Sunday, July 14, 2013

Words and music

Music is important to us all. It provides the soundtrack to our lives, as the late Dick Clark put it. But what about when that soundtrack doesn’t entirely match someone’s life, like because he's gay?

I recently published a post about “All-American Boy”, a song by Steve Grand, the openly gay Internet sensation. In that post, I talked about a specific aspect to the song to which I could relate—I was having my life and my reality reflected in that pop song. This led Roger Green to ask in the comments:
“You may have discussed this – though I don't recall – but I was interested in what you thought of pop songs with a heterosexual romance when you were growing up. Or the notion of redoing some of them now with a different POV.”
It’s something that I haven’t talked about directly before, as far as I can tell, and I checked my posts tagged “Music” to find out. Truth is, I don’t think it ever occurred to me to talk about it. So, I will now:

When I was a small child, there was no such thing as an openly gay artist. The first person I ever heard of who wasn’t assumed to be 100% straight was David Bowie who declared he was bisexual, about the same time Elton John did so, too. I was a teenager by then.

It was another decade before I started hearing about openly LGBT pop music artists, though at first they were outside the mainstream. Their numbers slowly increased and they did eventually enter the mainstream.

What this means is that until the 1980/90s, I had no singers with whom I could personally identify. As an adult, this didn’t matter, but as a kid, it would’ve been helpful. Heterosexual youth saw their reality reflected on the radio or on “American Bandstand” or “Soul Train”, but I couldn’t. I had to insert my reality into their songs—what I call "filling in the blanks".

Fortunately, much of pop music is “universal”, without specific pronouns or references to gender. When a love song is written in the second person—without any specific reference to gender—it’s fairly easy to imagine it’s a song about a same-gender romance. An example of this is “I Think We’re Alone Now” by Tommy James and the Shondells (1967, still often on the radio in the early 1970s), which I identified with specifically because of these lyrics [Listen]:
Look at the way
We gotta hide what we're doin'
'cause what would they say
If they ever knew…
To a closeted kid, that spoke to me in a way it was probably never meant to.

Songs by female singers gave me a chance to sing along without having to change the pronouns—though I’m not sure that as a kid I thought much about that, perceiving myself as a sort of backing singer, not the lead. In any event, in my childhood years it was the only way to identify with a song about a relationship with a man—particularly because I never dreamed that one day it would be possible to marry another man.

Of course, I also listened to songs by men, but when they sang about women, more often than not I felt emotionally disconnected from the song because I couldn’t relate.

These days, with so many out LGBT singers, it’s easy enough to find songs specifically written from a gay perspective, like “All-American Boy”. But there are times when old pop songs are sung by gay artists without changing pronouns. For example, Erasure recorded ABBA’s “Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight)” [Watch/Listen] live for Two Ring Circus (1987), and among more romantic songs, George Michael sang “My Baby Just Cares For Me” [Listen] on Songs From The Last Century (1999). Also, and related, heterosexual pop singers now also sing deliberately inclusive songs.

For romantic songs in particular, I prefer songs written from a gay perspective, but when gay artists sing old songs, I get annoyed if they use the pronouns for the opposite gender. “Singing in the closet”, I’ve been known to dismissively call that. Of course, as it was in my youth, a gay artist can always sing “universal” songs if they don’t want to sing appropriate pronouns. This can still be very gay: The video of Matt Alber's “End of the World” is definitely gay without lyrics talking about another man.

The thing about all this that makes me really happy is that gay kids growing up now can hear their hearts and dreams reflected from their radio or iPod. It’s very different from the world in which I grew up. Still, I get to enjoy the great new—and inclusive—pop music being produced these days. The reality they sing about is mine, too, after all—just with a few more years added on.

One more thing I realised as I was putting this post together: Pop music really matters to me, and it always has. But maybe it matters to me just a little bit more now.

No comments: