Representation Of Gay Man In Music And Aspects Of The Culture Influenced The Lyrics
The representation of the gay man in music has a relatively short history in the United Kingdom in the genre of popular music. The portrayal of such a character during the 1970s voiced the harassment and unjust behaviour towards the many individuals suffering under the laws against homosexuality. Even though the United Kingdom legalized homosexual relations between adults over the age of 21 in 1967, it still gave rise to a colossal wave of hate and violence against the LGBT community which resulted in the criminalization of homosexuality nationwide. This outspur of hate and violence was a catalyst which sparked a decade of protests in the 1970s which became a famous and renowned decade for change. The people used their voices in the streets and the musicians used their fame to start a conversation which inspired the world to take a stand against hate.
In this essay I will be analyzing the use of language in songs to help analyze the representation of the gay man in music and how the aspects of the culture at the time influenced the lyrics. My research question is as follows; “How did the representation of gay men in British popular music of the 1970s reflect/influence changing social attitudes?” In the beginning, I will be discussing the song “Glad to be Gay” by the Tom Robinson Band and its choice of anecdotes as lyrics. After, I will discuss the song “Smalltown Boy” by Bronski Beat which is a narrative about a gay boy forced to leave his home to be himself. I will then discuss the song “Lady Stardust” by David Bowie and how his message of gender fluidity impacted culture. Lastly, I will be analyzing ‘The Killing of Georgie” by Rod Stewart and how a song about a gay man was written from the perspective of a straight man.
I will be referring to sources such as “Establishing Identity: LGBT Studies & Music Education” by DeNordo et Al to supplement my analysis which examined the complex ways queer identities influenced the people and processes of music making and cultural life. While a certain progress was made in the music industry involving the representation of sexuality, it was still a financial institution that had and still has many conservative views which limited the creative power of certain artists. This however did not stop some artists who still used their platform to start a conversation and try to fight against all the violence and hate.
There were many artists at the time who used their platform to make large political statements and to bring awareness to the suffering brought upon the LGBT community at the time in a genre alongside Popular music called Political Rock. An example of this genre was in a song called “Glad to be Gay” by Tom Robinson Band which was one of their most defining songs in their career. Originally written by Tom Robinson for the London Gay Pride parade in 1976, “Glad to Be Gay” became a LGBT anthem in the UK. The song was a sharp critique of the British hostile stance towards homosexuality; at the time same-sex relations in the UK had been legal for only nine years, with the Sexual Offences Act in 1967 that decriminalized homosexual acts performed in private between men over 21 years (Vale, Silvie). Tom Robinson, the singer of the band once said, “I had a nervous breakdown when I was 16, largely due to the stress of growing up gay, which was illegal back then. I was sent to a sort of retreat, where I was taught to accept myself. It also exposed me to all sorts of music.” This oppression he felt when he was young led to him wanting to create music to inspire and help others feeling stressed about their sexuality.
The first verse begins in a sarcastic tone using anti-patriotic language that aims to mislead the listener, “the British Police are the best in the world,” but is then contradicted with, “I don’t believe one of these stories I’ve heard,” when discussing police brutality against the gay community. The lyrics continue to separate this community from the mainstream but with a sense of pride when referring to “our pubs. The gay community is portrayed as innocent as the raids on their pubs had ‘no reason at all’ and led to further victimisation with the police ‘picking out people and knocking them down.’ The last line of the verse then refers back to the sense of sarcasm of the unjust treatment by the police saying, “I don’t believe that sort of thing happens here.”
The song then shifts to the chorus which forms an anthem, “Sing if you’re glad to be gay, sing if you’re happy that way.” This creates a positive contrast to the first verse and a rallying call to the general public to join ‘the cause’ of gay liberation by singing along and becoming part of a movement.
The second verse discusses the the still prevalent attitudes that homosexuality is obscene and linked to paedophilia. It mentions how in the media ‘Pictures of naked young women are fun’ but that pictures naked men is still banned yet their magazine Gay News is still deemed ‘obscene’. The portrayal then moves onto the right-wing press describing gay men as ‘Molesters of children, corruptors of youth’ ad therefore a danger to society. Thus the song has returned to its bitter and angry tone.
