Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Queer Lives in Popular Music

The following is a paper I wrote for a class (or classes, haha) that I would like to share. It is unformatted b/c I am retyping it. Here goes...

Queer Lives In Popular Music And The Role Of Popular Music in Queer Culture
(Long title, I know...)

Queer music can be open to interpretation according to several definition and guidelines, including the people involved in the composition or performance of the music or, simply, the community in which the music is valued. Queer itself can be defined as "both straight and gay but also the vast gray areas between them as well as the sexualities that might lie beyond them" (Benshoff 2). So, just as the lines of gender and sexuality are blurred within "queer" cultures, so are the lines of genre and era blurred in queer music. Benshoff and Griffin define queer film as: having queer characters; being written, directed, or produced by a person who might be queer; having a largely queer audience; being a genre that is queer or outside the norms of the society at large; or the audience's experience and relation to the characters. While it only takes one of these aspects to effectively queer a film, many films have multiple aspects that make them queer. Queer music can be defined the same way: songs or lyrics being of a queer nature; the people or a person involved in the making of the music is queer; the audience is largely queer; or the audience's experience of the song (intentional or not) is also largely queer (Benshoff 12). I hope to show that queer lives (as defined today) have been influential in music across generations but most importantly popular music, and in turn, show that popular music has influenced the culture of queer communities. I will first examine the "queer" composers and artists who have shaped music history, especially American music. I will then take a look at the way queer lives have influenced current popular music. Finally I will examine the role of popular music in the queer community. Hopefully, my research will show that queer lives are influential on popular music, and popular music in return influences queer culture.

Samuel Barber composed one of the most well-known works of American Literature, Adagio for Strings (Smith: Barber). Although not as recognizable as his peers Virgil Thomson and Aaron Copland, Barber's Adagio has been featured in films such as Platoon and Elephant Man, as well as remixed by disc jockeys and electronic musicians (Smith: Barber, "List" link: Barber). Although Thomson may be more well known for his opera The Mother of Us All, Four Saints in Three Acts is considered his "queerest" work of all (Smith: Thomson). Nadine Hubbs, in the introduction to her book The Queer Composition of America's Sound, discusses an essay that the United States Army released discussing Aaron Copland as "America's most prominent composer" (Hubbs 1). While it discussed Copland's Jewish and Russian background, the essay did little to hint at Copland's queerness, his homosexuality (Hubbs 1-2, Smith: Copland 2). Copland was even know to have mentored and been involved with younger queer composer Leanard Bernstein (Smith: Copland 2). Bernstein has been one of the most popular American composers, being popularized in the media to celebrity status throughout the 1960's. He is probably more well know for composing the music for Candide and the popular musical West Side Story (Smith: Bernstein 1). However, Bernstein's homosexuality, perhaps the most indentifiable part of one's queerness, was something he preferred to keep hidden, marrying in 1951. After the death of his wife in the late 1970's however, Bernstein "became increasingly open about his gayness" (Smith: Bernstein 2).

Gay (and drag) performer, Sylvester, was a disco hit in the late 70's and early 80's. With "You Make Me Feel Mighty Real" and "Dance (Disco Heat)", Sylvester was recognized by Billboard for his contribution to Disco. Featured on most of his tracks was the duo "Two Tons o Fun", who would later have their own success as The Weather Girls (Sylvester 1, Weather 1). Another famous drag performer, Divine, attributed not only to music but to film, including the mainstream (and cult classic) Hairspray (Divine 1). The work of Divine and Candy Darling even inspired the song "Divine" by Antony and Johnsons (Hogan 1). Of all the queer influences on popular music, John Lennon is probably the most prolific. Although the "List of Queer Composers" on the Knowledgerush website, along with other lists, continue to list Lennon as a queer composer, there is little evidence to support this. The best examples would simply be his resistance to hatred and war in the world in the song "Imagine" ("Imagine all the people living life in peace") (1971), and Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono's, own re-imagining of the song "Every Man Has A Woman Who Loves Him" (1984), "Everyman Everywoman" ("Everyman has a man who loves him") (2004) to support the LGBTQ community (Refer to Works Cited: Music).

