When I think of gay artists who have charted on Billboard, one thought springs to the fore: “I wish there were 50,000 more.” Pop music has always been a religion for LGBTQ listeners and it seems only right that we populate, oh, at least 75 percent of every chart. (I’m not great at math but it feels right.) While that remains to be seen, the queer artists who’ve made a dent in Billboard’s vast history stand out as defiant troubadours who often risked being misunderstood or maligned in the service of delivering something relevant to even the most disenfranchised listeners. Here are a few who ruled hard and loud.
George Michael and Elton John
Sorry to confine these gents to a single listicle item, but together they pulled off one of the great gay feats of the '80s and no one seems to talks about it. Long before they joined forces on record to protest the daily actions of the sun, they teamed up in 1985 on “Wrap Her Up,” a bop from Elton’s Ice on Fire album that concludes with -- of all things -- a recitation of their favorite ladies in pop culture. “Joan Collins! Kiki Dee! Katharine Hepburn! Vivien Leigh!” they shout back and forth like Red Bull-chugging beat poets. Keep in mind this is five years before Madonna’s “Vogue” made the work of Jean Harlow seem remotely interesting. It’s two gay guys in ecstasy proclaiming the names of movie stars, models and pop icons and hoping you can keep up. No word yet on what “wrap her up” means, but my guess is something along the lines of “Buy her memorabilia on eBay.”
First things first: You must be reminded that Lesley Gore, who lit up the '60s with “It’s My Party” and “Judy’s Turn to Cry,” was an out lesbian who was in a committed relationship with jewelry designer Lois Sessions for 33 years. Secondly, please savor that she is an Oscar nominee. She scored a nom for writing “Out Here On My Own” from Fame and her brother Michael won the Oscar that year for penning Fame’s title song. Together they also wrote that movie’s unbelievable “Hot Lunch Jam,” which elevated cafeteria food and colorful leg-warming to high art. Gore’s songs ooze with subversion and a canny sense of self-worth. I thought I’d never need to see another drag version of Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” again, but recently Cate Blanchett, the Oscar-winning origami swan, showed up at the Stonewall Inn to lip-sync Gore’s anthem with the naughty swagger we’ve come to associate with only the best Australians. It felt like a divine postscript to Carol, a movie whose lead characters definitely share Gore’s self-possession and sensuality.
Like many homosexual males in possession of a Discman, I first heard Meshell Ndegeocello as a featured artist on Madonna’s Bedtime Stories track “I’d Rather Be Your Lover.” Her verse is the most libidinous moment of the album, which is a real feat considering there’s an entire track called “Inside of Me.” She also duetted the same year with John Mellencamp on a hit cover of Van Morrison’s “Wild Night.” But what you need to understand about Meshell Ndegeocello is that her solo output is uniformly rich and rad thanks to her urgent vocals and incredible bass skills; her first album Plantation Lullabies contains the saucy “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night),” her album Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape gave us the Missy Elliott-remixed “Pocketbook,” and now she scores director-producer Ava DuVernay’s incredible Queen Sugar series on OWN. You may have noticed the music on that show is sublime and you can thank Ndegeocello for its soulful bite.
To this day, I can’t describe why season eight of American Idol is the best year of the series. The contestants got along really well? Allison Iraheta and Kris Allen seem like fun people? Danny Gokey didn’t know he was the villain? Whatever the reason, Adam Lambert was an indispensable part of it. He rocked pleather like no one I’ve seen since Margaret Cho’s HBO standup special in 1994 and he wailed wild versions of “Ring of Fire,” “Mad World” and (my favorite) “If I Can’t Have You.” Though his outsize stage presence was frequently called (or derided as) “Broadway,” Lambert’s full-throated gusto read way more Taylor Dayne than Nathan Lane, and -- trust -- it is a serious blessing that we have a gay male Taylor Dayne. After coming out in a Rolling Stone cover story, Lambert has gone on to release three studio albums that all reached the top 3 on the Billboard 200. His time spent with Queen as a live replacement for Freddie Mercury qualifies him for sainthood, full stop.
