A Gay Old (and New) Time: What do “gay music” and “women’s music” mean now?

Several years ago I made a playlist called A Gay Old Time—a tongue-in-cheek reference to its mix of jubilant pop tunes from openly gay (e.g. k.d. lang, Pet Shop Boys, George Michael) and iconically gay (e.g. Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand) artists. It’s the kind of CD I wanted to play in the car or the office, or at home that might lead a casual listener to say “Those songs are so gay!” in a jocular appreciative manner. I made the playlist as a celebration and nod to the resonance of singers as disparate as Judy Garland and ‘80s British pop group The Communards to multiple generations of LGBTQ listeners.

An old mix CD still resonates today.

An old mix CD still resonates today.

In the early 2000s when I was working on my dissertation on gay and lesbian musicians I read Christopher Nealon’s fantastic book Foundlings which explores gay and lesbian cultural identity before Stonewall and the politicization of LGBTQ identity. A central thread of his argument is the role culture played in bonding queer people before there was a formal movement. In other words the way a man dressed, the language he used, the neighborhoods he socialized in and, most centrally, the culture he consumed signified to other man that he was “family” before people formally “came out” and identified using terms like gay, lesbian, transgender, etc.

Though I was born seven years after Stonewall this relates to my own story in many ways. When I was in kindergarten I knew I was gay, though at the time people used euphemisms that suggested was an identity necessitating discretion. Looking back this moment of personal awareness was less a point of pride or shame than a moment of recognition. Like many kids I suffered the indignities of bullying and teasing for being “different” for part of my childhood and adolescence from peers, and tacitly from the mainstream society. Rather than consulting with friends and family, who did not relate and would not have been helpful, or seeing a therapist I went to college. There, for the first time in my life, I was surrounded by a critical mass of people who were open in their intimate identities and secure in themselves and best of all, accepted. One of the ways I bonded with my queer peers was via taste. At the time thumping club music suing by exuberant divas was “gay” as was music from previous generations including disco, cabaret, and torch songs by classic divas like Judy, Bette, Lena, and Liza, among others. Alongside these female icons who were lionized by generations of gay men previously, there were male performers like Elton John, George Michael, Pet Shop Boys, whose were gay and whose music resonated on a variety of levels for the mainstream and for queer men. Erasure, Jimmy Somerville, Freddy Mercury and Queen, and Sylvester were among the other men who fit this even if I didn’t listen to them a great deal.

The notion of “gay music” is limiting in many respects and overlooks the broad appeal of these artists, but it would be a mistake to discount the ways the music referenced above resonated and still resonates for many queer people for reasons beyond identity politics. For me some of the appeal of the great divas and some of the more expressive male vocalist like Mercury is their willingness to break through the box of male emotional suppression. Their art gives listeners permission to experience their emotional lives in an expressive form uninhibited by social limitations.  Through them your sense of being disrupts gender norms by offering different expressive possibilities. I believe gender is very much a social construct of how to be (as do many gender theorists!) and even the most conventional gender normative straight man desires to transcend expectations and delve into more vulnerable and communications forms of expression than they are allowed. Music is a distinct texture that permits these performances. Many men are scared by the idea of admitting they like music marked as “gay” (e.g. dance music, torchy songs) but secretly find immense freedom and pleasure in it because they get to inhabit themselves differently.

Williamson's 1975 album is a classic in "women's music."

Williamson's 1975 album is a classic in "women's music."

When I was writing my dissertation, which addresses gay and lesbian musicians who began their career prior to gay liberation I explored that life and careers of female musicians like Laura Nyro and Dusty Springfield, and the history of performers associated with the “women’s music circuit like Margie Adams, Cris Williamson, and Holly Near, among others. This also involved exploring the complex relationship younger generations of female musicians have to lesbian feminist politics and the gender politics of the genre which was self-contained, independent and aspired to employ female identified musicians, engineers, promoters, distributors, record label heads, and other personnel.

