Gay Pop Music
There's more than music in vinyl grooves and the ones and zeroes of CDs. There's also history. Music critic Mark Mobley examines three albums by English musicians that reflect the emergence of the gay civil rights movement.
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin was released in 1973, before Elton John came out of the closet. But few records from the early '70s contain so many references to gay icons, especially Hollywood stars. The title song tells of a young man leaving his sugar daddy behind. "Candle in the Wind" is a tribute to Marilyn Monroe.
Gay songwriter Cole Porter loved New York. So does Joe Jackson, who borrowed a Porter title for the Big Apple study Night and Day (1982, on the charts into 1983). Much of the record is a gender-neutral look at the joys and terrors of living in the city. But two songs point to an interpretation of the album as a snapshot of life in the days when gay pride was rising, and AIDS had not become sadly ubiquitous. "Real Men" criticizes the exclusiveness of the gay community. "A Slow Song" is a plea for a slow-dance number in the thumping frenzy of a disco.
Few acts combine thump and message better than the Pet Shop Boys. Their disc Very (1993) is both gorgeously produced dance music and a catalogue of gay experience, from the opening song about a sexually ambivalent man getting grief from his girlfriend ("Can You Forgive Her?") to older men drinking silently in a bar ("To Speak is a Sin"). "Go West" is a resplendent cover of a song by the Village People, filled out with a hearty men's chorus. "Dreaming of the Queen" is an AIDS lament, in the form of a visit from Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Diana ("and Di replied that there are no more lovers left alive, no one has survived").
Each of these albums had a sequel of sorts. For Elton John, it was a sad occasion –- he performed "Candle in the Wind" at the funeral of his friend Lady Diana. For Joe Jackson, it was Night and Day II, featuring a memorable guest appearance by Marianne Faithfull and an unusual structural trick -– there's a consistent pulse that runs through the entire album. And the Pet Shop Boys released their sequel to Very immediately: Very/Relentless was a limited-edition version of the original with a bonus CD of tracks that tend to be more instrumental.
A final note — each of the three CDs we're examining in this piece has a distinctive design, none more so than Very. The original release was in an opaque, blaze orange, Lego-like jewel case. If you happen to own one, and you've never taken it apart, you're in for a surprise, because there's extra art between the CD tray and the back cover!
-- Mark Mobley
Mark Mobley's Gay Pride Top Nine
Melissa Etheridge: Melissa came out in a big way, announcing her sexual orientation at a Presidential inaguration gala in 1993. She's sold 25 million albums worldwide, and her most recent is Skin (2001).
k.d. lang: k.d. owns and operates one of the most musical voices of her generation. In April, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation gave her and Tony Bennett the "Outstanding Album of the Year" award for their A Wonderful World, a collection of duets.
Stephin Merritt: Meritt has the stage demeanor of Eeyore but the songwriting savvy of Cole Porter. Check out his brilliant 3-CD collection 69 Love Songs with the Magnetic Fields.
Bob Mould: After his pioneering punk and power-pop work in Husker Du and Sugar, Bob Mould has come out and gone electronic. Check out his electronica projects LoudBomb and Blowoff at www.granarymusic.com.
Parachute Club: One of the happiest and most inspiring songs of the early '80s, "Rise Up," came from Canada, courtesy of the band Parachute Club. Their blend of politics and partying can be heard on the import compilation Wild Zone: The Essential Parachute Club.
Marc Shaiman: Whether blaming Canada or celebrating Baltimore, Shaiman has one of the wittiest musical voices in Hollywood and on Broadway today. Check out his scores to the musical Hairspray and the film South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut.
Sleater-Kinney: This trio from Olympia, Washington, plays punk rock with a political edge. Last year's One Beat includes reflections on the 9/11 attacks.
Bessie Smith: The "Empress of the Blues" sang that "A Good Man is Hard to Find" — and she often meant it. Smith had a legendary and lusty love life, becoming involved with both men and women.
Rufus Wainwright: The son of songwriters Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, Wainwright is progeny of a folk music dynasty. His Poses (2001) includes a cover of his father's "One Man Guy."
-- Mark Mobley
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.