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15 October 2009, 3:00 pm 12 Comments

The Indie Rock Fag: Suppressing My Gaga Reflex

This post was submitted by Zack Rosen

gaga reflex

photo by author.

I’d never though I’d say this, but I also saw Beth Ditto’s boobs the other day so I guess anything is possible:

I owe Lady Gaga an apology.

Until last Sunday’s National Equality March, I spent the better part of two years writing off the poker-faced pop tart as another “Just Add Water” gay icon. You take one part schizopherenic fashion sense, two parts insta-anthem dance floor hits, stir in an “is she or isn’t she” intersex non-scandal, and all of a sudden every gay man is acting as if she is more essential to our movement than Frank Kameny and lube combined.

And if you know me at all, you know this doesn’t wash. Most of the traditional gay icons have nothing to do with my life, and are instead caricatured amalgamations of some of our worst stereotypes. Its like thirty years ago someone decided that gay men respond well to bawdiness and feather boas and we haven’t looked back since. Meanwhile, truly vital artists like Karin Dreijer Anderrson, Little Dragon and The Sounds don’t get the community-wide attention they deserve.

However, much as dislike the artistic output of artists like Bette Midler and Cher, it is hard to dispute the fact they they have always been on the frontline when it comes to standing up for the gay community. So much of what we seek comes down to visibility – for the right to exist as ourselves in public spaces – and I like that the old guard celebrity fag hags are loyal and vocal to the men who buy their music. It doesn’t mean I’ll be any more comfortable at a piano bar, but I can understand why they are so revered.

So imagine my surprise when, after this Saturday’s National Equality March, a self-described music snob like me fell head over heels in love with Lady Gaga. It’s not because her songs play endlessly at my gym or a guy once screamed “I’m GAY! I MUST hear Lady Gaga” at me when I was DJing.

It’s because she stood up for the queer community in a way that most queer artists won’t. Many important people gave impassioned speeches last Sunday, including Judy Shepard, Lt. Dan Choi and Cynthia Nixon. But it was Lady Gaga that got the most reaction from the crowd. She publicly declared her allegiance to the community, said that being up there on The Mall speaking was the most important moment of her career and screamed, “Are you listening?” so loudly at Barack Obama that he probably was.

Music is like fire in the sense that people gather around it. A thousand volumes of impassioned text won’t impact the world 1/8th as much as three minutes of a well-written pop song. So to hear a rising superstar both admit they were queer at the upswing of their career (unlike, say, Lance Bass) and put their money where their mouth is on equalty rights won Lady G my respect forever. Of course, she doesn’t need my respect when the rest of the world already loves her. But I am in need of queer mainstream celebrities who I can give my respect too, and finding one in an unlikely place has been making me rethink some other things.

Like the flipside of this article, which is the fact that so many queer musicians that have found wide acceptance in the straight indie communities tend to stay quiet on the subject of gay rights. There are exceptions to this – Beth Ditto, The Blow’s Khaela Maricich and Antony Hegarty don’t overly straightwash themselves in concert- but I feel like many other tunesters take an “I’m a musician, not a gay musician” stance that just furthers the idea that being queer is something to be covered up.

I hate to pick on one musician in particular here, but I probably should in the name of specificity. So I’ll go with Ed Droste. As frontman of psych/folk revivalists Grizzly Bear, he has seen a near-meteoric rise in prominence among fans of indie music in the last two years. He is a frequent fixture in the queer press, but I have never seen him do anything but preach to the choir when it comes to speaking out for gay rights.

At this you might say, “But Zack, he’s a musician, not an activist.”

And I’ll respond that he doesn’t have to carry picket signs onstage or interrupt an encore of “Two Weeks” to rim his drummer onstage, but artists like Droste have unparalleled opportunities to reach the breeders. Has he ever implored a sold-out audience to vote for Marriage Equality in Maine or Washington? Did he use his recent Letterman appearance to open the eyes of a national TV audience to the inequality that gay people face everyday? He might do these things, but lord knows I’ve never gotten wind of it.

