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Music: Popular  
 
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Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and persons have had tremendous influence on popular music. As artists, muses, producers, composers, publishers, and every role in between, gays and lesbians have left an indelible impression upon the popular consciousness through their contributions to music. Their presence can be found everywhere, from out lesbian Vicki Randle playing percussion and singing in the Tonight Show band, to two men dressed as cops and kissing in a Marilyn Manson music video.

Popular music has always had a gay and lesbian presence, but it has not always been out in the open. Nor has there been an entirely linear progression from total repression to today's relative openness. For example, several well known gay men, bisexuals, and lesbians of the 1920s who lived their lives openly were forced back into the closet when social mores shifted. For decades, their sexuality was obscured and hidden.

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In the music industry, it is not only the "talent" who are homosexual: for example, David Geffen, founder of Geffen Records, is one of the most successful producers in recording history and one of the wealthiest men in entertainment. Similarly, Jann Wenner, founder of Rolling Stone magazine, long considered the rock and roll bible, is now involved in a homosexual relationship.

However, popular music remains largely a heterosexual world, and some artists, such as 1970s rocker Joan Jett and late 1980s sensation Neneh Cherry, waited until they were well beyond the height of their popularity before revealing their sexuality to fans.

In recent years, however, musicians such as Michael Stipe of R.E.M., Rob Halford of Judas Priest, Pete Townshend of The Who, and Chuck Panozzo of Styx have come out as gay or bisexual (and, in Panozzo's case, as HIV-positive). The announcement that current or former boy band members Lance Bass of 'N Sync, Steven Gately of Boyzone, and Mark Feehily of Westlife are gay seems not to have had any adverse effects on their careers.

Although many younger artists feel at ease simply to be themselves from the outset of their careers, the biggest stars in popular music are still packaged as heterosexual idols.

is stronger in certain musical genres than others. Country and Western and Rhythm and Blues, for example, have had very few gay and lesbian personalities; and in those camps there have been career-ending scandals that centered on rumors of homosexual activity.

Some popular music genres, such as folk and disco, and heterosexual performers, such as Bette Midler and Diana Ross, are associated with gay and lesbian culture because of their popularity with that core audience rather than the sexuality of the performer or the content of the music.

Larger than life "divas"--the sobriquet "diva" derives from opera, a genre that is also popular with gay men--have a certain over-the-top theatrical appeal that is manifested in another product of gay culture, drag performance. Divas such as Midler, Ross, and Cher are popular objects of imitation and adulation by drag queens.

Numerous heterosexual artists, such as David Bowie and Madonna, have vaguely flirted with or homosexuality, only to back away when it seemed no longer chic or advantageous for them to bend genders. Others, such as Prince, parlayed sexually ambiguous personas into a heterosexual taboo fantasy while staunchly maintaining their own exaggeratedly "straight" orientation.

Still, some heterosexual performers sympathetic to their gay audiences have pushed boundaries with no explanation or defensiveness. An example is onetime Advocate cover boy Bruce Springsteen in his sensitive, ambiguous "My Lover Man" (recorded in 1990, released in 1998). And occasionally there is simply confusion--in 2001, Irish singer Sinéad O'Connor declared her lesbianism (not bisexuality), only to marry a male reporter by the end of the year.

Blues

In 1920 Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues," written by Perry Bradford, became the first vocal blues record, selling more than 100,000 copies in its first month of release. Publishers rushed to capitalize on the market, employing popular club singers such as lesbian thrush Alberta Hunter to make recordings to meet the burgeoning demand for blues music.

The success of the blues also introduced to the public a genre with often frankly sexual lyrics, as well as a group of lesbian and bisexual performers who lived their lives freely and often flamboyantly.

Gertrude "Ma" Rainey and Bessie Smith, both openly bisexual, were among the biggest stars of the day. In their lyrics sexual double entendres abounded. References to "jelly rolls" and "handy men" were understood by the initiated, though probably not by the millions who bought their records but knew nothing about living "in the life."

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Top: A photograph of k. d. lang by Jeri Heiden.
Above: Rob Halford of Judas Priest on stage in Birmingham, England in 2005. Photograph by Andrew Dale.

  
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