The second chorus is repeated with the small but significant change of one word ‘Try and sing if you’re glad to be gay’ recognising the dangers of coming out as graphically described in the previous verses.
The third verse returns to the theme of violence committed against gay men but now uses a personal anecdote to add a sense of reality to the experiences of gay men. He talks of his ‘friend who was gentle and short,’ accentuating his goodness and his vulnerability, who was grabbed by ‘Queerbashers’ who ‘kicked in his teeth.’ ‘Queerbashing’ was a popular sport at this time with groups of straight men looking for a gay man to beat up for fun. He ends his description with ‘He was only hospitalized for a week’ but ‘he still bears the scars’ deliberately trivialising the physical damage (which is still severe) as compared to the psychological trauma that is permanent, caused simply by walking alone in the street.
The fourth verse moves back into the gay community itself and talks directly to gay men and implies that being a bystander is not an option and the community should not just ‘sit back and watch’ as the oppression continues. It mocks the idea of selfishness with the lines ‘Make sure your boyfriend’s at least twenty-one so only your friends and your brothers get done’ putting pressure on the gay listener to be active and stand up for others within the community. This tone is continued in the final verse sarcastically encouraging gay men to deny their sexuality to lie and mock their own kind.
Robinson has cleverly used a sarcastic and negative tone throughout the verses that strongly contrasts with the chorus that is joyful and simple, washing away all the negativity by everyone joining together in one loud voice creating a new unity of straight and gay communities and therefore much greater strength in combating the homophobic police (agents of government and societal oppression) and the queerbashers (violent homophobic men). It is an anthemic call to action with a focus on love rather than the hate he has chronicled.
Another song during the 1970s that discussed the representation of the gay man in the 1970s was a song called “Smalltown Boy” by Bronski Beat. “Not only did it highlight the plight and shared experiences of hundreds of thousands of gay people, but it also provoked serious debate over these issues nationwide.’ This song was featured on their album “The Age of Consent” which was in direct response to the creation of the 1967 Sexual Offence Act. “Many western countries had reduced the age of consent to 16, but not Britain. And part of this regressive culture was the problem of young men and women feeling stigmatised by the inability of their peers to accept them as they were (The People’s Songs – Smalltown Boy).”
The song’s title “Smalltown Boy” using the term ‘smalltown’ in British English has connotations of narrow-mindedness and mono-culture as compared to metropolitan and multicultural cities. The use of “boy” communicates a sense of innocence and vulnerability. The song is a narrative of one boy who is leaving his family and it begins with a cry to the soul to run away, the soul being the deepest and most profound part within you, demonstrating the extent of the pain. The repetition of cry accentuates the length and degree of suffering. “You leave in the morning with everything you own in a little black case” is a metaphor as he has so little of value in his current life making him seem small and vulnerable. The use of “black” creates a feeling of gloom and sadness. The phrase, “Alone on a platform,” highlights his isolation experienced by many gay boys and young men and “a platform” is a symbol of leaving, a place unnamed, a character lost. The use of pathetic fallacy in, “the wind and the rain on a sad and lonely face,” begins to explain the pain he is experiencing. It allows the listener focus on his expression as there is no physical description of the character. “Mother will never understand” activates the maternal instincts of the audience and thus the sense of loss. It is clear this youth in his mind has no choice as he “had to” leave but he is not simply leaving but rather on a journey of self-discovery and growth when the singer says to the boy that the “answers you seek” which are based on love “will never be found at home.”
The chorus then begins and repeats the phrase “run away, turn away” which acts as a command from the singer to the gay community. It is a warning to be careful which is heartbreaking and is used to stir panic.
The second verse discusses the troubles the character would experience in his home town which catalyzed his need to leave. “You were the one that they’d talk about around town.” shows that he was referred to as a freak and “they put you down” demonstrates the physical violence that was acted upon him. They would try very hard to “make you cry” but “you never cried to them, just to your soul” which shows that the character was a helpless victim but had the courage to put on a brave face during those hard times. It tries to showcase the secret life of a gay boy due to the fact that he did not show physical weakness but he was experiencing deep emotional weakness. Even though the pain cannot be seen, it is still there and will leave a deeper scar.
