Big Rainbow Jukebox: Gay-Affirming Songs

14 Feb

After composing yesterday’s post on homophobia in music, I needed some affirmation from pop culture. As a nice tonic, here is some of my favorite gay-affirming music.

The Fabulous Sylvester

Let’s start with one of the first openly gay pop performers: Sylvester. While his music was seldom about being gay, Sylvester was always openly himself. He was a star who probably sacrificed some measure of success for his flamboyant honesty. His You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) is a bona fide disco classic and a delightfully exuberant anthem of attraction. Current out performers like Adam Lambert owe Sylvester a great debt.

Another pioneer is Tom Robinson. Openly bisexual (though understandably assumed to be gay early in his career), Robinson penned the anthem Glad to Be Gay back in 1978.

Bronski Beat were a new wave act in the early 80’s who wore their sexual orientation proudly on their sleeve. With the debut album Age of Consent calling out the hypocrisy of British law differentiating between gay and straight relationships in its liner notes, they, like Sylvester, sacrificed some measure of success to make their very danceable point. Standouts are the wistful coming of age song Smalltown Boy and the militant yet funky Why?

WHY? by Bronski Beat

Contempt in your eyes
When I turn to kiss his lips
Broken I lie
All my feelings denied
Blood on your fist
Can you tell me why?
You in your false securities
Tear up my life
Condemning me
Name me an illness
Call me a sin
Never feel guilty
Never give in
Tell me why?
You and me together
Fighting for our love
Can you tell me why?

The out and ironic duo Pet Shop Boys deserve a mention as well. Their lyrics about odd and broken relationships are often ambiguous, but the pair never were. My personal favorite is the wonderful Can You Forgive Her? which tells the story of a closeted man struggling with his truth and his girlfriend.

The great folk singer Ellis Paul recorded a wonderful story of love in the face of family disapproval on his seminal Translucent Soul. Fitting perfectly into his masterwork of broken lives and redemption through love, She Loves A Girl is a wonderful, bittersweet song.

The original I Kissed A Girl belongs to the wonderfully quirky Jill Sobule. An honest song of yearning, confusion, and freedom, it should have been the hit that some other performer managed to have with her cynical fluff piece.

Stephin Merritt has assembled some of the best queer talent for his band The Magnetic Fields and a number of other projects. Frequently gender-bending in his lyrics, unabashedly out and proud, Merritt and his cohorts offer up gems like I Thought You Were My Boyfriend and When My Boy Walks Down the Street (with the great line “and he’s going to be my wife”). Frequent Merritt collaborator l.d. beghtol crafts wonderful songs about gay life and love, usually with his band Flare. A personal favorite is the dating disaster odyssey Don’t Like the Way We Live Now.

Some songs are affirming for their context. The use of Mama Cass’ music in the wonderful play and movie Beautiful Thing helps the sweet story resonate. As a result, her Make Your Own Kind of Music feels like a gay anthem to me; it’s spirit of pride and individualism certainly earn it a place on this list. Similarly, the delightful Free to Be You and Me encourages everyone, especially children thanks to Marlo Thomas, to be happy with themselves, whoever they are.

Last but not least, thanks to current proto-diva Lady Gaga. Her new single Born This Way is dynamically affirming and helped to inspire this pair of posts.

Although Valentine’s Day is a pretty crass excuse for a holiday, let’s use the excuse to celebrate the ones we love. Enjoy these inspiring, fun, lovely songs with the man or woman of your choice.

6 Responses to “Big Rainbow Jukebox: Gay-Affirming Songs”

  1. jenny68 February 14, 2011 at 9:39 am #

    Great post Robert- do you know of the band Gene? You might like them. They’re one of Andrews favorites.

    • rhulshofschmidt February 14, 2011 at 9:44 am #

      I’m not familiar with Gene; I’ll have to check them out. Thanks, Jenny!

  2. webwordwarrior February 14, 2011 at 12:02 pm #

    Wonderful musical selections, Robert, thank you. This jukebox included some new things to me, some old favorites, and a couple of things worth a new listen.
    For the record, you’ve done the impossible and found a thread that links one of my mom’s favorites (Sylvester), one of my dad’s (Ellis Paul, even if Dad thought he leaned a bit too hard on Woody Guthrie’s legacy), and one of mine (The Magnetic Fields). Thanks for shaking up my playlist!

    • rhulshofschmidt February 14, 2011 at 12:09 pm #

      Thanks, Lex, glad you enjoyed the mix. I do love putting songs the eclectic blender!

  3. Jay February 15, 2011 at 2:25 pm #

    Another very interesting posting, Robert–thank you for the recommendations, many of which are new to me.

    Given your voluminous musical knowledge, it would be great fun if this became a continuing series–possibly even the kernel of a book. LGBTQ artists and artists with ties to that community community might both be worthy of analysis. Consider: Queen, Elton John, The Village People, Gloria Gaynor, Nina Simone, Culture Club, Eartha Kitt, Ricky Martin, Donna Summer, Cher, Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Madonna, Judy Garland, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, k.d. lang, and on and on. Behind the scenes figures like Brian Epstein and David Geffen would provide another angle for examining the impact of gays and lesbians on popular music.

    Just a thought–what you’re already done is quite interesting and it would be understandable if you don’t want to delve into stereotypical artists–but if you wanted to expand on what you’ve started this reader for one would like to see more.


  1. Music Posts from The Solipsistic Me « Music and Meaning: The RBHS Jukebox - April 9, 2011

    […] Big Rainbow Jukebox: Gay-Affirming Songs […]

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