Arts & Entertainment
9 min

‘Where’s the anger, the feeling, the fire?’

In an age of supposed equality, young queer musicians say they don't want to be 'pigeonholed'

Credit: (Rhett Nelson)

Depending on who you are and where you come from, the term “lesbian music” likely conjures up one of two images.

The first, a peaceful roomful of queer women with acoustic guitars singing about love, collective empowerment and community.

For others, the idea of lesbian music might bring to mind the image of womyn/wimmin/women with mullet haircuts and plaid jackets singing outdated folk songs on their acoustic guitars, holding each other tight while crying and singing about wombs and waterfalls.

One thing is for certain: lesbian music has — since its initial heyday in the ’70s — gained its place in history as groundbreaking, magical and inspirational to many.

Today, queer women generally don’t have much more than a historically fuzzy perspective on that period, much less a sense of the depth and breadth of its significance. Yet many of the reasons that contemporary musicians are free to be out and proud are because of those lesbian foot soldiers of yesteryear.

Young queer musicians and music industry folks often deem landmark artists, ranging from Cris Williamson and Ferron (who broke ground in the ’70s) to the Indigo Girls and Melissa Etheridge in the acoustic revival of the ’90s, as “too out” or “too gay” — in spite of their accomplishments.

For many 20-something recording artists, the fight for freedom appears to be over, and as a result, the need to queer-identify in one’s lyrics or to the press seems to them to be a step back — a blinkered approach to their craft that doesn’t begin to describe who they are at their core.

Some see this inconsequentiality of orientation as an indication that equality has been achieved.

However, by not gathering our queer community together through music, and not identifying and singing about it, are we losing the unique and supportive lesbian music community that united and made the scene special?

Moreover, is the lack of queer lyrics and politics in music going to be detrimental to the next generation who can’t find songs and role models willing to talk about what it is like to be queer?

cris Williamson remembers a time when women’s music and community were virtually synonymous.

Williamson — a pioneer in that scene in the ’70s and still touring actively today — was considered to be at the epicentre with her CD The Changer and the Changed seen as one of the main soundtracks to that period of time.

En route to a gig in New Orleans, Williamson’s voice on the line softens as she remembers that era.

“Music was the centre of the circle, it was the hub around which everything revolved… bookstores, hotlines… at the centre of it were these concerts that they called ‘women’s music’ and it was a way to bring people together, a way to create a community where they had none.

“Everybody had been marginalized and horrified, but when we gathered together, it was the closest we could get to church. Nobody had any money but whatever there was we shared. Now, we look back and say, ‘Wow, what a thing that was!'”

Pat Hogan, concert producer and founder of Sounds & Furies Productions, also recalls those days as being filled with power and possibility.

“It was about giving voice to and about women, specifically lesbians. There was nothing like it before. Olivia Records was one of the first — if not the first — record company that was owned, operated and run by women — music that mainstream record companies wouldn’t even touch,” Hogan recollects. “It was amazing and radical. The community then was so strong!

“In a way, I think there is a longing for that. When we listen to younger women talk, it is too bad they don’t have the herstory, because they’ve missed out on what brought them to where they are today,” Hogan laments. “It is because of lesbians who were out there as pioneers that a lot of women have the opportunities that they do, whether or not they know it.”

Local singer/songwriter Kate Reid definitely echoes this sentiment and admits she’s deeply concerned that her fellow queer musicians are being apolitical. She worries about the effect on future generations.

“The thing that I see not happening right now is political stuff in the music women are making. People are saying, ‘We don’t need that, we’ve got our equal rights’ — which is bullshit. I think that there is a false belief that queer women have it made, that it is not necessary anymore, the fight is done,” Reid contends.

“I go to shows as much as I can and I wonder, ‘Where’s the beef? Where’s the substance of lyrics? Where’s the anger, the feeling, the fire?'”

Williamson agrees.