Yes, that Lily Tomlin! The one who spends most of her time these days exchanging withering glances on Netflix with fellow cinematic goddess Jane Fonda. Tomlin, who married writer and collaborator Jane Wagner since 2013 (after 42 years as domestic partners), holds two distinctions: She’s the only queer person ever to win the Grammy for Best Comedy Album and she released Billboard’s alltime highest-charting comedy album by a female comic (both for 1971’s This is a Recording). Only two other women, Whoopi Goldberg and Kathy Griffin, have won that Grammy. It’s been fascinating to hear Tomlin give interviews about the climate of coming out since she’s been famous; and frankly, every interview she gives is a hilarious godsend.
There was only one challenger to Donna Summer’s “Queen of Disco” status in the late '70s and that was Sylvester. Those bubbly trills. That larger-than-life warmth. He belted with the exuberance of somebody sitting in an amazing Brookstone chair. “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” is the out legend’s most famous track, but don’t sleep on “Dance (Disco Heat)” or his lovely cover of the Patti LaBelle-penned “You Are My Friend.” Sylvester once discussed what he considered a distinct separation between his sexual orientation and musical talent, noting, “When I'm f---ing I'm not thinking about singing and vice versa." Fair enough! Before he died of AIDS in 1988, Sylvester designated in his will that royalties from his music go to two different HIV/AIDS charities. The word “fabulous” is thrown around pretty liberally, but it’s the only word that comes close to pinpointing Sylvester as a performer and distinct pop culture presence.
Let’s get this out of the way: It does not get cuter than Jermaine Stewart. The “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off” singer wore the cutest clothes, had the cutest smile and had the c-u-u-u-test pop voice of the late ‘80s, registering somewhere between El Debarge and Deniece Williams with a soupçon of Pebbles thrown in. No one pulled off a little hat and a patterned blazer like this kid, who splashed the mainstream with exuberant sincerity. To my ears, his greatest contribution to musical gayness is the song “Jody,” a tribute to the legendary Jody Watley, whom Stewart met as a Soul Train dancer before eventually serving as her backup singer. He also sang backup on Culture Club’s “Miss Me Blind,” which reminds me…
Culture Club, kind of like the B-52s, is a group that people seem to remember as a wacky novelty act. Please. If both those bands came out today, they’d still be revolutionary. Boy George’s eye-popping looks, yearning vocals and casual interview candor fascinated everybody in the early ‘80s and it didn’t hurt that his music teemed with insane hooks. One of my favorite covers that I rarely hear anymore is his version of “The Crying Game,” which served as the theme to the seminal 1992 film of the same name.
Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange is an album I can only compare to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill or Tracy Chapman’s debut: Though the artist was new as a solo voice (though Ocean had released a mixtape prior to his studio debut), it felt like everyone else just shut up and listened. And that receptiveness transferred to Ocean’s Tumblr, where in July 2012 he released a searing coming-out letter about a relationship he’d had with a man years prior. It was revealing both on biographical and artistic levels: Ocean’s sensitivity permeates his work, whether it’s on the smooth “Thinkin Bout You,” the longing “Forrest Gump,” or the chilled-out funk of “Pyramids.” When Adele is tweeting impatiently about your follow-up, you’ve made it as a necessary new voice.
R.E.M. lyrics range from irreverent to whimsical and sometimes they’re inscrutable. I’d call their lyrics the original “weird Twitter” (in case we’re still using that label from, oh, 2011). In the '90s, lead singer Michael Stipe identified himself as a queer artist, which was pretty exciting to gay male listeners (or at least this gay male listener) who related to the romance of Automatic for the People and the saucy sarcasm in everything from “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” to “Shiny Happy People.” Reared on Patti Smith’s literate rage, the spindly, frowning Stipe just oozed self-belief, even if when he was unleashing a brutal lament like “Walk Unafraid” or “Everybody Hurts.” My last recommendation, in case you’re not up on the minor, rainy day jams of this great band: “At My Most Beautiful” from 1998’s Up. How can a tambourine sound so sad?