Corey K Creekmur. Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered History in America. Editor: Marc Stein. Volume 2. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004.
LGBT artists and audiences have consistently created and consumed popular music, but for much of the past their regular participation in this area of mainstream entertainment was hidden or obscured. “Popular music” may be broadly defined as music produced and consumed in the context of a commercial entertainment industry, increasingly disseminated through recordings and the mass media (radio, cinema, television, the Internet) rather than live performance. Pop music encompasses a range of distinct but intertwining genres, such as blues, jazz, country, and rock and roll, and their many variants, such as disco, punk, and rap. Popular music is therefore defined by musical styles and forms (such as discrete “songs” marketed as “singles”) as well as by modes of production and consumption, rather than literal popularity (itself usually established by sales rather than artistic success). Though obviously faddish and often dismissed as ephemeral, pop music can acquire a cultural resonance that helps define historical periods and events, and it often plays an important role in the personal lives of its consumers, as individuals and especially as members of social groups whose identities are often established and reinforced by shared musical tastes.
Securing its location at the heart of mainstream entertainment, the content of popular song has been dominated by the language and images of heterosexual romance and, increasingly, the direct expression of straight sexuality. Along with Hollywood cinema, the popular music industry has directed heterosexuals on how to speak, feel, and act in their emotional and erotic lives. As music commonly produced for dancing, popular music has also defined forms of socially acceptable physical contact between couples in public spaces. Given this pervasive, explicitly heterosexual context, gay and lesbian musicians seeking a place in popular music often have had to suppress their sexualities or carefully encode them, perhaps for unacknowledged audiences “in the know,” while gay and lesbian listeners have persistently performed creative acts of translation and appropriation to make popular songs speak to and about them. Since the 1970s, the increased prominence and power of gay and lesbian musicians, record producers, and music fans have finally forced the entertainment industry and mainstream audiences to acknowledge—and in some cases even affirm—LGBT contributions to popular music. Increasingly, openly gay and lesbian performers speak to audiences without the evasion that heretofore characterized the history of pop songwriting and performance.
Recovering Gay and Lesbian Popular Musicians
Gays and lesbians since the late twentieth century have wished to recover artistic predecessors in order to construct a previously unwritten history of gay and lesbian musical creativity. However, it remains difficult to identify popular gay or lesbian musicians prior to the twentieth century and the advent of recorded music. Identifying a performer’s sexuality often relies on rumors and hints rather than direct statements or convincing evidence. Frequently an artist’s sexual identity was known within a musical community, but hidden from the public; in many cases, such knowledge only comes to light after the performer’s career or life is over. The assumption has been that public knowledge of an artist’s homosexuality would harm if not destroy that person’s career; while less firmly entrenched than in the past, this fear persists into the twenty-first century, even as artists challenge and disprove it. In any case, the understandable desire to identify past gay and lesbian role models must always be set against the historical and social factors that prevented these performers from openly declaring their sexual identities to a potentially hostile public and (perhaps even more) intolerant music industry.
The dominant popular musical form of the nineteenth century, the blackface minstrel show, portrayed the iconic figure “Zip Coon” as a flamboyant black dandy and often featured comic female impersonation, but such gender play remains overshadowed by minstrelsy’s more pervasive (and now much more offensive) racial masquerade. The first clear acknowledgment of homosexuality in popular music may be on risqué blues records from the 1920s released in the context of the Harlem Renaissance, which supported a vital gay and lesbian subculture. Alongside “dirty blues” celebrating straight copulation, songs about “sissy men” and “bull dykers” (or “bulldaggers”) were recorded by performers who often were applying such terms to themselves. Ma Rainey’s “Prove It On Me Blues” affirms the narrator’s lesbian preferences, and her “Sissy Blues” decries a straying husband’s dalliance with another man. Rainey’s famous (and bisexual) protégée Bessie Smith also sang about “mannish-acting” women and “womanish-acting” men, while the unabashed lesbian Gladys Bentley greeted visitors to Harlem’s Clam House in her trademark tuxedo and top hat. If blues lyrics often ridiculed “sissies” and “B.D. women,” they at least acknowledged the existence of such figures when mainstream culture seemed oblivious to them, and often with bemused tolerance rather than the hateful disgust that would infect homophobic rap lyrics decades later.