Today, LGBT composers and singers Elton John, George Michael, Melissa Etheridge, Sinead O'Conner, and k.d. lang find themselves entering the mainstream (List 1). The Indigo Girls, a lesbian acoustic duo, has led a successful career spanning over 20 years on major record labels and inspiring the film Chasing Indigo (Williams 1). Elton John, now famous for his work in film and musicals, charted at least one hit in the top 40 every year from 1970 to 1996 (Erlewine 1). Melissa Etheridge, out lesbian rocker and breast cancer survivor, has also had a career with major labels spanning across 20 years (Prato 1). According to TopTenReviews.com, Etheridge is also the 363rd musician of all time (based on every available critic's response). Not bad, considering that the website's database consists of 150+ thousand musicians ("Melissa... Album" 1). It is "common knowledge" that Billboard is the number one source of music information for what's selling and playing in the music industry. This said, Etheridge boasts 31 songs from 1988-2006 that were in the top 100 singles. This includes a four/five year gap in which Etheridge didn't put out any new music ("Artist... Melissa" 1).

Movie actress and singer, Judy Garland, has long been exalted by members of the mainstream and queer communities for her "tragic" queer attributes (Peraino 150). Recognized by most as Dorothy Gale in "The Wizard Of Oz", a queer role in itself: a lonely, misunderstood person in a world where she doesn't quite fit in (Bone 1). Most important to her queerness is her resilience and her resistance "to predictable repetitions of behavior that allow for stable representation." Both Etheridge, mentioned earlier, and Garland have been held high in the eyes of the queer community for their gender representations: Garland as being the femine in a masculine-inspired world and Etheridge as being masculine despite her assigned sex (Peraino 150). Garland is just one example of queer artists who are not necessarily queer themselves, being queer by characteristics that make them gay icons (Bone 1). "It's Raining Men" is a queer cult classic, known by gay men and straight women alike (Weather 1).

Popular music is, of course, popular, and therefore at the forefront of American culture. There are lists of popular songs across generations, of "gay anthems" that may or may not be intended that way. "It's Raining Men" along with "Y.M.C.A." by the Village People and "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" by Queen (whose front man, Freddie Mercury, was queer) are just a few of the songs listed on a website about gay marriage (Kelly 1). While Lou Reed and David Bowie may be considered queer due to audience interpretations, queer rock has been considered revolutionized by Jayne County and continues today with groups like Scissor Sisters, Rufus Wainwright, and Antony and the Johnsons (Jackson 1). Music can be a large part of people's lives with radio, television (especially music television networks), the use of music in film, C.D. players, mp3 players, iTunes, Amazon mp3, and numerous online music websites. This being said, the LGBT community has integrated itself into and created its own genres. Once again, (author's note: the "gays" love their lists) there are lists of magazines, e-zines, and websites dedicated to queer music, including popular music artists: Ani DiFranco, Indigo Girls, Elton John, k.d. lang, Pet Shop Boys, and Dusty Springfield (Gay: Scene 1). Then there are the straight "gay icons" adored for their queer attributes: Garland, Bette Midler, Madonna, Cher, Christina Aguilera, Fergie (Halsall 1, Abernathy 1).

In this modern day, gay icons in music have withstood the test of time while influencing the next generation of pop stars. Popular music influences many people's lives. So, is it such a surprise that there are gay icons? Or gay anthem? A pop musician doesn't even have to be queer themselves to be considered part of the queer movement. Queer music can be defined as: songs or lyrics being of a queer nature; the people or a person involved in the making of the music is queer; the audience is largely queer; or the audience's experience of the song (intentional or not) is also largely queer (Benshoff 12). Barber, Copland, Thomson, and Bernstein shaped American music, and they were queer. Judy Garland was not queer, but exuberated queer qualities. "It's Raining Men" is not necessarily a queer song done by queer artists, but its content is interpreted by gay men to be queer. Of course, The Weather Girls, who sang the song, did start their careers singing for Sylvester, a disco "queen", gay man, and drag performer. Madonna, through her wild performances and songs, blurs the lines of sexuality (Peraino 150). I discussed queer American music, queer artists, and queer icons and anthems. By examining these "queer" composers and artists who have shaped music history, queer lives that have influenced current popular music, and the role of popular music in the queer community, this paper shows that queer lives are influential on popular music, and popular music, in return, influences queer culture. Queer lives (as defined today) have been influential in music across generations but most importantly popular music, and in turn, popular music has influenced the culture of queer communities.



Okay, so that's the end. A lot of repetition, but it was for a class. Haha. Hope you enjoyed.

