Despite breaking down barriers with her sexually charged lyrics in the 1980s, Carole Pope says she never came out per se. She just did what she wanted sexually and let the music speak for itself.
“I wasn’t out when I was a teenager, but I certainly was different,” Rough Trade’s lead singer recalls. “It was so taboo in the ’60s. I’ve been spit at and called a dyke, but that was later on. I don’t think it ever stops.”
Ottawa DJ Ryan Clark, the founder of Swizzles’ Death Disco goth-rock night, says Pope’s music still encourages young queers to confront uncomfortable realities and strive to be themselves.
“She does not try to shroud uncomfortable truths in pretty language. Instead, she turns the lights on and points directly to the things she sees,” Clark says. “Nothing is sensationalized. It makes the human condition in all its complexities a lot easier to handle because she is not judgmental.”
Pope says her most recent album, Landfall, from 2011, was inspired by the upheaval of recent global social and political movements.
Corporations are eroding our rights and personal freedoms and raping the land for oil, she says.
Rough Trade’s most famous track, “High School Confidential,” is credited as the first mainstream song to reference lesbianism. Originally written for the Al Pacino film Cruising, in which a cop searches for a gay serial killer, the track was rejected for the film’s soundtrack “because it was too literal,” Pope says. However, producers did use three other compositions penned by Pope and Rough Trade cohort Kevan Staples, including Shakedown.
Pope says she remains grateful for the opportunity to have worked with Oscar-winning director William Friedkin and is glad she got to sing the song herself.
The success of “High School Confidential” surprised Pope, and when CHUM FM brought the band into the studio to record a radio-friendly version, her humour dictated the session.
“CHUM FM paid us to go to the studio and do a clean version and take out ‘cream in my jeans,’ which is so innocent, really. A comedy-writer friend of mine said to say ‘she makes me order Chinese food,’ so we did a version like that, which they didn’t use. They just bleeped out the words.”
In Pope’s 2000 autobiography, Anti-Diva, she details her relationship with country-music icon Dusty Springfield, among other revelations.
In the early 1980s, Pope and Springfield met through a mutual friend and “clicked right away. She had a very perverted sense of humour like me,” Pope says with a laugh.
Springfield isn’t the only iconic celebrity Pope has ties to. In the late ‘70s, Pope and Staples wrote an “insane cabaret show” titled Restless Underwear. Diehard fans of John Waters’ films, the duo sought out drag queen Divine to star in the theatre piece. Pope takes some credit for Divine’s later career, as the diva had never sung onstage before Restless Underwear, and humorously labels Divine as a “bad influence.”
“Divine was just really sweet. She taught us how to dine and dash,” Pope recalls. “[Then] we went to the CBC costume department and she stole a whole bunch of things.”
In New York City in the ’80s, many gay men’s lives were stolen by the AIDS epidemic. Pope’s own brother died from AIDS, as he was allergic to the antiretroviral drugs prescribed by doctors.
Pope says there is still, unfortunately, a great deal of ignorance when it comes to the virus.
“Some people, culturally, don’t use condoms. Certainly, in the US, African Americans and Latinos are not so much into condoms, and that is spreading the disease. More women have it and certainly more people of colour and crazy gay boys who just think that they are immortal. Certainly, if you are having sex with somebody who is bisexual, for god’s sake throw on some condoms,” she implores.
As for the future, Pope is working on a three-song EP titled Music for Lesbians and is hoping the film adaptation of Anti-Diva will get the green light this year.
But whoever plays her better be able to sing, she says. Lip-synching starlets need not audition.