The Genuine Synthetic: Pop Stars as LGBT Advocates

by: Patrick Gill

Note: This article was written in ignorance of Lady Gaga’s bisexuality.  The writer did not mean to characterize her as simply a straight ally to the queer community, in turn discounting her place in the community.  As it is stated in the article, the author sees Lady Gaga’s work for her community as commendable, he appreciates learning more about her as a means of seeing how she further benefits fellow queers.  No disrespect was intended, no  identities were meant to be over looked.   This lack of knowledge will no longer be apart of pieces on In Our Words.

Since the beginning of gay time, before Grace Jones was disco, back when Judy walked the boards, gay audiences have started, restarted and sustained hundreds of pop performers career’s.  Give us your Kylies, your Britneys, your Whitneys; we will raise you up to stardom, you Gagas and Madonnas.  The diva to fan relationship has been a staple in many gay male experiences, the fan giving the diva adoration, to be repaid in work that suits their aesthetic, in songs that speak to them and in booty shaking jams. Although this courting gay fans is thus not new, something is different about some of the more recent icons in the making. First, recent years have shown a sharp turn in image and style of some.   Notably, “Milkshake” maven Kelis sprang back on to the American pop scene in 2010 with the dance album FleshTone, a complete musical 180 from her harder-edged roots.  With big spacey beats, heavy thump bass, high crooning and pseudo space-tribal costuming on promotional materials, this album is what drag acts are made of. Kelis stated that the birth of her son, her divorce from her husband, rapper Nas, and turning 30 created this album’s feel.  With more singing than any of her previous albums, FleshTone comes with break up dance ballads, exuberant rhythms and melodrama that you can taste. Now was this just a stab at American commercial viability?  Did she know to go to the gays? That “Acapella,” her ode to childbirth, would be danced out at gay bars across the nation? Possibly.  Likely, it has as much to do with her conscious need to creatively reboot as it does with her producers, as this album is the first pairing of Kelis and Will.I.Am, the current paradigm of commercially friendly pop sensibility (and roboto fun time music). But although this change-up may have seemed like a curveball to her American base, Kelis’ dancier tracks have been thriving in international clubs for some time. Even all the way back in 2003, the sound of her duet with Andre 3000, “Millionaire,” is par for her trajectory to a solid gold bikini clad Statue of Liberty with wolves on chains.  American listeners just saw her as the bossy “Milkshake” lady who used to scream about how much she hated someone, right now.  I like to think she just got fabulous when we weren’t looking. In a similar boat is Michelle Williams, the Chris Kirkpatrick of the Destiny’s Child clan – and my personal favorite.  Since the band’s initial hiatus in 2002, Williams has consistently maintained a successful place in Gospel music but has recently dabbled into pop again.   With the light and fun ready-made club anthem, “We Break the Dawn,” she signaled to gays her re-entrance into mainstream music, but Williams forgot to remind anyone else. Fittingly, both Williams and her song made an appearance in the first season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” – Williams played guest judge and got to sing “We Break the Dawn” during the “Lip Sync for Your Life” segment.  Gospel to gay clubs may be a little strange journey, but in a way, things worked out for Michelle Williams.  Her genuine enthusiasm in interviews and the positive energy inside her music make it believable that she didn’t want to play catch-up with Beyonce or court a gay fan base, she wanted to dance. While she was at it, Williams proved she still has a little Destiny left in her. In the case of Williams and others, a change of style is something an artist usually can’t avoid.  Often these shifts result in growth, maturity and, at times, better music.  Even if my middle school self is still asking our current incarnation of Gwen Stefani what a Hollaback girl even is, I understand that artists want to try new styles and that sometimes these styles happen to be the lifeblood of gay bars. Stars like Kelis and Michelle Williams make me initially wary, throwing up a hidden gay defense mechanism, one signified by the raise of my eyebrow.  And the same goes for Kelly Rowland, Kylie, Rihanna and everyone else who keeps playing with that exuberant puppy dog of a DJ, David Guetta. However, another group I am more than wary of, those who have rediscovered the empowerment ballad. Diana Ross told us it was okay to come out. Gloria Gaynor made it understood we can survive. Madonna said we can express ourselves, while also bringing voguing to national attention. Divas like these give us power, as well as something to get drunk and dance to.  Three contemporary pop stars have been trying to do the same, but their method deserves some scrutiny. I approach Katy Perry like I approach a marshmallow that could be stuffed with razor blades. With me, Perry started off on the wrong foot, by making bisexuality as saccharine as lip smackers. But even worse was her little-heard first single for her 2008 debut album, “One of the Boys,” a mean-spirited travesty of a number, entitled “Ur So Gay.” This purpose of this tune is to mock an effeminate ex and open with the line, “I hope you hang yourself by your H&M scarf.” Perry has stated in interviews that the song wasn’t “meant” to be homophobic; it just sounds that way. What then? It’s supposed to be silly? Whimsical? Sure, the video has smiley faced clouds, so I guess this excuses her assertion that men who are attracted to women can’t be such faggots. (Because she’s not being all binary or anything. Nah.) But let us move onto the anthem that was supposed to be her gay atonement, “Firework.” As a preface, I have to say that some pieces of this song do soar into a lovely pop dance little ditty. And I have seen its message of uplift both make bars filled with people – gay and straight – dance their drinks off and touch the life of someone close to me.  For a friend who went through “chemo,” the song was his source of inspiration, the thing that helped him whether the harsh treatments. But the whole business feels dirty and terrible to me.  Someone who seems to not understand the problems of the gay community is now turning a major profit off of them, as the song was one of the biggest hits of last year.  