A Walk on the Queer Side
How music by gay artists influenced and (on occasion) dominated pop history
Before unpacking this particular throughline, let’s be clear why I am using the term “queer” instead of a bunch of initials strung together. There are so many gender variants, sexual expressions and orientations that I worry about leaving someone out. So, for now, “queer” fits the bill, especially since it remains transgressive for the straight community.
After all, for a lot of the queer presence in pop music, straight people totally missed the memo unless the expression of sexual identity or gender variants was so overt it was like a 2-by-4 to the head. From Little Richard to sissy bounce, we’ve been around. Not all of the music was above ground. Blues singer Charles R. Brown sang “Stanley,” a queer prison love song. Brown was out and proud. He even toured with Bonnie Raitt in the early 90s. But those kinds of songs were not on his usual set list.
According to queermusicheritage.com, there is a subculture of gay men who cover girl group songs from the 60s, including the despicable “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss).” Done by a queer male artist now, this could be seen as a playful deconstruction of the stereotypical gay man as needy and “feminine.” Or is it a joyous shout-out to sub-dom play? Clearly, the sexual fetish world isn’t limited to queerdom, but it does find a lot of expression there. For lesbians, there’s an entire subset of “wrong bathroom” tunes for the bois (male drag, to keep it simple) among us.
I’m going to stick to the rock ‘n’ roll era, which parallels very nicely with the stirrings of queer liberation. The Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis, two early queer organizations, were formed in the 1950s. This was right around the time that jump blues was giving birth to what came to be known as rock ‘n’ roll (the sexual term that comes from blues). One of the ways that police harassment of the queer community expressed itself was raiding bars where people could meet to drink and dance together. Bars in New York explicitly prohibited same-sex dancing, which is part of what led to the riots at Stonewall. As more white kids started listening to Little Richard and Chuck Berry, that same fear of dancing—which leads to you know what—spread to white parents.
Could any performer have been more queer than Little Richard?
Between the makeup, the pompadour and the over-the-top blend of camp and drag, he was operating at a frequency that queer fans could relate to even if they couldn’t say it out loud. The original lyrics of “Tutti Frutti” were so explicit (references to anal sex and such) that they had to be scrubbed down to nonsense. Also, “fruity” was common slang to refer to queer men at the time.
We now know that Lesley Gore was queer, which puts her album of “crying songs” (“It’s My Party,” “Judy’s Turn to Cry”) in a whole new light. Could she have been crying because she couldn’t express her sexuality? After all, a lot of the songs were about losing boys to other girls. Could she have crying for the loss of her girlfriend to the straight world? Perhaps. Gore is also responsible for one of the earliest expression of feminism in pop, “You Don’t Own Me.”
The 60s: Cloistered in the Closet
As we move into the 60s before Stonewall, queer music goes underground. The closest you might come to a queer anthem is the Beatles’ “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.” Their manager, Brian Epstein, was queer so that adds some layers of meaning.
The Tornados’ had a No. 1 hit in 1962 with “Telstar.” After that, their career went south in a hurry. They recorded their last single, “Is That A Ship I Hear?” with producer Joe Meek at the helm. More interesting was the B-side, “Do You Come Here Often,” which was riven with campy quips (“See you ‘round the ‘Dilly / Not if I see you first, you won’t”). The record was produced by Meek on the heels of his arrest for cottaging (aka tearoom sex) in 1963. This record was put out by EMI, probably the biggest label in the U.K. How it got past them is another delicious exercise in straight people not getting it. Jon Savage detailed Meek’s role in this record and other queer music for his CD compilation, From the Closet to the Charts: Queer Music 1961–1978. He also cites the Kinks’ “See My Friends” as being obliquely queer. Given that this is the same band that released “Lola” in 1970, I’d say it’s a good bet.
Savage also uncovered a California-based gay label called Camp, which used the slogan, “wilder, madder and gayer than a Beatles’ hairdo!” The artists remain anonymous, but the songs about cruising (and getting arrested by a plainclothes cop) and the YMCA showers were well ahead of their time. Savage noted in an interview with the Guardian that there must have been a moneyed audience for these records or they wouldn’t have been made.
