Is There a ‘Gay Aesthetic’ to Pop Music?

From Elton John to Mika, the “glam piano” genre may be as integral to the Gay American experience as hip-hop and the blues are to the African American one

Lebanese-British singer-songwriter Mika performs atop a piano at Fabrique in Milan this June. © sergione infuso/Demotix/Corbis

Now that the Supreme Court has acknowledged that homosexuals have the same right to marriage as any other Americans, perhaps we can begin to think about Gay Americans as we think about Irish Americans, African Americans and Hispanic Americans: as a community with its own traditions and cultural flavors while being an essential part of the American whole.

If that's true, we can ask the question: can we identify a “gay” aesthetic in music the same way we can point to a Celtic, black or Latino aesthetic? You don’t have to look very hard to find not just one but multiple gay currents in music. The most obvious one is disco music, which evolved into today’s nearly ubiquitous EDM. The most out-of-the-closet example is the lesbian-folk-song movement self-described as “Womyn’s Music.”

But one aspect of gay-pop worthy of detailed examination is the sub-genre I call “Glam Piano.” The roots of this tradition can be traced back to New Orleans bars of the 1950s, when Little Richard, Esquerita and Bobby Marchan refined their piano-based rock'n'roll while working with and/or as female impersonators. The biggest Glam Piano star is Elton John, the flamboyantly costumed British pianist whose ringing piano figures and diva-like belting made “Philadelphia Freedom” and “Crocodile Rock” templates for the genre. Culture Club's Boy George put his own twist on John’s sound, and more recently Rufus Wainwright has given an art-song gloss to the genre.

This summer, however, has seen the release of one of the greatest Glam Piano albums ever. “No Place in Heaven” is the work of Mika, a singer-pianist born in Beirut in 1983 and a resident of London since he moved there at age nine. Like Little Richard, oddly enough, Mika was born with the last name Penniman and likewise dropped it. While a modest star in Europe, he remains largely unknown in the United States, yet he has steadily built the best Glam Piano catalogue in history by marrying John's irresistible melodies and thumping rhythms to Wainwright's smart, literate lyrics.

Mika (pronounced MIH-kuh) has mastered the essential elements of Glam Piano. Like any good rock 'n' roll songwriter, he has that rare knack for fitting catchy tunes, surprising chord changes and propulsive rhythms so tightly together that it's hard to imagine one part of that triad without the others. But he gives that craftsmanship a gay aesthetic by tweaking everything to make it more theatrical. Every verbal and musical gesture is exaggerated just enough to make a bigger impression and is then counterbalanced by a knowing wink.

It’s a music that constructs fantasy personas, while simultaneously acknowledging that it's just a pose. This allows a fluidity of identity, for one pose can be easily cast aside and replaced by another. Such self-aware exaggeration is usually reflected in the visual presentation of album covers, stage costumes and stage designs, which are highly theatrical—or even cartoonish. It’s no coincidence that Mika and his sister Yasmine Penniman decorate his albums with cartoon illustrations; his second album was even called Life in Cartoon Motion.

Mika’s gift for earworm hooks is obvious on his top-10 British singles such as “Grace Kelly,” “Love Today” and “We Are Golden.” Sales like that imply that many non-gays have been buying his songs, but that's no different really than Otis Redding’s and Kanye West’s ability to articulate specifically African-American experiences and at the same time connect to a non-black audience.

MIKA - Good Guys

When his high tenor warbles the choruses, all the tension of the verses is released into a liberating effusion of pleasure. And unlike a lot of today’s top pop stars, who rely on studio production to camouflage the skimpiness of the material, Mika works in the verse-chorus-bridge format of classic songwriting. His songs will still be sung a generation from now, because they will work in whatever production style comes along.

Unlike his hero Elton John, however, Mika doesn’t settle for lyrics that merely sound good without saying much of anything. From his earliest records, his infectious melodies have been employed to tell stories about people with embarrassing secrets, such as “Billy Brown,” a gay man with “an ordinary life: two kids, a dog, and a precautionary wife,” or the gay man who says, “I try to be like Grace Kelly, but all her looks were too sad. So I try a little Freddie [Mercury]; I've gone identity mad.”

With each album, he has become more explicit about addressing issues in the gay community. The new album's title track, “No Place in Heaven,” is a plea to God himself, begging the deity to make a high court ruling and open the pearly gates to folks like the singer, who has felt like “a freak since seven years old … for every love I had to hide and every tear I ever cried.” Mika plays the gospel piano, while his co-producer Greg Wells sneaks a disco beat underneath.

“Last Party” is a tribute to Mercury, the Queen lead singer and gay icon. The music is melancholy, but the lyrics are defiant, arguing that the early death of so many hard-living gay men is not to be pitied but admired. “Don't be misled; it's not a twist of fate; it's just what happens when you stay out late,” Mika sings. “If we're all gonna die, let's party.” Eventually he seems to win the argument, as the music shifts from wistful elegy to party soundtrack.

“Good Guys” is a similar tribute to all the gay role models that meant so much to the songwriter “when I was 14 years old and my heroes [were] dressed up in gold.” He namechecks W.H. Auden, Andy Warhol, Cole Porter and Jean Cocteau as the music builds to anthemic sing-along. “All She Wants” is push-and-pull, hand-clapping dance number about the pressure to arrange a heterosexual marriage as camouflage. Other songs, such as “Staring at the Sun” and “Hurts” describe the elation and despair of any romantic relationship, no matter what genders are involved.

Like African-American music, gay music is neither required of nor limited to gay musicians. Just as black musicians such as rock 'n' roller Jimi Hendrix and country crooner Darius Rucker could build successful careers outside black styles, so has Bob Mould, a gay man who created brilliant post-punk music as part of Husker Du and Sugar and as a solo artist. And just as white singers such as Hall & Oates could make great records within the soul-music genre, so has the heterosexual Ben Folds made great records within the Glam Piano genre.

One of the best but most obscure Glam Piano artists of all is Bobby Lounge. These days this reclusive songwriter from McComb, Mississippi (Bo Diddley's hometown), plays only one show per year: the final Sunday afternoon of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival—and it’s worth it to fly to Louisiana just to see that one-hour set.

Bobby Lounge, Baby Ruth Kerr at Jazz Fest 2013 - DSC9024

This year, as always, he made his entrance in a silver iron lung, wheeled in by an attending nurse. Like the angelic ghost of Hannibal Lecter, he popped free of the contraption in a long white robe and silver, metallic wings. While the nurse leafed through a waiting-room magazine in boredom, Lounge jumped behind a piano and began pumping out chords like Elton John channeling Jerry Lee Lewis. His songs told comic, lurid tales about characters eccentric even for the Deep South—folks like the “Slime Weasel,” the “Apalachicola Fool” and the “Ten Foot Woman.”

These songs often went on for verse after verse—seven, eight, nine minutes and counting—buoyed by the constant invention of Lounge’s lyrics and the non-stop propulsion of his catchy piano riffs. As hilariously exaggerated as they often were, the songs also carried the satiric bite of a social outsider who has always lived in the same small Southern town as these characters. That outsider status discouraged him from pursuing the career that should rightfully be his. But even if you can’t make it to Jazzfest, you can go on line to order Lounge’s three CDs, illustrated with his own strange folk-art paintings. And if you do, you’ll discover just how vital a genre Glam Piano can be.

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