At the same time, the culture of early jazz established itself as a much more intolerant fraternity, and only a few figures in the history of jazz, including the vibraphonist Gary Burton and the pianist Dick Voynow, have had the courage to publicly reveal their homosexuality. However, among the crucial figures in jazz history, the gay composer, arranger, and pianist Billy Strayhorn played a fundamental role as Duke Ellington’s intimate collaborator for decades. Among Strayhorn’s enduring compositions are two of the most famous in jazz, “Lush Life” and “Take the A Train.” His example suggests that the history of gay participation in jazz may have been central, but remains obscured. (When jazz musician Billy Tipton was found, upon his death in 1989, to have been a woman who spent her entire professional and personal life as a man, another neglected facet of the unwritten history of jazz was revealed.)
As African American musical cultures, blues and jazz were still relatively marginal forms in the first decades of the twentieth century. In the musical mainstream known as Tin Pan Alley, popular singers of love songs often shifted pronouns so that the same lyrics could be addressed to a male or female listener. Some of the earliest recorded expressions of gay desire are due to singers simply refusing that change: male voices singing Broadway hits like “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” or “What Wouldn’t I Do for That Man?” now raise questions about how such records were heard by their original listeners. Early novelty songs like “Masculine Women, Feminine Men” (with origins in the cross-dressing English musical hall) more brazenly suggested a sexually flexible demimonde to be found in some urban nightclubs. Simultaneously, the late-1920s vogue for “crooning” (the intimate vocal style encouraged by the invention of microphones and radio) led to frequent condemnations of effeminate, “pansy” male singers such as Rudy Vallee and Russ Columbo before more “manly” big band singers displaced them.
Tin Pan Alley was defined by its great songwriters rather than singers. Among the ranks of Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, and George Gershwin, the gay songwriter Cole Porter and the lyricist Lorenz Hart (collaborating with the composer Richard Rodgers) produced some of America’s best-known love songs, which critics now suggest reveal their authors’ jaundiced views of conventional (heterosexual) romantic sentiment through witty or deeply ironic lyrics. For instance, Hart’s “My Funny Valentine” or “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” are among America’s favorite treatments of the torment in adoring another person. Decades later, some of Porter’s enduring tunes, such as “Every Time We Say Goodbye” or “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” revealed their uncanny relevance in the era of AIDS, frequently through performances by gay choirs celebrating Porter’s legacy.
Rock and Roll and Androgyny
The rise of rock and roll as America’s dominant popular music in the late 1950s accompanied a larger shift in social and sexual mores. Exploiting the postwar baby boom, rock and roll established an almost exclusive association of pop music with a youth audience. The transitional period leading to rock’s dominance allowed a few then-closeted gay performers to succeed, including Johnnie Ray, Johnny Mathis, and, most astonishingly, the flamboyant pop-classical pianist Liberace, who in 1959 successfully sued a British newspaper gossip columnist for implying that he was gay. Although one of the chief architects of early rock and roll was the gay and outrageous Little Richard, figures such as Elvis Presley and James Brown established rock as an overwhelmingly male and heterosexual domain, despite the regular contributions of female artists. Nevertheless, by including attractive young males, including Presley, among its main commodities, rock has persistently promoted “pretty boys,” usually adored by young female (and gay) fans and dismissed by the older male musicians, fans, and critics who tend to define the genre (though not always its sales). Among pop’s most successful acts, teen idols from Frankie Avalon in the 1950s to “boy bands” like the Back Street Boys in the 1990s represent a continuous aspect of American pop’s sexual economy that has been repressed by its main critics.
