On Jay Brannan And Escaping ‘Gay-By-Association’

My thanks to Bryan for inspiring me to write this piece.

While trying to write about the music of singer/songwriter/actor Jay Brannan, I realized that it would be harder than I thought. Not because I was unsure about what I actually think of it, or because his music is too complicated to be discussed in writing. Rather, I found that it was so new to me to listen to someone who writes and sings from a distinctly gay viewpoint that I wasn’t sure I would be able to frame it correctly. Apart from Rufus Wainwright, our culture has had no place for gay-themed pop music, and thus I also feel the general vocabulary of pop criticism wanting. One of the main reasons for this is the gay-by-association paradigm.

We’re talking about the knee-jerk reaction to every musical expression of camp. It doesn’t matter if the artist in question is gay or not. If their music is, or could be expected to be, embraced by gay people, be it for musical (dance music, synth pop), visual (cute guys, outrageous costumes, generally colorful appearance), cultural (the gay association with musical theater, showtunes) or some combination of all three reasons, it will immediately be perceived in a certain way by pop critics. By making their reception essential to the music itself,  sly Madonna electronica, Savage Garden’s synth pop and the boyish excesses of emo and postpunk, could all be framed as part of the same musical landscape. The music by association becomes gay, more than good or bad.

I’m simplifying slightly here, of course. I don’t mean to argue that music is never made with one eye on how it will play with certain audiences, or that it’s necessarily a bad thing that the gay community – whatever that is – has embraced certain artists as symbols of what it means to be gay. The gay embrace have a certain democratic potential, in the sense that it has made it more acceptable to like some kinds of music, like boybands or glam rock or its off-shoots. I like much of both, and I think it’s a good thing. Still, once a band or an artist runs victim of gay (or, perhaps better, camp-)-by-association, it gets much harder to discuss their quality, at least as compared with artists that are not considered GBA. Again emphasizing that I have nothing against gay fandom, my only point is that if, say, Backstreet Boys, a group with a large and fairly loyal gay following were to release an album that would have been considered good enough to gain widespread critical praise if it had been made by somebody else, I’m not sure it would have been getting it. My argument then is that part of the reason would be BSB’s implicit association with not particularly prestigious camp pop music. I’m not saying that the previous campness of the group would itself disqualify it, or that pop critics are consciously homophobic in doing this, but it would likely run the risk of being written off as a surprisingly good record from a group previously courting tweens and gay audiences, or something like that. More than anything, it would be considered good compared with their earlier work, and with similar groups, more than being assessed on its own terms.

It could be argued that is a somewhat overstated issue, or at least that GBA is only a small part of it. After all, like we discussed with respect to the critical reception of Leonardo DiCaprio recently, how do we know what critical skepticism is attributable to GBA and what is simply snobbery on the reviewer’s part? To hail a Backstreet Boys album will never be uncontroversial, and it could be that some reviewers would hold back on their praise, for fear of losing their good standing with other Guardians Of Good Taste. Still, I would say that this does not entirely take away the problematic aspects of GBA.

After this laughably verbose ouverture then, we’ve finally arrived at the point of this post. One thing is that GBA has a tendency to frame certain pop acts in ways that tend to block a reasonably independent assessment of their quality. Another, and in this instance more important matter, is whether that same pop criticism vocabulary is adequate when writing about an artist that’s not only GBA, but who makes his gayness an integral part of his pop act? I’m not out on making definitive statements on this, but my own thinking when listening to, and deeply enjoying, Jay Brannan’s debut album Goddamned (2008) suggests the answer is no.

The challenge that Brannan poses, is that while our point in criticizing the more or less uncritical application of GBA to artists who are not themselves gay, or to gay artists whose music does not make gayness a part of their appeal, this time we’ll have to handle music that has an (at least at times) distinct gay angle. We immediately run the risk of overemphasizing that very angle, and thus ending up making it more important to the music than it really is supposed to be, or even worse, to make it more important than the music itself. This again takes us back to a conflict we’ve discussed previously with regard to film: A political ‘reading’ of the material could prove interesting, but at the same time we risk reducing the material (here, the music) to something emotionless and technical. We should, as far as we can, avoid dragging politics into the musical arena, and particularly when it’s not intended that way by its creator. Also, we should honor that music and literature are two distinctively different art forms, and while lyrics are an essential part of the the musical experience, it can never be the whole experience.

