On Boybands, Jay Brannan and Escaping Gay-By-Association

NOTE: This essay first appeared in Ganymede Unfinished, available now from Sibling Rivalry Press. An earlier version appeared on this blog in May 2009.


When I sat down to try to write about the music of singer/songwriter Jay Brannan, I soon realized that it would be harder than I thought. It wasn’t that I was unsure about what I actually thought of it, or that 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 point of view that I wasn’t sure I would be able to frame it correctly. It could of course be that I’ve simply been listening to the wrong music, or that I don’t know where to look. But to the extent that the cultural mainstream has had any place for gay-themed pop music, (apart from Rufus Wainwright) the general vocabulary of pop talk nonetheless felt poorly suited for discussing somebody like Jay Brannan.

I suspected that it could have to do with a knee-jerk negative reaction from both consumers and critics to any expression of camp. It can be hard to detect, since it’s not fashionable to admit that your taste is affected by the mere signals an artist or his music style sends out, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Often, it’s irrelevant if the artist in question is even gay or not. If his music is, or could be expected to be, embraced by gay people, be it for musical (dance music, synth pop), visual (cute guys, generally colorful/flamboyant appearance), cultural (the gay association with musical theater, showtunes) or some combination of all three reasons, it’s likely to be perceived in a certain way by critics. And voila; if you seek to project the target audience and their presumed reaction to it onto the (often vaguely camp) music itself, Madonna’s sly electronica, the synth pop of Roxette or Savage Garden, and the boyish excesses of emo and postpunk can all be easily framed as part of the same musical landscape. Camp is associated with gay, and the music by association becomes gay, more than good or bad.

I’m simplifying slightly here, of course. Music is often made with at least one eye on how it’s likely to play with certain audiences, and critics aren’t necessarily wrong in assuming that a certain type of music will have special appeal to gay music lovers. Neither do I mean to argue that it’s a bad thing that the gay community has embraced certain artists for their ability to level with what it means to be gay, or for their campy excesses. In instances where the «gay embrace» has co-existed with mainstream success, it may actually have made it more acceptable to enjoy some kinds of music, like boybands or glam rock (or its present day offspring). But there are nonetheless at least two problems in play here. One relates to how critics talk about music that has some of the aforementioned characteristics of a gay-by-association (GBA) record. The other concerns how gay-by-association threatens to rob us of a way to discuss explicitly gay music.

Let’s look first at how the gay association of a band or a music style may get in the way of its critical reception. Once a band or an artist runs victim of gay (or, perhaps better, camp)-by-association, it gets much harder to discuss its quality, at least as compared to artists that are not considered GBA. We’ll make it hypothetical: If, say, Backstreet Boys, a group that still has a fairly large and 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 with a different target audience, I’m not sure it would get it. I would argue that camp pop music lacks prestige among critics, which makes it less likely to earn praise, even if its deserved. A history of embracing camp musical elements or of appealing – openly or not – to gay audiences may not necessarily be disqualifying altogether, but it would likely increase the risk of it being written off as a surprisingly good record from a group previously courting tweens and gay audiences, or something like that. This doesn’t mean that most pop critics are homophobic. It just means that they sometimes resort to condescension and sloppy writing instead of actual criticism.

This is not exclusively about campness, of course. For boybands in particular, the marketing of them to young people, and the lack of critical prestige associated with taking them seriously, may be equally important factors. There are simply too many irresistibly easy tropes to fall back on: From wrapping your disdain for the music in moral outrage over how profit-oriented record companies prey on the impressionable and uncritical minds of barely self-aware consumers, to the ever-handy charge that the bands are speculating in the hormone-driven decisions of their fan base. Both give the argument a gay subtext, since teen girls and the stereotypical gay guy can be expected to worship the boyband heartthrob in much the same way.

Complicating things further is the elusive nature of camp. There’s still no commonly agreed standard or authority to determine what’s camp and what’s not, although many culture critics seem to base their assumptions on updated versions of the definition provided by Susan Sontag in her essay Notes on Camp (1964). This constantly evolving, case-by-case standard means that it’s not always clear what someone who’s dismissing music as gay-by-association is actually criticizing. But sometimes you don’t even need to be clear. So long as you can be reasonably sure that your readers read the same connotations into the campy elements as you do, it can be a very powerful shorthand.

