IT’S KIND OF FUN to look back at songs I knew growing up and to find the hidden gay subtext. Oh sure, one can argue that the songs aren’t really gay — and, believe me, there are a lot of people on the Internet investing a whole lot of energy in the argument: Oh, those horrible, pathetic gays think everything’s gay! — but the point is not the songwriter’s intention so much as that some of these hits can be interpreted as gay without any stretch of the imagination…at least no stretch of a creative, gay imagination.
To me, the more interesting examples of this aren’t the obvious ones, but those that flew under the gaydar, as it were. The Holland-Dozier-Holland classic “Band of Gold” (1970) by Freda Payne is a perfect example. Give it a listen and tell me it doesn’t sound like it’s just dawning on Freda that she accidentally married a gay man.
We kissed after taking vows
But that night on our honeymoon
We stayed in separate rooms
I wait in the darkness of my lonely room
Filled with sadness, filled with gloom
That you’ll walk back through that door
And love me like you tried before
Right? “Band of Gold” came out when I was 10, so I not only missed the gay subtext; I didn’t know what that meant, or that there even was such a thing. Gay? What’s that? Seriously. I had no idea. (Still not convinced? Sylvester covered the song in 1983, oh-kayyy?)
A few years later, I had lived through some David Bowie, Mott the Hoople, and Lou Reed, and so I was at least familiar with the concept when Steely Dan came out with “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” (1974). Was I aware of the gay storyline? I honestly can’t remember, but I do remember liking the song a lot, listening to it over and over, and wondering about what it meant.
We hear you’re leaving, that’s okay
I thought our little wild time had just begun
I guess you kind of scared yourself, you turned and run
But if you have a change of heart
You tell yourself you’re not my kind
But you don’t even know your mind
And you could have a change of heart
The rumor is that the song is about a woman named Rikki that Donald Fagen went to college with, but really, I don’t care. I think the Steely Dan boys deliberately chose a gender-ambiguous name so that the song could be read either way. It certainly works as the story of a gay (or closeted or straight) guy scared off by the singer’s advances. Big time. (Check out all the crazy theories about this song here.)
In researching this blog post, it came to my attention that “The Way of Love” (1972) by Cher is a totally gay song. I know, I didn’t get it for the first 41 years either, but check out the evidence. She’s addressing her song to someone, giving advice:
When you meet a boy | that you like a lot
And you fall in love | but he loves you not
…and so on. At the end of the song, she reveals she’s singing to a lover who’s left her — just the way that you | said goodbye to me — so, wait a minute, that can only mean one thing: Cher’s lover left her for another man. The lover could have been a man or could have been a lesbian who went back to men. Either way: gay!
Elton John famously danced around the issue for a couple of years before busting out of the closet. His early repertoire is filled with love songs between himself and songwriter Bernie Taupin, but it wasn’t until the release of Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy in 1975 that I finally put it all together. “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” indeed.
It’s one of those cases where, looking back, you don’t know how you missed it — damn if he doesn’t look like Liberace on the cover of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road…but then, a lot of people in my parents’ generation were oblivious to Mr. Showmanship’s sexuality (and pretty much everyone else’s, too, come to think of it).
By the time the Village People came on the scene with their thinly veiled (and that’s being generous to those who didn’t get it) gay anthems — “Macho Man,” “In the Navy,” and “YMCA” among them — the jig was pretty much up. Gay was in.
In the 1980s, we started getting gay music by gay artists who were out about it: The Smiths and Bronski Beat made Boy George look kind of closety for a little while there. I’ll write a post about ’80s gay music another time. The 1970s’ gay music was kind of fun because it was hidden — it could be fun to crack the code. But am I glad we’ve moved beyond all that? Hell, yeah.