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.
My favourite song to lip-synch to is And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going, the original recording by Jennifer Holliday. I always play it straight. I never undercut it for comic effect because it’s so intensely serious and emotional.
Songs to be avoided
There are some songs that I would be reluctant to perform as they are cliched and overdone, but that changes over time. I often see young kids who have no reference for songs such as I Will Survive, which means they can come to them fresh. But I often wish younger gay people would reach further into the back-catalogue – they would find richer music and stories there.
Of course the Big Gay Sing will bring together plenty of this iconic music, from torch songs of heartache from the past to contemporary floor fillers. It will be a celebration of all I love about performance and music, while striking a more serious note as a fundraising event for the Marriage Equality referendum campaign. If you ask me, that’s something worth singing about.
Glória, Dublin’s Lesbian and Gay Choir and the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus in association with the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre bring Big Gay Sing to Dublin on June 15, hosted by Panti. All proceeds go to Marriage Equality. Tickets from €20 at bordgaisenergytheatre.ie
BIG GAY SING: THE NYC GAY MEN’S CHOIR
The New York City Gay Men’s Chorus first performed in 1980, reaching Carnegie Hall within a year of their debut – no mean feat.
Today, they boast Burt Bacharach, Liza Minnelli and Stephen Sondheim among their collaborators, and they have completed three European tours – the first American gay chorus to do so.
They have performed at high-profile Aids benefits to raise money and awareness in the US and in London, and have been frontrunners in supporting new talent and nurturing contemporary composers, having commissioned more than 100 choral works.
The key to their success? A stringent commitment to serving the LGBTQ community – from the advent of Aids to the struggle for marriage equality, they have provided an outlet for the marginalised for more than three decades.
In 2009, in an effort to attract a larger core audience to the chorus, Charles Beale, the artistic director of the choir; and Jeff Lettiere, a chorus member, created the first Big Gay Sing, which is coming to Dublin next weekend.
The Big Gay Sing is a sing-along show, high-energy and unpretentious, full of pop music and timeless show tunes from the 1970s to present day.
The show has sold out in London and New York since its inception, and is known for its inclusion of audience members in the performance. Charles Beale writes that “it’s a bit like karaoke with 200 gay men singing at once”.
The choir, with its innovation, constant renewal and commitment to creating new work, has created a cultural community for its members and a unique choral experience. – Niamh Towey