For the first six weeks of this column we’ve attempted to lay the groundwork for future installments by establishing the history. For the most part, that has meant folk, gospel/spiritual, and blues. Pretty much every contemporary musical genre has roots in one, both, or all of those forebearers and our starting point is now essentially carved out for us. We have our foundations. Everywhere we go from here will make so much more sense. Meanwhile, you’ve been able to explore the lives of characters as diversely admirable as Pete Seeger, Robert Johnson, and Ma Rainey; while perhaps learning a bit more about the likes of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, John Lee Hooker, and Billie Holiday.
Importantly, we can understand a little more about the world that these musicians were living in and the conditions they were working in. All of which can only deepen our understanding as we move forward to look at more contemporary political issues and how musicians deal with them. One artist there at the birth of rock & roll — a genre born out of the blues — was Little Richard and as we approach the summer and “Pride Season” it’s worth remembering the man born Richard Wayne Penniman in 1932 Georgia.
It’s difficult to truly understand the cultural impact of Little Richard today, because the world has moved on in many ways, even if it doesn’t always feel that way. Richard launched his career in the mid ’40s. As a black man in a Southern state, it wasn’t just a bold move to openly blur conventional gender lines, it was a risk to his life.
That said, he hasn’t been allowed to be comfortable in his own skin. Despite telling Penthouse, in 1995, that he always knew he was gay, recent years have seen him bury himself deeper into religion. As recently as 2017, he referred to homosexuality and transgender as “unnatural”. This is a shame and incredibly disappointing, though he’s clearly trying to figure out his own mind, even at the age of 86.
Without question though, Little Richard forced doors open a crack. It would be years, however, before they were fully widened. For years, homosexuality was considered a given in the music and entertainment world but musicians would generally stop short at publically coming out, oftentimes for fear that it would affect their popularity. It seems weird now to think that there was a time, namely the ’80s, when people would play “are they/aren’t they” with Freddie Mercury, Elton John, George Michael, and yes, even Boy George (also, musicians that were straight but were considered feminine such as Prince and Michael Jackson).
As the singer for Wham!, George Michael was the one on the wall of thousand and thousands of teen girls’ bedrooms in the mid ’80s. Music execs feared that should he come out the band’s marketability would drop rapidly. Music biz wisdom, from The Beatles on, says that teen heartthrobs need to project the idea that their fans have a chance at romance with them — that during a show, the singer might look down at the front row, see said fan, and fall madly in love. That’s the impossible dream they want to sell, to keep the fans screaming and crying, and the t-shirts selling. In their dollar-filled minds, a gay singer can’t sell that dream. Of course, what we know now but they didn’t know then is how lucrative that LGBTQ market is.
Pushing gay artists into a public closet was an ugly trend which continued for some time. In the UK, all three members of late ’80s boy band Big Fun, most famous for a cover of The Jacksons’ “Blame It On the Boogie”, were gay but were told by the management/production “factory” Stock Aitken Waterman to keep it quiet so as not to scare away female fans. Another British ’80s band, Frankie Goes To Hollywood pushed as far up to the line as possible; anyone in the dark about their sexuality was simply not paying attention.
Things really started to change in the ’90s. The AIDS crisis and the death of Freddie Mercury had shone a spotlight and challenged us to move forward. There was no place for shame anymore. Boy George, Elton John, George Michael, and also Judas Priest’s leather-clad frontman Rob Halford, all were able to freely talk about their sexuality.
One can only imagine how freeing that was. The only mysteries that remained were related to sordid tales of 1970s orgies — did David Bowie, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, and Mick Jagger all get it on in a Warhol-induced tryst back in the day? Really though, who cares? Meanwhile, the likes of trans proto-punk Jayne County — who had been open and gloriously, unapologetically loud for decades — could sit back and smile.
In 2019, things are far from perfect but they must be considered better. When the singer of Florida punk band Against Me! transitioned and revealed herself to be Laura Jane Grace, it barely registered as any big thing with most, if not all, fans. Ditto Brooklyn hardcore/metal band Life Of Agony and their singer Mina Caputo.
We have singer/songwriters, indie stars, and punks across the LGBTQ spectrum with the likes of Ezra Furman proudly waving the queer flag. And, importantly, some of the biggest pop stars of today preach pro-gay messages, including Gaga’s “Born This Way.”