Let's go outside
As Ireland prepares to play host to Milk, a major European outdoor gay music festival, BRIAN FINNEGANasks: what is gay music? And with such an eclectic mix of sounds floating the community’s boats, can this festival please all of the people all of the time?
AT FIRST glance the line-up for outdoor lesbian and gay music festival Milk seems eclectic in the extreme. From 1980s bubblegum-pop divas Banana- rama to contemporary indie chicks Heathers, and from former page-three pin-up Samantha Fox to queen of post-modern clubbing Róisín Murphy, the range of entertainment Milk will be trotting out for the gay masses is as diverse as it is numerous.
The one-day line-up which, at last check, features 51 acts and DJ sets, has been the subject of much heated debate with Ireland’s gay hoi polloi, who will need to turn out in their droves if Milk is to live to see another year. Barely a dinner party or a pub conversation goes by these days without various, conflicting opinions being exercised and disagreements being reached.
Are Right Said Fred still too sexy for their shirts? Does Sophie Ellis-Bextor still incite murder on the dance floor? Is X Factorwinner Alexandra Burke a gay icon in the making or is her management cynically cornering a market? What makes one act rise above another when it comes to staging a festival for such a specific target market?
Milk’s headline star, Róisín Murphy, recently told me her massive gay following is rooted in glamour and attitude, and she hit a proverbial nail on the head. From Barbra Streisand to Cher, Madonna to Kylie, Dolly Parton to Shirley Bassey, there has always been a special place in the gay psyche for strong women singing their larger-than-life hearts out.
Gay men in particular gravitate towards these kinds of icon, possibly because they spent hours with a hairbrush in front of their bedroom mirrors imagining they were these icons. Gay boys in their bedrooms these days are lip-synching to Leona Lewis, Cheryl Cole and Alexandra Burke. Now – so long as they’re over 18 – they can sing along with Burke, live in the company of 5,000 other gay fans, in a Westmeath field come August 14th.
Still, for every Leona there’s a Michelle McManus, for every Madonna a Geri Halliwell – a female pop star who courted gay popularity but wasn’t quite able to hang on to it. With that in mind, here are a few handy tips not only for cornering the gay market, but ensuring longevity therein . . .
LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX
For straights and gays alike, more than talent, the music industry’s cornerstone is sex, and rising stars learn quickly to use their sexuality to garner attention. To get a good foothold on the gay ladder, it’s a good idea to hint at bisexual tendencies, even if you don’t have them. David Bowie began this tradition in the 1970s, Madonna latched on to it in the 1980s and, more recently, Lady Gaga played a deck of poker-faced bisexual cards to secure her pole position.
Bowie, of course, was playing with gender and sexual boundaries at a time when most people had never met a gay man or a lesbian, and gay people lived fairly underground lives. In the intervening years, things have changed enormously, leaving a gap in the market for pop stars to come out of the closet and hold on to a gay following for the rest of their lives.
Elton John led the way when he revealed his true colours in a 1980 Rolling Stone interview – since then, we’ve had Jimmy Somerville, Marc Almond, Boy George, Neil Tennant, kd lang, Will Young, Melissa Etheridge, Rufus Wainwright, Jake Shears and Beth Ditto – to name but a few.
FAME – WE’RE GONNA LOVE THEM FOREVER
While other stars may come and go with increasing speed, you can be sure that the aforementioned acts will endure with gay fans across the globe. Milk’s inclusion of Right Said Fred and Samantha Fox plays on this universal truth, and fans will travel from far to kneel at the altar of their gay fame. They may be on the kitsch side, but this is added value for the gay audience.
GOD SAVE THE QUEEN – THE POWER OF AN ANTHEM
If you’re not homosexual and hinting at bisexuality is not your thing, recording a gay anthem will ensure your queer status. There are two essential elements for an enduring gay anthem: a good bass line and self- celebration. Donna Summer did it with I Feel Love in 1977, Gloria Gaynor with I Will Survive in 1978 and, despite rumours that both women voiced objections to homosexuality on religious grounds, they continue to be top of the gay pops to this day. Abba did it with Dancing Queen, Diana Ross with I’m Coming Out, Sister Sledge with We Are Family. Bananarama did it in 1986 with Venus and, 24 years later, they’re among the headliners at Milk. They got it – yeah baby, they got it.
INDIE GAY GIRLS & BOYS
More recently there’s been the emergence of a gay indie scene, populated by louche-haired boys and girls who casually drop alternative sexualities into the act. For most of them, indie-folk heroines Indigo Girls are touchstones, a fact Milk performers Heathers might testify to. A sister act whose song Remember When was used for a Discover Ireland TV ad campaign, their resemblance to lesbian Canadian twins Tegan and Sara has been on the tip of gay tongues in the past few months. Tegan and Sara themselves caused lesbian hysteria when they appeared in Dublin’s Tower Records to sign their latest album in June. Girls with tattoos, piercings and crooked fringes queued around the block before storming the shop.
Gay guys in the indie know are hanging on to every last word uttered by Bloc Party frontman Kele Okereke, who appeared on the cover of the alt-gay magazine du jour Butt last month to promote his solo album, casually chatting about his sexual exploits along the way.
The Milk festival line-up might not have indie for the boys pinned down, but it’s trying to cover every other base for its niche audience – hence the endless chatter.
The indie kids want nothing to do with Alexandra Burke; the Seb Fontaine house music fans wouldn’t be seen dead shaking their booties to Right Said Fred. Cult favourites Róisín Murphy and Sophie Ellis-Bextor may unify the troops with their status in the cool stakes, but it remains to be seen whether Milk’s eclecticism can cut enough mustard to break even. If it does, you can expect the likes of kd lang to share the stage with Marilyn Manson in years to come.
Milk is at Ballinlough Castle, Co Westmeath on August 14; milk2010.ie
Boys who like girls Divas to die for
MADONNAAppropriating gay culture and keeping an eye on what DJs are playing in the gay clubs has ensured her longevity and iconographic status.
KYLIEFrom pop princess to sequinned queen, surviving adversity on the way, she ticks the boxes for every boy on planet gay.
KD LANGHer smooth voice, tomboy haircut and a Vanity Fair cover with Cindy Crawford still make lesbians the world over swoon.
LADY GAGASome say it’s too early to say, but Gaga’s rise to world domination, not to mention her championing of gay causes, makes her a contender for Madonna’s crown.
P!NK She played the bisexual card in the early days, and since then lesbians and their gay mates have been in thrall.
DOLLY PARTONNever one to shy away from standing up for equal rights, the rhinestone cowgirl gains another gay fan every day.
BARBRA STREISANDThe triumph of the ugly duckling put Streisand on the gay map, her voice and her shameless self-celebration kept her there.
JUDY GARLANDThere were so many homosexuals in New York for her funeral in June 1969 that the Stonewall riots happened and the gay rights movement began.
LIZA MINELLILike mother, like daughter – with Sally Bowles thrown in for good measure.
BETH DITTOHer refusal to be cowed by convention made her an instant gay icon.
Brian Finnegan is editor of Gay Community News