I just loved this New Year’s resolution, attributed to New York magazine’s film critic David Edelstein via Slate’s Dana Stevens: “To have no shame: no guilty pleasures, only pleasures; no wish for do-overs, only excitement [for] the next opportunity”. It’s no less useful for ordinary folk than for professional critics. Wouldn’t it have been refreshing if, for once, everyone could actually admit to everything they like, and not just the the pre-approved things that exchangers of cultural capital have decided it’s absolutely no harm in admitting to? I’m not advocating the permanent dismantling of the battle between Good and Bad, only that people be allowed to make the case for the mainstream (or the just plain weird, for that matter) without fear of being laughed out of the discussion.
I’m going to try to live by this resolution for the rest of the year, but the reason I brought it up here is because I wanted to write something about the 1990s pop duo Savage Garden. Usually, the people most important to my process of self-realization as gay have been presented in my Early Gay Crushes series, but Savage Garden was important to me in a quite different way. I love Leonardo DiCaprio, Zac Hanson and Chris Egan for helping me understand that my physical attraction to men probably meant I was gay, inciting feelings I never had for any of the Savage Garden members. As I pointed to in my coming-out story, however, Savage Garden was in fact essential in getting me ready to come out both to myself and to my family.
We’ll get to that in a minute, but first: Savage Garden had their golden years between 1997 and 1999, during which they released an impressive slate of hit singles, from the danceable synth-pop of I Want You, To The Moon And Back, The Animal Song and Affirmation, to the earnest balladeering of I Knew I Loved You or Truly Madly Deeply. I remember liking much of their music instantly, but for gay-by-association reasons I never admitted to it publicly. That said, I don’t know how much of my Savage Garden self-denial was caused by actual GBA, and how much was for other reasons. When I discussed GBA with Smilie, a smart Canadian who comments on this blog regularly, a while ago, we agreed that Savage Garden didn’t seem to foster the same fury as more obvious GBA material, like Backstreet Boys. We speculated that it was because they were naturally older-skewing, and that their distinct eighties feel made them less threatening to the queer-weary public. Anyway, such nuances arguments aren’t necessarily a tour de force among teens, and regardless of whether other bands were thought to set off even more gay alarm bells, Savage Garden still had a risky combination of cheerful dance music and sappy ballads that not exactly screamed masculinity. So, while I never had to disown them (since I had never embraced them in the first place), I decided to keep my appreciation to myself. I was so GBA conscious I even started to believe in it myself.
Coming back around to Savage Garden turned out to take longer it should have, however. As I got older, I continued to guard my record collection as a personal statement. There was the aforementioned risk that people would draw conclusions about me based on the records I owned (‘Madonna records equal gay boy‘), but also a wish on my part to show a certain refined taste. I convinced myself that the power pop leanings of my past were somehow beneath The New Me. Today I’m of course deeply ashamed of this brief flirtation with calculated coolness (who says you can’t love Bright Eyes and Savage Garden? Band of Horses and Jonas Brothers? Well, lots of people. But they’re wrong.), but I guess it’s something most uncool people aspiring for greatness have to go through, unless they’re more confident than I was. I don’t regret the great music it made me discover, but I do regret how it made me abandon much of the music I already knew I liked.
As is often the case, even this comes down to Hanson. If it hadn’t been for Hanson, I suspect I still would have been in denial about Savage Garden today. But when Underneath and single Penny and Me allowed me to re-connect with Hanson (Zac Hanson had more than a little to do with it), it sort of started a long-term process. I think this is an important reason why many people who know me from my days as an arrogant Chaser of Music Cool still have problems accepting my conversion to the middle- and lowbrow. I can’t blame them. For one thing, it’s quite a leap from one day deriding people for their affection for boybands, Grey’s Anatomy and reality TV, and asking them to accept your own embrace of say, Hanson and 7th Heaven the next. The fact that I was so unapologetic, sincere and passionate about it made it hard to understand for some.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see that this was one of my first steps on the way to accepting that I was gay. In a complete reversal, I now I in a sense sought out things that could be perceived as GBA. Although I loved their music, Hanson eventually forced me to acknowledge the gay element of my fandom, and when I decided I was done with perceived GBA prejudices standing behind me and Savage Garden, it was like I had crossed a line. I knew with myself that I wasn’t buying a Savage Garden best-of compilation for the nineties nostalgia, and I felt that there was something indefinably gay about it, but, finally, I didn’t care. And with the self-centeredness of a young man grasping at a new identity, I actually felt a sense of liberation from allowing myself to bask in the luxurious guilty pleasure pop music that I had denied any fondness for for years.
And speaking of liberation, there was this line, from Affirmation: ‘I believe you can’t control or choose your sexuality‘. Savage Garden’s gay vibes had set off some soul-searching on their own, but that line just continued to churn in my head for months, until one day, in early August 2006, I had come to terms with my being gay. I had struggled with the question for a long time, and during that time I would return to Affirmation almost like a mantra. You know when people say music changed their lives? Generally, I guess people refer to something a little more spectacular than an Australian nineties dance pop duo, but Savage Garden helped me come out. That’s how you earn life-long loyalty.