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Rock's queer evolution - gay musicians - Cover Story

It's 1997, and a female folksinger who runs her own label according to her own free-spirited, feminist agenda -- the same impulse that guided the women's music pioneers 25 years ago -- has the full attention of the media. Ani DiFranco's multicolored hair, pierced eyebrow, rubber clothes, and hide-nothing stare grace the covers of Spin and countless other magazines. Major labels court her in vain: She turns them down, preferring to stay independent and in control of her own career. Meanwhile, she sings love songs directed explicitly at women, proclaims herself queer, and regularly sells out her concerts, largely due to her dedicated and highly vocal lesbian following. The mood of her shows is much like the women's music circuit, where DiFranco got her start -- sisterly, celebratory, and highly cruisy. The difference is that it's talking place under the eye of the mainstream, with plenty of sensitive straight guys in attendance, and for a performer who's considered one of the most vital and of-the-moment musicians in rock. The difference is that DiFranco -- and her lesbian-inclusive phenomenon -- is now the mainstream.


The power and success of this "righteous babe" (the name of DiFranco's record label) isn't an isolated occurrence: Things in the mainstream don't happen that way. Every time k.d. lang releases an album, she ends up on nearly every talk show out there, and although she came out only a few years ago, this trailblazer's sexual orientation is now a given, akin to her vegetarianism or being a Canadian. The same goes for Melissa Etheridge, who used to agonize over the paradox created by projecting a strong female image from within the closet. Nowadays the proud queen of VH1 appears on magazine covers with her girlfriend, the perfect picture of a happy couple. Meanwhile, plenty of up-and-coming alternative rock singers and band members declare their lesbianism with as much consequence as would greet a prominent tattoo or extra piercing: As far as the Murmurs and the women of Sleater-Kinney -- or Kate Schellenbach of Luscious Jackson, Yva Las Vegas of Sweet 75, Patty Schemel of Hole, Skin of Skunk Anansie, and Me'Shell Ndegeocello -- are concerned, it's a part of who they are, and they're willing to discuss it, but their sexuality doesn't seem to get in the way of anybody's appreciation of the most important thing -- the music.

The mainstream's recent acceptance of lesbian rockers is part of its new-found across-the-board approval of female pop talent. Not so long ago any woman who wasn't a ballad, disco, or country singer was an aberration, a suspicious invader of the boys' club, a sexy novelty at best. Rock's emotional center has for decades been the cover of that first Led Zeppelin album -- a giant phallus inspiring mayhem, reverence, and maybe a little envy. The phrase rock and roll began as blues slang for sex, and whether that sexual energy has been physical, emotional, spiritual, or social, it's either coming from a straight man's perspective or drawing attention to itself because it's not all about traditional masculinity.

Rock is just as testosterone-driven as the sports world, and if you're a woman in rock, you're almost expected to be lesbian. Even if you're not a lesbian, you have to deal with the fact that you may get labeled a bitch just because you have enough balls to take control of your career. Chrissie Hynde, Annie Lennox, and Patti Smith all felt they had to come out as straight. A journalist once told Etheridge she didn't count as an exception to the male rock rule because she is a lesbian, and that meant she had male energy going for her.

But just as rock began as a penis thing, it's also a rebellion thing, and as it has grown into a multibillion-dollar corporate-funded international, language-transcending establishment, rock has also rebelled against itself. Whenever there's a shift in style and everything's up for grabs, more women crash the party. Think of when Elvis went into the service -- in came the girl groups. Sure they celebrated teen angels and leaders of the pack who were inevitably male, but in doing so they gave themselves and other hair hoppers the license to be "bad," and the songs they sang were written for and often by women.

When Beatlemania shifted from fans' screaming at those cute mop tops in concert to pondering the greater meaning of their concept albums with a head full of weed, Janis Joplin, Janis Ian, Laura Nyro, Joan Baez, and Grace Slick appeared on the scene to let it all hang out, bras not included. Ironically, it says volumes about the sexually fluid pre-Stonewall '60s that the first four of these five women either are lesbians or have had well-documented lesbian affairs.

When the Fab Four called it quits, former girl-group songsmith Carole King found her solo voice, and the first major wave of female singer-songwriters was born. As classic rock grew stale in the latter half of the '70s, punk-rock queens like Smith, Hynde, and Debbie Harry shook up the charts by coming on stronger than the guys. Meanwhile, Donna Summer, Grace Jones, and Amanda Lear pushed the envelope of acceptable pop sexuality, fanning the flames of Saturday Night Fever. And when disco and new wave went kaput, Madonna and her wannabes took over the dance floor. Whenever rock undergoes an actual progression (as opposed to revivalism and nostalgia), women usually supply the power behind it and are also the ones who most benefit from it.

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