2017 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City. That event marked a turning point in the struggle for gay rights. From that moment on, part of that struggle was gaining mainstream acceptance. In music, contributions by (closeted) gay artist were nothing new. Fran Schuber and George Frideric Handel were famously gay composers from centuries ago. More recently Liberace and Little Richard (assumed) took a knack for flair and flamboyance to opposite ends of the pop spectrum.
When I was a teen in the ’80s the term gay or queer music meant a lot of things (all bad). For the rednecks in my high school, it was just about anything from England that used synthesizers as opposed to guitars or banjos. I knew better. In a pre internet age, what cable TV would not tell me, the Village Voice at the public library would.
Queer music was still confined to clubs by 1982 (if you did not count church music). It might have been called disco a decade before, but there was clearly a movement underfoot where music formerly confined to the clubs and bars was making a run for the pop charts. It had happened before with The Village People, but the ’80s would see a wide-spread acceptance of formerly gay centric musical styles.
One band who helped usher this age of enlightenment was Bronski Beat. Bronski Beat’s lead vocalist Jimmy Somerville’s high tenor would certainly pass the queer music test as given by my redneck peers. A swishy English male whose voice ascends to the higher registry of divadom was bound to be ignored by homophobic masses, but a funny thing happened with The Age of Consent, Bronski Beat’s third album. Billybob seemed to take notice – if only for a moment.
In addition to having an albums worth of well written songs, Age of Consent ended up being a protest album from a group whose protests had grown silent in the days of pre-AIDS awareness. The album starts off with its biggest hit “Small Town Boy” one of many songs with a anti-homophobic theme. Violence in its varying scales were addressed in “Why” and “No More War”, both hits.
While many of the messages went over my 15 year old head, there were familiar re-interpretations of Disco favorites like Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” and the classic George Gershwin song “It Ain’t Necessarily So”.
In time, I would learn that the few covers did not equal the impact and sense of urgency of the new songs, many of which a very young Lloyd Cole (later of Lloyd Cole & the Commotions) would co-write. Some other future luminaries made contributions to the album including Marc Almond as a guest vocalist.
Age of Consent’s impact went far beyond its modest impact on the charts. As a major signifier that gay music was going mainstream, other pop acts like The Pet Shop Boys would continue Bronski Beat’s concept of protest music or profound social statements set to dance music.
Today ‘gay music’ is not so much gay anymore in that it is not segregated from the rest of pop. Like black music before it, it has become integral to the fabric of various forms of pop music. The original Stonewall protesters that weekend during the summer of 1969 might have never imagined that someone like Ru Paul or Boy George could be a mainstream pop star. More importantly, in our time of surreal reality TV, being gay has lost its shock value. Being a gay pop star is somehow no more rare than the next YouTube video sensation.