Memorial Day Playlist: These Queer Musicians Are Leading Our Community’s War for Freedom
On Memorial Day, the day the country celebrates those who died while serving in the military, we at Hornet thought we’d take a moment to mention a few musicians — LGBTQ and queer-friendly, dead and very much still alive — who’ve helped our community in our ongoing war for freedom.
The “Pansy Craze”
As far back as the 1920s into the early 1930s, the “Pansy Craze” of underground drag queens became popular in metropolitan enclaves like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. A relaxed tolerance during Prohibition enabled drag balls in Greenwich Village, revues at Broadway theaters and clubs in Los Angeles to host forward-thinking performers Ray Bourbon, Bruz Fletcher and Gene Malin (who did not perform in drag, but presented — amazingly so — as an openly gay male).
Their lives were fraught with enough drama to sustain a miniseries or great movie musical, so here’s hoping that Ryan Murphy or Lee Daniels or Dustin Lance Black are looking for their next great project.
Sylvester / RuPaul
Our disco mother, once a member of the famed drag troupe Cockettes, set the template for gay music early on: dance-specific, falsetto-wielding, celebratory. His best known tracks — the disco juggernaut “Do You Wanna Funk,” the “Band of Gold” cover (especially in its remix version) and the transcendent “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” — are undeniably joyous. And though he never topped the mainstream pop charts, his influence was deeply felt in followers like Bronski Beat, Culture Club and, later, in the ascendance of one RuPaul Charles.
The worst kept secret in all of rock ‘n’ roll was the queer sexuality of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury. Yet long before Mercury officially came out, the day before he died of AIDS in 1991, the evidence was undeniable. The bitchy “Killer Queen,” the bisexual jubilance of “Don’t Stop Me Now,” the drag video for “I Want to Break Free” and, really, what about that operatic break on “Bohemian Rhapsody”? They may not all have been hits, but they were part of a cultural conversation that continues to this day.
I for one am more than excited for the forthcoming biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, the trailer for which has already been watched over 15 million times.
Culture Club / Frankie Goes to Hollywood / Bronski Beat / Dead or Alive / Wham!
I toyed with the idea of just listing “The 1980s” here, because the entire decade seemed to explode with an exuberance steeped in both more explicit gay content and a level of androgyny that leapt off the stage and into the style of club kids around the world.
For those of you not young enough to remember, it’s hard to explain the importance of the Bronski Beat battle cry “Why?”, an ode to anal sex; “Relax” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood; the introduction to Boy George in Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?”; the flouncing “You Spin Me Round” by Dead or Alive; and the jaunty hip-swinging of George Michael in Wham!’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.”
Our community was facing the worst years of its still nascent freedom, but these artists — along with the likes of Soft Cell, Pet Shop Boys, Erasure — soundtracked our world and the world at large for a glorious musical decade.
Madonna / Lady Gaga
While our own artists were changing the pop landscape on their own terms, an unknown upstart from Michigan was about to take over the world and become our greatest ally. Certainly the gay community was the first to take Madonna to heart. Long before “Borderline” introduced her to the mainstream, clubs in Manhattan and Los Angeles were on fire with the 12” mix of “Burning Up” and the echo-cavern funkfest of “Physical Attraction.” And she justified our love by appropriating our culture in “Vogue,” not to mention her forward-thinking approach to sexuality (in her coffee-table cause célèbre Sex and the Erotica record).
Then Lady Gaga goes her one better with her revealed bisexuality, her diverse army of “Little Monsters,” and a recorded catalogue that includes “Bad Romance,” “Applause” and the modern gay anthem “Born This Way.”
Melissa Etheridge / k.d. lang
One is a big-voiced belter of heartland anthems, the other a bigger-voiced chanteuse of country/pop/standards, but both Melissa Etheridge and k.d. lang have left their mark on our hearts and on the charts. We all suspected Etheridge was a lesbian from the offset (“Bring Me Some Water” certainly felt coded), and she had a sense of humor about her coming out by titling her 1993 release Yes I Am.
Lang, who started as a roots-y and funny country rocker in the late ’80s had her biggest hit with Ingenue during her coming out phase. “Constant Craving” should honestly be adapted as the lesbian national anthem.
Scoff if you must, but his exposure to the American public — and the American public’s exposure to him — on the eighth season of American Idol was a big deal. Whether Adam Lambert sustains as a viable gay artist is yet to be determined, though he certainly has the talent (and was, let us remember, the first openly gay artist to score a number one album).
And let’s not forget that kiss heard ‘round the world during his performance of “For Your Entertainment” at the 2009 American Music Awards. It wasn’t the kiss — the entire country had seen that before — it was the unexpected passion. Now, of course, it would just seem quaint.
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
OK, hate all you want. I get it. I really do. But history is history, and facts are facts, and the fact is that Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s “Same Love feat. Mary Lambert” was a watershed moment in our ongoing fight.
Also, take a moment during your bitching to acknowledge that the song featured the openly gay artist Mary Lambert, who certainly benefited from the exposure, as did a public whose opinion on same-sex marriage has changed significantly.
Frank Ocean / Janelle Monáe
Yes, it’s important that these two artists are African-American, but even more important is that they are well-known African-American artists — Frank Ocean in the realm of hip-hop and Janelle Monáe in the realms of modern R&B and film. Neither has seen any significant setback in their careers as a result, either.
Ocean, in fact, is more influential and popular than ever. His 2016 release Blonde, featuring “Nikes,” debuted at number one and was a critical hit. And Monáe’s recent Dirty Computer has spawned the singles “Make Me Feel” and the pussy-power anthem “Pynk feat. Grimes.”
Anohni / Antony and the Johnsons
Anohni is a work in progress, and the beauty of her journey is that we’ve been witness to it, artistically, since the release of Antony and the Johnsons’ eponymous 2000 debut. The group a hipster’s delight, featuring a trans artist trafficking in European art-song anchored by a voice that wasn’t just emotional but the sound of emotion itself. The best way I can describe it is that I don’t just hear that voice, I feel it in my gut (“Hope There’s Someone”, “One Dove”).
As Anohni, she has turned to more electro-based compositional structures, though her subjects are just as far-reaching while the music is more mainstream (war on “Drone Bomb Me,” surveillance on “Watch Me”). She’s on the front rank of trans artists, including but not limited to Laura Jane Grace of Against Me!, the experimental pop musician SOPHIE and rapper Mykki Blanco.