As I was sitting in my car, listening to the local Classic Rock station on my bum radio, I heard Elton John singing about some heterosexual love affair. I understand that during his early years it was not an acceptable move to “come out” and integrate his sexual orientation into the emotions portrayed in his music, however hearing one of John’s song got me thinking about how this practice continues for gay musicians even as we move into 2013. This is especially alarming considering in every other entertainment medium-i.e. Books, Movies, Television, Etc.- the appreciation of the Lesbian/Gay/ Bi-Sexual/Transgender perspective is perpetuated by either having a niche, yet widely promoted platform (such as television’s LOGO network) or portraying these relationships within the framework of a more collaborative mainstream media piece. Because of this, I am examining the current cultural perceptions of LGBT performers and their songs as well as why a medium that is based around personal/emotional experiences creates an inability to accurately interpretate those of this community.
First of all, after doing research on LGBT performers for this article, I couldn’t find very many points of reference. The lists of artists identified with each sexual orientation were short, and many included musicians simply speculated to be part of these communities; which right off the bat told me that there is a strong battle to find a creative/ successful LGBT musical outlet. This is more obvious when looking into some strongly outted gay/lesbian performers, such as Elton John and Melissa Etheridge, whose music was/is avidly related to the hetero-community even after revealing their sexual orientation. One of Etheridge’s songs, “Come to my Window”, was very passionate and had a personal interpretation of love/ struggle that should have been analyzed in terms of her past emotional lesbian relationships. However, due to the ambiguous nature of her lyrics, the song’s message is continually perpetuated by straight women who interpret it within the hetero-romantic theme of “Romeo and Juliet” by imagining male lovers calling up to their windows, rather than seeing it as an essential/secretive situation that had to be enacted for Etheridge to spend time with her partner. Or in a more current era, recently revealed gay R&B performer, Frank Ocean, has more creative freedom and avidly attempts to use this sensual-based music genre to purposely represent the intimate emotions and physical attractions felt by gay men, however his work is still not interpreted in this manner! Even though he has enacted an overall musical portrayal of the tenderness of male love, people still understand it in terms of a heterosexual love affair because it does not explicitly mention his sexual orientation or make any concrete announcements of the song’s intentions. Therefore, LGBT performers who attempt to use music as a form of emotional release/ understanding often become even more constrained by their feelings as they are unable to express them successfully with this artform.
Now, I know you are probably screaming at me stating there were LGBT performers who accurately integrated their sexual orientation into their musical themes; however, their prognosis for sustained success in the wider music industry was not very strong. Artists such as RuPaul and Boy George strongly and unquestionably discussed their sexual orientation in the form of song, and they did claim entertainment power, but not in the main stream musical environment they had hoped. RuPaul’s gay-charged anthems did help her rise to fame as one of the most sought-after Drag Queens in the world, but they also prevented her music, and the message she wanted to represent through these songs, from being released in the larger entertainment world. For Boy George, before announcing his sexuality, his gimmicky and highly frivolous songs, such as “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” and “Karma Chameleon”, were seen as a cheesy sentimental ballads/ a fun dance songs that were strongly acclaimed at all karaoke nights, weddings, or other mainstream good-time-having festivities. However, after “coming out”, these lyrical works are only used as laughable moments in music’s history or as themes for low-grade gay dance club performances, both of which completely disintegrate his original artistic intentions. Even more alarming than these performers fate, is the fact that overtly LGBT musical works that make it in the mainstream, such as Katy Perry’s, “I Kissed a Girl”, and Lady Gaga’s various lesbian/bi-sexual music video compositions, still have their messages shoved under the rug mainly because the media scales these themes as an artistic experiment within their more pronounced/accepted hetero personals. So, even when artists are able to represent their explicit LGBT support in the expansive musical world, the true understanding and acceptance of this community’s point-of-view is still stalled.
Although I have no concrete idea as to why there are these automatic interpretations/ classifications of LGBT music, I believe there are a few key contributors to these reactions. One of my understandings is that because music is so pervasive-it forcibly comes to people in their cars, while shopping in stores, eating in restaurants, or at dance clubs- the still largely homophobic population uses coping methods to align these themes in terms of hetero-sexuality to control the permeation of these counter messages in their everyday lives/behaviors. Another mechanism that the hetero-community might utilize to block LGBT portrayal in the musical world is separating the artist/his or her songs from the bigger lyrical market. Identifying these works in a pigeonholed and non-relevant manner to the mainstream, will instantly reduce listeners attempts to give the music a try because they know the main purpose of music, relatability, is not there. Witnessing this prevalent disregard of LGBT themes, in one of the most frequently used entertainment vessels, is not only a sad reminder of how little we have grown in the public representation of this community, but the fact that no one has really investigated/sought to change theses ideas, is even more disturbing.