Monthly Archives: June 2015

My brother’s albums: Madonna, Like a Virgin

[Madonna - Like a Virgin]

My brother’s acquisition of Madonna’s Like a Virgin was a prescient stroke in the Sibling Rivalry Collection Race. Madonna was on the cusp of becoming ubiquitous when he swiped her, and that move precluded the rest of us from laying claim on her discography.

At least, that’s how the rules went.

By the time she put out True Blue, we all felt Madonna fatigue. Radio and MTV played her to death. Her marriage to Sean Penn was all over the news. Her provocations crossed the line to tastelessness.

In short, my brother had buyer’s remorse. None of us wanted True Blue, and he wasn’t enough of a fan to get the self-titled debut.

As all that was happening, I got into Stephen Sondheim. By 1990, attention to Madonna had become de rigeur. She pushed some buttons, the media covered who got offended. Then news hit she would sing three songs written by Sondheim for a movie adaptation of Dick Tracy.

My skepticism probably crossed over to offense.

But a Rolling Stone review of I’m Breathless convinced me to check it out, and thus a breach in the Sibling Rivalry Collection Race took hold. I’m Breathless was followed by Like a Prayer. Then every Madonna album afterward.

It took a long time for me to wind back to Like a Virgin. Madonna really didn’t become critically viable till Like a Prayer. Till then, people assumed the music was just the vehicle for the fame payload. And I was dismissive of the early albums as everyone else.

Streaming services have made it easy for me to reassess my perception, and no — those early albums aren’t as good as her later work. Like a Virgin, though, is the exception.

Opening the album with “Material Girl” but waiting to release it as the second single was a genius move. It’s actually a catchier song than the title track. “Angel” is a nearly forgotten classic, which the Dead Betties recognize in their blistering punk cover of the song.

All the hits are front-loaded at the start of the album, leaving Side B hanging. But even those album tracks aren’t just filler. “Pretender” links back to “Holiday” and “Borderline”, while “Stay” looks forward to “True Blue”.

Madonna’s output has since varied wildly. For each Like a Virgin, Ray of Light or Bedtime Stories, there’s a corresponding turkey in American Life, Erotica and Hard CandyLike a Virgin was the first of Madonna’s better side.

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Q: Why have I disliked Michael Jackson for so long? A: Internalized homophobia

[Michael Jackson - Off The Wall]

I remember the moment my ambivalence toward Michael Jackson turned into downright hatred.

My family had the television tuned into the 26th Grammy Awards in 1984, the year Thriller won eight trophies. That meant Jackson went up to the stage over and over again, and as the evening wore on, the fey voice, the extravagant get-up, the single glove — they all annoyed me.

“He’s a sissy,” I concluded. I was already being taught where nerds fell in the junior high social order, and sissies (fags, faggots) were many rungs lower.

Jackson’s big win made him a target for sensationalism, and the press turned every quirk of Jackson into Exhibit A for what a damn freak he was. My impressionable 12-year-old mind conflated those reports with my own vague understanding of … let’s call it “gender identity”, and I didn’t like it.

It would be years before Jackson’s eccentricities would be revealed to be sinister, but I still feared the idea of having anything in common with him. I didn’t know what to make about being gay — I didn’t even have a word for it yet — but I understood the prevailing mood of the nation at the end of the 20th century.

Gay. Pedophile. Criminal. Hell-bound. The public at large would make no distinction between a platinum-selling pop artist or a pre-teen Asian-American Catholic school kid.

By 1995, I would eventually discover that no, I wasn’t a freak. I wasn’t entirely accepted, but I wasn’t a freak. Jackson had gone off the rails, and he gave everyone fuel enough to dislike him. So I continued to scoff at his music, even though I was never going to be his target audience.

When Jackson died in 2009, I had a morbid thought — could I start to appreciate him? Let’s face it, so long as he lived, the press was going to magnify even the smallest of infractions, and that kind of baggage makes it impossible to separate the man from the art.

So difficult, in fact, it’s taken seven years for me to cross a threshold — adding Michael Jackson to my music collection.

Vinyl collecting made me rethink albums I brushed off for overexposure at the time — Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, Peter Gabriel’s So, Prince and the Revolution’s Purple Rain. Entering my 40s has mellowed me out to the point where I find my youthful indignation pretty ridiculous.

I’ve already embraced ABBA. Why not Michael Jackson?

I would flip through the stacks at record stores and pass copies of Thriller or Off the Wall and feel the urge to buy them. It caught me off guard. I would have barely considered such a thing in 2009. What’s happened in that time?

I remembered that Grammy broadcast, remembered the vague realization it communicated. Do I still have that fear? No, it’s been nearly 20 years since I started to identify myself as gay. The national mood is vastly different as well, where disparaging gay citizens is a political liability and a social offense.

The course of Jackson’s life after those eight trophies ran a sad and bizarre course that, frankly, had nothing to do with me. We had nothing in common, and Jackson wouldn’t be the last celebrity chewed up by the pop music machinery.

At a Friends of the Seattle Public Library book sale in May 2015, it finally happened. I found a copy of Off the Wall on CD selling for $1. Why not?

My oldest sister bought the singles from Off the Wall, but she didn’t make the leap to getting the full album. While I got sick of the Thriller singles, the same hadn’t happen with the hits from Off the Wall. “Rock With You”, “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” — there was enough disco in them to be timely but far more ahead of its time to sound, well, timeless.