“Women still aren’t safe in the world, so when the young people coming up say they’re tired of it, they are tired of the issues that still are with us, of rape and misogyny and homophobia — those things haven’t changed so much as they’ve been softened, in that the language is less present in the culture,” Williamson suggests.

“There are still women that we don’t know who are being killed because they are gay, and songwriters still need to tell those stories. In the global reach it is really important to talk about it. The feminist revolution is not done as long as some women are dying somewhere — or just being kept from thinking freely.”

Lisa Howell, aka DJ De Lux, is the event coordinator at Lick. She sees not only political apathy, but the future fallout arising from it.

“From what I see as a DJ at Lick, the younger crowd definitely reacts the most to hip-hop and Top 40; it is really more about the rhythm and the beats, not so much the lyrics,” Howell observes.

“I think that is a sign of the times. This hurts not just queers but everybody. When we don’t have substance to what we are doing, we’re going to start to feel empty,” she argues.

“There’s a lot of younger kids coming up into the scene. Where’s their support going to be? Where will the Indigo Girls of this time going to be when they need that? Where’s the leadership and representation when all the queers just see everybody getting drunk and partying and there’s no substance anymore?”

Across the board, it seems more young queer musicians than ever are distancing themselves from their orientation. In some cases, it’s a conscious decision to play down the queer sexuality in their music.

The reasoning behind it? The word “pigeonholed” almost invariably comes up.

“It was quite a conscious decision from the get-go of me playing music. I didn’t want to be judged as a person based on my sexuality. I wanted to be a musician, not a lesbian musician,” explains Lise Oakley, lead singer of Vancouver group The Wintermitts.

“I was a big fan of Tegan and Sara but there was a whole gay stigma that stuck to them even when they started their career,” Lise notes. “As a younger lesbian I really looked up to them, but I decided that I really didn’t want to be seen as ‘the lesbian singer/songwriter.’

“We want everyone to listen to our music, but I have always felt that you get pigeonholed if you are considered a lesbian band, queer band or queer-heavy band.”

Sena Hussain, lead singer for local punk rock group Secret Trial Five, has also noted an increasing trend among contemporary artists to avoid what they see as the bounds of sexuality in the interest of attracting a wider listenership.

“People have been moving away from that [sexuality] label because they want to be taken seriously by all types of audiences. The topics that we cover are not queer; they are in regards to [being] Muslim. I would like to write more for a general audience and then get more specific with it. But I definitely see the potential for it down the road.”

Olympia, Washington-based performer Melanie Free — better known by her band name Tender Forever — feels the gay press shoulders some of the responsibility for focusing more on queer artists’ sexuality than their music.

“I truly hate segregation of all kinds. Who wants to be in a box? I don’t,” Free says emphatically, adding “I’ve always answered all the interviews that I got the chance to be offered. Always. But I found myself more upset with the LGBT press than by the non-gay press.

“Eventually, the interviews always end up to be related to my private life. It’s kind of cheap thinking that I would have to talk about my sexual orientation more than what I do,” Free complains. “It’s like assuming that my first thought in the morning is, ‘I’m gay’ instead of, ‘I can’t wait to work on that new cover song!’

“Being queer is definitely not on my mind and I don’t want it to be ’cause it would give a good purpose to people to make it something different enough to be put apart.”

Yet a number of musicians acknowledge that the lack of present-day queer musical role models could have adverse consequences. Shay Faded, a 24-year-old Vancouver hip-hop emcee says she never wanted to be labelled “Shay the gay rapper.” Still, she admits that it could be more challenging for younger artists if there are few, if any, self-professed queer acts from which to draw inspiration.

“When I was a teenager, lesbian folk music was pretty out there, nothing was being hidden at all,” Faded recalls, adding “I think now it is more about the music than anything.”

She acknowledges that by not self-promoting her queer side, she may be losing a potentially devoted audience.

“There’s a huge gay audience that I have yet to reach out to and I know it is huge! I’ve seen Brigee K emcee at Lick and there’s 250 people running up to her asking her for her music. I would like to do that. As for writing queer songs, though, I don’t see myself doing that.”

