Can music be gay? It’s a question Time magazine asked in 2008. If music can be black or female or Latin then yes, it certainly can be gay. I write, sing, and produce a genre I like to call “gay pop,” which is R&B/Dance music that would be played on the radio but comes from the perspective of an openly gay man—and all that entails.
After 11 years of putting out “gay pop,” I still believe what I do is universal. The dream of doing it on the biggest level—Madison Square Garden, Grammys, the cover of Rolling Stone—still burns inside me. As a child, I believed I was destined for superstardom, but grew up feeling the pain and shame of living in a world that didn’t accept me.
Maybe that’s why when my co-producer told me to take off what he thinks is the gayest song I have on my new album, I actually considered it—even after 11 years of being an openly gay artist. Could my rainbow flag-waving be what’s holding me back and preventing me from fulfilling these big dreams? Am I ghettoizing myself? Maybe if I just de-gay myself a little, I would achieve the kind of mainstream success I hope for.
My producer had a convincing argument. He told me that nobody was going to put in the $850,000 it takes to get one song on the radio if there’s any risk involved. He said that no matter how talented I may be, there are other artists who don’t have the “baggage”–especially in this current music industry that is spending only 20 percent of what it used to, to break an artist. He said he wanted to see me have a long career and doesn’t want me to limit myself in case someone with money wants to invest in me.
As we were having this debate, my producer asked me to join him to pick up his 11-year-old son from swim team. His son got in the car and told his father that his teammates were picking on him and calling him gay because he was last in the race. He quickly came to his own defense and said, “I don’t play for speed, Dad, I play for distance!” He then told his father that another kid knocked him off the elliptical bike at the gym—and that kid had called him gay last week. My producer told his son he would call the coach when he got home. But right before getting back to the house, almost as an aside, he asked, “What are you doing that’s causing these boys to say these things to you?” His son responded, “I don’t know, Dad!”
I never had the guts to tell my parents that anyone was calling me gay in school because I was too afraid that it might have tipped them off—as if the Annie dollhouse I loved to play with weren’t already. In the orthodox Jewish household I grew up in, there didn’t seem to be a chance that my parents would ever accept me—not when my rabbis in school were telling me it was a sin. The day-to-day living in secrecy, having to hide who I was in school and then coming home and still being made to feel like there was something wrong with me, definitely chipped away at my self-esteem. If my adult self could have told that little boy that I was wrong about my parents and that they loved me enough to work through their homophobia to fully accept their son, I could have saved myself so much suffering. Of course, I’m one of the lucky ones who had parents that ultimately came to accept me for who I am.
Still, building back that self-esteem is a daily challenge for me—especially when I’m told to this day that I may be “too gay.” In a piece I wrote in 2007 for The Advocate, "It’s Not Easy Being a Gay Pop Star” I wrote about how Sony told me I was “too gay” for the gay record label they were developing (a label that is only releasing Kathy Griffin’s comedy albums at this point). In pop music, “Ur So Gay,” to quote a Katy Perry song, is as big an insult as you can get.
Whoopi Goldberg defended me against the bullies of gay pop when I went on her radio show in 2008. Her producer initially told me I was “not mainstream enough” to be on her show; a term that I’ve come to know as code. Whoopi and her long-time partner Tom Leonardis fought to get me on the show. When that same producer quickly tried to usher me out after the first segment, Whoopi gave her a piercing look that could have tamed a lion and said, “He’s staying for another segment.” Whoopi must have known what was going on considering her own unique journey in show-business breaking barriers. She even said on the air that I was changing the face of pop music much like Obama was changing the face of the presidency.
That’s why I want to embrace this term “gay pop.” Not only because I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, but also because it was a term used by the music editor of Entertainment Weekly when I sent in my last album for review. The email response I got was “the thing is that even though EW is basically the house that homos built, we don't really have anyone on the print side who covers/covets gay pop.”
But I covet gay pop. There’s power in reclaiming the term and opening up the definition to include all the ways gay people have created and influenced our musical culture. Like the way Beyonce struts down a set of stairs like only a fierce queen could have taught her to, or the way Gaga borrows her style from the NYC '90s gay club scene, or the first half of Madonna’s entire career. I didn’t need Ricky Martin to come out to claim “Livin' La Vida Loca” as a quintessential gay pop song (the fact that it was written by openly gay hit-maker Desmond Child notwithstanding).
I’ve been trying to convince industry big-wigs for over 15 years that housewives and teenage girls couldn’t care less how gay a pop star is. The huge platform of American Idol proved that to be true with Adam Lambert. And his concert I went to in New York was the most exciting and brazenly flamboyant pop show I’ve seen since Boy George. Even white gay rapper Cazwell got over a million hits on YouTube with a video filled with go-go boys from the NYC gay scene.
This is gay pop in 2011—and I think we should claim it all. It is no more limiting or ghettoizing than a gay TV show like Glee or a gay movie like Brokeback Mountain. It’s been over 20 years since superstar acts like George Michael, Melissa Etheridge, and Elton John have come out, and even though a celebrity coming out is still big news, it has gotten better. I will never get to see the world the way it might have been if we hadn’t lost so many greats to AIDS—especially a brilliant and flamboyant musical artist like Sylvester—but I still have the privilege of walking in the path he left behind.
I decided to leave the gay song in question on my album after all. Not enough artist’s music speaks to a defining political and social struggle. I put the phrase “don’t ask, don’t tell” in one of my songs before seeing it repealed. I’ve written songs about the down-low and gender identity. I get to play the role of a sexy gay pop star, the kind I never had growing up. I have fans that tell me my music has changed their lives and helped them get through high school and through coming out after 50. I’ve been honored to sing my love song “Bashert (Meant To Be)” at four gay weddings and as of today I can sing it loud at a gay wedding in New York and it be legal.
It seems that with every album I release, I have to remember that this is the gift. After having that moment of doubt, I needed my co-producer’s 11-year-old son to remind me. He could not have said it better when he told his dad, “I’m not playing for speed, I’m playing for distance.”