It’s been widely believed that Melissa Etheridge used her 1993 album title Yes I Am to confirm longstanding rumors that she was a lesbian, but that’s folklore.
“One hundred percent truthfully, I had written the song ‘Yes I Am’ originally for the album before that, and it’s a love song. It’s about saying positively, ‘Yes, I am that lover,’” the singer tells Billboard. “So, I thought it would be a great song to name an album after. Then, I realized when I came out right before the album came out … ‘Oh, that is going to be interesting. That is going to be really interesting.’”
That doesn’t mean she wasn’t amused by the media attention: “Oh, it made for great headlines — ‘Yes, She Is’ or whatever. People just assumed that I called it that because of my coming out and they still do. I did not do it because of that. I did realize when I came out that the album title would seem clever, but it’s all good.”
Yes I Am, Etheridge’s fourth studio album, put her in the national spotlight with a trio of now-classics: “Come To My Window,” “I’m The Only One” and “If I Wanted To.” As the album turns 25 today (Sept. 21), the queer icon is in the middle of an anniversary tour and is gearing up to re-release of the album at the end of November, which Billboard can confirm has seven unreleased bonus tracks.
To celebrate Yes I Am’s legacy, Etheridge caught up with Billboard to talk about the album’s significance.
I’ve heard some behind-the-scenes horror stories about artists who wanted to come out publicly. Times have changed, but was your label, Sire Records, supportive of your decision?
Everyone I was working with when they signed me on knew my girlfriend — knew everything about me. I was discovered in a lesbian bar. I was very out. I was just “don’t ask, don’t tell.” That’s really what we had going on in the history, and no one ever, ever asked me that question. You just don’t do that. You would lose access to every artist if you did that. The record company was not surprised at all. I remember calling them. It was the day after [President Bill Clinton’s] inauguration and I said, “Hey, guys. Well, I came out,” and they said, “Alright. Well, here we go.” Not a single bit of pushback.
By this time, it was my fourth album and everyone really felt like this shouldn’t matter. Some of the radio guys got some pushback. Sky Daniels, a radio guy at Island Records — I heard stories that he got up and said, “Don’t just not play this because she’s a lesbian.” He really got in there and showed that that is not acceptable. It was really beautiful that those guys stood up to that homophobic attitude. That really made a difference.”
Over the years, have younger musicians told you how much you have inspired them?
Yes, and it’s just one of the best compliments ever. I did an interview with Tegan & Sara and they were very grateful and respectful and it’s really been a wonderful experience. I never really thought that when I came out it would be such a legacy story for me and for many. Thousands and thousands and hundreds of thousands of people that have come up to me and just said, “Thank you.” It’s huge.
Nowadays, society is much more accepting toward LGBTQ musicians. Do you envy the new kids?
No, not at all. I’ve got a very interesting story, and I love it. It’s all dramatic. [laughs] I am grateful that it is not acceptable to discriminate anymore though. You can no longer say, “You can’t do that because you’re gay.” That is not a thing of the entertainment industry anymore. If you’re good, you’re good. So, get out there. Do it.
I’m curious, is there a song or album that you most associate with your own coming out?
Besides my own album? [laughs] I’d have to say K.D. Lang’s Ingénue, because she took the dive first and I was like, “Well, look at her go!” I just listened to it and that’s one of those albums you listen to over and over and over and over.
And is there a young LGBTQ artist that more people should know about?
LP. I think she deserves to be more in the front. She has such an incredible musical talent and artistry. She’s just a beautiful color in this rainbow box of music and I think people would really enjoy her music.