Lukas Silveira — lead singer of the major-label band The Cliks — has made his own peace with mixing the personal and political. As a trangendered man whose band has done mainstream gigs (currently touring with rockers The Cult) while simultaneously participating in the True Colors human rights tour, Silveira is disturbed by what he sees as a trend among queers to fully assimilate at the expense of potential future collective empowerment.

“Gays and lesbians — the more conservative side — want to be seen as ‘normal’ people. They want normalcy in living, working, dating, having children. A lot of people don’t want to be associated with queerness which is where the community falls out from under us,” Silveira observes.

“Back in the day you had the Indigo Girls, Ani DiFranco, Melissa Etheridge, people who brought women together, communities of people who were ready to say, ‘This is something that represents us, this is something that we identify with.’ Now, when you look around and see lesbian artists, they aren’t really coming out and saying, ‘We’re lesbian.’ They just wanna sing, they just wanna play, they just wanna do what they do. Their sexuality is no longer up front.

“In one way, I can totally understand,” Silveira continues. “I’m transgendered, but that is not what I am in the music industry. There, I’m a musician. But I see people trying to remove that ‘I’m a lesbian’ thing because they think that in their minds they can be more successful.

“Personally, I’m very comfortable with what I do. I know that talking about it makes a difference,” he notes. “It is so powerful to come off the stage, go to the merch table and get a 15-year-old genderqueer kid come up to me with his mom and say, ‘I drove for three hours to see you. I’m the only transgendered kid that I know and I’ve come to let you know that because of you, I feel normal.’ Are you kidding me? Talk about healing! That to me is so worth what I do.”

The Wintermitts’ Oakley says she has witnessed the queer community getting smaller as a whole, but believes that it is happening because GLBT musicians are integrating into the community at large.

“I can’t think of a band in Vancouver alone that is fully queer; you’ll have bands where half the band will be queer, half the band’s not. That is community to me, because you are integrating. “For me, being in a band with two straight boys, they are learning a lot about queer community and they are supporting it as well.” Lick manager Jessy Leak sees positives and negatives regarding that trend.

“I feel like the scene is getting smaller and smaller because there is less to fight for,” says Leak. “The queer youth that I see on a regular basis aren’t concerned about a sense of community because it is already there for them. It is just handed to them on a silver plate.

“Our community is branching out and meshing with different worlds,” she explains. I don’t know if it is a good or bad thing. I think it is a bit of both because we don’t have that unity as a community but we are having our individuality.”

Local jazz musician Erin Ward, programmer for the Sista’Hood Celebration’s Her Jazz Noise Collective event, is excited that Sista’ Hood — an annual musical gathering that celebrates women — exists. But she wonders why that same sense of collective support doesn’t seem to happen specifically within the GLBT music populace.

“I wish there was more community in the queer scene. It seems like it is not trendy to be political and that is sad.”

As for the future of the queer music community, 61-year-old matriarch Williamson says while she’s concerned about the present day, she has confidence in the lesbian music scenes to come.

“If you studied art history, you wouldn’t be surprised by any of this denial of the previous shape of things. A lot of young artists don’t have a proper sense of history, but because it is a pendulum swing, on its way back it picks up almost all the ones that we lost,” Williamson asserts.

“It skips a generation but the next one gets it. I’m finding that it is the 12 and 13-year-old feminists who are fierce, who say, ‘I wish I lived in the ’70s, that sounded so cool!’

“I’m so glad I’ve lived to hear this instead of hearing, ‘We’re not feminists’ or ‘Who are you old grandmas?’

“Ultimately,” Williamson concludes, “the personal is political. You’ve got to connect it. It has to be in the music, in the language, in the presentation. If we isolate people further by not making community, then I think that is anti-art. If people don’t want to make community, then they won’t. But the young people after them will be the ones sure as shootin’ that will make community. I have faith in the pendulum.”