Around the same time, there were records by the drag queen Jose that were sold to straights as “party records.” “These naughty subjects are tickling America’s funnybone!” the jacket copy states. “[Here’s] a fantastically funny insight into the lives of ‘those fellows’.” Unlike the Camp label offerings, Jose was a pioneer in that his music was being marketed to a straight audience unapologetically, albeit pruriently.
The 70s: Glitter and Be Gay
Post-Stonewall, queer was everywhere. David Bowie had come out as bisexual (as did Elton John before identifying as gay much later on). Music about sexual fluidity was out and about. Glam rock was a queer paradise of sorts. Watching Mick Ronson and Bowie frolic onstage gave hope to every queer kid in the world. John’s flamboyancy was also of great comfort. Marc Bolan of T. Rex is still the subject of s speculation (a friend who worked at Creem remembers him coming on to just about everyone when he came through Detroit, but this clearly isn’t definitive). But hearing “Get It On (Bang A Gong),” Sweet (“Ballroom Blitz,” “Fox On The Run”) and the Kinks’ (“Lola”) on Top 40 radio also felt like a validation.
Queerphobia was still rampant. But being queer in music was lit up by a lavender spotlight. Even if you couldn’t be out at home, school or work, there were acceptable outlets for queer behavior such as midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which was originally released in 1975.
The women’s music movement also began in the 70s. Fanny was the third all-female rock band signed to a major label, but arguably the best. There were other queer female performers—folk singers Holly Near and Ferron come to mind—but Fanny had the aggressive sexual energy that rock demands. That felt delicious to a lot of queer girls out there. No matter what musical form it took, queer expression was moving beyond the community. Without Fanny, there’s no Joan Jett.
Disco was multiracial and pansexual in a way that subsequent iterations of dance music would throw away with both hands. The best-known queer artist of this era was Sylvester, who had a voice like no other.
“Do You Wanna Funk” and “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” are signature disco songs. The later can also be connected to the ball scene after a fashion—“realness” is significant there. The Village People, although loaded with queer signifiers in their songs “YMCA” and “In the Navy,” functioned more as the straight-people friendly intro to queer disco culture.
I also have to thank Savage for finding two R&B songs from the early 70s that were decidedly pro-queer. Harrison Kennedy of Chairmen of the Board delivers “Closet Queen.” The post-Smokey Robinson Miracles offer “Ain’t Nobody Straight in L.A.” They sing that “most everyone is AC-DC” and go on to say that the finest women are found in gay bars. One concerned Miracle asks, “Hey, but dig, how you know they women?”
“Gay people are nice people too, man!” is the surprisingly enlightened response. It’s impossible to imagine a mainstream R&B act today recording these songs. That is, if there were any mainstream R&B acts now.
We’re Here. We’re Queer. We’re Musical.
Let’s continue down the pink brick road. The punk era was a queer stronghold as well. After all, “punk” meant queer. The New York Dolls wore tatty drag and radiated sexual ambivalence as they rocked. A lot of the English punk signifiers—sexual subculture clothing, songs like X-Ray Spex’s “Oh Bondage Up Yours!”—were very queer. The Tom Robinson Band put out the song, “Sing If You’re Glad to be Gay.” Punk rock was another example of how queerness found a straight audience that might not even have known it was there.
Most punk bands didn’t necessarily deal with queer subject matter. But the environment was rich with oblique references and empowerment. There were all-female bands like The Slits and Delta 5 . There was Rough Trade, a label that took its name from an element of queer cruising culture. The androgyny of glam rock kept on as well. As punk transitioned into post-punk, queerness moved even further to the foreground. In short, makeup for everyone. Culture Club, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Bronski Beat (whose Jimmy Somerville might be able to match Sylvester note-for-note) were among those who soared. The Smiths, led by Morrissey (who has never confirmed or denied his queerness), were among the second generation of post-punk bands with a queer sensibility. It’s a nice bonus that Johnny Marr traced his guitar style to Bolan.