Like AC/DC’s Back in BlackOff the Wall may well be the only album by Michael Jackson that I own. I’m still not the target audience for Jackson’s music, but an imagined fear shouldn’t prevent me from liking something he did.




I own Huey Lewis albums because of the video for ‘I Want a New Drug’

[Huey Lewis and the News - Sports]

I posted on Facebook that I owned some Huey Lewis and the News albums, and the reaction from my friends was surprise. How did a discriminating listener such as myself end up with perhaps some of the most milquetoast music from 1980s? (Those exact words weren’t used.)

I was honest — these purchases were purely hormone-driven. Huey Lewis was a sex symbol at the height of the News’ fame, and I wasn’t immune to his corn-fed good looks.

But what cinched the matter for me was the video for “I Want a New Drug.” It opens with Huey wearing nothing but his skivvies.

[Huey Lewis in his underwear]


No, he doesn’t have the physique of similarly clad guys on Grindr or Scruff. In fact, far from it.

[Huey Lewis lacks a shirt]

But a 12-year-old starting to waken to his attractions wouldn’t make so fine a distinction. He was a barely-dressed handsome man. That was enough.

My household had no cable television, so the fact I managed to see this video at all without the aid of MTV was pretty remarkable. A prime-time afternoon video show aired the clip, which I managed to capture on Betamax. (Yeah, Betamax.)

It was an incredibly rare occurrence for me to be alone in a house where five other people lived, so I couldn’t really give the video the repeat viewings I had wished.

Instead, I had to content myself with gazing at pictures that only hinted as his physique.

[Huey Lewis and the News - If This Is It]

And I’ve done far worse than Huey Lewis where hormone-driven purchases are concerned. Nick Lachey? 98 Degrees? Check and check.

It won’t be the last time either. One of my favorite recent discoveries is Royal Wood, whose EP I downloaded based entirely on the cover:

[Royal Wood - The Lost and Found]

Thankfully, Woods has turned out to be a very good singer-songwriter.


Thank visibility for the wider diversity of music by gay musicians

[Steve Grand - All-American Boy]

I should know better than to like All-American Boy, the debut album by Steve Grand.

It’s the kind of over-compressed pop music that baits rockist former-record store employees to gnash their teeth and sneer. Even more rankling is the target audience for Grand’s big choruses and butch guitars — young gays with hot bodies very much like himself. If I were ungenerous, I’d call it “twink rock”.

But I can’t help think All-American Boy is also one of the most important albums I’ve encountered this year.

That’s right. Important.

Musically, All-American Boy hits all the radio-friendly cues. The guitars get louder when they ought to get louder. The piano gets plaintive when it ought to get plaintive. This album would not give Revolver any sleepless nights.

But lyrically, Grand sings love songs to other men, in a language these men would understand. That’s remarkable but still not the big deal. No, it’s part of a bigger deal.

The landscape for gay musicians has grown large enough for Steve Grand to record a pop album with a wall of guitars, for Jónsi to sing in Hopelandish in a stratospheric falsetto, for Ty Herndon to give country music some bonafide homosexual beefcacke, for Nico Muhly to light a fire under the classical music establishment’s ass and for Ed Droste to bore the fuck out of everyone within listening distance.

A decade ago, I lamented about how gay musicians couldn’t do rock. Throw together the words “gay” and “music” in the same sentence, it would invariably mean “dance music”, with “theater music” close behind. The only band with any amount of visibility at the dawn of the aughts was Pansy Division. Sure, there was Rufus Wainwright, but he’s more Elton John than Rob Halford.

Of course, the aughts were smack dab in the middle of the W. Bush administration. Gay people were embraced on the metropolitan coasts, but the big red swath in the middle of the country meant visibility held risks. Republicans put gay marriage bans on state ballots to ensure voter turnout among its base, and it fucking worked.

Music by gay musicians couldn’t escape the ghetto of the dance floor — or the folk guitar, as most “gay rock” seemed to be labeled back then — because it was still a cultural liability.

Oddly enough, the passage of Proposition 8 in California on the night Barack Obama was elected for his first term as president marked the shift in opinion. It was the victory that shouldn’t have been, and it galvanized allies to put deeds behind intentions.

It took a while before the victories started piling up — the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; the decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act — but once in place, that liability started to lose its teeth.

Members of metal bands such as Torche and Gaythiest would make Halford less of an anomaly. Adam Lambert gave American Idol its last bonafide star before The Voice gobbled up its viewing audience. Frank Ocean and Sam Smith went so far as to win Grammy Awards.

Country singer Chely Wright weathered a lot of crap for her coming out, but it opened up the door for Herndon and Billy Gilman to follow. It’s worth noting these revelations arrived after their biggest hits were behind them. The country music audience still has a lot of catching up to do.

Steve Grand is the latest beneficiary of this shift, and he’s taken it further by recording what could have been a very plain album with all the usual paeans boys sing to girls. Instead, he’s singing those paeans to other boys, and his age group isn’t batting an eye.

But Grand is part of a larger spectrum of music by gay artists, one that expands as visibility and acceptance become more commonplace. He doesn’t have to work in a ghetto. He can find an audience performing music in a style of his choosing without compromising his identity.