Choir as folk: Big Gay Sing stirs my inner teen
Music has been the saviour of many unhappy gay teens – I remember crying in the back of a bus to Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy – and a sing-along event coming to Dublin taps into that
Rory O’Neill, aka Panti Bliss, leads choir practice at Panti Bar on Dublin’s Capel Street. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne
New York City Gay Men’s Chorus performing a Big Gay Sing
Heading home from boarding school, the Christmas of 1984, I took the bus instead of my usual train. I remember I had the back row to myself, and the almost empty bus took hours to make the journey, trundling through the pitch-black countryside. I was 14. I had my very first Walkman and a cassette full of songs I had taped from the radio.
One of them was Smalltown Boy by Bronski Beat. The song was about a young gay boy feeling the need to leave his small town and go to London. There I was, bawling my eyes out in the back row, heading back to the Ballinrobe, Co Mayo, where as a small-town boy myself I had never felt entirely comfortable. I cried because it spoke to me so well. The song was about me. It was me.
Music has been the saviour of many unhappy teenagers, straight and gay. In many ways The Big Gay Sing, which I will be hosting at Bord Gáis Energy Theatre next week, is an acknowledgement and a celebration of this. All angsty teenagers appreciate that music is something private that speaks to you. Music allows young people to build their own world in their bedrooms, whatever the world outside might be like. Gay young people probably relate even more strongly to this because, for them growing up, the outside world is often an uncomfortable place.
Perfectly imperfect tunes
As a drag queen and a voracious consumer of music, I have always been attracted to those tunes that contain a particular kind of imperfection. I appreciate that kind of singing voice, close enough to perfect but containing a crack, a fissure that allows emotion to seep through.
When Whitney Houston was younger, her voice was so perfect, there were no cracks, and it didn’t appeal to me. What all those true camp icons from the past had in common was their imperfection – they were damaged in some way. I don’t count Lady Gaga or Katy Perry as gay icons because I don’t believe gay people will be talking about them in 30 years’ time. But with somebody such as Diana Ross, you feel every word she sings. It’s the same with Dolly Parton: her voice is incredibly pure but there’s a soft, timid quality. It is a voice full of feeling.
Younger gay people are more confident now, and they are coming out earlier, but there is something about women such as Judy Garland and Marlene Dietrich, outsiders with difficult lives, that remains attractive and relevant to the experience of older gay people.
My lip-synch songs
There are very strict criteria for the songs I lip-synch to in my act. I want the song to tell some kind of a story. During the performance I will often undercut the song in a comic way or heighten the emotion. Sometimes people hear a song but don’t actually listen to the words until they have a visual representation. I also need the vocal to be high up in the mix rather than buried in a thousand layers of overproduction. And I obviously want it to be a female, for the visual effect.