"This is the gayest song of the year," is what one commentator wrote about the above song accompanying the video. If you don't know, it's "Dancing On My Own" from Robyn's Body Talk -- a series of 3 EPs she put out in 2010. If anyone hasn't checked it out yet, I highly suggest he or she does. Of course you remember Robyn, the classic 90's singer. Okay, she had one strong hit -- "Show Me Love." Is it coming back? Yeah, I barely recalled her too. I do remember that song all over the radio in the later part of the 90's, but it's one of those songs I could easily pinpoint but couldn't tell anyone the details of what album it was from or even who the artist was for that matter. With this killer comeback, I'm glad I know who she is now. Since buying the compilation album at Ear X-tacy I've been listening to it more than occasionally. It's addicting and has been deemed one of the best of last year by many critics.
Gayest song of the year
What does this even mean? Obviously on first read it could be a criticism. You know, the infantile eighth grade slur that "gay" means "stupid" or "lame." No, the posts are pretty much a lovefest for Robyn, so I'm assuming this person meant it as a compliment. Or is it pointing to the aesthetic of the musical style? Ever since my three week love affair with Body Talk I've been contemplating what "gay music" is exactly. Robyn's style is electronic dance, so is that what it is? Music you can dance to that would likely be played in a gay club? I don't hear anyone pegging Tiesto as an artist with a gay appeal. So, do gender politics play into it? Is the artist typically female? This notion is pretty base, but I'll admit both are accurate to a point. Gay culture has embraced dance music from female artists since the early days when the bars were illegal and run by the mob. So, does that mean "gay music" is what the majority of gay people listen to? I listen to Iron and Wine. Are they a gay band? I'll stop with this incessant questioning, because I think their rhetorical nature and point has been made, and the answers are fairly obvious. Then again, I don't think I've come to any definitive conclusions and have used this paragraph as a sounding board. What I've perhaps gathered is that the answer to its opening questioning isn't easily answered, and maybe doesn't have one specific resolution.
Cover art for "Hold It Against Me," Britney's latest
Judy Garland. Madonna. Britney Spears. Lady Gaga. These are only some of the mainstream artists pegged as being integral in gay culture, and looking at what they all have in common, it's easy to decipher the reason. I can only speak from my own experience. I'm about to relay some pretty embarrassing personal history and guilty pleasures, though I hate that phrase. Growing up, I was obsessed with Britney Spears. Part of it stuck. For instance, I get excited when I hear she's putting out a new album, and my level of thrill with the release of her new song is no exception. No shame. I've attempted to analyze why she appealed to me so much. Don't blame me. She was my generation's Madonna. I recorded her appearances on TV, learned her dance moves, spent time on fan sites. In psychoanalyzing my young teenage self, this unhealthy interest was appropriate. At a time when I couldn't express the sexuality I wanted to, a sexuality pegged as feminine, she did it for me in her performances and lyrics. She exuded a sexuality that appealed to men, which is what I wanted to do but couldn't. It was an escape of sorts. I think this is typical of young boys trying to cope with same-sex feelings. We found someone else to identify with. And, if anyone questioned it, we could explain it away by claiming that we were sexually attracted to this female singer, and that's even partly true. Identify. That's the key word, and what these artists have in common. The way Judy Garland's personal struggles easily mirror struggles gay people go through in the feeling of not being good enough and shamed by one's body and sexuality. The way Madonna shed repression by sexually inverting religious iconography. The way Britney Spears is a victim of horrendous slut-shaming by the media. The way Gaga celebrates those considered "weird" or "abnormal" with a careless attitude to negative judgment.
The one and only
Then, the actual music itself should be put up for analysis, as I've only alluded to ways of identification in these artists' personal lives and reaction to their commercial persona. In the history of gay culture, mainstream songs by female artists were anthems and played at gay clubs as early as The Stonewall Inn, because of the way the lyrics can have a double meaning to highlight the gay experience of unrequited love, loneliness, trying to find inner strength on one's own, or trying to express sexual confidence. This identification with lyrical content was the case in the early gay movement with Martha Reeves and the Vandellas and Dionne Warwick, and the same is true now with Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, and Robyn. "Dancing On My Own" is about unrequited love in a crowd, and in the video's case on an energetic dance floor. In the irony of loneliness while being surrounded by people, I could clearly see why someone would call this "the gayest song of the year."
Who can resist Judy?
I'm pleased at the critical reception of Robyn's Body Talk and hope it will work to shatter the notion that electropop is something superficial and trivial. What's deemed "gay music" has been dismissed as such. It's feminine, so it's lesser. This idea speaks to the larger way of how our culture seeks to gender everything, even music, so only females or gay men are allowed to listen to certain artists, and if someone outside of these categories does, they are immediately questioned. Yet, my identity as gay male is never questioned because I like Yonder Mountain String Band, Sufjan Stevens, Minus the Bear, Nirvana, Lucero, and the list could go on. The gendering of music is no different to how gendered our society is, and is a microcosm of it. Despite that I know multiple "masculine" men who enjoy Lady Gaga, heteronormative and restrictive comments like Lady Gaga is "the complete opposite masculinity" still pervade. And male artists are expected to project a certain air also. One of my favorite male singers is Jared Gorbel from The Honorary Title, because his voice is so unique and passionate, yet the reaction he's gotten from a few of my friends is that his voice is too "emo." I feel like this is a reaction to a male singer whose voice radiates strong emotion, and stereotypically men aren't supposed to display outward emotional responses. When a singer like Christina Aguilera sings with passion and breaks it down, she's praised for her voice, because this is how women are supposed to sing. When a singer like Jared Gorbel breaks a song down with emotion, he's being whiny. These double standards are why with Robyn, it's a delight to see an album classified as "gay" getting such positive welcome from people who wouldn't ordinarily. It's an album that breaks down barriers. Although, reading the comments of different reactions to Britney's new "Hold It Against Me," in a sea of slut-shaming and misogyny, it's evident not much will change any time soon, at least until our culture gets over its oppressive gender complex. And, we all know how well that's going. Still, I like to think the latest offering from Body Talk is one small step forward. Thanks for this, Robyn.