Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” is being shoved down our throats as the gay anthem of the decade. The onslaught of straight female pop stars marketed as “queer” divas is more than I can stomach. Even while Katy Perry kisses a girl, or Gaga butt-humps a stiletto-clad male dancer, these heterocentric pixies don’t represent me in the least.
My personal gay anthem – the soundtrack that played through the coming out romps of adolescence – would be “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, an energy much closer to the hormonal rage of that time than anything the pop machine could produce. Or Fruko’s “Barranquillero Arrebatao”, a man-to-man salsa track exalting the gyrating groins of male dancers from Barranquilla. As a teenager, my boyfriend played this song when he taught me to salsa. The music on our stereo was passionate, raw and honest. As we came out together, this defined our taste in music and my vision as a songwriter.
If one more person tells me that for “gay music by gay artists” I need look no further than Elton or Will Young, I’m going to explode. I’m still waiting for them to release an explicitly gay track. The message seems to be that you can be an out gay pop star, but when it comes to expressing erotic desire through song, same-sex pronouns are forbidden. Try finding a contemporary mainstream musical representation of a confident, healthy, virile gay. If we’re not being beaten and killed, we’re overly camp, sassy caricatures of ourselves, never just an average guy who lusts after other dudes.
My philosophy has always been that we should be free to express our sexualities and interact in public according to the same norms that dictate “straight” behaviour, whether in writing a song or dancing with our partners. At 19, while visiting my boyfriend’s hometown of Cali, Colombia, the conservative “world capital” of salsa, I insisted that we go to a popular club to try out our moves. After sitting on the sidelines for the first hour, we made our way to the centre of the room and started dancing like the other couples. It only lasted 20 seconds before the manager started yelling, “There are places for this kind of thing!”
Why was it acceptable to cuddle in a corner, but not okay to dance together in the centre of the room? Because salsa, like marriage or pop music, is an institution, a sexualised expression between a man and a woman, and by occupying centre stage, we threatened the status quo. The experience in Cali became a personal metaphor for my career as a songwriter. We’re allowed to sit on the periphery, snogging our boyfriends, but when we’re the centre of attention, a pop star with a number one hit, for example, we exclude our partners from our songwriting and play straight in compliance with the status quo. I refuse to be part of that tradition.
I returned to Cali last winter for a round of TV appearances to talk about my new album, American Motel. It’s a collection of songs about the ins and outs of loving and lusting after men – no sass, no artifice, just guys being guys. I told the story of the salsa club, about marrying my Caleño boyfriend, and writing “out-andout” songs. The presenters didn’t throw me off the set. They thanked me for being candid. Later that night, I received an email from a local teen struggling with coming out: “By speaking so openly about your life, you give me the courage to do the same.”
There are thousands of gay musicians telling our stories through song. According to OutRadio creator JD Doyle, “There’s so much gay music that I don’t have time to listen to anything else!” Yet artists like the post-punk Ste McCabe or angelic NYC singer-songwriter Chris Riffle won’t show up on our radars. Even commercially successful acts like wonderful indie-rockers the Magnetic Fields or Israeli pop star Ivri Lider will remain unknown to most on the gay scene. Because for the time being, our ears are being held captive by the din of marketers whose careers depend on our addiction to their vapid divas.
By Ezra Axelrod on March 30 2012 11.35am