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Comment: Where are all the gay indie musicians?

Nell Frizzell June 19, 2009
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From Elton John to Will Young, pop music has had a long and often celebrated gay history. Stephen Gateley was sent flowers by the Spice Girls and Freddie Mercury sang ‘We are the champions’.

So, who are the guitar-wielding alternative acts championing their gay identity?

Although many young gay indie or alternative acts like Bradford Cox from Deerhunter cite Kurt Cobain in all his dress-wearing glory as an early inspiration, for the generation before, it was all about David Bowie.

When Bowie performed on Top of the Pops as Ziggy Stardust in 1972, in a lycra catsuit with his arm around Mick Ronson (of The Spiders From Mars), it brought the gay side of glam rock out into the mainstream. As Ian McCulloch from Echo and the Bunnymen said: “As soon as I heard Starman and saw him on Top Of The Pops I was hooked. I seem to remember me being the first to say it, and then there was a host of other people saying how the Top Of The Pops performance changed their lives.”

Pete Shelley, singer and guitarist of Buzzcocks told “By 1971 or ’72 David Bowie came out, and I was a big Bowie fan as well. To me that seemed right, that’s who I am. The problem with saying you were gay was that your girlfriend used to get very confused. For many years bisexuality seemed to be a non-existent status. Straight people consider you to be gay and gay people consider you to be straight, or gay but without any commitment.”

It is often claimed that Shelley’s 1978 hit Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve) described this struggle with bisexuality, and brought a discussion of loneliness and confusion into the fairly straight-dominated world of punk.

So, what of modern musicians? Well, many indie or alternative acts have shied away from discussing sexuality. Michael Stipe only described himself as a “queer artist” to Time magazine in 2001, after two decades of media speculation. “I was being made to be a coward about it, rather than someone who felt like it really was a very private thing,” Stipe told the magazine.

As well as protecting their privacy, many gay acts shy away from being openly gay because of a still perceived risk to their career. As Rufus Wainwright told Spin: “It’s important for famous people to be an example for gay teens. But if they stay in the closet, they’re going to make a lot more money.”

However, there seems to have been something of a recent surge in popularity for gay alternative acts, or indie acts with gay members. The Gossip closed Glastonbury, Grizzly Bear opened for Radiohead in North America and Placebo’s new album Battle for the Sun is attracting very positive ‘return to form’ reviews.

Last year, Dan Gillespie Sells, the singer of The Feeling, said: “The world would be a healthier place if people were more honest about their sexuality and the entertainment industry would be healthier if people were more honest full stop.”

But, perhaps focusing on sexuality isn’t the point. As Ed Droste, the front man of Grizzly Bear, told “There are tonnes of different types of gay musicians that are doing music. Deerhunter is a total shoe-gazer/My Bloody Valentine type of thing. Patrick Wolf is very theatrical. And we’re just sort of folky. So, sure — why not? I fit in. I’m not stressed about it.”

Nell Frizzell is a freelance journalist. Her blog can be found at

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