In recent interviews, rising pop star Mika has refused to disclose whether he is gay or straight — a topic about which there has been much speculation in the gay press — even while actively courting gay audiences. His stance has resulted in a flurry of both positive and negative reactions from gay fans and critics, renewing public interest in the choices male musicians make regarding publicly discussing their sexual orientation.
In a world where image is everything, what are the career consequences for successful musicians who either refrain from speaking about their sexuality, or who openly label themselves from the outset? Are there really still serious drawbacks that go along with being labeled a “gay” musician?
AfterElton.com surveys the experiences of gay and “gay-seeming” rock artists over the last several decades, and concludes with a look at the current generation of gay male musicians, discussing whether the times have changed, or whether the “gay musician” label is still something artists like Mika are wise to avoid.
From Styx to Stipe: a history of gay men who rock
Openly gay musician Chuck Panozzo is bassist and founding member of the multi-platinum rock band Styx and author of the new book The Grand Illusion: Love, Lies and my Life with Styx (Amacom Books). Told with disarming honesty, the book relates Panozzo’s decades-long struggle to reconcile his public “straight rock star” life with his inner, authentic gay self.
Panozzo spent many years in the closet because he was afraid his gay sexuality would offend family, friends, bandmates and fans. His sense of shame and self-denial continued even after he became HIV-positive in 1991.
Before I was ‘out’,” Panozzo tells AfterElton.com, “I had become more and more withdrawn within my professional career. Here I was, stuck in this touring band, and not really being myself. The idea of connecting eye to eye with the audience became almost impossible for me to do.”
Panozzo finally came out in 2001 at age 53. Doing so changed everything, especially his ability to relate to audiences.
“I was never so much afraid of being ‘outed’,” he says, “as I was afraid that someone would rob me of the opportunity to out myself. Coming out publicly created a 180-degree change in my life and my psyche. Now when I perform onstage, there’s a real reduction in the fear factor. My performing now is so much more exhilarating, my involvement so much more fun.”
British heavy metal god and Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford came out publicly in 1998.
"I absolutely think it would have been more difficult for me to have come out in the ’70s or ’80s," Halford told Decibel magazine in 2006. "I was aware of the fallout and damage that could have occurred because of the reaction from some fans and labels and media, but most importantly to my bandmates.” Though not an activist by his own admission, Halford is breaking ground in a hyper-masculine music culture not usually identified with gays.
Halford reunited with Judas Priest in 2005, and being out has done little to alienate his fans. Lesbian rocker Otep Shamaya relates in Decibel, “ It was pretty amazing watching thousands of screaming metalheads at Ozzfest 2004 roaring every note of every Judas Priest song without one person screaming any homophobic rhetoric at Rob Halford.”
Coming out did not go down as well for frontman/bassist Doug Pinnick of the critically acclaimed power-pop trio King’s X, which was marketed as a Christian rock band in the 1990’s. When Pinnick came out publicly in 1998, neither the band’s record label nor their Christian fan following were much amused.
Pinnick reflected on his decision in Decibel. "I just felt like a hypocrite hiding it, especially in the Christian music scene," Pinnick stated. "We never wanted to become associated with ignorance and intolerance.”
Many Christian bookstores suddenly refused to sell King’s X albums. "I’ve said many controversial things in the media, especially about my dissatisfaction with Christian media and becoming agnostic”, continued Pinnick. “They never questioned this, but when I came out, they freaked."
Pinnick has chosen not to connect directly with gay audiences. "I’m not going to walk down the street and do gay pride," he continues. "I don’t care about it. I’ve got a (pink triangle) sticker on my bass, and I do that only because most straight people don’t know what it means anyway. If there is somebody who understands it, then hey, I can meet someone who feels the way I do.”
Vocalist Michael Stipe of R.E.M. publicly came out in 2001. "I was being made to be a coward about it,” he explained to Time magazine, “rather than someone who felt like it really was a very private thing." Both Stipe and R.E.M. have survived his coming out, and critics and fans continue to support the band.
Stipe explains his ongoing good standing with audiences thus: “I was never photographed with a woman on my arm, trying to pretend that I was something that I wasn't. I was always extremely frank and very open with the people around me. But for the public, I just felt like, ‘If you haven't figured it out, I'm not going to tell you. It's not really your business…'”
Artistically, Stipe expresses his sexuality in rather indecipherable terms. "Yeah. I kind of like gender-f***ing,” he said in Q Magazine. “We've done it from the beginning. I think the songs should be heard by anybody and not necessarily have a male voice. Blurring the edges a little bit."