Part of the reason was because the song was awkwardly labeled as Perry’s response to last October’s surge in LGBTQ teen suicides. This was despite her initial assertion that the song was inspired by the Jack Kerouac book, “On the Road, and the album’s release a month earlier.  This would then mark the actual song writing and recording stages to have taken place many months earlier. I prefer to groan at the idea that she had a prefab answer to a problem most of the country didn’t know we had yet, but a simple dismissal of Katy Perry is not for everyone.  For a more liberal view of her, I will consider her an ally for hire, even though she told Rolling Stone in their profile she can’t be a “full-time tranny.” (Because there’s nothing wrong or problematic with that statement.) Any discussion of recent gay pop icons must also include the Ke$ha-punctuated P!nk – and in particular her songs “Fucking Perfect” and “Raise Your Glass,” rowdy pop ballads that both receive fairly heavy rotation at bars.  “Raise Your Glass” is kind of the perfect sing along song, and “Fucking Perfect” is actually pretty fucking cute. If I were to be told by a dude some of the things that P!nk sings in that song, I would make him dinner and a pie in heels. In a way P-exclamation point-nk does seem to cash in on the misfit-rebel feel many sassy homosexual men have.  She reminds you, in a gruff yet oddly pretty voice, that who you are is amazing and worthy of praise, as self-acceptance and celebration are at the core of her songs. But it isn’t just to homosexuals alone that she extends her love. P!nk is an advocate for the underdogs, like a Detroit Lions fan in any season but this one.  This is the image she has cultivated, the person she more or less is.  She has done this without a direct focus on a gay audience for her entire career.  Even as far back as her first album, Can’t Take Me Home, she sold herself as the tough girl who could hang with the boys. In tracks like “Most Girls,” her lyrics subvert stereotypes of feminine girlishness and asserting that she is woman to take care of herself, a rebuke to the “No Scrubs”-era of pop music where the emphasis was on love as net worth. Here, she asserts, in a message perfectly calibrated for her underdog image, the greatest love you can know is loving yourself.  As it’s a message familiar from our days of Whitney Houston ballads, her scope is greater than gay empowerment. We are one ingredient in her tasty jambalaya of weirdoes. Finally, we have the Gaga and – of course, her worldwide smash, “Born This Way” – a figure I have been suspicious of her since even before her plasticine  hatching.  Elevated to icon before a second album even dropped, I have been giving her quite the stink eye since then – recognizing where her style and music collides and carries away from past movements and scoffing when it’s said that she is unlike any performer before her.  It’s a dick thing to do, but sometimes I get really protective of classic divas like Grace Jones for not getting their contemporary due. As the stink eye was beginning to mellow, her otherwise delightful 2011 interview with Vogue was tarnished with one glaring gaffe: Gaga admitted that she wrote the aforementioned anti-h8 ode in “fucking ten minutes.” So much of the interview is about her unceasing work ethic, her years on tour, her open-heart surgery of a performance that occurs before thousands of fans. But then, here is this, which to me sounds like: “I wrote this song for you, just banged it out in a few minutes.  I know you’ll like it. FUN!” I wanted to clothesline her – I expect more than ten minutes for something that will reach roughly 10 million listeners.  As for the song, it’s alright.  Although Lady Gaga borrows heavily from “Express Yourself ,” Gaga wasn’t being disingenuous when she reminded us that it was a fairly common chord progression in the disco era; Madonna was just the last person to use it. So what makes Lady Gaga an ally then? It’s everything she has done outside of that song.  I mean, the song makes for a great chant during protests; it’s sound byte-able; it’s catchy as all hell; but again, it’s what she does.  Lady Gaga speaks out against bullying, in particular speaking symbolically to the President after the suicide of Jayme Rodermyer.  Gaga donates time and money to HIV/AIDS prevention and LGBT-related charities.  In particular, all proceeds from VIP ticket sales to The Monsters Ball tour went to the National Alliance to End Homelessness and Re*Generation, organizations that fund national homeless and LGBT shelters. So yes, Lady Gaga profits off of the community, but she gives it directly back to the community, in hopes of making a difference in the lives of queer persons.  (SHE DOES WHAT THE TAX SYSTEM IS SUPPOSED TO DO.)  This is why the stink eye has been downgraded to a mildly cautious eye, I also think she is just better to dance to. Readers, it is up to us as a community to recognize what is genuine.  I understand if you see this pop music analysis as being just nit picking – that I should just shut up and dance to whatever beat they’re selling.  And if you have seen me strutting on Halsted, you know I have no aversion to Lady Dance.  But when the song it taken up to mean something more than a dance floor jam, as a community rallying cry, I can’t just listen. I have to think. I have to speak. We are more than stacks of pink dollars. We are worth effort; we are worth respect; we are worth honesty. If you want me to get up, if you want me to support you, let me know you support me, too.

Patrick Gill is the Co-Creator of In Our Words, as well as the Co-Founder and Host of the queer reading series All The Writers I Know.  He is a poet, essayist and short story writer and is working on two novels.  He also frequently performs at open mics in Chicago, including the Paper Machete.  He is an alumnus of DePaul, and currently is developing LGBTQ-centered anti-bullying curricula for the revamped Chicago chapter of GLSEN.  He is a semi-professional word-hustler and a burrito hunter.  His mother thinks everything he is doing is a fun thing to do.

About these ads

2 responses to “The Genuine Synthetic: Pop Stars as LGBT Advocates

    • Bialouge,

      I am sorry to have over-looked the fact of Lady Gaga’s bisexuality, as it is a glaring mistake in my article. It is an unintentional inaccuracy that I hope the added note preceding the piece and my apology might help rectify. Thank you for informing me that she not only stands for me with her music, activism, and philanthropy, but also as a member of the queer community.

      Patrick Gill

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s