Hey, guys…. Um, this is Ke$ha. I just wanted to say something. Um, to anyone who's being bothered, or abused, or harassed, or bullied, I just wanted to tell you that, um…it will get better. It will. No matter if you are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, however you are choosing to live is beautiful, and you have my full support and all of my love. And to be yourself, and it will be better. When people are mean for no reason it's…horrible. But, I swear to God, it will get better. So please don't ever give up. And, um, I love you guys. —“It Gets Better: Ke$ha,” available on YouTube
Since the It Gets Better Project began in 2010 in response to a spate of youth suicides, life lessons like these have been taught by everyone from Neil Patrick Harris to Hillary Clinton. The viral anti-bullying campaign—which began when author and sex columnist Dan Savage shared his own history of triumph over an adolescence of shame and bullying in order to assure young queer kids that life was indeed worth living—has become shorthand for a new kind of open, confessional commons where celebrities and everyday people alike revel in not needing permission to speak their truth.
Or sing it. Along with the It Gets Better Project has emerged what seems like a resurgence of the gay anthem—songs of hope, empowerment, and irresistible danciness that appeal to the struggles and emotional bonds of queer communities. Club-floor hits of the 1970s (Gloria Gaynor's “I Will Survive”), '80s (Diana Ross's “I'm Coming Out”), and '90s (Madonna's “Vogue”), as well as more recent ballads like Christina Aguilera's “Beautiful,” have been a steady cultural presence within many queer communities. But with four female pop tastemakers releasing four songs that purport to be supportive of and inspired by the LGBTQ community, it seems that the gay anthem has quickly become mainstream.
Ditzy, dissolute party girl Ke$ha purportedly wrote “We R Who We R,” released in October 2010, in honor of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University freshman who became one of gay America's most visible casualties of bullying after his September 2010 suicide. Not two weeks later, Katy Perry dedicated the 2010 music video for her dance-driven ballad “Firework” to the It Gets Better Project (IGB), tweeting “everyone has the spark to be a FIREWORK.”
In November 2010, Pink linked her new single “Raise Your Glass” with her LGBTQ fan base via the song's music video, which featured her (in one of several guises) performing at a gay male couple's commitment ceremony. And, fashionably late but all the more hyped for it, the title track of Lady Gaga's second studio album, Born This Way, was released in February 2011; Elton John predicted to Entertainment Weekly that the single would unseat “I Will Survive” as the queen of all gay anthems.
For as long as there have been gay anthems, there have been pop divas garnering adoration for them. In the 2010 book Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture, music historian Alice Echols notes that “[Drag performer] Sylvester notwithstanding, the biggest stars of gay disco were heterosexual African-American women,” like Gaynor, Ross, Sister Sledge, and more. While community-building boogie-down hits like “We Are Family,” McFadden and Whitehead's “Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now,” and Dan Hartman's “Relight My Fire” enjoyed heavy rotation in discos, less overtly political, more personal messages about suffering—and, ultimately, triumph—were what resonated most with queer, and particularly gay male, audiences. “I Will Survive,” for instance, blended the out-of-body jouissance of disco with lyrics that celebrated the dramatic, emotional pain of loving and losing; the Weather Girls' “It's Raining Men,” on the other hand, was adopted as a celebration of a newly, lustily visible gay male culture.
As disco faded into the twilight in the early 1980s, the genres of dance and house music carried the torch of the gay-anthem subgenre. Madonna, who right from the start put an overtly sexual spin on her empowerment pop, quickly emerged as the new queen of the gay anthem. While on the surface songs like “Like a Virgin,” “Open Your Heart,” “Express Yourself,” and “What It Feels Like for a Girl” seem to speak to women oppressed for too long by straight male claims to sexual authority, Madonna's rule-breaking, hypersexual persona and flair for reinvention both paid tribute to and openly appropriated gay subcultures—the bdsm scene, for instance, in the “Justify My Love” video; the queer ball-culture underground for “Vogue.”
Madonna in particular made gay anthems both mainstream and commercial, something that now benefits her contemporary counterparts like Perry and Pink. Their efforts are clearly well meaning, but it's impossible to ignore the economic boost they've received by jumping on the IGB train, particularly since, other than Lady Gaga, none of these four women have made overt political or social justice–oriented statements in their music until quite recently. (Perry, in fact, has gotten LGBTQ side-eye since she came on the scene with songs like “Ur So Gay”—which derided a guy for wearing makeup and sneered, “I hope you hang yourself with your H&M scarf”— and the exhibitionist bi-curious hit “I Kissed a Girl.”) Given the gay anthem's particular claim to a long pop-culture afterlife, successful ones garner not only long-term good press, but record sales and royalties—incentivizing this form of activism to the point where it means much more than good karma.