That said, I cannot help but feeling that it’s kind of refreshing to hear Brannan’s dry gay humor sprinkled over the mostly sparse musical arrangements of his first long-player. Sure, Rufus Wainwright songs at times can be both gay-themed and funny, but his showtunesy style (which I like very much, I hasten to add) place him closer to GBA than Brannan’s stripped-down cynicism will ever be. With the same ability to come up with quoteable lines and create melodies that add a certain cheerfulness to even the most depressing lyric, often to comedic effect, Brannan reminds me ever so slightly of Ben Folds. Let’s take At First Sight as an example. Here, Brannan accompanied by a guitar and a playful piano, sings: ‘You liked the guy on your iPod not the guy in your bed/after the fan mail came anthrax/now you wish I were dead‘. The contrast between the music and the lyrics make it a very, very funny line, and with the feel of a great pop song. And Brannan is really good at those short aphorisms that stick in your head either because they’re funny or because they simply ring true, reminding you that you will never be quite as smart of funny as he is; ‘Why don’t the Gideons leave condoms in the drawer?/Bibles don’t save many people anymore’; ‘If this is my destiny, then why am I so bored?’; ‘I’ve got my laptop for pleasure/and my guitar for pain‘; ‘he tries hard to songwrite his way out of bed‘, the list could go on forever. With moments like these, I’ll forgive him for sometimes crossing the fine line between pointed misanthropy and just plain whining.

This is an important point. Returning to the issue of framing his music as gay, I’m starting to believe that this is more important to me than it would have been to a straight listener. Under the spell of heteronormativity we are all supposed to assume that any love song is by default about heterosexuals, but I might value the breaking of that rule in a different way than a straight guy would, both when it comes to the lyrics and the songs themselves. I’m not going to say that my interpretation is necessarily better, or that straight people cannot love Jay Brannan (-‘s music) as much as I do. Only that I think it’s really great to finally see an artist that’s self-consciously free of the constraints of gay-by-association, for the simple reason that he is, acts, and sings like, you know, an actual gay.er as it sounded in his as in his he

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19 Responses to On Jay Brannan And Escaping ‘Gay-By-Association’

  1. poeticgrin says:

    *RING RING*

    QL – Rolling Stone is on the telephone – you’re hired! :)

    You included my ABSOLUTE favorite lyric of Jay’s entire album:

    ‘I’ve got my laptop for pleasure/and my guitar for pain‘

    I will return to this for further comment later as I have to run now – but I just wanted to tell you this is a REALLY good piece!

  2. poeticgrin says:

    “We immediately run the risk of overemphasizing that very angle, and thus ending up making it more important to the music than it really is supposed to be, or even worse, to make it more important than the music itself. ”

    This is very key. I’ve wondered the same thing. In Jay’s case, if you visit his website, he talks about not doing pride festivals or gay events because he doesn’t want to just be a gay artist. Very interesting. Not sure what I think about that, because, like it or not, he’s a gay artist. His audience is gay. It makes him stay out. I say EMBRACE THE RAINBOW HORSE YOU RODE IN ON, GAY COWBOY! I love Jay. Jay loves me. But if Jay wants to go to the next level, I think he at the very least has to do Cyndi Lauper’s big US gay True Colors Tour. Jay is like, “I could make a lot more money playing up the gay thing but I choose not to.” What he means is that just because he sings about boys doesn’t make him any different from LL Cool J rapping about girls. Does that make LL a straight artist? I’m rambling. I don’t think I have a point. :)

  3. Smilie says:

    I was always leery about professing my love of Savage Garden, BSB and such because of the GBA. I don’t believe that’s unique to gay men either. The “boy code” makes being called gay the worst insult you can hurl to a man. Few want to be known as a “fag.”

    I hadn’t heard of Jay Brennan until I read about him in this blog. He’s got a nice voice, the songs are catchy and the lyrics speak to me. I don’t deny that the lyrics speak to me as a gay man, but I don’t see anything negative about that. Lyrics in “straight” love songs can speak to me too.

    I believe it’s easier for gay man to take something away from Jay or from Savage Garden, BSB, etc. because we’re willing to. We’ve admitted that we’re gay. We know that the music isn’t going to “make us” gay. We’re not willing to dismiss them just because of their target demographic. I can remember when I was in elementary school the New Kids on the Block was extremely popular (God, I’m dating myself now). Every guy in the school hated them…at least in public…and every girl thought they were God’s gift to the world (my sister being one of them). I did enjoy some of their songs but would NEVER have admitted that in school. If a guy admitted to liking them, he was gay and got teased about it. Wouldn’t it be nice if a song could be judged on its merit alone?

    Okay, I’ve ranted enough. Time to go get some coffee and get ready for work.

