I promised two Liner Notes this month for Web Serial Writing Month. August just ended, so here’s the second and final one! In September we’re going back to two posts per week (Tuesday/Thursday), unless donations within a week surpass $50, in which case a Saturday post would be triggered.
Here are some ruminations.
Queer History, Music History, and Personal History
At the time I started writing Daron’s Guitar Chronicles I didn’t know that we were in something of a drought at the time. Here’s what I mean by that. Growing up queer (I’m bisexual) in the suburbs of New Jersey meant growing up in a world where there was no one else visibly like me. Homogenization and conformity to roles (including gender roles) are the standards. What brand of jeans you wear, how you cut your hair, ugh ugh ugh… I’m on the Amtrak train going through New Jersey as I type this and I’m having nauseating flashbacks. I went to a school with not only no visible GLBT students, but no visible punks or goths (death rockers was the term then) and my peer group was nerds and “band fags.”
So it seemed like the suburbs were always a kind of cultural desert that sucks dry any form of life that doesn’t conform. However pop culture as a whole went through a kind of drought itself in the eighties. The rise of the synthesizer coincided with the rise of the mega-corporation music label, made of mergers of smaller companies. This consolidation of the music industry resulted in even more homogenization of musical sound and a kind of ossification of the musical categories such that anything that didn’t fit in the prescribed categories was labeled “alternative.” The prescribed categories weren’t just musical, either, they were tied to what flavor of radio station would play them. AOR, album oriented rock, encompassed some metal, some “arena rock,” some “classic rock” (a term that was just emerging then). “Alternative” tended then to describe anything that wasn’t AOR. Bands like U2 were considered crossover artists because they crossed over from “alternative” to AOR. Others, like The Clash, never crossed over.
The “alternative” (i.e. non-conformist) acts were relegated to second class status or never given enough visibility at all to matter to the mainstream. Acts like Mission of Burma were invisible to the American consumer.
At the same time, sex & gender queerness nearly disappeared from pop music in the eighties, too. We went from the 1970s, where sexual ambiguity, androgyny, and bisexuality were hallmarks of glam, to a decade where even performers who appeared completely “queer” had to publicly deny it. Boy George. Joan Jett. George Michael. Those who didn’t? Their publicists denied it. At least here in the United States. Bowie had it right when he said he regretted saying he was bisexual because it became THE thing that was associated with him in the American press. Not his music, not his originality or theatricality or musicality. His bisexuality became what defined him in the US media.
Aside I’m actually grateful for that injustice to Mr. Bowie, because it meant that as a confused eleven-year-old I got to hear the word “bisexual” used in a news story mentioning Bowie, and therefore learned of the existence of bisexuality. My thought at the time, “Oh, so THAT’S what I am.”
You could get away with being queerer in Europe. I remember reading a news story (perhaps in Rolling Stone?) about how it was such a mystery that Queen was stadium-fillingly huge everywhere in the world except the States, and that was despite high record sales here. A mystery? Did rock stars get any gayer than Freddie Mercury? The band is called “QUEEN” for fuck’s sake. Red-blooded US males weren’t as willing to raise their fists in worship of the concert stage for Queen as audiences across the pond were.
You could also get away with being less conformist musically elsewhere. So many of the great “alternative” acts that rose to prominence in the eighties, the crossovers from not only the “weird” to AOR, but from AOR to Top 40, were from elsewhere. U2, INXS, The Police. Duran Duran. Depeche Mode. Eventually even The Cure. The first US band from that era to crack that was R.E.M. Talking Heads came close. The B-52s eventually reached that status, too, but not right away. Jane’s Addiction never really crossed over. Most of the other bands I can name you didn’t get their big mainstream payday until the 1990s when alternative itself became the dominant category in music buzz. That was when Red Hot Chili Peppers went mega. When the floodgates finally opened, Nirvana and Green Day and Everclear were the US-based, guitar-based rock that poured out. But now I’m getting ahead of myself.
The suppression of queerness in both musical form and in sexuality of pop musicians isn’t an accidental coincidence: both stem from the same conformist homogenization of the product. We homogenize milk to make it safe.
Rock and roll isn’t safe, though. It’s the music of youth rebellion and outrage and heartbreak. And sex isn’t safe. Sex is risk, vulnerability, both physical and emotional.
So now let’s talk about Daron. I didn’t realize when I started writing this story in the eighties that what I was writing about was the search for water in the desert, looking not only for the missing sex/gender queerness from my suburban life, but for the music that I knew had to exist, somewhere beyond the well-lit, tightly controlled borders of the music industry.
I re-read the opening scene recently, when I was working on preparing stuff for the audio book. Hello, subconscious, did you realize that you named the club where Daron plays the heavy metal gig The Cage? Daron is in a struggle for freedom of expression, and that goes both for music and sexuality. And his struggle for fame is a fight for acceptance. I really hadn’t thought about it, when I started writing, that each was a metaphor for the other. But they are.
When I started writing, Daron was just a voice in my head. He was a warning voice, I think. He spoke to me like he was older. I think at the time he expected he was going to have to stay in the closet his entire life. He didn’t know it was just a temporary drought. He didn’t anticipate then that the nineties would ever happen. He didn’t anticipate that either “alternative music” would become mainstream, nor that queer visibility protests (there’s a reason we call them “pride” marches) would succeed. Now we’ve got openly gay talk show hosts, politicians, news anchors, and more being added all the time. And we’ve got new “alternative” artists coming along and breaking the mold all the time. Sure, the established molds still give us plenty of homogenized fodder, but just look at the sheer number of new subgenres that have hit since the nineties blew the doors off the old establishment. From dubstep to punk cabaret. It’s almost like each band can be their own subgenre now, possibly blazing a trail for others to follow.
Not every new subgenre makes it to the mainstream. Boiled in Lead were “Celtic rock and reel” from Minneapolis and didn’t ever have a crossover hit, but who knows? Maybe if they were getting started now, they’d be the new Mumford & Sons.
Okay, that’s the end of my history rumination. Speaking of punk cabaret, I saw Amanda Palmer and Grand Theft Orchestra at the Middle East a few weeks ago. If you love eighties “alternative” and want to see what the postmodern age hath wrought, AFP>O are for you. What a fabulous show. (See the full review at my regular blog.) Daron liked it, too. They’re coming back to Boston in November and touring all over. Check Amanda’s web page for the details.
I thought you guys might like to know that we set a new record for unique visitors in a single month, around 750. And this month (WeSeWriMo)? We already passed it as of August 26 and ended with around 850. If this keeps up, we could pass 1000 visitors next month! Kind of neat.
Stickers are in! I posted a photo of them over at the Kickstarter site. T-shirts have been ordered–I’m just waiting for the order to be confirmed. That just leaves the actual paperback book to be manufactured. Almost there!
For next month’s liner note, how about you guys ask me some questions? I’ll pick some to answer (if not all). Feel free to ask whatever, about Daron, about writing, about Boston (or Providence), my life, etc. Comment or drop me email at ctan.writer AT gmail DOT com.