on the way/ Shaved her legs and then he was a she/ She says hey babe, take a walk on the wild side.” In a later verse, Candy Darling surfaces again: “Candy came from out on the Island/ In the back room she was everybody's darlin'/ But she never lost her head/ Even when she was givin' head.” This softly crooned song put drag and queer sex into mainstream pop, as the song hit No. 16 on the Billboard charts.
The fascination didn't stop with just Bowie and Reed, however. Among other artists queering the genre, Ray Davies of The Kinks championed transvestite love with the radio anthem “Lola.” Among the queer lyrics that Davies Trojan-horsed into pop culture are: “She walked like a woman and talked like a man,” “Girls will be boys and boys will be girls,” and “I got down on my knees/ Then I looked at her and she at me.” Crowds in the 1970s may not have known it, but thousands of them were singing along to the anthemic hit in full throat, proclaiming their love for sucking the cock of a man in a dress.
Hey, Remember the ‘80s?
The decade known for excess was no different for queer culture. In the ‘80s, even the straight musicians looked gay. Makeup, bizarre fashion, and hairspray became standard issue, and its gender-bending effects were utilized ad nauseum.
But, there are two threats to the existence of any particular subculture: oppression to the point of disappearance, and acceptance to the point of disappearance. The survival of traditions relies on finding the balance between these two extremes. If the ‘60s, ‘50s, and before had marginalized and silenced queer perspective, the ‘80s integrated it into the mainstream to the point of dilution. Artists like Boy George carried on Bowie's legacy, performing in drag and living outside of gender roles. This garnered some attention, but usually just as a passing joke. The message was drowned out by the prevalence of the straights doing the same thing. Even the “tough” metal bands of the ‘80s – playing music for beer-drinkin', pussy-fuckin' guys – wore tight clothes and spandex, excessive amounts of makeup, and teased their hair-sprayed hair like a New Jersey barfly. Take away the only phallic thing on stage, the guitar, and you may as well be watching drag queens.
In snooty terms, the tradition of heterosexuality and strict gender roles integrated and normalized queer culture. Queers themselves were not integrated, mind you. Society still considered them sick fags and dykes, but now their misappropriated customs could help slake straight America's thirst for entertainment.
This phenomenon continues today, with straight bands trying to get in on the act, notably Blur's “Girls and Boys.” The song is catchy, but its heavy-handed sampling of queer sex and gender becomes mocking as the chorus of “Girls who are boys/ Who like boys to be girls/ Who do boys like they're girls...” winds on and on. One wonders if Blur turned to homosexuality and transgenderism solely to give a simple pop song a little edge. Queer life as subject matter should be treated respectfully; unfortunately, queer life kidnapped and pimped as a sideshow does not.
Unfortunately, with our little planet being, for the most part, a man's world, the presence of queer women and (genetically) female transgender artists is almost a separate narrative to the one popularized by the likes of Bowie and Reed. The tendency for society to be more accepting, or rather, less concerned with female subjugation of gender roles has in many ways allowed it to slip in the back door of pop culture. This in turn leads to lower visibility of its ideals. Sometimes it is completely ignored; other times it is acknowledged as another harmless example of a certain community trying to infiltrate or imitate the inner circles of the patriarchy. Still, other times it is a source of entertainment for all the wrong reasons, such as The Man's masturbatory fantasies involving girl-on-girl action. This is why “lesbian chic” exists. It's cute, nonthreatening, and sexy as hell. None of these are valid channels for women's part in the queer dialogue. These are not outlets; they are cages from which queers are seen and not heard.
Tragically, sometimes we put ourselves in those cages – feeling the need to hide out of personal insecurity or fear of others' reactions. One of the most famous and fascinating cases of queer self-suppression was Billy Tipton.
On the morning of Jan. 21, 1989, Billy Tipton, 74, a gifted jazz musician who was a veteran of the tiny clubs and V.F.W. posts of small-town America, collapsed on the floor of a mobile home in Spokane, Wash. Tipton's son William summoned paramedics, and as they opened Tipton's pajamas to perform resuscitation, they made an extraordinary discovery. Tipton, who most people had assumed to be a man, who had had at least five wives and had adopted three sons, was in fact a woman. “Did your father ever have a sex change?” the paramedics asked William, he later recalled.
The news that Tipton, a pianist and saxophonist, was a woman came as a shock to nearly everyone, including the women who had considered themselves his wives, as well as the sons and the musicians who had traveled with him.
Billy Tipton was born Dorothy Lucille Tipton in Oklahoma City and grew up in Kansas City, a center of jazz.... According to Leslie Gourse, author of "Madame Jazz," a book about female jazz musicians, "There was an unwritten code in the jazz world, that women just didn't get hired." To pass as a man, Dorothy bound her breasts with Ace bandages and wore a prosthetic device. Later, she would tell people that she wore the bandages because of a childhood accident in which her ribs were broken.”
--Smith, Dinitia. "Billy Tipton Is Remembered With Love, Even by Those Who Were Deceived", The New York Times, June 2, 1998.