With the beginnings of glam rock’s so-called “gender-bending” in pop music, cross dressing became more normalised and particularly very popular among male artists who wore female clothing and makeup. Out of this trend came songs that directly dealt with sexual orientation and the idea of sexuality being fluid.
David Bowie was a prime example of this kind of musician and was the leader in promoting sexual fluidity through his lyrics and lifestyle. “Throughout the ’70s, he was perceived as gay… Jon Savage wrote in a 1980 article for The Face that ‘just as Bowie’s massive contribution to fashion was in the fact that you can still see the glam uniform of baggies, tank-top and platforms on provincial streets, so the spice in his image was gayness’, and Bowie did little to dispel that impression. (O’Leary, Chris)” In 1972, five after the implication of the Sexual Offence Act, David Bowie released his album “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” which discussed the character of Ziggy Stardust. This character was a a bisexual, androgynous alien rockstar who sang songs on stage in drag attire. A song on the album that directly discusses Ziggy Stardust and the life of a drag queen was a song called “Lady Stardust.”
The first line began with “people stared at the makeup on his face” which shows that men wearing makeup at the time was a spectacle and different. The word “stared” adds a sense of misunderstanding to the character due to the hard gaze from the audience. The character was performing in drag so they had “long black hair” but they were being “laughed” at and judged for their appearance. The person was described with having an “animal grace” which compares the character to a dangerous and unpredictable creature which strips away their sense of humanity. The song then introduces a new character, “the boy in the bright blue jeans,” who had “jumped up on stage” to sing songs of “darkness and disgrace” along with Lady Stardust. This character could be interpreted as Lady Stardust but as a he when they are not performing in drag. A very deep and important aspect of drag is the idea of duality and the concept of there being one person on stage, but there are two people performing. Lady Stardust and the “he” are the same person and are singing the songs of “darkness and disgrace” together to voice the feelings they are experiencing about being a gay man during the 1970s.
The chorus then begins to sing, ‘And he was alright, the band was altogether” which shows that when the character is going drag, “he was alright” and felt apart of a group which aided him with feeling loved and secure. When he was dressed up in drag as Lady Stardust, he was “quite out of sight” which shows that drag was a mask for him and allowed him to feel invisible. “The song went on forever” shows that he wanted to feel the feeling of being “out of sight” forever because he felt happy and protected which led to him singing “all night long.”
The second verse then begins to describe the transformation of the character when he becomes Lady Stardust. “Femme fatales emerged from shadows” and “Boys stood upon their chairs” to watch them perform. People came from all around to watch Lady Stardust which shows that when the character became Lady Stardust, he was no longer laughed at and was actually admired. The next lyrics introduce the love the narrator feels for Lady Stardust using the lyrics “I smiled sadly for a love I could not obey”, because their love was at the time forbidden due to the Sexual Offences Act. After there is a line that states “Oh how I sighed when they asked if I knew his name”, which is again an allusion to the feelings the narrator has for Lady Stardust. The love the narrator feels is trying to express and normalize transgender and homosexual love to make it seem natural and not strange.
The song is trying to show that drag queens are not aliens or outsiders like how people perceived them to be but are human beings. This song aims to show that when drag queens perform they feel at peace and that they are just like any other group seeking acceptance.
Another important song that was released during the 1970’s was “The Killing of Georgie” by Rod Stewart. “It was the first major pop song to tell the tale of a gay man who died, in part, because of his sexual identity. The song is based off a true story but the scene was slightly embellished. The story is a narrative that follows a gay kid from a small town who’s rejected by his parents, causing him to flee to New York City. The tale ends tragically when, after leaving the theater one night, Georgie runs into a gang of kids who target him for being gay and murder him (Farber, Jim).”
The song begins with, “In these days of changing ways, so-called liberated days,” which refers to how the 1970s were a decade of change involving sexuality due to the Sexual offences Act in 1967, it then introduces “a story” that “comes to mind of a friend.” The story was about “Georgie boy” who was “gay, nothin’ more or nothin’ less.” He was the “kindest guy” but he was not accepted by his family. “His mother’s tears fell in vain” describes Georgie’s mother’s reaction to the news which made her very upset and confused. He had told his mother that he wanted to “love like the rest” but she went on to say ‘There must be a mistake, how can my son not be straight, after all I’ve said and done for him?’ This unfortunate event that occured between him and his mother lead to him “leavin’ home on a Greyhound bus” because he was “cast out by the ones he loves.” He had no choice but to leave so he could live his life the way he deserved and free to love whoever he wanted. In the end, he was “a victim of these gay days.”
