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Is There Such A Thing As Gay Music?

And do these musical stereotypes mean anything anymore?…
 
On a recent trip to Mexico City, I met a composer of experimental music, who happens to be straight. His own work is noisy, abrasive stuff. Shaking his head and heaving the dejected sigh of someone lamenting a lost cause, he told me: “Gay people just like music that’s trashy or poshy.”
 
I think his “poshy” comes from the stereotype of old Sweater Queens swooning to opera. Think of Tom Hanks as a dying gay man in Philadelphia, giving a befuddled Denzel Washington his Idiot’s Guide breakdown of Maria Callas’s “La Mamma Morta.” Which is to say: fussy, high-brow diva worship.
 
But then, divas also play a role in the trashy side of the equation: Madonna’s earliest persona was slutty street urchin; Donna Summers made her name in a genre, disco, that was considered utterly disposable; and Lady Gaga’s opening salvo, “Just Dance,” was about someone too drunk to even know what club she was in. Kesha, Nicky Manaj, Britney—all of them are unapologetically vulgar and/or hypersexualized, while defiantly intent on being worshipped anyway.
 
But do these stereotypes mean anything anymore? Millennials, raised on playlists and streaming services, don’t have to differentiate between top-40 music and the music that, in earlier times, you had to spend months tracking down after hearing it once in a stranger’s bedroom. So their tastes rarely conform to expectations. As well, younger LGBT people have much less need to use music as a discreet “Friends of Dorothy” code for avoiding homophobes and making new friends. When I was first figuring out my sexuality, there was something delightful about listing Pet Shop Boys as one of my favourite bands (this was before singer Neil Tennant came out, so they were “gay” based merely on their aesthetic of ironic melancholy), and watching the other person’s face to see whether he got it or not. But who’d want to go back to the dark ages where you could get beat up for reflexively stink-eying Mötley Crüe?
 
I called Avril Hensen, a cultural sociologist and a consultant for cultural enterprises in the Netherlands, who has written an academic paper on the role of sexual orientation in musical preferences. In summary, gay men, straight women and lesbians were more likely than straight men to like female artists. Lesbians stood out, not surprisingly, in their gravitation towards what Hensen calls “influential lesbian musicians,” like Dusty Springfield, k.d. lang and Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls. “But many people tell me I have the taste of a gay man, which is totally a useless thing to say, I suppose,” says Hensen. “I totally embrace camp culture and diva culture, and so does my girlfriend.” In her study, respondents with high scores on “masculinity” stood out in having the lowest appreciation scores for “highbrow genres;” butch and posh still don’t mix.
 
Hensen’s research also found that danceable music, particularly 1980s/’90s electronic and pop, was considered to be related to a “homosexual lifestyle” by both LGBT and straight people. This makes sense. Regardless of what music we listen to in the privacy of our own homes (or earbuds), we can often tell when walking into a bar or club whether the place is gay or gay friendly by the soundtrack alone. Musical tribalism still exists on the dance floor. We might personally hate gay club music (“pots and pans” as my former colleague Charles Pavia used to call one particularly gay genre), but when we walk into a room that’s vibrating with it, we can relax, knowing we’re among family. In fact, that’s one of the great virtues of music. Though it can be affiliated with ethnicity and religion, it also has the power to transcend, allowing people from disparate backgrounds to find common ground.
 
The “homosexual lifestyle music” theory is supported by another study, called “Into the Groove,” written by Alexander Dhoest, Robbe Herreman and Marion Wasserbauer at the University of Antwerp. “I didn’t know I had to like disco until I started going to gay bars. It’s something that you learn, and that you come to associate with activities like going out,” says Dhoest, a professor who chairs the university’s Department of Communication Studies. “On the one hand, there is music that’s associated with particular social scenes. But then if you look at music, it’s a medium where people express their individuality, so you might also listen to music your friends don’t like.”
 
Hensen had mentioned her gay taste in music in the same breath that she told me she was a fan of the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC), which this year takes place May 8-12 in Lisbon. A cheese fest since 1956, the competition is both a badge of honour for many Eastern European countries—strangely, the more homophobic the country, the more seriously they take it—and a delight for Euroqueers. For North American gay men who can’t get into RuPaul’s Drag Race but miss the days of Judy Garland, ESC fills the gap. Queer and trans performers have peppered the ESC winner’s circle through the years (Israel’s Dana International in 1998, Austria’s Conchita Wurst in 2014), but ESC’s gay appeal, I’d argue, rests mostly on the ridiculously flamboyant straight male performers. Unselfconscious straight dudes tearing off their shirts can simultaneously be lusted after and laughed at. Pure camp.
 
The video for Ireland’s ESC entry this year, Ryan O’Shaughnessy’s “Together,” features two guys dancing and holding hands on the streets of Dublin’s Temple Bar. It’s a sweet song and video, and people are wondering if Russia will ban its broadcast there, under Putin’s anti-gay propaganda law. But “Together” is too sincere and too self-consciously gay to push the buttons it needs in order to be popularized as “homosexual lifestyle music.”
 
One of the ironies of stereotypical LGBT taste is that it hasn’t traditionally privileged LGBT performers (though, as Hensen discovered, that’s less true for lesbian tastes). The biggest queer stars, the Elton Johns and George Michaels, are so big we cannot lay claim to them; they belong to everyone. And once they’re no longer our little secret, they no longer help us define ourselves and connect with fellow travellers. And sometimes connection—rather than the sound in your ears—is music’s most seductive promise.
 

 
PAUL GALLANT is a Toronto-based writer and editor who writes about travel, innovation, city building, social issues (particularly LGBT issues) and business for a variety of national and international publications. He’s done time as lead editor at the loop magazine in Vancouver as well as Xtra and fab in Toronto.
 

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