Many younger women found the music lacking in fun and the politics too rigid and separatist, especially the exclusion of men from the recording process and transwomen from women’s music festivals. These are understandable critiques though we must always look back contextually. Concepts of safety from patriarchy and violence have evolved for many women, and many women who identified with second wave and lesbian feminism have grown more comfortable with the idea that male identified people can be supportive allies. Few social movements endure without evolving and the women of the circuit deserve this critical consideration. Minimally we should appreciate the women’s music circuit as a pioneer of the Do-it-Yourself (DIY) aesthetic and appreciate the space they were trying to create—one that valued women as musical artists before this was fashionable in the mainstream, as well as recognized their unique social struggles.

I remember purchasing Williamson’s beautiful 1975 singer-songwriter album The Changer and the Changed, a classic of women’s music, and thinking it if weren’t for sexism and homophobia she would have been as big commercially as many of her singer-songwriter peers in the ‘70s. Regardless she is “ours” in the sense that she spoke to who many women of the era, and even as a queer man I relate easily to her words and melodies.

Of course queer people listen to more than disco, folk music, torch songs, or showtunes. The world is a big place that belongs to queer people as much as anyone and queer taste is eclectic. It’s only slightly surprising that there are openly gay country singers like Brandi Carlile, Billy Gilman, Steve Grand, Ty Hendon and Chely Wright.  Mainstream culture informs queer lives and the mainstream has been queered. You don’t have to be queer to hear Williamson just open. As a culture we have inched forward in recognizing the fluidity of gender and gradually made may core social institutions more welcoming and inclusive. Though homophobia and genderphobia sadly manifest themselves in many forms on a regular basis for many people they have become less socially acceptable in unexpected places like the military, professional athletics and civil society. Like many of my sistren and brethren I worry that some of the intracultural touchstones that made queerness a poignant open secret for many of us have lost their luster. Rather than relegating them to some less enlightened past I prefer we think of them as part of a cultural continuum. Even though the world changed after Stonewall there was a lot of possibility, but public and clandestine, that occurred before the birth of a formal “named” movement and the threat of exclusion still looms. Though singers like Tyler Glenn, Frank Ocean, Sam Smith, and Chely Wright are “out” now they were not at the beginning of their careers. This is important because it’s a sign that we are not in a post-gay world. Identity still matters, and fears of not being accepted or even of being pigeonholed and narrowcast are surely part of their process and that of other public queer figures. Not to mention the pressure of being viewed as an icon or role model, even if they do not feel confident in their identities or conversant about LGBTQ history and politics.

Johnnie Ray's 1951 LP set a high watermark for emotive male singing at the time. Ray was bisexual and his sexuality was a source of constant media speculation. 

Johnnie Ray's 1951 LP set a high watermark for emotive male singing at the time. Ray was bisexual and his sexuality was a source of constant media speculation. 

This summer I put the finishing touches on my forthcoming book Rocking the Closet: Queer Male Musicians and the Power of the Closet. I conclude the study, which focuses on men from the ‘50s, including Liberace, Johnnie Ray, Little Richard and Johnny Mathis, by interrogating the contemporary assumption that they were closet cases who had to be ambiguous and that today’s musicians are more liberated. The times change but the pressures to confirm to others’ ideas about who and how we’re supposed to behave endures. Their journeys differ than those of Glenn or Ocean, but each case raises questions about how being different can be a source of both intrigue for audiences and frustration for musicians.

Frank Ocean's 2016 album  Blond  is part of recent discussions about 21st century queer music.

Frank Ocean's 2016 album Blond is part of recent discussions about 21st century queer music.

My A Gay Old Time playlist still makes me smile (and dance!) because it’s an inside joke and a public statement, not to mention a really fun listening experience. What I also enjoy about it is that it, and what it represents, feels as alive today as it did many years ago. When these songs play queer people recognize themselves, many straight people relate to the joy within, and maybe everybody dances in parallel or together. No one is giving up who they are but understanding themselves more complexly.