So just how good is the deed being done by the likes of “Firework,” “Raise Your Glass,” “We R Who We R,” and “Born This Way”? It's hard to argue with the individual messages of hope and self-empowerment offered by the people speaking earnestly into the camera in IGB videos, which currently number in the thousands. But critics who suggest that, taken as a whole, the IGB campaign is subtly conservative and stagnant aren't wrong either. Queer theorist Jasbir Puar, for example, persuasively argues that the “it gets better” message primarily applies to creators and viewers with some claim to social privilege, writing in a November 2010 piece in the U.K.'s Guardian that the campaign can be seen as “a form of liberal hand-holding and upward mobility that echoes the now discredited 'pull yourself up from the bootstraps' immigrant motto.” Even more provocatively, in recent lectures Puar has noted the tendency of IGB to cast queerness as a debility that subjects can and should overcome to incorporate themselves into privileged groups. Indeed, a Montreal-based group called the Embracing Intersectional Diversity Project emerged in response to IGB, not to disparage it but to emphasize that “racialized and intersectional identities need to be visible in how narratives are shared, mourned, and calls to action are made.”
The recent spate of gay anthems, while danceable and memorable, likewise reinforce a one-size-fits-all narrative of overcoming adversity—a fact that seems even more problematic when that reinforcement comes from privileged, heteronormative feminine figures. Secure in their glamorous celebrity, these women can sympathize with queer fans, but it's unclear whether they can empathize with them—their you-go-queers! lyrics and deliberately inclusive video imagery encourage values of self-respect that may come easily only to them and to those who share their privileges.
While it may seem silly to put pressure on pop songs, especially confections from the likes of Perry and Ke$ha, their phrases and themes unmistakably pervade the ways we think and speak about ourselves. In our copy-and-paste, reblog and retweet culture, many of us ingest, internalize, and regurgitate rhetoric more often than we challenge it. We might gleefully repeat “we are all born superstars,” or “it gets better,” but we don't always think of the ideologies of self, society, and cultural currency that underlie those statements. Listeners, queer as well as straight, may unconsciously take cues from these popular messages and eventually understand them as the dominant vocabulary for understanding queerness—which, in turn, reifies a message of conformity and discourages dissent among the community for whom these messages are ostensibly meant.
Take Gaga's “Born This Way,” which most overtly channels the language of the It Gets Better campaign, with lines like “I was born to survive,” and “Just love yourself and you're set.” But the other singers of this set also offer it'll-all-work-out advice. On “Firework,” Perry suggests that “Maybe there's a reason why all the doors were closed: so you could open one that leads you to the perfect road.” Pink urges her audience of self-branded misfits to “Raise your glass if you are wrong in all the right ways,” fighting against silence and complicity with lines like “We will never be anything but loud.” And Ke$ha goes for a vaguer, more context-free self-esteem booster on “We R Who We R,” singing, “We know we're superstars/ We are who we are.”
If we're dancing and not thinking too hard about them, these messages sound positive and as upbeat as the music with which they come. However, Pink, Gaga, and Perry in particular transmit messages of self-esteem that may be complacent and quiescent in terms of the status quo. This twist to gay anthems opens itself to scrutiny, since the artists have branded their songs as political statements specifically about queerness (as opposed to earlier disco and dance anthems, which appealed stylistically and affectively to growing queer audiences without politicized pandering).
Gaga's skin-deep message of embracing the beauty with which you were “born” celebrates difference only superficially, flattening real, potentially productive distinctions into a generalized “difference” that serves social power dynamics as they are, not as they could be. She rattles off descriptions—“No matter black, white, or beige, chola or Orient made” and “No matter gay, straight, or bi, lesbian, transgendered life”—to no meaningful end; while it looks like she is hailing the variety of fans in her queer base, she equates them all to the point of blandness, to say nothing of offensiveness. (“Orient made,” Gaga‚ really?). “Chola,” for instance, as both a self-applied identity and a label, has a very different valence from “white,” to the point where they seem completely incompatible, but in lists like Gaga's all that matters is that each word denotes “difference.”
Likewise, Pink inhabits persona after persona in the video for “Raise Your Glass,” but instead of truly empathizing with different groups she makes them somewhat static, stereotyped images among which only she, as a secure and powerful pop star, can flit. Addressing her listeners as “nitty gritty dirty little freaks” might be an affectionate acknowledgment that not everyone wants to fit the status quo, but it also doesn't challenge the social system in which those who are outcast—who are considered “freaks” through no efforts of their own—are rarely seen or heard. And the song's final, minor-keyed bridge is an only partially comforting, settling-for-less door prize for those who are excluded: “When you're too school for cool/ And you're treated like a fool/ You can choose to let it go. We can always, we can always party on our own.”
These women also speak to their listeners, either symbolically or declaredly, as mothers or older, wiser big sisters. The “Raise Your Glass” video finds Pink singing at the commitment ceremony of two men; here she subtly conjures the stereotyped role of the “fag hag,” who offers unconditional support despite (or because of) her position in heteronormativity. (Pink revealed in interviews that the scene was inspired by the lesbian wedding of a close friend.) Perry lays it on a little thicker in the video for “Firework,” ditching her usual latex bandage dresses for a loose, floor-length gown, elegant flowing hair, and an open, encouraging smile; she looks like an ideal sister or mother whose easy but identifiably feminine comportment one might idolize and imitate.