  4. queerlefty says:

    Bryan,

    thanks very much for the kind words. Still, I can’t say I fully understood your point in the second comment (from LL Cool J onwards, anyways).

    Like you, I’m a little torn on the issue of ‘gay artists’. On the one hand I feel he could really make a difference if he framed himself more clearly as a gay artist. But then again, I’m against the sort of essentialist approach to pop music that this would seem to suggest. I would want the guy to be whomever he wants to be, and that includes the freedom to let himself not be framed in a certain way. I’m also a bit weary of demanding something from a gay guy that I wouldn’t from a straight guy, no matter the benefits I think would result from it.

    (Oh well. I’m not sure I made any sense either. Jay really does something to his listeners, doesn’t he?)

  5. queerlefty says:

    Smilie,

    this comment is just another one of the reasons why I love your feedback. You immediately picked up on one of the point I had somehow under-emphasized in my point; the fact that GBA not only work within the music context itself, but also with regard to what kind of music it’s socially acceptable to embrace in a heteronormative society.

    On NKOTB: I was a little too young to catch the hysteria around them, but I sure recognize the mechanism behind it. For me it was first British boyband Take That, and later BSB and Boyzone. I managed to keep my BSB fandom a secret (it still is, to most people), but once word got out that I owned a couple of Boyzone singles (to younger readers exclusively accustomed to sound files, ‘singles’ are actual physical records containing somewhere between one and three songs, intended to serve as appetizers from an album. History lesson over.), people started referring to it all the time.

    Finally, let me just say that I don’t see anything wrong with feeling that the angle in Jay Brannan’s music speaks more specifically to gay people, either. I find it refreshing.

    Again, Smilie, thanks for making me see things I hadn’t thought of.

  6. poeticgrin says:

    OK – the LL Cool J comment – I stole that directly from Jay’s beautiful, soft, kissable mouth. Go to

    http://www.jaybrannan.com/faq.html

    and read the last of the FAQ’s. Too many dirty words for me to post here at your family-friendly website. :)

  7. queerlefty says:

    “Too many dirty words for me to post here at your family-friendly website. :)”

    However self-congratulatory that may make me seem, that little quip of yours had me laughing really hard.

    As far as dirty words and family-friendliness go, I’ll simply quite the guy back: ‘His fucking foul language is a fucking travesty’. ;)

    Thanks for pointing me to the faq, and look for the lovable Jay to make a splash on the upcoming May edition of the SMA, hopefully due sometime later this week. That is, if I manage to squeeze it in with the term paper I’m supposed to write for next Monday.

  8. Smilie says:

    I don’t believe you underestimated the social reluctance to accept music perceived as “gay,” I you stated it differently (and more eloquently in my opinion):

    “Under the spell of heteronormativity we are all supposed to assume that any love song is by default about heterosexuals, but I might value the breaking of that rule in a different way than a straight guy would, both when it comes to the lyrics and the songs themselves.”

    NKOTB was a little early for me as well, it was just the first example that came to mind. I didn’t really get into music until BSB and such exploded. Looking back on it now I know that some of my attraction to the group was physical as well as musical (which for better or worse was a prime component of “boy-band” success).

    A prime example of that is N’SYNC. I really enjoyed them in my teens but I rarely go back to their music. Part of it is a change in interests (I deliberately avoided the world “evolution” as that implies that the music was inferior).

    Their music (and the group themselves) helped me through a dark point in my life, but I doesn’t speak to me anymore. BSB and Savage Garden still do. Perhaps their music has a more timeless component to it than some of the other bands?

  9. queerlefty says:

    “I don’t believe you underestimated the social reluctance to accept music perceived as “gay,”

    Well, to me this only goes to show that your perspective can be insightful even when I sort of misunderstand you. That’s no small feat;)

    You raise a really interesting question about how both BSB and Savage Garden seem to have more durable qualities than N*Sync.

    Before we get into BSB and Savage Garden however, I have to mention (I might have mentioned it already) that my sister once told me that N*Sync was one of the reasons she suspected I might be gay (before I did). She had bought their ‘No Strings Attached’ album, and I reflexively dismissed it as fluffy junk, only to have her walk in on my singing and dancing enthusiastically to their (still quite catchy) lead single ‘Bye Bye Bye’. I could of course accuse her of GBA, but we’ll give the girl something to navigate by. I never liked N*Sync all that much – neither musically nor physically -, but at the very least there is a pattern here somewhere, suggesting that I have always been secretly welcoming to boyband music.