Tipton should certainly be looked upon as a pioneer in queer history. During time periods in which it was very dangerous to be gay, let alone a transman with a high-profile profession, Tipton forged his own way. Tragically, though he was able to live as a man, having to conceal his genetic sex his entire life undoubtedly caused much grief and angst in his life. This was presumably difficult for his loved ones as well, though they were unaware as to its cause. Almost as tragic is that it is only in hindsight that society is able to fully appreciate Tipton for the artist and the person that he was. If the truth were revealed during the time he was performing, from the ‘30s through the ‘60s, an album cover like the one shown below would have started riots.
But looking at this cover today, one can't help but smile and shake one's head. Here's Tipton hiding in plain sight with two busty broads lounging on his piano as he tickles the ivory and gives ‘em the eye. All the while, mainstream America remains clueless to the queerness of it all.
Jumping ahead to more modern times, queer-identified women such as Ani DiFranco, Melissa Etheridge, the Indigo Girls and k.d. lang are doing more to make sure America does get the clue. DiFranco's lyrics openly display her sexuality, rejecting conformity in both the straight world, “I have been playing/ Too many of those boy girl games/ She says ‘Honey you are safe here/ This is a girl-girl thing,'” and the gay world as well: “Some days the line I walk/ Turns out to be straight/ Other days the line tends to deviate/... Their eyes are all asking/ ‘Are you in, or are you out?'” DiFranco is frustrated with having to identify herself to others within the straight/queer spectrum and aspires beyond labels to see people as just people. Etheridge and lang remain very recognizable names today, years after their debuts on the music scene. In addition to being outspoken activists for queer rights in the U.S., the two are responsible for vast contributions of the queer perspective to popular culture. Between them are multiple Top Ten hits, Grammys, gold and platinum albums, and even a Best Original Song Oscar for Etheridge's “I Need to Wake Up” in An Inconvenient Truth. The two proved throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s that more and more people were learning it doesn't matter to whom you write your love songs; it only matters if the song is good.
Similar to the career arcs of lang and Etheridge, The Indigo Girls immediately became a household name with the adult-contemporary-friendly “Closer to Fine” in 1989. As the years passed, however, the Girls' sexuality became more apparent in their work and to listeners. On 1997's Shaming of the Sun, the fact was put into plain English on the song, “It's Alright,”: “… And it's alright if you hate that way/ Hate me cause I'm different/ You hate me cause I'm gay.” On Amy Ray's 1999 solo album Stag, a much more confrontational voice emerges. The country was outraged over the murder of Matthew Shepard, and members of the queer community spoke daggers about the pervasiveness of homophobia still rampant in the U.S. The song “Laramie” exhibits exactly that pointedness: “We hit snow on the road to Laramie/ We all heard about that mess/ But that town ain't nothing different/ Than the rest/ Poor man do the bidding for the rich man/ Those rednecks just doing/ What the classy fuckers thinking.”
While mainstream artists like The Indigo Girls, Etheridge and lang don't maintain the same confrontational edge as Bowie or Reed throughout their careers, they did carve out subtler ways of validating queer life. It may be easily mistaken as pandering or opening themselves and their art for misappropriation, but a pleasing, radio-friendly song was their foot in the door. Once inside the culture's collective consciousness, activism and more queer voices could enter, too.
There is a growing amount of artists in touch with the queer experience and who value its distinct role in music and art in general; they have all fought against its assimilation, whether they do so consciously or not. Rufus Wainwright, Antony, The Hidden Cameras, Deerhunter, Broken Social Scene, Belle & Sebastian, and many others going unfairly unlisted here bring an unapologetic, unaltered view of queer life. From Rufus' many love songs to men, Antony as perhaps rock's first transgender singer-songwriter, The Hidden Camera's frankness and humor, Broken Social Scene cooing “I'm still your fag,” Stuart Murdoch's coming out scene in “The State I Am In” and teen lesbian love in “She's Losing It,” Rob Halford of Judas Priest's openness on his sexuality and subsequent acceptance by testosterone-addled, aggressive metalheads... there are too many to continue. These artists, along with those before them, have queered the mainstream. What's more, they are seen as artists. Their work, their viewpoint, their culture has been legitimized as necessary to the narrative of rock music – so much so that when yours truly feasted my eyes upon Bradford Cox's update on Bowie's classic photo...
...the thought that immediately surfaced wasn't “gay sex,” or “cocksucker,” it was “Fucking rock ‘n' roll!”
Cox's performance, the dresses, the spectacle, the chaos, the head on stage from another guy up his skirt, all of it heartens me that the medium has never been more alive. Deerhunter's performance is delivered raw and with force. They're to be admired not just for being unapologetically true to their queer roots, but for not making it any more or less than it should be. To them, queer is just *gasp*... normal.
Getting to that point of “normalcy” and integrating a valid and respected queer voice into rock's outsider traditions was and is a long road. Because of Bowie, Reed, and all those who carried on queerness in modern rock, a discriminated minority will always have sanctuary and representation in perhaps the most joyful of art forms. A cross-dressing young fag or budding bull-dyke may be kicked out of house and home by asshole parents whose ignorance, intolerance, and fear trump love for their child, but Reed, Bowie, Rufus, Antony, and all the others can let confused and disenfranchised queers know that they're not sick, and more importantly, that they're not alone.