NYC strummer Jay Brannan is returning to the UK and Ireland this Autumn for a very limited run.
The out singer-songwriter and actor strongly resists the ‘gay artist’ label despite the fact that his largely queer fanbase are keen to claim him for the cause. Brannan makes a good case for resisting pressure to be a ‘professional gay’ as he puts it, but much as he protests the importance of integration over and above an exclusivist ‘community’, there remains, and I suspect always will, a non-hetero subculture. His aversion to homogenised commercialised and market-approved gay identity is well founded, but by disowning the Queer Diaspora to an extent I feel he is doing us, and himself, a disservice.
iIt’s 2009. i think it’s time that everyone, the “gay community” included, allow gay people to take their place in the world as real people, rather than continuing to be defined and separated by their sexual orientation. i want the freedom to be myself, unafraid and uncensored, without having to market myself based on a sexual orientation, or attaching that sexual orientation to my name as a title.
Jay thinks that his songs are universal, about a human despondency and a common experience of love. They’re not. Of course we all have unrequited loves and losses, we all understand obsession, idol worship, disappointment, but there’s more to it than that.
Campaigners have it that gay love, in fact any romantic relationship which deviates from the socially proscribed, heteronormative ideal, is exactly the same as conventional straight pairings, and insofar as rights are concerned I concur, as does Brannan if I’m reading him correctly:please understand that none of this has anything to do with my view on civil rights. of course all people should be given equal rights…regardless of any demographics. and yes, i think gay people should be able to get married. i would certainly attend a protest supporting those rights, and i HAVE played at events such as gay marriage benefits. but to me this is all very different than the “pride” scene or gay media, or the commercialization of gayness. i deserve equal rights, but i’m not particularly proud or excited to be gay. i don’t really think about it much in terms of my identity. [I have felt the same way for most of my life- I’ve never really used the Q as part of my personal Code of Identity, so I have a lot of sympathy for this viewpoint. That’s not the point of this exercise though.] Below the legal overview however, I don’t think they’re the same at all. That’s kind of the point. The chemistry is different, as is the process; perhaps codified and endlessly repeated, but different nonetheless. Not just in the physical sense, if we’re going to be blunt, but in the relationship dynamics, from hunting and mating rituals down to negotiating homemaking. Surely that’s the appeal? If being with a man felt exactly the same as being with a woman, wouldn’t we all be a perfect three on the Kinsey scale?
Brannan, perhaps unwittingly, certainly inadvertently, exposes specifically gay concerns and experience in his songwriting. My favourite track of his Bowlegged and Starving speaks to me, even though it is starkly opposed to my direct experience, because I know that life, I’ve heard that melody. Even the timbre of his voice is like a contemporary Polari, saying ‘hear me, you rainbow warriors of the Western world. I am your prophet (though I’d rather be anything else.)’ When he chatted to Any Major Dude last year, he did say that his sings were not about gay relationships and the gender of the singer was irrelevant.
That’s not to say he’s exclusive. Of course straight music fans can understand and appreciate his music, they can translate it to what they know, but instances will always occur where translation is going to be necessary. It is not the fact of his being gay, or whatever label we may choose to ascribe to the man, that makes his music so much for and about the LGBTQ, it’s his arresting honesty. These songs are about him and his life; this is direct, personal experience he is laying bare, along with his chest in his YouTube videos. Elton, George, Will Young and other so called ‘gay icons’ can’t and don’t offer a voice to their queer brothers and sisters in the way Jay does because their songs really are about a universal experience, and are consequently sanitised and disengaged.
This is why men become obsessed with some pale reflection of the man they think they know so well, because he knows them, inside and out. We can be criticised and scorned for lusting after avowedly straight stars, inevitable though that is, but Brannan seems to resent being thought of as a gay pin-up or heartthrob. I suppose I see his point, but despite his political stance I would have thought he could empathise with, if not share, the ‘one of us’ thrill you feel at hearing a performer you admire is in the club.
