Katy Perry, Ke$ha, and the Great Gay-Pander-Off of 2010
The culture war between gays and bigots has been intensifying for years, but in 2010, the conflict went pop. Representing the social conservatives, a handful of rappers once again tossed around gay slurs. Rick Ross opined that credit-card scams were "for faggots." It took T.I. less than 15 seconds of No Mercy to declare, "No big-mouth, hoe-cake, fag-bait-ass niggas allowed!" Eminem, meanwhile, told Anderson Cooper that he was "like whatever" about gay people, but suggested otherwise alongside Nicki Minaj on "Roman's Revenge": "All you little faggots can suck it/No homo, but I'm-a stick it to 'em like refrigerator magnets." At best, this is willful ignorance; at worst, it's outright hatred.
Same shit, different day. Cooper also asked Em about the same "Criminal" lyrics ("Hate fags? The answer's yes") Kurt Loder used to confront the rapper 10 years ago, back when people were already writing think-pieces about the other F-word. But in 2010, Twitter offered a new avenue for derision. 50 Cent: "Perez Hilton calld me douchebag so I had my homie shoot up a gay wedding. wasnt his but still made me feel better." The Game: "What kinda man let another man put is d!ck in his booty . . . I'm just askin n!igga that sh!t krazy tho. #buttpirates." (At least these former friends remain united in spirit!) And, look, when you have Drake, on T.I.'s "Poppin' Bottles," dropping unsolicited discomfort like, "You with a lot of dudes, that's that Elton John shit/Ah, to each his own, I like a fruit that's grown," despite (or because of?) his reputation as the game's most sensitive player, you have irrefutable proof that the world of major-label hip-hop—pop music, in other words—is no safe place.
Swooping in to rescue us gays from the no-homo hostility are hyper-femme girls like Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Ke$ha, P!nk, and, yes, Nicki Minaj. (Gee, thanks, ladies. Now they definitely won't call us faggots.) Through their art, they've all acknowledged the humanity of gay people, or at least gay males—lesbians generally go ignored in perhaps a silent "Pause." Even so, it's tempting to call any gay acceptance in pop radical, but, really, what these women are offering is at best a tentative embrace, and at worst, lip service. The Times called the art in question "songs of survival," but none of the tracks comprising this "soundtrack for a generation of gay fans" are as explicitly gay-friendly as the aforementioned rappers are gay-unfriendly. Katy Perry's "Firework," P!nk's "Raise Your Glass," and Ke$ha's "We R Who We R" are all thumping anthems that preach nonspecific individuality, the gay subtext of the first two mostly confined to their videos' imagery, whereas Ke$ha claims she was inspired by the recent rash of gay suicides when writing "R." But there, too, the gay theme reads like an opportunistic afterthought tacked onto a single that happened to arrive right at the zenith of "It Gets Better," when being OK with gay was trendy.
Moreover, P!nk and Ke$ha both claim to rank among the very freaks and underdogs they rhapsodize, smacking their message with self-involvement, but at least they aren't going the Kathy Griffin route and reducing gays to fashion accessories. Gaga arguably did just that when she showed up at September's MTV Video Music Awards with four former members of the U.S. military who'd been affected by "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," a subject already handled with more sophistication in her "Alejandro" video. (To be fair, Gaga spends much of her free time rallying for gay rights; time is money, and money is pop-star fuel.) Let's not neglect the fact that Perry's last album had a song that sneered "Ur So Gay," and that anti-femme sentiment shares space with Ke$ha's supposed queer anthem on Cannibal. And then there's Minaj, whose Roman Zolanski alter ego is supposedly a gay male, and yet she not only permitted Eminem to say "faggot," but didn't even address it. Some gay dude she is.
Of course, these are singers first, not activists or sociologists. But even if we assume their sincerity, we can't separate the message from the marketing, or the way their peddling interferes with the natural, less pandering-based gay sensibility. I'm speaking generally, and with awareness of the great variance of gay people's interests, but to me, the beautiful burden of being gay forces you to search for your own heroes. To court us so visibly, explicitly, and successfully (as I write, Katy's, P!nk's, and Ke$ha's gay bait all rank in the top five of the Billboard Hot 100) is to take the connoisseurship out of gay taste, to sap the queer from queerness. There is great worth in not being spoon-fed: It helps you develop your own interests, and can link you to your people in a way that feels mystical. There's something magical in discovering how much Madonna's "Open Your Heart" video meant to so many pre–gay '80s kids, years before she boldly (and far less condescendingly) announced her allegiance to the gay cause via the likes of "Vogue" and Truth or Dare. There's something fascinatingly eerie about the way gay men gravitate to Siouxsie Sioux or Kate Bush or even Robyn despite neither having made a production out of gay acceptance. There's something awesome in being drawn to house music as a child, before you even learn its for-gays-by-gays history. Those moments transcend the overwhelming evidence of homosexuality's biological nature and cut right to the soul.
Aged gays like Karl Lagerfeld, Bruce LaBruce, and Fran Lebowitz have spoken against gay marriage, conceptually suggesting that the binding normality we're now striving for is antithetical to our previous fight for the freedom to be queer and live outside society's ideals. A song won't get you hospital visitation rights or remove inheritance tax, but there is something uncomfortably normalizing, too, in pop music's faddish embrace of gay acceptance. But then again, Eminem himself said this year, in seemingly reluctant support of gay marriage, that "I think that everyone should have the chance to be equally miserable, if they want." Perhaps all of us have the right to be coddled into buying pop music, but it's not like we weren't already. These purportedly strong, colorful, beautiful, and popular women who sing over cheerful house derivatives would of course appeal generally to gay men; it's nice to be acknowledged, but any fan-fishing by way of pro-gay gestures is strictly redundant. We're 10 steps ahead of you, girls. Once again, the straight world struggles to catch up.
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