Michaela Jae Rodriguez
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From Liberace to Sam Smith, The Evolution of Gay Music

From Liberace To Sam Smith X633 0

Back in February, the Grammy Awards telecast proved that performers could be out, proud, and honored at the same time. On the show, out country singer (and nominee) Brandy Clark sang the vulnerable ballad “Hold My Hand,” resulting in no controversy whatsoever. And the night’s big winner was openly gay Sam Smith, whose remarks at the podium addressed the great results he got when he decided to be himself (which clearly included his open sexuality). Smith also took the time to wryly express gratitude to the guy he fell in love with en route to creating his victorious music. “Thank you so much for breaking my heart,” deadpanned the plaintive British singer, “because you got me four Grammys!”

Finally, the waters had been tested enough that much of the public is ready to accept love songs — or any songs — from out gay artists, and the money people have duly noted that. Traditionally, singing teen idols were androgynous and sexually ambiguous to not threaten their audiences, but when Lance Bass came out in 2006 — even though ’NSYNC was kaput at that point — it sent the message that your androgynous idol might like boys, just like you do. And now, with Smith following on the heels of artists like Bass, it seems like musicians can come out on the top and even stay there, regardless of pronouns. 

The music biz has caught up with theater and TV, whose awards shows have certainly been gay-friendly happenings, with lots of sexual honesty to match the people who comprise those worlds. And music is ahead of Hollywood, where many actors are afraid to take the step out of the closet, often for fear of career ramifications. I guess the thinking is that singing songs is different from playing roles; music stars are creating a mood, not enacting specific characters on a large screen, and can take more chances with personal revelations.

But music’s sense of sexual freedom wasn’t always the case. The public didn’t want to hear the G word even when it was ringing in every syllable through capital-S subtext. In 1959, flamboyant pianist-showman Liberace sued a British tabloid that had the audacity to imply that the twinkly queen was gay. Even more shockingly, he won! In the 1970s, David Bowie and Elton John toyed with bisexual admissions, but Bowie then took his statement back and Elton married a woman in 1984 before finally dropping the charade and becoming a gay trailblazer. 

In the disco era, camouflage and innuendo trumped bold revelations. The out Sylvester was a blazing pioneer, but he wasn’t as commercially successful as the Village People, an assortment of gay guys spoofing West Village–style macho stereotypes while never using the word gay. A lot of the public went along with the tease, as if the fun and games alluded to in “YMCA” were simply Frisbee catches and tiddlywinks. 

Things were a little looser in the new-wave ’80s, when candy-colored videos allowed for extravagant expressions of personality. But despite his elaborate semi-drag outfits and songs inspired by his heartbreaking romance with band member Jon Moss, Culture Club lead singer Boy George didn’t come out until 1995, way after Culture Club’s heyday. Once he did so, he lashed out at fellow Brit pop star George Michael for not joining him in the wide open spaces. Michael ended up being outed as a result of an unfortunate 1998 incident whereby he was caught soliciting gay sex in the restroom of Beverly Hills’ Will Rogers Memorial Park. And the truth is, his U.S. sales took a big dip into the toilet afterwards.

Meanwhile, lesbians were being more forthcoming, with no adverse effect on their careers whatsoever. The old trope is that straight men reputedly get off on lesbians, after all; that’s why you saw so many female-on-female smooches on TV before you caught any male ones. The same trajectory went for music. In 1992 and ’93, powerhouse singers k.d. lang and Melissa Etheridge, respectively, came out and kept going, more credible than ever. But in the male arena, soul singer extraordinaire Luther Vandross was still cowering. Vandross’s audience was largely female, swooning over his shimmery voice and romantic musical gestures. He wasn’t going to rock the boat and take a chance with openness — it just wasn’t time for that kind of breakthrough, apparently. 

In the late ’90s and aughts, out lesbian singers kept emerging, like Beth Ditto, a force of nature who led the group The Gossip (which then became just Gossip) with an unabashed lack of self-consciousness. And in time, gay male love was able to actually speak its name on a more regular basis. Ex–American Idol star Clay Aiken came out in 2008 after years of speculation and murmurs, and Adam Lambert bolted out much faster, in ’09, to prove that the personal-revelation pace was quickening by the minute. But the truth was that acts like Gossip and the Scissor Sisters never became huge U.S. commercial entities, and Aiken was a bit post-peak, careerwise. Still, their frankness was something to sing about and helped moved things forward.

In hip-hop, things were still largely behind closed doors, though country was starting to get used to two-stepping through some rainbow-colored sawdust. In 2010, an established star, Chely Wright, landed the cover of People by declaring that she likes women. And three years later, Steve Grand emerged as a hunky, country-flavored singer making a splash on YouTube. (At the time, Chely told me how brave she felt Grand was, explaining, “This is uncharted territory. I came out after having been in the business for years. He’s trying to get into the business.”)

And gay visibility continued to rise, along with rights, making for a new landscape of greater acceptance. As possibilities grew, gay themes were becoming so prevalent that they weren’t only being sung about by gays. Last year, Hozier scored with “Take Me to Church,” a song taking aim at religious bigotries, and he performed it on the same Grammys that featured Brandy Clark and Sam Smith. He was following in the noble tradition of Macklemore, Ryan Lewis, and out lesbian Mary Lambert (no relation to Adam), whose “Same Love” rocked the previous Grammys in a big same-sex-marriage extravaganza.

And that takes us to today, when the public is not only OK with the fact that Sam Smith is singing about a guy, they adore it. Yes, there are still some hating holdouts out there, but there will always be hating holdouts about everything — not just sexuality, but looks, age, and race — and the smart money has learned that catering to them through silence and trepidation is cowardly, and besides, it doesn’t pay off, financially. The music biz — like any other business — is based on money, and now that out artists are ringing registers with work that’s also critically acclaimed, the floodgates are open, along with the closets. Sir Elton John, who paved the way, can finally join his musical progeny in a brave new world that reflects the fact that the acoustics are so much better once that door has been unlocked.

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