On Jay Brannan and escaping ‘gay-by-association’

Av | 25. juli 2009

While trying to write about the music of singer/songwriter/actor Jay Brannan, I realized that it would be harder than I thought. Not because I was unsure about what I actually think of it, or because 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 viewpoint that I wasn’t sure I would be able to frame it correctly. Apart from Rufus Wainwright, our culture has had no place for gay-themed pop music, and thus I also feel the general vocabulary of pop criticism wanting. One of the main reasons for this is the gay-by-association paradigm.

We’re talking about the knee-jerk reaction to every musical expression of camp. It doesn’t matter if the artist in question is gay or not. If their music is, or could be expected to be, embraced by gay people, be it for musical (dance music, synth pop), visual (cute guys, outrageous costumes, generally colorful appearance), cultural (the gay association with musical theater, showtunes) or some combination of all three reasons, it will immediately be perceived in a certain way by pop critics. By making their reception essential to the music itself, sly Madonna electronica, Savage Garden’s synth pop and the boyish excesses of emo and postpunk, could all be framed as part of the same musical landscape. The music by association becomes gay, more than good or bad.

I’m simplifying slightly here, of course. I don’t mean to argue that music is never made with one eye on how it will play with certain audiences, or that it’s necessarily a bad thing that the gay community – whatever that is – has embraced certain artists as symbols of what it means to be gay. The gay embrace has a certain democratic potential, in the sense that it has made it more acceptable to like some kinds of music, like boybands or glam rock or its off-shoots. I like much of both, and I think it’s a good thing. Still, once a band or an artist runs victim of gay (or, perhaps better, camp-)-by-association, it gets much harder to discuss their quality, at least as compared with artists that are not considered GBA. Again emphasizing that I have nothing against gay fandom, my only point is that if, say, Backstreet Boys, a group with a large and fairly 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 else, I’m not sure it would have gotten it. My thesis, then, is that part of the reason would be BSB’s implicit association with not particularly prestigious camp pop music. I’m not saying that the previous campness of the group would itself disqualify it, or that pop critics are consciously homophobic in doing this, but it would likely run the risk of being written off as a surprisingly good record for a group previously courting tweens and gay audiences, or something like that. More than anything, it would be considered good compared with their earlier work, and with similar groups, more than being assessed on its own terms.

It could be argued that is a somewhat overstated issue, or at least that GBA is only a small part of it. After all, how do we know what critical skepticism is attributable to GBA and what is simply snobbery on the reviewer’s part? To hail a Backstreet Boys album will never be uncontroversial, and it could be that some reviewers would hold back on their praise, for fear of losing their good standing with other Guardians Of Good Taste. Still, I would say that this does not entirely take away the problematic aspects of GBA.

Here, we’ve finally arrived at the point of this post. One thing is that GBA has a tendency 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 that same pop criticism vocabulary is adequate when writing about an artist that’s not only GBA, but who makes his gayness an integral part of his pop act? I’m not out to make definitive statements on this, but my own thinking when listening to, and deeply enjoying, Jay Brannan’s debut album Goddamned (2008) suggests the answer is no.

The challenge that Brannan poses, is that while our point in criticizing the more or less uncritical application of GBA to artists who are not themselves gay, or to gay artists whose music does not make gayness a part of their appeal, this time we’ll have to handle music that has an (at least at times) distinct gay angle. We immediately run the risk of overemphasizing that very angle, and thus ending up making it more important to the music than it really is supposed to be, or 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 (here, the music) to something emotionless and technical. We should, as far as we can, avoid dragging politics into the musical arena, and particularly when it’s not intended that way by its creator. Also, we should honor that music and literature are two distinctively different art forms, and while lyrics are an essential part of the the musical experience, it can never be the whole experience.

That said, I cannot help but feeling that it’s kind of refreshing to hear Brannan’s dry gay 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) place him closer to GBA than Brannan’s stripped-down cynicism will ever be. With the same 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 Ben Folds. Let’s take At First Sight as an example. Here, 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 fan mail came anthrax/now you wish I were dead‘. The contrast between the music and the lyrics make it a very, very funny line, and with the feel of a great pop song. And Brannan is really good at those short aphorisms that stick in your head, either because they’re funny or because they simply ring true, reminding you that you will never be quite as smart of funny as he is; ‘Why don’t the Gideons leave condoms in the drawer?/Bibles don’t save many people anymore’; ‘If this is my destiny, then why am I so bored?’; ‘I’ve got my laptop for pleasure/and my guitar for pain‘; ‘he tries hard to songwrite his way out of bed‘, the list could go on forever. With moments like these, I’ll forgive him for sometimes crossing the fine line between pointed misanthropy and just plain whining.

This is an important point. Returning to the issue of framing his music as gay, I’m starting to believe that this is more important to me than it would have been to a straight listener. Under the spell of heteronormativity we are all supposed to assume that any love song is by default about heterosexuals, but I might value the breaking of that rule in a different way than a straight guy would, both when it comes to the lyrics and the songs themselves. I’m not going to say that my interpretation is necessarily better, or that straight people cannot love Jay Brannan (-’s music) as much as I do. Only that I think it’s really great to finally see an artist that’s 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.


Jørgen Lien

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