As rock developed in the 1960s its aggressive masculinity seemed to become even more secure, although the social rebellion that rock represented also took the form of androgynous visual and performance styles. Long hair, make-up, “feminine” clothing, and camp mannerisms marked otherwise macho rockers from Mick Jagger to Jimi Hendrix (as well as their many heirs, such as Steven Tyler of the band Aerosmith and Prince). This consciously outrageous style reached its zenith in the 1970s, when British rock stars like Marc Bolan, Gary Glitter, and especially the influential David Bowie presented themselves as “glam” or “glitter” rockers. Along with American counterparts like Alice Cooper, the New York Dolls, Iggy Pop, and the Velvet Underground (featuring Lou Reed), these performers teased audiences and the media with flirtatious suggestions of “deviant” bisexuality. (Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” was perhaps the first pop song depicting a transsexual makeover to reach mainstream radio.) In retrospect, glam style, which in the United States never achieved its British success, simply served rock’s ongoing desire to shock rather than actually to affirm alternative sexualities, and many of these stars even suggested that only “real men” would have the nerve to adopt such blatantly effeminate images. By the time similar styles were perpetuated by inter-changeable heavy metal bands apparently lacking camp sensibilities, any potential subversion of heterosexual norms seemed abandoned. Nevertheless, the freedom to play with conventional gender images encouraged by glam had a lasting impact on major pop stars from Elton John to Boy George, themselves flamboyant fashion plates who, unlike most of their predecessors, would after periods of evasion declare themselves gay.
From Disco to Homocore
While mainstream rock generally ignored the rise of the gay liberation movement in the decade following the 1969 Stonewall riots, the alignment of pop music and a growing pride in gay identity and community came from another direction. In 1975 the South Shore Commission released the progay “Free Man,” and Carl Bean recorded “I Was Born This Way” for Motown in 1977, but the communal soundtrack for urban gay life in the 1970s was provided by the dance-driven music called disco. Disco linked black and Latin musical sources to the affirmation of an expanding gay subculture, factors that played a role in the backlash against disco from mainstream rock fans in a few years. The openly gay artist Sylvester forcefully emphasized the link between disco and gay sexuality with “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” in 1978. Soon disco divas like Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor generated large gay followings, but disco’s most unusual success came in the form of the Village People, a group of singers and dancers chosen to embody gay stereotypes while performing thinly veiled anthems to gay life like the 1978 hits “Y.M.C.A.” and “Macho Man.” While the group’s members seemed to flaunt their sexuality, their brief mainstream popularity suggested that many still did not get the joke.
By the time straight white males decided “disco sucks,” the form had been widely appropriated by heterosexuals and stripped of its gay origins. Rather than disappearing, the music being played in gay clubs was by then mutating into other categories of dance music, including “house,” “techno,” and “hi-NRG,” all more or less derivatives of disco but supporting their own subcultural variants. (House music especially provided the background for critically aware drag performances by black and Hispanic gays, captured in the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning; the postdisco gay underground also produced RuPaul, America’s first superstar African American drag queen.) For a time, however, disco posed a genuine challenge to mainstream rock, in part because its success was determined by disc jockeys and the response of clubgoers rather than radio airplay or established artists. More significantly, disco contributed to the construction of a visible, increasingly political gay community. The decline of disco also coincided with the first wave of deaths from AIDS. Among the many gay musicians who would soon be mourned were Sylvester, the cabaret singer Peter Allen, Liberace, the Village People creator Jacques Morali, Freddie Mercury of the band Queen (wildly popular with straight audiences), and Ricky Wilson of the camp new wave group the B-52s.
The era’s other major challenge to mainstream rock was punk (and its less aggressive variant, new wave). Although they presented themselves as an enraged alternative to macho male rockers and the superbands that filled stadiums, punk’s most prominent figures still tended to reinforce heterosexual norms and aggressive male perspectives, though a few figures, like Wayne County (soon to transform into Jayne County), resisted this pressure. When punk’s initial fury could not be sustained, post-punk bands and performers effected a kind of glam revival, which now included artists who retrieved the old insult “queer” as a badge of honor. British groups like Culture Club (featuring Boy George), Erasure (Andy Bell and Vince Clarke), the Smiths (featuring Morrissey), the Pet Shop Boys (Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe), and Bronski Beat and the Communards (both including singer Jimmy Somerville) all drew upon gay life and tradition, from Oscar Wilde to the recently displaced disco subculture, in their lyrics, concerts, and music videos (the latter a new and influential venue for pop performers).