Both Pink and Perry also place an odd emphasis on children and childbirth in these videos. In “Raise Your Glass,” amid caricatures of “gangstas” raising 40s, priests raising holy wine, and couples raising champagne are shots of toddlers raising baby bottles. Perry, meanwhile, sees fireworks surrounding a mother in labor, who catches the eye of a young cancer patient and “inspires” her to reenter social life by leaving the hospital. Not only do these images lean heavily on the pathos of traditional, straight feminine roles—as sisters, mothers, and the new daughters they would mentor—but they also reinforce normative cycles of reproduction, further marginalizing any alternative drives and priorities of the queer subjects they ostensibly aim to reach.
Gaga, of course, pushes the motherhood rhetoric and imagery to the limit. Already well-entrenched as the metal-brassiered matriarch of a group of “little monsters,” Gaga overtly instills the voice and image of “Mother Monster” in the “Born This Way” video. This figure produces both “good” queer, progressive followers—“a race which bears no prejudice, no judgment, but boundless freedom”—and “evil,” which she naturalizes as a parallel birth needed to protect “something so perfect.” However, juxtaposed with fantastical images of Gaga as Mother Monster in the video, giving birth and then watching over her children, is Gaga as mortal woman, wearing a bikini. This representation is the artist's attempt to be one among the crowd, with the right to sing “We were born this way;” nevertheless, she consistently upstages them, dancing in the middle of groups, rising above them, bathed in light while they writhe in shadows; she never abandons her own place at the center.
So, oddly, among the new slew of gay anthems and the videos for them, it's the more putatively clueless Ke$ha who manages to play most subversively with her femininity and privilege, straying from the normative, maternal/sororal femininity of Gaga, Perry, and Pink. Plenty of critics have attempted to fit Ke$ha's party-girl shtick into the typical paradigm of female singers selling their sexuality to sell records (see the scads of posts on “slutwave” on the blog Hipster Runoff). But sluttishness seems to adhere more permanently to Ke$ha than it does to Perry, Gaga, or Pink, who also claim ties to glamour and fashion; Ke$ha revels ceaselessly in a mire of drunk-girl imagery, while being dirty, lewd, and burned out is only one of many roles for a star like Pink.
With this image, as well as the lyrics and composition of her song, Ke$ha invites her listeners to join her in a celebration that does not privilege any one persona over another. In doing so, “We R Who We R” offers room to revel in queerness without trying to mold it back into normativity. Ke$ha does proffer the idea of belonging to outsiders with the lines “Hot and dangerous/ If you're one of us then roll with us.” But nowhere is their status cast as having been “made better” at the expense of others or of a past self-conception and group identity. Listeners can be transported into Ke$ha's ideal sleazefest in ways they might not while standing on the periphery of Pink's, Perry's, or Gaga's artist-centric professions, precisely because its tricks are so simple. We can have fun with Ke$ha as she toys with pop production technologies like Auto-Tune ad absurdum, getting lost in seemingly empty lyrics. And Ke$ha's sonic world of “dancing like we're dumb, our bodies going numb” also taps into the utopian potential of bodies congregating and dancing together more smoothly than the message-laden songs of Pink, Perry, and Gaga. “Dumb” as it is, Ke$ha's indiscriminate will to party can subsume any listener in an escape to the embodied, seemingly endless present of sweating together on the dance floor. We don't have to forget past suffering, or anticipate the future changes we must make to ourselves, because they simply do not exist here.
So is less talk, more dancing the right formula for gay anthems? Would the outsiders, freaks, and oddballs addressed by songs like these be better served by lyrics about getting blitzed out of their heads than by those that isolate each incident and permutation of low self-esteem as a platform for individual revelation and group harmony? Has Andrew W.K. been secretly penning some great gay anthems all this time?
Not necessarily. Ultimately, gay anthems are made by the people whose lives are changed by them. These songs, in their collective progressive gladhanding and their often pandering video imagery, give us much to criticize, but their potential value is proven whenever an individual finds meaning in them. The listening process is more complex, affective, and creative than an analysis of lyrics alone can suggest.
The September 2011 suicide of 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer brings the fraught contexts of IGB, pop-music fandom, and the continued struggle to end anti-gay bullying into stark relief. Rodemeyer, a huge fan of Lady Gaga who named his Tumblr “hausofjamey” after the artist's Haus of Gaga, had filmed his own video message for It Gets Better the previous May. Though he struggled with homophobic bullying from classmates and felt that no one in his life listened, he drew some strength from his favorite music; his final blog post, titled “Thank you Lady Gaga,” reads: “For everything you have done for me/ Paws up forever.”
Today's gay anthems may not be perfect, and it goes without saying that they aren't the only vehicle for education and acceptance, but like the songs that came before them, they mark a time and place in LGBTQ history that is pivotal for many lives. Listeners and musicians alike, queer and straight, can celebrate and change with these songs. But the key is combining them with real advocacy to make sure the messages don't fade out with the mix. To pervert an old quote: Just because you can dance to it doesn't make it a revolution.