The Significance Of Stephen Gately

As a former Boyzone fan, I was of course deeply saddened by last week’s news that the group’s co-singer, Stephen Gately, had died. I say former not because I need to distance myself from my fandom, but rather because I haven’t felt the need to listen to them for years. There’s something about not really appreciating something until it’s taken away from you, however. I’m not more of a former Boyzone fan that I have been listening to them endlessly ever since the story broke a week ago.

I suppose it was this sense of loss that made me think that Peter Robinson, the music blogger of The Guardian, was so obviously right in headlining his memorial posting  Stephen Gately summed up Boyzone: cute, cheerful and clearly having a ball. It seemed at the same time like a reasonably respectful yet slightly patronizing way to frame the career of a group so safely recognizable that will they never be canonized, not even within the boyband genre, but with whom this was not the the time for harshness. But did Robinson nail it? Was Stephen Gately really like Boyzone? And did Boyzone fit his description?

Neh. You may be able to summarize Boyzone through Gately, but Robinson’s description is not necessarily fit to describe neither of them. Cute is not the important adjective here, whether you’re thinking of their sometimes charming pop earnestness or the uncontested fact that at least a couple of the group’s members were very easy on the eye. I’m also in no position to know whether Gately enjoyed being a member of the group, but I have no reason to doubt it. It’s the cheerful I’m reacting to.

I’m not saying that Boyzone’s songs had some underappreciated emotional complexity or depth,  and I know that their roster of hits stretched further than just balladeering. Still Robinson’s claim strikes me as a little odd. It wasn’t Picture of You, Together or comeback single Love You Anyway that defined Boyzone. It was Father and Son, Baby Can I Hold You, All That I Need, Words, I Love The Way You Love Me, Every Day I Love You and No Matter What. Ballads all, and none of them particularly cheerful. That was how it was suppose to be. Boyzone was targeted at hormonal teens, sure. But musically, they were just as clearly tuned to not scare away a somewhat older (female?) audience. They didn’t make pleasant and predictable cover versions so that young music fans could be introduced to Bee Gees, Cat Stevens or Tracy Chapman. They did whatever they could get away with without alienating either of the core audiences. Boyzone was never meant to be like Backstreet Boys, or even Take That. More than cheerful, they were safe.

And in all of this, Stephen Gately was never the frontman. On songs not brimming with cheerfulness in the first place, he was tasked with channeling the musical earnestness Ronan Keating’s softly nasal lead vocals hadn’t already absorbed. Gately was that other even prettier guy who had to do something special with his ooh’s and aah‘s in order to grab the spotlight. But this is also part of the reason why Stephen was always my Boyzone favorite: He was not Ronan Keating. Without necessarily being Ronan’s exact opposite, you never got the feeling that Gately felt he was too big for Boyzone, as you could sometimes feel about the entrepreneurially career-savvy Keating. After a couple of years of Boyzone success which I suspect he had a hand in making happen even marketing-wise, Keating went on to mentor the next generation Irish boyband. As we now know, Westlife ended up eclipsing The Beatles as the group with the most straight-to-#1 hits in the UK. Gately seemingly had none of that strong ambition, which made him easier to sympathize with.

And he was gay. That wouldn’t in itself have been a reason to prefer him to the somewhat slicker Keating, had it not been for the small fact that it was actually quite important. Not because I was gay myself (I didn’t admit it until years later). Rather, it was because, as British gaymag Attitude pointed out in their fine memorial post, Stephen Gately should be attributed with busting the myth that having a gay band member would somehow mean commercial suicide for a boy band. (Please ignore the oddness in that such a perception of the markets seems to basically ignore that the gay audience often is one of the most loyal elemts of most boybands’ fanbase.) I agree with The Times’ Tim Teeman that it should not be held  against a gay role model that he was basically forced out of the closet because one of Britain’s notoriously sleazy tabloids threatened to blow it open for him. To be pushed into such a visible and symbolically important role takes a lot of courage in its own way. Young pop gays like Will Young, Gareth Gates, Mark Feehily (Westlife) and others should be very grateful.

This is what lead me to a fair bit of post-rationalizing; but suddenly Robertson’s claim didn’t seem like quite as much of a stretch.  Didn’t something happen to Gately’s appearance after he came out? Whether within Boyzone or outside, he seemed more confident, and – yes – even cheerful at times. His muted Boyzone persona underwent a change, for the better, after the big broke ten years ago. He was free to embrace his passions,  and as Robinson points out, he became something of an ambassador for Disney.

This is how Stephen Gately should be remembered, no matter how many outrageously bigoted column inches may be churned out by the likes of Jan Moir, who took the occasion of Gately’s death to expel the ‘myth’ of the ‘happy-ever-after of civil partnerships’ without a shred of evidence to back it up. Moir may force us to embrace him even tighter as a gay pioneer, but as time goes by, he should also be recognized for how he and Boyzone helped shape the British 1990’s.

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