“Being out has never been so in”
Queer rights has been in the news a lot recently, and no one has captured the upsurge of sentiment about queer people’s lives better than a growing list of pop stars who have released videos and songs that are intended to serve simultaneously as anthems for gay people and earworm hits for 11-year old girls in rural Montana. I’m going to break down a few of the videos critically first, then draw a line of reasoning from pop music’s gray gay area into the world of gay pride and consumerism and reflect upon cultural authenticity in the age of digital capital.
First on my list is Ke$ha [sic], a recent star best known for soul and intelligence sucking numbers such as “Tik Tok” [sic], Take it off, and more recent “We R Who We R” [sic, obviously]. I could comment on the haunting vapidness of Ke$ha’s character, but other writers have already done that to great effect, namely: Martin Seay at New Strategies for Invisibility. Take a moment to watch “We r Who we R” if you can stomach it.
Like Madonna before her, though with great less cultural competency, Ke$ha is a walking collage of queer and counterculture images, reduced to a thin pastiche applied with exquisite care to this tiny blonde girl from Tennessee. It’s important that she is positioned as the voice of the party, not the star herself. She speaks to the DJ, she is just among the crowd and therefore she is representative of the crowd.
At first glance the content and production of “We R Who We R” seems completely trivial. Here’s another song from the girl who sings about brushing her teeth with a bottle of whiskey. The song came out following a rash of gay teen suicides, and she pitches the song as an anthem for those “who haven’t felt accepted because of their sexuality,” a call of support for “people being themselves unapologetically.” It’s a wonder how you get a righteous call for queer resistance out of“:DJ turn it up/ It’s about damn time to live it up/ I’m so sick of being so serious/ It’s making my brain delirious.” The thing is, you don’t. Ke$ha’s image, and the quality of the song and video both maintain a constant sense of self indulgent chaos, as if this girl, this crowd, this party, or this song is perpetually right on the edge of completely falling apart. To quote Seay,
You are perhaps elevating a skeptical brow at the suggestion that any song which depicts its singer/protagonist dampening her Oral-B with Tennessee whiskey and dancing till dawn could be anything other than self-indulgent, yet that is exactly what I am going to argue: the problem with “TiK ToK” is that once you strip away its hedonistic veneer, it becomes apparent that the song actually operates with all the devil-may-care flippancy of a SWAT team clearing a building.
“We R Who We R,” is no different. At the end of the video Ke$ha is what you could loosely call “dressed,” in a tattered american flag and proceeds to suicidally leap off a building into the hands of her adoring fans. The american flag is a common icon for her, it appears in many of her videos, and shouldn’t be taken lightly. We R Who We R may be intended as a gay anthem, but it’s for a very specific kind of gay.
Pop artist Pink recently released her single “Raise Your Glass” featuring the refrain “Raise your glass if you are wrong/in all the right ways/ All my underdogs/We will never be never be anything but loud/And nitty gritty/dirty little freaks”.
Pink “Raise Your Glass”
The video is a stark contrast to the song, whose lyrics are pretty juvenile. The video itself uses a series of strong images: Pink as Rosie the Riveter, Pink as a chola gangster, Pink as a nerdy girl at her prom, dancing women of color and trans gender women, animal rights activists feeding a cow human breast milk, and montages together faces to the effect of showing every conceivable race and sex singing along to the chorus. It is a powerful if flippant video; and that’s the heart of what I want to say.
Yes it’s a chart-topping song that aims to produce a sense of “we“ that includes all Pink’s underdogs, be they black, white, latina, asian, queer, trans, disabled, nerdy, etc. Yes that has a potentially profound effect in providing young americans with images of those kinds of people that aren’t terrible caricatures of real life. It’s the pairing of the lyrics and sensibilities of the song with those images that is startling. Referencing a line uttered by the murderous (and straw-man anarchist) Joker from the Dark Knight Pink croons: “Why so serious?”
The song presents the subject matter as a foregone conclusion, we are underdogs and we’re just fine the way we are thank you. It is ultimately a feel-good anthem, and good intentions or no it presents the struggle against oppression as past tense, we’re done fighting so now lets just party till 5am. Ke$ha’s message is essentially the same.
The message that pop is selling us is that queerness is neutral, that it is easy. As much as Pink and Ke$ha shroud themselves in a veil of resistance, the cultural message is itself a product. It is a product that has a pro-gay rights agenda, but this agenda is not explicit. The image of two gay men kissing has become a trope in pop videos for pop artists who want to convey as friendliness to queer culture, starting with Christina Aguelera’s Video for her song “Beautiful.” It is almost always an extremely short jolt, a clip aimed at a combination of shock value and send a message to queer viewers that Gaga, Pink or Christina stands with you.
It would appear that these are earnest attempts include pop music in the ongoing struggle for queer rights, but it is more importantly a cynical ploy aimed at increasing record sales for these artists and the companies that own them. Queer rights have come a long way in the US since Stonewall, and there is a large enough market in selling to queers that many corporations have begun there own marketing campaigns aimed at queer audiences. Here is a list of examples of some companies that advertise at Pride and in gay media: Aston Martin, Audi, Bentley, Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Chrysler, Dodge, Ford, GMC, Hummer, Isuzu, Jaguar, Jeep, Land Rover, Lexus, Lincoln, Maybach, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Mercury, Mitsubishi, Pontiac, Saab, Saturn, Scion, Subaru, Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo. Anheuser Busch, Coors, Cisco, Kimpton, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Google, Abercrombie and Fitch, AAA, Hewlett-Packard Co., JPMorgan Chase, Pfizer, Mitchell Gold & Bob Williams, Intel, Delta Airlines, Continental, Hyatt, JetBlue, mariott, Miller/Coors, Progressive Insurance, Kraft, American Airlines, Amtrak, Walgreens, etc. etc. etc.
The list is MUCH longer, and many of these companies have a long history of supporting right wing candidates who actively oppose queer rights, or are involved in christian fundamentalist groups which support efforts such as those in Uganda to “cleanse” the country of homosexuals.
Go to a Gay Pride Parade and you will see a massive effort on the part of advertisers to woo gay audiences. The mood has shifter over time and it has changed from a protest into a celebration. As gays and lesbians have come to find mainstream acceptance, a particular representation of “good gays and lesbians” has been created, and used to marginalized those in the queer community who refuse to assimilate into an identity palatable to heterosexuals. This is where Ke$ha’s american flag becomes profound. The Good Gay American Citizen, is no different from the Good Straight American Citizen, except for sexuality. Ideally he is white, male, middle-class, christian, and look like a ken doll. Lesbians should look and live like the cast of the L-word or Ellen Degeneres.
This is what queer rights activists call assimilation. Stonewall was a riot, and queer liberation has always been a struggle against heteronormative institutions. The battle has changed in that the institutions of capital and culture have accepted a narrow center of queer culture, that which is most compatible with the ruling class, and excluded the rest. This has hijacked the queer liberation movement that started with Stonewall of which the Pride parades observe the anniversary of, and kicked out it’s teeth. A growing number of “Gaystream” (gay-mainstream) queers have “gotten theirs,” have moved up into normative american middle class lifestyles, and become the primary talking heads for the queer movement.
The message has changed from “We’re here, we’re queer, we’re Anarchists we’ll fuck you up!” and other slogans of resistance, to the chilling echoes of Pink’s “Why so serious?”
The Struggle for queer liberation hasn’t ended, and in fact continues under great oppression in many parts of the world. Queer culture can be an organizing force which transcends national boundaries and reaches out to defend human rights round the world… but why “Fight till till we see the sunlight” when we could “Just Dance?”