Melissa Etheridge

The Advocate's Person of the Year on 1995's battles, triumphs, and controversies



Obviously you are afraid that some of your listeners will stop listening to you if you write a love song that’s about another woman. Isn’t it possible that these listeners have been waiting all along to hear from you about this? Sure. There are enough straight people that know about Julie and me that if I wrote a song called “Julie,” they would totally understand.

So? OK, I realize that. It’s not that it’s never going to happen; it may very well happen. It probably will happen. I just haven’t done it yet.

Are you afraid? After years of doing it one way, it’s going to be awkward for me to do it the way you’re talking about. I will have to do an album just for me. Then if anyone wants to look in on it, they can. But, yes, it will probably be a big release. It will probably be very freeing. [Groans] Oh, you’re right.

Well, it’s not as if you haven’t been addressing this issue at all. Isn’t “I Could Have Been You” about being gay? Yes. That is the basis for the song. It’s about confronting someone who lives with that sort of intolerance. In a way, though, it could also be about racial intolerance.

But you're not black. I know. I know. But you could stick religion in there or anything. I was just writing from my experience.

And you’re gay. Please don’t say, “Oh, no, no. It’s about being a vegetarian.” [Laughing] Well, it could be.

[Laughing] Yes, indeed, it could. OK, you told me in the past that if you were a major romantic lead in film or television—rather than a rock singer—you would think twice about coming out. Do you still feel that way? No. I would change my answer. I think if a person’s work is good, that’s ultimately all that matters. Obviously, had my album not been very good, I would not be where I am today after coming out. There would have been a little flash instead of this great leap. If someone comes out and then makes a bad movie, it’s just not going to work. I don’t believe there is going to be any problem if the work is good.

Do you think the public will believe a lesbian actress kissing a man on-screen? Absolutely. If an actress can go inside herself and pull up that part that’s in love with a man at that moment, then she has done her job. She has done it well, and it will be believed.

And if she’s a closeted lesbian actress, do you think people will pick up on that fact when they see her on-screen? Yes, I do, because her sexuality is all locked up. But I tell you, once you free it up, all of a sudden you are open to so many feelings. I stood there onstage with Bruce Springsteen, looked at him, and thought, This man is just gorgeous!

What was the reaction to the interview you did with Janis Ian for us last spring? People loved it. It was tough being the interviewer.

Finally, some respect. [Laughing] No, I mean because I didn’t want to ask her things that are difficult to answer. I know how it is.

Are you still interested in film acting? Oh, yeah. I have an agent, and I’m reading scripts.

You said that one of your goals was to help out your hometown of Leavenworth, Kan. They contacted you after your father died, but you were still grieving. Has that changed? Oh, yeah! I went to my hometown. They had Melissa Etheridge Day. I went into my old music store, and my old guitar teacher was still there!

Did going home like that stir up things that you wrote about? I remembered the young girl with such huge dreams. I remembered what I was like and what was driving me, and it was painful. It allowed that part of me to come back up, and I wrote from it.

Did you see the roots of your nice-girl personality back there? [Laughing] Oh, yeah. A lot of that came from my dad. When he first saw me perform, he said, “You should always thank your audience.”

For a big star, you are very caretaking of other people. Everybody notices this. How many stars have you seen come and go away quickly because they have nasty attitudes? My dad taught me differently. I could see him treat other people in a kind way, and when I tried it, it worked.

I heard that you called your new album Your Little Secret because a gay fan hassled you for having gotten so big and commercial. She said, “I can see you’re not our little secret anymore.” To me that just says that it’s not about my music. It’s about being into unknown music. I hope that people will allow me to grow and make the music that is in me, no matter how many people are listening to it.

If people are overidentifying with you and you suddenly go off in unexpected directions, it’s scary for them. Oh, I know! Some people didn’t like the way I looked on my third album: a little too blond, a little too pretty. What’s up with that? I was feeling blond and pretty!