Enigmatic and compelling to some — dreary and obfuscating to others — British vocalist Morrissey has managed to maintain a 30-year plus pop idol career while never disclosing his sexual orientation. This might not be so maddening if everything about Morrissey weren't so consistently and obviously gay. Still, all anyone really knows of his sex life is his oft-repeated claim that he is celibate and/or asexual.
When the Times of London asked him if he were gay or straight, he replied, “It's neither of those things. “I'm simply myself, which is inexcusable to many people. I'm not trapped by anything.”
In the 1980's Morrissey fronted The Smiths, one of modern rock's most influential bands. The band's albums often featured gay, camp styled artwork and many of their songs' lyrics are laced through with vague homosexual references.
For every journalist that has chastised the coy Morrissey for his refusal to label himself, another one pops up to defend him. If he loses gay fans from one album release, he gains a new batch with another. Although nowhere near as popular as he once was with The Smiths, Morrissey maintains a core of rabidly devoted followers.
Edgy glam rock trio Placebo features gay bassist Stefan Olsdal and bisexual frontman/guitarist Brian Molko. The band has always been upfront and open about itself.
In a 2006 Digital Spy interview, Molko bemoans being out for the distraction it caused fans and critics. "I was open about my sexuality because I was filled with a great deal of musical bravado when Placebo started," he explained. "Coming out of the closet seemed to be important to me in terms of making a stand. Unfortunately, we became this faggy band in dresses in the eyes of the media. People started to talk about that and not the music as a by-product."
Molko now wishes he emulated rockers who downplay their sexuality. "I think that's probably why people like Michael and Morrissey have been relatively quiet," he added.
Pop/punk band Imperial Teen offers fans numerous gay-themed songs and includes two gay members: keyboardist/singer Roddy Bottum and vocalist Will Schwartz.
Bottum came out publicly way back in 1993. At the time he was the only gay member in the artsy, eccentric Faith No More, a funk/rock band noted for button-pushing and outlandish behavior. “I think the fact that the keyboard player was gay played into that nicely,” Bottum told Decibal Magazine. “The gay/straight issue wasn't so important.”
In Imperial Teen, Bottum and Schwartz have come under much more scrutiny regarding their orientation. “Suddenly I was talking about my sexuality a lot, which I'm not so into,” Bottum said in an SFGate.com interview. “I'm a gay man, but it's a starting point, it's not something to dwell on.” “We make pop music for everybody,” added Schwartz, “for gay people and straight people and everything in between.”
Bottum and Schwartz raise valid points shared by gay musicians and gay fans alike who feel a detachment from mainstream gay culture. “I don't even know what defines the gay lifestyle,” Bottum said. Swartz adds, “It's different things to different people.”
Much-respected Singer/guitarist/songwriter Bob Mould of the 1980s hardcore/alternative band Husker Du (and Sugar in the 1990s) is one openly gay rock star who started out ambivalent and seemingly unconnected to the broader gay community.
In 1994 Mould was outed, rather unceremoniously, by several gay publications. It adversely affected some of his core fan base. “ Professionally, I felt it immediately,” he told Harp Magazine in 2005. “Radio stations in the South reacted poorly.”
Coming as he did from the flannel-shirted, tough-guy world of loud guitar rock, Mould's bad outing experience at first left him rejecting gay activism and association, leading some to brand him “self-hating”. Eventually, his attitudes changed. “I think as time went on,” he said to Harp, “I had time to step away from my professional life, which was not a gay life, and take a couple years to get into the gay life in New York City. I started to feel a lot more whole. I'm a much happier person now. I feel bad that I wasn't comfortable doing more as an ‘out' musician earlier.”
In 2003 Mould co-organized, along with colleague and openly gay artist John Cameron Mitchell, the WEDrock concert to benefit Freedom to Marry, a gay marriage advocacy organization. Mould told Rolling Stone, "Who is he (President Bush) to tell the world how we should perceive two people wanting equal protection under the already existing system?"