    Turning to the issue of durability, I agree that both Savage Garden and BSB seem to have more timeless qualities. I can still listen to these bands, and nostalgia and ironic distance will be only a small part of it. Still, when I talk to other people about this, the mention of BSB tend to provoke about the same almost violently derisive reaction as it did when they were at the height of their popularity, while Savage Garden is generally more warmly received. It suspect it has something to do with the fact that Savage Garden was not quite as well-known, and that their physical attractiveness was never such an essential part of their commercial appeal than it was to BSB. This is just my theory however, and I have only anecdotal indications to back it up.

  10. Smilie says:

    This is why I should avoid late night posts. The line

    “I don’t believe you underestimated the social reluctance to accept music perceived as “gay,” I you stated it differently (and more eloquently in my opinion):”

    Should have read:

    “I don’t believe you [understated] the social reluctance to accept music perceived as “gay,” [] you [just] stated it differently (and more eloquently in my opinion):”

    I agree with your opinion on the difference between BSB and Savage Garden. I also suspect that part of it is that Savage Garden wasn’t as popular with the tween market. From what I’ve seen, a high degree of popularity in that market tends to turn the older crowds off.

  11. queerlefty says:

    Smilie, again I agree. Savage Garden was not as younger-skewing, and that probably played into their reception. They had an 80’s feel to them that would perhaps make them ripe for nostalgia. Then again, to me they represent 90’s nostalgia more than anything.

  12. Okay, this doesn’t have anything to do with his music–but when I saw your title, I kept thinking why the name Jay Brannan was sooo familiar so IMDBed him. Anyway, he was great in “Shortbus” (and a really good film) and he was pretty good in “Holding Trevor” (but what a painful movie to get through!).

    “Under the spell of heteronormativity we are all supposed to assume that any love song is by default about heterosexuals, but I might value the breaking of that rule in a different way than a straight guy would, both when it comes to the lyrics and the songs themselves.”

    Eloquently put. I’ll try to get my hands on some of his music though queercore isn’t exactly my cup of tea (even though I do listen to some Pansy Division). =P

  13. queerlefty says:

    I’m glad you’re gonna give his music a shot. If JB is queercore, I guess he’s of the ‘queer-aware’, small-scale, me-and-my-guitar kind of way. While that setup often make for cringeworthy, intimidation or flat out self-absorbed whining, Jay’s music is nothing like that. I hope and believe you’ll love him as much as I (and Bryan) do.

  14. poeticgrin says:

    New Jay Brannan CD out! I just saw it on I-tunes and I’m downloading it now. It’s called In Living Cover and it’s an album of cover songs, including the awesome Jann Arden song “Good Mother,” which I saw him perform live. I’ve loved that song for a long time. I’m so excited! If you can’t get it there, I can burn you a copy and mail it to you!

    • queerlefty says:

      This is really great news, Bryan! I want to chip in too, so I’m buying ‘In Living Cover’ off iTunes ASAP. In two short months, ‘Goddamned’ has become my most played record of 2009. Love it endlessly.

  15. poeticgrin says:

    In reference to the above comment in which I endorse burning a copy of a CD, note that Jay is my sometimes boyfriend… we email regularly and he won’t mind. I’ll personally send him 7.99 to cover it.

  16. Nice piece. My only comment about the GBA issue vis a vis mainstream audiences is that it has an impact on how gay audiences view music by and about gay people. In my early indie-music career, gay audiences tended to be very uncomfortable with my music, while what I term “cool-straight-guy” audiences provided the bulk of my support. At times, it almost made me feel like a black jazz musician in a bygone era, with a crowd of white people determined to be “edgy”. Or, I also wondered, maybe it’s that they just didn’t have a dog in this fight, where the gay audiences, listening to songs about them, took it far more personally, and maybe more personally than they wanted to do: after all, they had to LIVE this reality, maybe they didn’t want to HEAR it when they got time off.

    Now maybe this is past, maybe not (I did just win the Outmusic Award for my last album), but it does give a different window into the discussion. What I find so heartening about Jay Brannan, aside from his wonderful work, is that gay audiences are interested in listening to it now. Maybe we’re less afraid of taking our lives seriously, maybe we don’t see our lives anymore as slightly ridiculous, the way we’d been taught. And maybe we don’t have to sublimate our experiences in the stories of straight women and divas now … well, at least maybe not ALL of us anymore.

  17. queerlefty says:

    Thanks for the comment. You raise an interesting point about how gay people may or may not react defensively to gay-specific or music with an outsider feel to it, because it might be close to their own experiences. Without either deep knowledge of your music (which I’m sure to check out now) or how this kind of music is typically received, I’m still immediately convinced that you have a point. I too hope that things are about to change for the better.

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