Brannan’s music is haunting, raw and acerbic, and despite his self deprecation hooky melodies and beautifully turned lyrical phrases abound. I’m not given to gushing or hyperbole, but he does have an engaging and endearing stage presence that makes him well worth the door tax. Despite the argument above, I am adamant that JB deserves mainstream recognition (to which his digital success is testament); by no means should we keep him entirely to ourselves. But, to his chagrin, it seems irrefutable that young Jay be an ambassador for the Queer Diaspora in the folk and acoustic ether. Sorry Jay.
What is important at this stage is to clearly define our collective definition of the term ‘represent’. Because when Brannan insists he does not ‘represent’ the gay community [see quote below] what I assume he means by that is he chooses not to be a beacon for the cause, he doesn’t perform and raise his profile in order to further gay interests in America. What he cannot avoid however, simply by strength of being out and being known, is acting as an example of a gay person to the wider public. In that sense he is indeed a representative of the gay community in that he is seen, and seen as one of us. So though he does not claim to speak for the LGBTQ, he cannot prevent being heard as a member thereof.
people tell me all the time that i represent the “gay community” whether i like it or not. but i’m telling you right now, you represent who you choose to represent. i represent myself and that’s it. or maybe i’m willing to stand for other individuals who feel trapped or handicapped by the oppressive world around them, or by the “communities” that are forced upon them simply because of demographics. i don’t feel a bond to people because of demographics.
His desire for queer arts to be integrated into the mainstream, is in some ways self serving. Of course I agree that Gay/Lesbian artists and filmmakers etc are equally valid and have a right to be judged against their hetero/non-identified peers, but there are many times, especially when buying or renting films when I want something more about me, about my personal experience, and having a separate category makes it so much easier to find. My city library, being situated in Brighton, is very concerned with LGBTQ provision and visibility first, then ethnic representation second, and as such has sections in the fiction and film sections with a selection of relevant material. Yes, it’s a little patronising, but it led me to a lot of things I wouldn’t have seen or read otherwise, and I appreciate that. I am sure there are others out there who like a little helping hand when seeking cultural objects that speak of and to them.
i dealt with my sexual orientation when i was a teenager, and frankly i’m sick of talking about it. i don’t want my album or the films i’m in to be in the “gay section” of a music or video store. i think having a gay section at the video store is the same as asking black people to drink from a different water fountain, or to sit at the back of the bus. why can’t films with gay characters be classified with all the other films…as dramas, or comedies, or horror? “gay” shouldn’t BE a genre.
Okay, he has made a good point there. Point Brannan.
Of course there is always the question of fan culpability. Wherever you stand on the outing debate, there is no doubt that being inextricably tied in to what is tantamount to a gay industry of media and entertainment will restrict a performer’s wider appeal. Does the Queer Diaspora have a right to claim people? Cultural objects are up for auction as far as I’m concerned, it has been shown there is a lot of value for marginalised groups in claiming films and books and what have you and a little subversion never harmed the artistic value of an object. (Though the people on the IMDb message board for Fried Green Tomatoes would beg to differ. Another post.) People are another matter though, especially living people. They speak for themselves and it is certainly an ethically dubious minefield when a group of people try and force an individual to be their voice or insist that said person’s artistic canon is their’s alone. The debate rages over whether LGBTQ-identified public figures should be out, and when they are whether they should be politicised and specified, whether they desire to be or not. I’m not convinced either way; I hate the idea of forcing a label and a role upon a person and I certainly don’t think that sexual orientation should define or limit a person. When, like Brannan, their sexuality is so much a part of what they do however, I find it hard to see how they can not be.
To wit, he says:i am sick of being pushed into the gay corner, by gay people just as much or moreso than people who are not gay. it sucks. i want my life and my work to be more than that.
And they are, of course, but that doesn’t mean they are not that either. What say you readers? Where do you stand? And what do you think of Jay’s POV?