Singer/pianist/songwriter Joe Jackson's music is rooted in the late 1970s “new wave” of sophisticated pop/jazz/classical styled rock. Like Mould, Jackson has also maintained an edgy relationship with mainstream gay culture. Even today many people don't even know he is gay, and the fact isn't mentioned on his website.
In his 1999 autobiographical book A Cure for Gravity, Jackson muses on how people make assumptions about him based on his lanky and perhaps effeminate appearance. However, throughout the book he remains ambiguous about his orientation, and speaks out against generalizing on anyone's sexuality.
But there are gay references in some of Jackson's music. For example, in a 2003 interview with Puremusic.com, Jackson opens up about himself while discussing the meaning behind his song “Real Men”.
“I see the gay identity has become more and more about being so masculine that you're more straight than the straight guys. And this is something that I find quite funny. I sort of get it, and at the same time, I don't like it that much. It's mixed feelings. And if we're talking about stereotypes, then I guess what I'm saying in the song is that I almost prefer the older stereotype — this sort of Oscar Wilde/Quentin Crisp gay stereotype.”
Neil Tennant of the English electronic pop duo Pet Shop Boys shied away from discussing homosexuality in the 1980s, but came out in 1993. His other Pet Shop Boy half, Chris Lowe has, to date, kept his sexuality a secret.
Tennant was a driving force behind Wotapalava, his planned 2001 worldwide tour of openly gay acts including Junior Vasquez, Rufus Wainwright, Soft Cell, and Magnetic Fields that unfortunately never got off the ground. Despite its failure, Wotapalava can be said to be a precursor to this year's 2007 True Colors tour organized by Cyndi Lauper that includes Erasure and Wainwright.
Pet Shop Boys belong to a group of highly successful Euro techno/synth/rock groups that includes Depeche Mode (all band members reportedly straight), Erasure (duo featuring openly gay singer Andy Bell), Soft Cell (duo featuring openly gay singer Marc Almond) and Rammstein (band members do not disclose their current sexuality).
These bands are towering figures in gay pop culture and have huge gay followings, and many have collaborated with other gay pop icons. For the most part their song lyrics are not specifically gay, but purposefully ambiguous, which could explain their continued popularity with both gay and straight audiences.
New generation, same crossroads
Perhaps Mika took his career cue from ex-boyband singer and pop megastar Ricky Martin — whose own sexual orientation has long been the subject of speculation. To date, Martin has refused to definitively answer whether he is gay or straight. His attitude may be summed up in his statement to People Magazine: "I'm an artist and you can fantasize about me however you want."
Regardless of how evasive Martin has been about his sexual orientation, his strategy of nondisclosure marked a turning point in pop culture. He never lost his core fan base and his worldwide sales remain unaffected.
In a 1999 Associated Press interview, Advocate editor-in-chief Judy Wieder noted: "He's responding without squelching the rumors or immediately running around with a woman.” Wieder told The Sun, "he includes gay men in his fan base without being terrified the women will run away […] It says there's a lot less fear going on about sex orientation."
While still remaining tight-lipped about himself, Martin recently offered public words of support for Chistian Chavez of the Mexican band RBD, who recently came out as gay. "Life is too short to live closed up, guarding what you say,” Martin told the Associated Press.
As a possible model for Mika's career tactics, Martin's coy statement in his now famous 1999 Barbara Walters interview comes to mind. After not being able to get him to reveal his orientation, she admitted, “If gay people think you're gay and straight people think you're straight, hey, it means a bigger audience.”
“Exactly,” replied Martin.
In hearing Mika brush off media speculation that he might be gay, one can sense the marketing savvy beneath the privacy issue façade. “I never talk about anything to do with my sexuality,” he said in a widely-quoted 2007 interview attributed to PR-Inside.com Entertainment News. “I just don't think I need to. People ask me all the time. But I just don't see the point. In order to survive I've kind of shut up different parts of my life, and that's one of them, especially this early in my career."
Already a smash success in Europe, and hoping to break big in the U.S., cocksure Mika says he fears no ingrained social taboos about rock stars looking and sounding gay. He's quick to point out that his song “Billy Brown” is about a homosexual love affair. Is Mika's attempt to keep his sexuality private really just a marketing strategy of playing gay for the gays and straight for the straights?
