Alex Macpherson in New Huumanist:
The gay icon in pop music is a curious phenomenon. It’s hard to pin down any underlying reasons for the bond between gay audiences and straight female divas without falling back on reductive clichés. And while the stereotype may well be supported by the empirical evidence at any Madonna or Beyoncé concert, it has often been used to dismiss entire genres of music based on the perceived shallowness of their fans (see also those other famed consumers of pop, teenage girls). But it’s nonetheless odd that such intense identification is largely reserved for those divas. The pop genre has rarely provided much in the way of out gay male pop stars – and even fewer whose music specifically reflects what it’s like to be gay and young. In recent years, there has been a place for the mature gay singer-songwriter, from George Michael to Will Young, but for all their talents, the middle-of-the-road respectability of their music isn’t going to capture any newly-out 20-year-old’s emotions. The latest iteration of this type is the bafflingly popular Sam Smith, a child of privilege whose ignorance of gay history seems to be matched by his disapproval of anything “overly” gay, from hook-up apps to using male pronouns in his love songs. There were always the Pet Shop Boys, of course. But as finely as Neil Tennant conveyed guilt, emotional nuance and power dynamics in songs such as “Rent” and “It’s a Sin”, his songwriting and vocal performances were defined by poise and self-possession. This air of detachment was often worn as armour and more brittle than I’d noticed at the time – but listening to them as a teenager always felt aspirational in a way that listening to Tori Amos or Madonna did not.
In my experience, the connection between a gay fan and a beloved artist is as complex and personal as any other, but a common thread is that air of indirectness. It’s no less real but it’s not about hearing our own experiences sung back to us so much as hearing the spirit of what we’re feeling. Often it’s a different experience entirely that is being sung about, although the occasional song, such as Taylor Swift’s “You Belong with Me”, sounds like it would make more sense with a gay protagonist than a female one. More often, the confessions lie not in the precise words but in the margins and subtext, in the intonation of a phrase or words left unspoken. (It is telling that making the connection to their gay audience too explicit is often a misstep for divas. Lady Gaga’s career has yet to recover from the patronising “Born This Way”, for example.) In retrospect, as a 14-year-old for whom secrecy was paramount, I found not having the exact words to hand, on some level, a relief.