So was U.S. punk as queer as its British cohorts? Quite frankly, the States were always more butch than the U.K. The Ramones were about as sullen and straight as it gets. The Velvet Underground and, later, Lou Reed on his own, hinted at all sorts of pansexual mysteries. Beyond that, outside of disco, there wasn’t much going on as the 70s dissolved into the 80s.
During this time, Queen was well on its way to becoming one of the biggest bands on the planet. For those of us who are queer, Freddie Mercury was so queer he could be seen from space. As the band progressed, his personal style went from Zandra Rhodes to Folsom Street Fair leather boy. Mercury didn’t officially come out until the day before he died from AIDS in 1991.
I’d have to say he was living in a glass closet. Some straight guys—real-life versions of the Wayne’s World sorts—were in deep denial. “I couldn’t believe he was gay,” said one of my old co-workers on the sports copy desk. This, followed an assertion by the rest of the lads that just about all female athletes were lesbians—except the good-looking ones. I decided not to pursue the matter.
In the late 80s, Melissa Etheridge became a star. No one noticed the lack of specific pronouns in her love songs. Some of us did. In post-punk America, performers like Gary Floyd of the Dicks (also Sister Double Happiness, who were signed to a major label for a hot minute), lesbian band Tribe 8 and Pansy Division were keeping it queer on various tiny independent labels. There was of course Prince, who presented himself as sexually ambiguous early in his career.
The 2000s and Beyond
As the aughts arrive and the traditional music business model begins to crumble, more artists are out. For some who came out—Bob Mould of Husker Du and Doug Pinnick of King’s X—it was an opportunity for reinvention. For those who were never closeted—Stephen Merritt of Magnetic Fields, Fischerspooner, the Gossip, Scissor Sisters—there are few boundaries. These performers do not have the Damoclean sword of AIDS hanging over them as performers in the 80s did.
It’s worth noting that all of the aforementioned (except for Pinnick) are white guys in the rock-pop world. Clay Aiken and Adam Lambert, queer American Idol alums, also inhabit that territory. Lambert even toured with the surviving members of Queen.
So what happens if you’re black and queer? Black and queer and cleave to hip-hop? I don’t buy the notion that blacks are more queerphobic than whites. Hip-hop has demonstrated above-average queerphobia not limited to black practitioners. Eminem has some serious issues with trans people. We could get off on a whole tangent about racism and sexism in queerdom. But that’s another discussion entirely.
Frank Ocean may have done the most to bring queerness to hip-hop. In 2013, he released Channel Orange, a record about his love for a man. Ocean is the first voice you hear on Kanye West’s Watch the Throne, so he’s not an underground artist by any stretch.
At the same time, something queer was up in hip-hop that could only have happened in New Orleans. It’s the most sex- and gender-fluid city in the United States, although San Franciscans would disagree. You’ve heard bounce music—fast beats, call-and-response lyrics—from Lil Wayne and Juvenile. Now imagine it coming from the queer community. The performers don’t like the term “sissy bounce,” but the name has stuck. Katey Red even had her tune, “So Much Drama,” featured in the HBO series Treme. Big Freda recently released a record and is touring the world. He cites the post-Katrina diaspora as one reason bounce spread.
As for additional queer inroads into hip-hop, Talib Kweli said it best when interviewed by Mother Jones: “We need a gay rapper that’s better than everybody.”
Some candidates include Azealia Banks, Le1f, Angel Haze and Zebra Katz. Banks put out “212,” an ubiquitous single, then broke from her label and started dissing every female rapper in range (Nicki Minaj and Iggy Azalea, to name two). The others are on the verge of breakout.
However, it would be mistake to view this improving landscape as a sign that all the heavy lifting has been done regarding being queer, here and musical. It’s worth noting that when Queerty, the widely-read queer website, listed its Top 10 rappers, the list was segregated by gender. Given how life is becoming fluid in terms of gender identity and sexual expression, it just goes to show you some things never change.