All this useless beauty

New gay music collections make fancy cultural straitjackets

Last year I did a phone interview with Scott Thompson, the openly gay co-star of The Larry Sanders Show and founding member of the defunct, much-lamented Kids in the Hall. We'd hooked up to discuss the Kids' celluloid swan song, Brain Candy, but spent more time kvetching about the state of North American gay pop culture.

"We used to be known as the iconoclasts, the leaders of opinion and art and culture," Thompson--who's been ignored or attacked in the gay press for his fierce criticisms--opined. "We've made great strides as far as being honest with ourselves and straight society about who we are, and that's great. But culturally, we've been reduced to a bunch of preening, muscular bodies on the dance floor."

Recently hailed as "the great curmudgeon of openly gay performers" by The Advocate's Bruce Vilanch, Thompson is famous for shooting from the hip in lavender circles. But his words came thundering back to my mind's ear when the CD series known as "Free To Be" landed on my desk.

Released under the Right Stuff label, a subsidiary of EMI-Capitol Music, "Free To Be" collects 60 tunes on five CDs, of which the vast majority are single versions of remixed club hits performed by female vocalists. As if in deference to the pre-Stonewall gay male generation, vampy tunes by Eartha Kitt and Peggy Lee, as well as Judy Garland's version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" from the Wizard of Oz soundtrack, are included.

Slip the cover out of a CD in the series, open it up, and you're taken on a soundbite tour of modern gay political history. Sixty-six one-sentence highlights, subtitled "A Celebration of My Life," begin with Karl Ulrich's unprecedented 1867 declaration that he was boy-crazy and ends with President Clinton's endorsement of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which was defeated in Congress by just one vote last year.

In an unprecedented collision of the political, the sexual, and the commercial, each "Free To Be" CD boasts at least one scrumptious, almost-naked boy on the cover, striking "I'm in ecstasy" poses that combine the beefcake quotient of International Male with the amateur eroticism of those strip mall studios that specialize in boudoir photography.

I'm a big fan of gratuitous sex--I wish I could experience it in my own life as often as I've enjoyed it on TV, in movies, and in magazines. I'm also a cheerleader for the Cliff's Notes style of political history contained in the "Free To Be" liners. Although we who pride ourselves on actually finishing those horse-choking non-fiction titles about history and culture would never admit it, most of us only retain a jumble of disparate facts once we've closed the book, anyway.

What really galls me is the shoddy, cynical approach producers Jaime Ikeda and Tom Cartwright use to collect these mind-numbingly inconsequential club hits. Dance music has always been the bastard child of rock 'n' roll criticism--witness the absurd "disco sucks" backlash of the early '80s, perpetuated as much by male hetero writers who should've known better as the beer-guzzling, ganja-dazed blue-collar fans of stadium rock. But like every other pop medium, dance pop has its artists and charlatans, its innovators and one-hit wonders.

The cheese-doodle ditties on "Free to Be" suggest that the gay music division of EMI-Capitol (every major label has one nowadays) has spent too much time gyrating under the colored lights of their favorite dance floor. More hours should've been dedicated to actually researching the artists recognized early on by the urban gay community--acts that hopscotched across the terrain of Billboard charts to blur the distinction between styles, or create new ones altogether.

An occasional member of the vanguard pops up out of the sludge--Nona Hendryx, Chaka Khan--but true to form, "Free to Be" contains two of the laziest, most dance-friendly (read "imitative") singles those exceptional artists have released. In the case of Hendryx, her "Why Should I Cry?" included here is the sole lame exception on a fascinating R&B-heavy metal-dance album called Female Trouble that's currently out of print.

Not to mention the fact that Hendryx is the only artist here to have identified herself as anything other than heterosexual. Martha Wash, Alison Limerick, Jody Watley, and Carleen Anderson are middling vocalists whose ability to mimic the gospel-influenced sexuality of primo sirens like Donna Summer, Millie Jackson, Patti LaBelle, Ann Peebles, and Etta James has allowed their entree into the Fag Hag Hall of Fame. Most of the female artists on "Free To Be" not only lack the political cojones to align themselves more than tangentially with the gay music scene, they are B-grade singers whose talent lacks the authority to captivate you when the drinks aren't half-price.

If you want to slap an overview of 19th- and 20th-century gay political progress on such a mammoth project as "Free To Be" you can also make it a door gunner's view of empowerment--in this case the black female singer's elevation from the chitlin circuit to the jazz club to the disco. A broad connection between gay men and African-American women performers is plausible--there has always been a rapport between these two minority communities in America, a certain sexual sympathy.

This would, in fact, salvage the largely unrecognized but gargantuan influence of black women on white and black men, homo and hetero. God knows, there's nary a hetero male pop critic out there willing to admit, as Frank Sinatra has, that Sinatra wouldn't be here if it weren't for Billie Holiday. And when was the last time you read that Bessie Smith is the single most influential pop singer in 20th-century American music? She's a seminal interpreter who's as responsible for Robert Plant as Janis Joplin, Whitney Houston as Luther Vandross, Alanis Morrisette as Bon Scott.

In short, there are dots to be connected by any gay music collection that's serious about finding parallels between the ascendancy of black female artists and the mainstreaming of the so-called gay agenda. And they'll be felt in circles far removed from your favorite gay dive, although that place will always be instrumental in the proliferation of flavors that heteros end up listening to.

Worse than all the warmed-over club flotsam, something like "Free To Be" creates a pernicious ripple effect among the major labels toward gay consumers. As long as the big dogs believe that most homo buyers align their pocketbooks toward what the clubs play, they will spend their promotion dollars on only those artists whose narrow music is accompanied by a canned beat and a DJ's approval. Musicians like the rejected Extra Fancy, the precocious Pansy Division, and the buried Steven Kowalczyk will flounder because, unlike k.d. lang, Melissa Etheridge, and Elton John, they chose to come out as soon as they began to perform, not after they'd built a solid national fan base. Moreover, each has recorded music that doesn't translate easily to the dance floor.

The gay male community isn't the first to be insulted by stereotypical marketing--when was the last time you heard Maxi Priest or Me'Shell Ndegeocello played on black pop stations? By its very definition, capitalism encourages the greedy to prey on the stupid. Problem is, it's difficult to separate the straight and gay fans of an iconoclastic band like punk-popsters Pansy Division, who are promoted in neither gay nor straight periodicals. They provide an intense gay catharsis for legions of faithful homo fans, but won't be recognized by major labels who think they've already figured out what gay men want--rhythm without context.

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