A high-profile musician can make big waves in one or two sentences. A high profile musician can mention their same-sex partner as casually a straight one mentions their spouse. The number of people he alienates will be far outweighed by those he galvanizes.

I used to take a lot of pride in the fact that my gay icons were along the lines of Ed Droste, not Lady Gaga. But how can I keep pledging my devotion to people that accept our admiration without giving us anything back? I’ve talked to many queer musicians who are happy not to be pigeonholed with the likes of Elton John, whose flamboyant showmanship has nothing to do with their more nuanced music. But Elton John has also donated massive amounts of money to AIDS Charity and showed the world there is nothing to be ashamed of in being publicly gay. Will the current crop of casually-out indie musicians follow his example?

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  • Queer Blogger said:

    Great piece. GREAT title. Love it.

  • Nathan said:

    Well done. But, come one you do not like Bette Midler? Have you ever seen her live? She is pretty funny and amazing. Margaret Cho would be nothing without here. Yeah I said it, Margaret Cho nearly line for line, stunt for stunt, rips off Better Midler.

    Look you know how much I adore you, but you are your own undoing. How? Because the “post-gay” that you espouse is the reason why there can even be casually-out people. It has always been my thought, even since I heard Michael talk about issues like this that you guys make a couple strange assumptions: one – all gay men have taste, oh g-d spend one hour in a gay bar in DC and you will see this is nowhere NEAR the case. This explain that feather boa syndrome you mention. two: being “post-gay” will be good for gay people, especially those that are not in the gay mainstream. I tend to disagree, with the merging of gayness into the mainstream we are losing some of the things that made us interesting to begin with. Without struggle there is no progress has a corollary, with out suffering there is only bad art. Just wait…you will see.

    The good news is the easier we make it for people to be “truer” to themselves, we all win. That isn’t going to make people stop being sleazy entertainers to make a buck. I guess I differ from you and see the base of so many of my arguments with Michael right now: I do not think of these peopel as artists, I think of them as paid monkeys and whores for money. Hmmm…pondering.

  • J said:

    the question still remains…if i ask you to play “bad romance”, will you?

  • Robert said:

    This will be unpopular and I will duck out after typing it so I don’t get up by the gay mafia, but isn’t there an element of capitalism here? I don’t doubt GaGa’s motives or feelings, but with a predominantly gay audience, isn’t it in her best financial interest to advocate on behalf of gay rights? Droste’s fan base, while definitely queer friendly, isn’t queer. A key focus of GaGa’s schtick is sexuality, gender-bending, and with dashes of queerness here and there. Whereas Grizzly Bear is an indie rock band.

    Lady GaGa is a “look at me, look at how loud and different I am” type of artist. It isn’t surprising then, that she spoke the way she did and in the manner that she did. Droste is a completely different type of artist. While he may not be as loud or outspoken as GaGa, we have no idea if he donates money or volunteers in his local community. I think just by being out and being a serious artist, Droste is a wonderful role model.

    Being loud and vocal doesn’t mean everything (see: the birthers and the healthcare-right-wing-nuts).

  • mmmknowledge@yahoo.com said:

    Thank you, Robert, for saying what I was thinking. It’s very nice Ms. Gaga supports us, but by doing so she certainly wouldn’t hurt her revenue stream, and might even increase it.

    Excluding those who are actively nasty toward the LGBT community, I would say that one should support whomever one likes to listen to. If you like her music and her flashy performances, more power to you. If it’s not your thing, then listen to whom you want to.

    This will date me severely, but nevertheless the Gaga schtick reminds me of a conversation I had in college. A guy was going on and on about how much he liked Kiss, and I told him I preferred Pink Floyd. He looked stunned, and said, “But I heard their shows are boring. All they do is stand there and play their instruments.” Each to his own, I suppose.