When asked about what he thinks of artists such as Mika and Martin, who seem gay, promote themselves to gays, yet dance around the sexuality issue, Chuck Panozzo doesn't mince words. “It saddens me to see artists playing that game,” he says. “I can understand it at the beginning of their career, but after all, this is the year 2007. Especially since there are young musicians around who are willing to say ‘I'm gay'.”
Jake Shears of the disco/pop/glam band Scissor Sisters is openly gay, but claims he is not interested in singing about being gay. In a 2007 www.me-me-me.tv interview he bristled: “I want the music to be accessible. I don't want to appeal to just a tenth of the population. I couldn't give a f*** about being gay. I'm not a gay man first and foremost.”
Shears's words may come back to haunt him. One might make the case that he needn't feel obligated to make “gay art” simply because he's gay. But early on, the Scissor Sisters purposely chose to make gay-gay-gayness their startup image and marketing strategy.
Lately Scissor Sisters have been floundering somewhat in their quest for mainstream U.S. success. Perhaps they seek to lose some of the “gay taint” surrounding them. Are “the gays” to blame for holding them back from larger commercial success, or are Scissor Sisters wrong to dis those who put them on the map in the first place?
There's no doubt today's new wave of young bands are more at ease with homosexuality than their old-school forbears. Musicians now are more likely to shrug it off, write songs about it and even discuss it with the press.
Chuck Panozzo concurs. “It's nowhere near as bad now as it was before. One can now see young openly gay artists getting record deals and at least getting out there and performing. It's exciting for me to see this happen. When I was young, I had no role models. There was no one to take me by the hand and say, ‘Now Chuck, do it this way and don't do it that way.'”
Critically acclaimed Brit art/punk band Bloc Party features gay singer Kele Okereke, who is becoming an eloquent spokesman for disaffected, lonely youth with several songs with openly gay lyrics. Okereke spoke of his goals to ArjanWrites.com: "To speak to young people in their impressionable formative years,” he says, “and say something that could help them make sense of their lives. Lessen the sense of alienation and isolation that they might have. I think that's something that definitely… I'd be proud of.”
Also from Britain, upbeat soft-rock group The Feeling stars Dan Gillespie Sells, who is poised to become the new gay heartthrob in rock. Armed with stylish, preppy good looks and perfect coif, h e only came out publicly in 2006, but arrives with some fascinating gay credentials. "My mum's gay, my uncle too, so I grew up thinking it was perfectly normal,” he admitted in Attitude magazine, noting that he marched in his first pride parade at age 4.
As they seek to make it big in the U.S., Brits Okereke and Gillespie Sells wisely came out of the closet early so as to preempt any U.S. media innuendos. Their gay orientations are already a non-issue with their fans.
Young musicians in today's rock scene have witnessed the very public outings of their rock predecessors — think Elton John, Freddie Mercury, George Michael. They've seen Kurt Cobain don a dress. They see openly gay characters and actors on TV and in films. They are even aware of the many openly gay acts that have been out from the outset and forged careers mainly within gay culture, including homocore favs Pansy Division, gay pop icons The Village People and singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright.
“They grew up during a time in the '90s when sex and gender were discussed more openly and in creative contexts,” notes journalist Jean Fury in Decibel, “as opposed to the '80s when 'gay' meant 'AIDS.' As a result, the younger bands are more likely to have out-of-the-closet friends.”
Kids raised on MTV were acclimated to all things queer early on in their lives via the wildly popular videos of uber-gay rock acts such as The B-52's, Culture Club and Human League. Since their heyday in the 1980s, gay frontmen Fred Schneider of the B-52's and Boy George of Culture Club have gone on to become highly visible celebrities in their own right, lending their fame to a variety of pro-gay causes.
Young rockers today can even look back on a considerable lineage of self-described straight and/or ex-gay musicians who have, at one time or another, played the “gay card” to advance their careers. Anti-hero type idols such as Alice Cooper, David Bowie, Kiss and Marilyn Manson sensationalized gay fantasy, homoeroticism, gender-bending and camp glamour. Even these “fake” gay acts helped open up entrenched conservative sexual mores across the U.S.
“The fact is,” Panozzo concludes, “we are all musicians and professionals. Music is a universal language. There is power in what we are doing. It strips away all the crap and makes us human. Once we can all understand that, there should be no fear, if you are a straight musician, of sharing the stage with a gay musician. The main purpose is to perform and share musical talent with each other.”