The next verse begins to explore Georgie’s new home in New York and how he had “quickly settled down.” He very rapidly “became the toast of the great white way” and “accepted by the Manhattan’s elite.” He had finally found a crowd and group that had accepted him. He would go out partying and “no party was complete without Georgie” due to the fact that he was a massive hit and acquired many friends. The verse ends with an ironic mood with the lyrics “everybody loved Georgie boy” which is ironic due to the fact that he was forced to leave his home to be able to find people to love because his own family did not care for him enough to accept his sexuality.
The next verse however introduces a sad and somber tone when discussing the last time the narrator “saw Georgie alive.” It was “in the summer of ‘75” and he had said that Georgie “was in love.” This shows character progression due to the fact that he left his home to find love and eventually found it. George was attending “the opening night of another Broadway hype” but he “split before the final curtain fell.” The next three lines introduces two important stylistic devices: dramatic irony and a pathetic fallacy. Georgie had decided to “take a shortcut home” and “meant no wrong” which is an example of dramatic irony because the audience is aware of the fact that Georgie is about to be killed but the character does not and remains clueless. “A gentle breeze blew down Fifth Avenue” is a pathetic fallacy that is introducing the tension about to build up surrounding the murder/death of Georgie.
The last verse brings the story to a conclusion by stating “Georgie’s life ended there.” It then leads to a personal anecdote from Georgie himself sharing ‘Never wait or hesitate, Get in kid, before it’s too late, You may never get another chance, ‘Cause youth’s a mask but it don’t last, Live it long and live it fast.’ This is a very powerful and deep quote aimed to the audience to gain a sense of sympathy and sadness for the loss of such an amazing and strong willed individual. He took a risk to be able to live his life the way he wanted, and in the end he had a great life and found people who loved and supported him which in life is all that matters.
In summary, the use of popular music in the 1970s to voice out against the discrimination acted upon members of the LGBT community was a very important and well received initiative. It was an act of self expression and acceptance that touched the heart of millions across the globe. “Musiciologists examine the complex ways queer identities influence people and processes of music making and cultural life. Although numerous disciplines have examined the influence of the LGBT community, conventional music education has yet to consider it fully in education and musicology relevant research, theory, and practice from a LGBT perspective (DeNordo, Gregory F.).” Music has been used as a platform of change for years
Songs such as “Glad to be Gay” by Tom Robinson helped many youth around the world help feel accepted and loved. Tom Robinson tells a story about an American fan he once received a letter from and how the song saved his life, “I received a letter from a US teenager who had been disowned by his Christian parents. He’d just taken an overdose when Glad to Be Gay came on his college radio station. He put his fingers down his throat, threw up, and moved to San Francisco, where he was now living happily. It would have been worth writing the song for him alone (Simpson, Dave).” This was a song that brought everyone together no matter if they were straight or gay to sing together as one against discrimination and homophobia. This was during a time where homosexuals were being queer bashed and rejected by their families so political rock songs such as “Glad to be Gay” by the Tom Robinson band helped those feeling oppressed be strong.
David Bowie had an immense influence on the culture at the time and his coming out as bisexual in 1974 very much had an effect on the world. “The ambiguity attached to his sexuality served to make him only more alluring and desirable to the general public. In turn, sexual ambiguity and deviance itself become more desirable to the general public, which greatly aided gay activists in their fight for equality, whether Bowie intended to advance their cause or not (Ziggy Stardust…).”
Rod Stewart, even though he was a straight man, wrote a song that affected many “Though the death of Georgie conforms to an old stereotype of gay lives ending badly, the empathy in the song proved stirring to a generation of gay people starving for public portrayals of any kind. ‘I’ve had gay people thank me for the song many, many times,’ Stewart said. ‘Recently, the boyfriend of a big-time British Olympic champion came up to me and said he heard it when he was 17 and he said it gave him some identity and independence, which is wonderful (Farber).”
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