  • C.SINGS said:

    “I’m a musician, not a gay musician” is an absolutely valid position to take. Artists don’t owe “the gay community” anything. And there’s a real danger for bands and musicians of being labeled a ‘gay band’. Not only that, not all gay people believe in marriage. So taking an artist to task for not advocating for what you perceive to be important gay issues is not legit. Laday Gaga has everything to gain from courting her gay audience. Lotsa money in that market there for her. Whereas someone like Buju Banton, who just met this last weekend with gay activists in SF, does not.

    I speak as someone who has always been out when I say that real gay liberation is about not having to wear yr sexual identity on your sleeve, or make at an issue for anyone else.

  • Edward said:

    Honestly, I really appreciate Lady GAGA for being such an outspoken advocate for us for equality – few have risen to such a level in the entertainment or motion picture industry. But…really….can she lay-off the drinking, crystal-meth or what ever she may have happened to be “overserved with” before making a speech to a national audience?

    While she made it through without few noticable hitches, she didn’t seem 100% coherent at either the dinner on Saturday or the march on Sunday. Her voice was slurring and it’s hard for anyone in a position of political influence to take her or anyone seriously when they present themselves to the public in such a manner. Sorry to rub some wrongly that may read this comment, but having people speak forthrightly and clearly with conviction serves us better in the longterm.

  • Jon said:

    Zack, I think you could safely go back to making fun of her. Can’t we just agree that gays need better icons?! She’s a joke. Also, how many people in the entertainment industry AREN’T pro-gay? Hollywood speaks out heavily in favor of gay people. She takes no risks by speaking out. What listeners would she lose? Fundamentalist Christians? haha.

    Maybe you’d wish that your queer indie artists would speak out more, but good lord, that doesn’t mean you have to elevate Lady GaGa just because she gave an impassioned, drunken speech at an equality rally in DC. Zack, this post seems more about your resentment of how your queer indie artists handle their queerness than it is about Lady GaGa.

    If your favorite queer artists were speaking out more about their queerness, would you ever have decided that Lady GaGa was the shit?! I don’t think so.

  • Michael said:

    Nathan, if you believe that we with this site are encouraging the “merging of gayness into the mainstream” then you are missing the point. We are trying to encourage gay/queer people to identify as individuals rather than gain the whole of their identity from “gay culture.” We are encouraging all queer people to unite under shared experiences and commonalities, not assimilate into the mainstream straight culture. If we were advocating that, wouldn’t we simply tell lgbt people to simply hang out visibly at straight venues?

  • Joseph T said:

    I think it’s VERY important that musicians speak out on social issues- music for so long as been a mirror back at society of what is happening.

    One person commented that most in the entertainment industry are pro gay which I do not think is the case. Being associated with queer/gay people still comes at a risk and does not equal money. Sexist/ homophobic comments are still very much a part of the music industry, perhaps less so in indie music that seems popular for this site but mainstream music still welcomes it.

    Nice post.

  • blago said:

    I think Droste should be more activist-ey too.

    To be sure, Droste has a few good excuses for not getting more involved. Obviously, if Droste starts doing activist-ey stuff, no right-winger is going to suddenly change his mind. Also, his fans are probably already pretty pro-gay. So you might think that whether or not Droste does activist-ey stuff makes no difference.

    Still, Droste’s participation in activist-ey stuff would probably make his fans feel a bit more passionately pro-gay, if only because people tend to identify w/their musical idols (or maybe they just needed a reminder to care about gay stuff). Plus, getting involved would be relatively painless, and with potentially great rewards. For example, at the march, all he needed to do was show up and do a solo acoustic cover of “The Book of Love” and (1) it would have been awesome and (2) the crowd would have been pumped for *the rest of their lives.* Hell, maybe it would have gone viral on youtube — you never know.

  • Jady said:

    Unparalleled accuracy, uqneuviocal clarity, and undeniable importance!