Over the years we have seen a lot of LGBT performers achieve commercial success that some of us, myself included, never thought would be possible. Sure, we had Elton John, Freddie Mercury, Boy George and a few others. But they claimed bi-sexuality to appease the mainstream audience until times changed and it became much more acceptable to come out as gay. The other thing about some of these early artists is that their talent was unmistakeable. Elton John continues to amaze as a composer, Freddie Mercury had a voice that could challenge the heavens and Boy George continues to record music and has become an international superstar DJ. Their talent was, and still is, at the core of their success. But what does it say about their success that there needed to be an incubation period before they could reveal their true selves to the public?
There’s a new generation of LGBT musicians that has taken position in the mainstream and indie airwaves. Some incredibly talented, others not so much. Names like Adam Lambert, Perfume Genius, Gossip, Scissor Sisters, Rufus Wainwright and MIKA, Brandi Carlile and Troye Sivan have now been added to a growing list of high profile LGBT indie & pop acts that have achieved varied levels of success based purely on their talent.
Adam Lambert for example was the goth, glam-rock darling of American Idol fame who came out of the closet shortly after being the runner up to all-American Kris Allen. A lot of people on social media and in my circle of friends felt that Adam Lambert was robbed of the title that year because he was gay. He hadn’t come out during the competition, but it was very difficult to quiet one’s gaydar whenever he was on stage. Whether that was the case or not, his success after the show ended has been unquestionable.
Why was Mr. Lambert so successful despite his coming out after his Idol run while Allen has faded away into singer/songwriter obscurity? I think there are a few reasons. First being that Mr. Lambert was a far superior singer and performer. His brand image came across as just the right amount of “dangerous”: his gayness was not threatening but it was definitely there. He was wholesome, de-sexualized, but with just the right amount of gay swagger. The one time that he did express himself as a sexual being during a performance on the 2009 American Music Awards, the backlash was swift and furious, from not only sensitive heterosexual watchdogs, but from the LGBT community as well. He never did anything like that again. And that is what Adam Lambert and several of the new breed of LGBT artists are faced with: they have to be marketed as safe!!! Their sexuality needs to be besides the point. It cannot take center stage at a performance and it cannot be at the core of every story they tell.
This brings me to a few artists who try to make it in the mainstream but fail to crack the charts. They actually try to use their sexuality or gender non-conformity as part of their raison d’être. Perhaps with the exception of RuPaul, not many LGBT artists have been able to successfully use what sets them apart from “mainstream” society as their core brand message successfully.
With his 2010 breakout single, Ice Cream Truck, Cazwell came pretty close to success. The song went on to be a YouTube sensation, with over 1 million views over a period of a week in spite of the fact that the video being flagged for adult content. But with its overt sexual content, the song never broke into the mainstream.
Adore Delano has tried to use her success on RuPaul’s Drag Race to launch a pop music career as well. Right after the show ended, Delano released his debut album, Til Death Do We Party. The album charted at 59 on the BillBoard 200 Albums Chart but quickly fell off. As much as America is willing to embrace gay men, drag queens, and transgendered persons on their TV, film and stage they don’t care about it too much in their music.
Azealia Banks and Kelly Rowland can have songs about getting eaten out, Nicki Minaj can rap about having her booty licked and Beyonce can sing about going down on her husband in a limo. But a few hot, oiled up men licking ice cream and a talented drag queen who actually writes and SINGS (no lip syncing here) seems to be more than the American public can take.
So we’ve made a lot of progress as far as LGBT rights and our visibility in mainstream America. But they are still scared of us. They still don’t want to truly know us. The oh so subtle message we get from America is, “We don’t mind who you love or who you sleep with, but please, we don’t want to see or hear about it.”