It’s been a stellar few months for gay and gay-friendly musicians. Last spring, Adam Lambert became the first openly gay artist to debut at number one on the Billboard album chart, and this very week, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis debut on the Hot 100 with “Same Love,” their rap ode to same-sex marriage.
And on Sunday night, Frank Ocean could become the first openly queer person to win Record of the Year or Album of the Year and the first openly queer solo artist to win Best New Artist.
Those are three of the Grammy’s Big Four Awards, and a win for Ocean, who has publicly acknowledged that he fell in love with a man and who has same-sex love songs on his album Channel Orange, would be a great step forward. It would cement the fact that being openly gay is not a barrier to mainstream success in the music industry.
It’s true, of course, that Ocean hasn’t had a blockbuster hit like “Call Me Maybe,” but for an artist who makes adventurous and thoughtful R&B, he’s been a sensation. Channel Orange has sold almost 500,000 copies, which is great in the current market, and his song “Thinkin’ Bout You” is close to selling a million. Clearly, his sexuality has not banished him to a ghetto of “niche music” and the remarkable quality of his work has allowed him to shine.
Now… are there people who like Ocean’s music because he’s queer? Probably. I mean… my favorite song on the album is “Forrest Gump,” which is about a gay love affair, and even though I enjoy most of the other tracks, that one sticks out. And are there people, along with Chris Brown, who refuse to listen for the same reason? Most likely. But by and large it seems like people are embracing Frank Ocean as an artist and not just as a “gay artist,” if that makes sense. (The next breakthrough will come when we don’t need to be surprised or delighted by this kind of acceptance, but we’re not quite there yet.)
Now, let’s get back to the Grammys: Gay artists have been getting nominated for decades, and plenty of them have won awards. For instance, Stephen Sondheim won Song of the Year—the other Big Grammy—way back in the 70s for writing “Send in the Clowns.”
And in 1984, Culture Club won Best New Artist. In the band’s acceptance speech, openly gay, fabulously androgynous frontman Boy George even said, “Thank you America! You’ve got taste, style, and you know a good drag queen when you see one!” (This entire clip of their victory is amazing, by the way. Why is Joan Rivers there? Why is Rodney Dangerfield sexually harassing Cyndi Lauper?)
Still, no solo queer artist has ever won Best New Artist, and it’s been almost thirty years since Boy George picked up the prize. So it would be nice for Ocean to win. That might also help excuse the year that Indigo Girls, those lesbian super-musicians, lost Best New Artist to Milli Vanilli.
Meanwhile, George Michael won Album of the Year in 1989, but he was closeted at the time, and as far as I know, no gay person (closeted or not) has ever won Record of the Year. If Ocean wins either, then he’ll be out from the get-go. It would be nice to see one of the industry’s biggest awards go to someone who has never had to hide.
Mark Blankenship really, really enjoyed that clip of Culture Club’s victory. He tweets as @IAmBlankenship