James


Works Cited:
Anthony, Michael. "Gay Icons: Judy Who?" Queer, Isn't It? 16 Nov 2006. Pop Matters. 30 Nov 2008. http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/gay-icons-jusy-who/.
Benshoff, Harry M, and Sean Griffin. Queer Images: A History of Gay and Lesbian Film in America. Rowman & Littlefield, 2006.
Bone, Travis D. "Diva Workshop." Gay & Lesbian Times. 17 July 2003. 5 Dec 2008. http://www.gaylesbiantimes.com/?id=533&issue=812.
Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. "Artist Biography: Elton John." Billboard.com. 2007. 2 Dec 2008. http://www.billboard.com/bbcom/bio/index.jsp?pid=4941.
Halsall, Paul. "People With A History." Paul Halsall. 1998. Fordham University. 6 Dec 2008. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/pwh/index-icons.html.
Hogan, Phil. "Gospel according to Antony." The Observer. 2 Nov 2008. 2 Dec 2008. http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2008/nov/02/antony-and-the-johnsons-barbican.
Hubbs, Nadine. The Queer Composition of America's Sound. University of California, 2004, pp 1-16.
Jackson, Lisa. "Queer Rock 101." GO Magazine. 9 July 2008. 5 Dec 2008. http://www.gomag.com/article/queer_rock_101/.
Kelly, Jennifer. "Hitched: A 17-song Tribute to Gay Marriage." Splendid. 5 Dec 2008. http://www.splendidezine.com/departments/tdlt/tdlt41904.html.
Peraino, Judith A. Listening to the Sirens: Musical Technologies of Queer Identity from Homer to Hedwig. University of California, 2006, pp 150-1.
Prato, Greg. "Melissa Etheridge: Biography." MSN Music. 2008. 3 Dec 2008. http://music.msn.com/music/artist-biography/melissa-etheridge/.
Smith, Patricia Juliana. "Barber, Samuel." glbtq: an encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, & queer culture. 2002. 2 Dec 2008. http://www.glbtq.com/arts/barber_s.html.
Smith, Patricia Juliana. "Berstein, Leonard." glbtq: an encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, & queer culture. 2002. 2 Dec 2008. http://www.glbtq.com/arts/bernstein_l.html.
Smith, Patricia Juliana. "Copland, Aaron." glbtq: an encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, & queer culture. 2002. 2 Dec 2008. http://www.glbtq.com/arts/copland_a.html.
Smith, Patricia Juliana. "Thomson, Virgil." glbtq: an encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, & queer culture. 2002. 2 Dec 2008. http://www.glbtq.com/arts/thomson_v.html.
Unknown Author. "Artist Chart History: Melissa Etheridge." Billboard.com. 2008. 5 Dec 2008. http://www.billboard.com/bbcom/retrieve_chart_history.do?JSESSIONID=92G9JpLffNK2fknxYqPGbtnvgpGy2ScF4Zyhvh29Qf2JHh2j0Nly!248815711&model.vnuArtistId=4565&model.vnuAlbumId=6589.
Unknown Author. "Divine." The New York Times. 2 Dec 2008. http://movies.nytimes.com/person/19335/divine/biography.
Unknown Author. "List of Queer Composers." Knowledgerush, 2003. 2 Dec 2008. http://www.knowledgerush.com/kr/encylopedia/list_of_queer_composers/.
Unknown Author. "Melissa Etheridge Album Rankings." TopTenREVIEWS. 2008. 3 Dec 2008. http://music.toptenreviews.com/bands/me/melissa-etheridge-6861/melissa-etheridge-album-rankings.htm.
Unknown Author. "Sylvester." Queer Cultural Center. 2 Dec 2008. http://www.queerculturalcenter.org/pages/sylvester/syl_bio.html.
Unknown Author. "Gay Lesbian Bi-sexual Transgender." The Scene. 2003. Pink Classifieds. 6 Dec 2008. http://www.pinkclassifieds.co.uk/music_webzines_thescene.html.
Unknown Author. "The Weather Girls Biography." Musician Biographies. 2004. 2 Dec 2008. http://www.musicianguide.com/biographies/1608004405/The-Weather-Girls.html.
Williams, Carla. "Indigo Girls." glbtq: an encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, & queer culture. 2002. 2 Dec 2008. http://www.glbtq.com/arts/indigo_girls.html.

Music:
Lennon, John. "Every Man Has A Woman Who Loves Him." Every Man Has A Woman Who Loves Him (Single). Geffen Records, 1984.
Lennon, John. "Imagine." Imagine. Apple, 1971.
Ono, Yoko. "Everyman Everywoman." Yes, I'm a Witch. Astralwerks, 2004.

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