That must have made you angry. Is expressing your anger still your biggest personal struggle? Oh, yeah. I was not shown as a child how to be angry, my parents kept their anger in, so I never grew up with examples of how to do that. I always thought, Well, that must mean that if I get angry, the world ends. I got in trouble for saying in my last Advocate cover story that I believed that my father kept his anger in and that it led to his cancer.

People wrote to you about that? Yeah, I got a letter saying that people were tired of hearing people blame cancer on the victim. It is my belief, that’s all. Julie still doesn’t believe that I have ever gotten really angry around her, because it seems like nothing to her. But to me it’s scary, walls-falling-down horrible.

Do you think any of your rage is released in your music? Absolutely. I started doing music as a child, so I can put my feelings into words much better in a song than I can in speaking to someone. So, yes, I get onstage, and I scream the scream. I am released every night.

Do you ever worry: If I get healthy I’ll have nothing to write about? In my opinion, pain never goes away. There is so much light and dark inside of me that I do not fear I will become too happy to write. I might not write, “There is someone sleeping with the person I love.” That’s obviously not as big a part of my life anymore as I go into my seventh year in my relationship with Julie.

When the Advocate cover story you and Julie did in 1994 came out, I heard you thought it was too sexy. No, I knew the angle was always going to be about a sexy lesbian couple—“dangerous lesbians.” The only thing I regretted doing was quoting that thing about lesbian women being the highest and heterosexual men being the lowest on the evolutionary scale. All my straight male friends were like, “Excuse me!” But, yes, I expected the sexy stuff.

Traveling the world last year, did you realize how important it was to have been a part of something that showed a sexy lesbian couple to the world? Oh, yeah! I am still signing the magazine! They save them and wait for me to come to their towns.

I’ve heard people object to the sexiness you and Julie showed both in the Advocate story and in the PETA ad. They felt it would be misused by straight men—the old “Ooh, two girls together!” But what’s the answer? To hide lesbian sexuality from the world? No! It is like the age-old argument about pornography in general. We have to say, “Yes, this is sexual too.” That’s why a lot of feminists actually embrace pornography, because in that way you free the whole machine.

Have you ever heard the expression “lesbian bed death”? Yes. [Pause, then uprorious laughter] It is untrue. It’s a mean myth! Where did that awful idea come from?

That awful idea comes from the theory that when lovers get to know each other well, they become like best friends or relatives and they stop desiring each other. Oh, no, this is not my experience! Why, just last night…! We’re learning things all the time. It is like an adventure. After seven years it’s better than ever. Look, I know that, sexually, you have dynamics in a relationship. There will be times when I am in more of a crisis professionally, or maybe I’m dealing with something with my family—anything where you have to close down. You can’t really open up physically. But just as that comes, it goes away, and on with the healthy sexual relationship!

Has your relationship with your fans changed because you’re a part of a solid couple? Yes, but I think that change is a part of my whole maturing. I think what I was looking for in my 20s is different from what I’m looking for in my 30s. Yes, there was a difference when I was available—meaning emotionally and physically—when I was looking, searching. This only lasted for about a year into my first record, because I started realizing that it wasn’t very healthy; one can’t spread oneself so thin. I’m glad I’m not still there. Now I am discovering the joys of believing in one person and not trying to gather it all from a host of others. I don’t think it takes anything away from the fans. I put out as much energy onstage as I ever did. It’s just that that’s as far as it goes.

Melissa, your manager said that ever since we printed the words "A bra hits Melissa Etheridge in the face" at the beginning of your last cover story, the bras have been flying hard and wild at your shows. Yes, it’s crazy.

Well, what do you want thrown at you? My band was suggesting maybe diamonds! Or what about annuities? It’s just that the bra thing is hard on me. During one show I watched this woman take her bra off right in front of me. I kept shaking my head, screaming, “Don’t do that! Don’t do that!” The security guard was no help. He moved so that she could throw it at me. Now they’re actually bringing extra bras to my shows; they are not just wearing them. I guess soon they’ll be selling bra launchers for the people in the back rows.

Tags: Commentary