When I was in Grade 6, all of the other boys in my class wanted to become hockey players. I wanted to be Annie Lennox. She was my original musical obsession. At the time, the Eurythmics’ front woman had just released her first solo album, Diva, which was also the first album I ever owned, and I listened to that cassette until the tape ribbon was worn and weary.
Whenever I have to submit an author or an artist bio, I always make sure to mention the fact that my childhood ambitions did not include the NHL because I was too busy dreaming about sequins, spotlights, and singing.
This type of narrative probably seems quite ordinary, as the love between gay men and their chosen divas spans decades and musical genres. From classical opera prima donnas to pop starlets and pop tarts, from retro country belles to riot grrrls, from soul queens to electroclash divinities, the diva has cemented her place in gay culture. There are common narratives that explain why this has come to be, such as: gay men identify with the strength and resilience that many a chanteuse exudes. After all, the term diva has come to say more about someone’s demeanour than about their vocal acrobatics.
When I was 12 years old and discovering my newfound love of divas, I did not have cable television, MTV or MuchMusic. Nor did I own a computer. I was accessing Lennox through radio alone, without photographs, biographies, or media mythologies. Before buying Diva on tape, I did not know what this singer looked like, or that her name was Annie. At the time, the only certitude was that I really liked two songs on the airwaves, “Why?” and “Walking on Broken Glass.”
The first couple of times I heard these tunes, I can distinctly remember not being able to decide whether the singer was male or female. Yes, there were certain passages of the songs where it was clear that the vocalist was a woman. Yet, there were also ambiguous vocal lines, where it felt as though the singer was teetering on the edge of singing like a man. What a queer sound!
My pre-teen introduction to Lennox has without doubt shaped the way I access the world around me, and because of this, the work and writing I do are rooted in aural fixation. But we don’t live in an aural world. It is difficult to deny that we live in a visual culture. Because of this, even discussions about queer issues in popular music often fall back on an artist’s image, leaving sonic elements by the wayside.
Yet, I believe that music and sound are vital components in our everyday lives. We can close our eyes to shut out the sights in front of us, but most of us hear the world 360 degrees around us continuously. There are sound vibrations that, even if the ear cannot detect them, the body will still feel.
There’s the music we put on when washing the dishes, and the music we turn on when we’re having sex. The cities, towns, and villages we live in all have their own unique soundscapes that come to define the geography. Music is used to manipulate and sell us products, from putting well-known pop hits in commercials to playing Muzak in malls. Soundtracks make film emotive, or make pornography sexy and realistic (sometimes not so much). Sound can be used for therapeutic purposes and it can be utilized as a crowd control weapon. And so, just as these examples have particular sonic attributes, they carry with them personal, political, and societal issues.
We all have our own intimate, personal ways of accessing cultural products, whether we’re gay, lesbian, straight, or somewhere in between. So I want to be transparent and say that in this monthly online column I will be writing from the stance of a queer musician.
Jeff Buckley used to describe himself as a “chanteuse with a penis,” a statement I tend to identify with. I am also an avid consumer of music, a bookstore clerk, a writer, a reader and a performer. I’m bringing these experiences to the table, so to speak. Because of that, sound and music are definitely focal points for me, but I will write about other forms of media and current events as well.
Of course, I recognize that there will always be limitations to writing about music and sound. While I can use every descriptor available, I’ll never be able to describe fully the noises around me. Again, hearing is feeling, a sensorial reception of vibrations, and a sense that cannot always be put into words.
Nonetheless, discussing what music means to us is one of only a few ways to really discover how sound attains significance in our lives. So for now I’ll keep writing about sound using language as my guide. After all, when I was a small skinny boy in Grade 6 and doing terribly in gym class, I took comfort in knowing the difference between the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, and being able to pronounce many a multi-syllabic Latin dinosaur name. But of greater importance, I could recite every word to every song on Diva.
I still can.