Some of these musicians annoyed fans by evading personal revelations in interviews when their music seemed to otherwise affirm gay lifestyles. Most often, the eventual coming out of MTV-era stars like Boy George or George Michael (earlier half of the duo Wham!) did not generate the hostile response early performers feared it must. The queer activism motivating some of these acts announced itself even more forcefully through the later merger of militant politics and post-punk aesthetics tagged homocore or queercore. Loud and fast bands like Pansy Division signaled the final rejection of the longstanding stereotype of greater gay affiliation with Broadway than hard rock. If homocore’s impact has remained limited, it at least finally proved that homosexuality and hard rock can coexist.
From Women’s Music to Riot Grrrls
Although powerful female performers from Janis Joplin to Patti Smith have regularly broken into the boy’s club of rock, in the 1970s lesbian musicians, inspired by the separatist ideology of radical feminism, established a culture of women’s (or “womyn’s”) music almost completely independent of the commercial mainstream. Strongly rooted in 1960s folk traditions, the acoustic guitar was the favored instrument for singer-songwriters like Holly Near, Cris Williamson, Teresa Trull, and Alix Dobkin, whose 1973 Lavender Jane Loves Women was the first out lesbian album. Women’s music explicitly confined its audience to the “lesbian nation” served by independent record companies like Olivia, founded in 1973, and through live performances at women-only events like the annual Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, the “lesbian Woodstock.”
Other performers who emerged from this context, such as Phranc and Two Nice Girls, appeared on mainstream labels, while similar artists like Tracy Chapman, Michelle Shocked, Indigo Girls, and especially Melissa Etheridge achieved even wider success within and (sometimes controversially) beyond the lesbian community. Certainly the most popular artist to emerge through lesbian support was the androgynous k.d. lang, who also challenged perhaps the most sexually conservative of all popular genres, country music. Lang attained a large lesbian following before she came out and has moved away from her base in country music, although the rise of gay and lesbian rodeo and country dancing has maintained the queer presence in country she initiated, as has the relatively unique contribution of Doug Stevens and the Outband. Among others, lesbian artists like lang and Etheridge have come out without harming their careers or reducing their popularity.
Like homocore, a younger generation of female musicians challenged the codes of women’s music through their affiliation with the Riot Grrrl movement, which emphasized vocals screamed over loud and fast punk-derived music. Groups like Tribe 8 and Team Dresch explicitly acknowledged women’s music traditions, but Tribe 8 also confronted those traditions when they appeared (amid protests) at the 1994 Michigan Womyn’s Musical Festival. For a short while Riot Grrrls were treated as a cute novelty by the mainstream press, so some participants in the movement in the late 1990s revived the separatist strategies of their older sisters. If women’s music asserted its difference from the mainstream music industry, “postfeminist” musicians have strongly rejected the notion that music produced by and for women should follow any specific style or form.
Listening Queerly: Gay and Lesbian Audiences
While gay and lesbian musicians have been important in the production and performance of pop music, queer audiences have arguably been even more prominent in pop music history. Though the observation lends itself to stereotype, gay men have been identified as passionate fans of opera and show tunes for decades, and in the period before Stonewall, gay men often built affiliations through their shared adoration of singers such as—most famously—Judy Garland. After Stonewall, gay male fans continued to embrace icons such as Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Donna Summer, Cher, and Madonna. This diva worship has certainly included camp appreciation (all have inspired drag performers), but the function of such singers to articulate translatable emotions and to encourage group identification should not be underestimated. Meanwhile, women’s music offered lesbian fans more direct role models and musical representations of their lives and desires in a protective environment. Now lesbian and gay musicians can finally speak directly to their peers openly and through mainstream media. Although explicit homophobia was also more audible in some rock, reggae, and rap recordings at the end of the twentieth century, gay and lesbian popular music was finally, proudly out and unlikely ever to retreat to its sonic closet.