Let me give you just one quick example, from the review of Backstreet Boys’ (admittedly un-excellent) comback record Never Gone (2005) on the pop culture website PopMatters: «Never have I played Backstreet Boys in my room, and the old concern comes back: What if someone hears?» It’s a neat rhetorical trick, because it’s recognizable in a pop-snobbish kind of way, almost like it’s asking “What if someone caught me listening to something this bad and thought I was actually enjoying it?” But there is something about that initial question – «What if someone hears?» – that leaves open the possibility of GBA at work. If you think the readers will connect the dots anyway, you don’t have to say it outright for them to pick up that what you’re really asking is if being caught listening to this shlocky boyband will make people question your straightness or your maturity.

As you can see from this example, GBA is not an exact science. After all, how do we know what critical skepticism is attributable to GBA and what is simply snobbery on the critic’s part? To hail a Backstreet Boys album will never be uncontroversial, and even in the face of an actual great Backstreet Boys record, some critics may be tempted to hold back on their praise for fear of losing their good standing with other guardians of good taste. The most important thing about GBA, then, may simply be to be aware of how it can limit the way we discuss music. At the same time, however, we need to make sure that allegations of GBA don’t themselves limit discussion. You should be allowed to be sarcastic, or to put your point a little inartfully, without getting accused of peddling GBA.

It’s one thing that GBA can be used 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 the pop criticism vocabulary that fostered GBA is adequate when writing about an artist who not only actually is gay, but who makes his gayness an integral part of his pop act? I’m not out to make definitive statements on this, but listening to Jay Brannan’s debut album Goddamned (2008), I get the sense that the answer is no.

My point in criticizing the more or less uncritical application of GBA to artists who are not themselves gay, or artists whose music does not make gayness a part of their appeal, was to take the gayness out of them. Not just because of the stigma of GBA, but also because applying it to music that has very little to do with actual gayness could make it harder for us to find a vocabulary to talk about explicitly gay-themed and/or gay-conscious music. When we are finally faced with such music, however, we immediately run the risk of overemphasizing the gay angle, thus ending up making it more important to the music than it really is supposed to be. Or maybe even worse, to make it more important than the music itself. A political reading of the material could prove interesting, but at the same time we risk reducing the material to something emotionless and technical. We need to be careful with dragging politics into the musical arena, and especially when the artist didn’t set out to make a political statement. Jay Brannan has actually declared on his website that he loathes the label of ‘gay artist’, for all the suggestions that he therefore represents other people or their experiences. Also, to consider music and lyrics entirely separately in order to extract its real meaning often reflects a fundamental misconception of what music is and should be; a symbiosis.

That said, I cannot help but feel that it’s kind of refreshing to hear Brannan’s dry gay-informed 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) makes him an easier target of gay-by-association than Brannan’s stripped-down and frequently pessimistic tunes will ever be. With his 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 other great emotionally flexible wordsmiths, like Ben Folds, or The Magnetic Fields’ Stephen Merritt.

Let’s take At First Sight as an example. In that song, 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 fanmail came anthrax/now you wish I were dead». The music and lyrics taken together makes it a very funny line, and a great pop song. Brannan is really good at those short aphorisms that get stuck in your head. It can be because they’re funny or because they simply ring true. There is practical advice («Why don’t the Gideons leave condoms in the drawer?/Bibles don’t save many people anymore»), resignation («If this is my destiny/why am I so bored?»), struggle («He tries hard to songwrite his way out of bed») and release («Late nights in Hollywood, banging guitars and boys»), but the eventual relief is bittersweet («I’ve got my laptop for pleasure and my guitar for pain»). Even when you think you’ve tired of apparent gloom, you remember the gentle self-mockery («You’re the pill I never wanted to take/an anti-misanthrope»).

Although there are inevitably gay aspects to Brannan’s music – a male voice addressing his lover as his boyfriend kind of takes care of that – what’s most refreshing about it is that I think it’s still universal enough that both straight and gay listeners can appreciate it. The real difference is in what different listeners take away from the music. Under the spell of heteronormativity we are all supposed to assume that any love song is by default about heterosexuals, but as a gay man I might value the breaking of that rule in a different way than a straight guy would. My understanding of it is not necessarily better, and of course straight people can appreciate Jay Brannan just as much as I do. In the end, I just think it’s really great to finally see an artist who is 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

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