Monday, October 18, 2010

Smalltown Boy by Bronski Beat

I referred vaguely in a past post about what the profile of the typical synthpop fan was during the 1980s. In the music press, retrospectives and elsewhere, it is often claimed that synthpop was carried to success based on its success amongst gay audiences. In fact, I've seen this stated so often and in so many venues that I think it's in danger of being accepted at face value, but I think there's a big problem with that idea: namely that throughout the 80s---from the late 70s successes of Gary Numan to the early 90s successes of Depeche Mode, Erasure, The Pet Shop Boys, OMD, and others---it was obvious that this type of music had popularity that couldn't be explained by appealing to a niche market. Right, I mean, novelty songs can occasionally top the charts, but synthpop songs weren't novelties. Many synthpop artists charted multiple times over many years, and there was a rather sizeable wave of artists all publishing sufficiently similar songs to be considered part of the same movement. How anyone can claim that a relatively small subset of the population can cause a genre to play on the charts so significantly for many years is beyond me; they are either way overestimating the amount of gay people in the US and the UK, or are way overestimating their power in determining what is popular and what is not.

Of course, where and when I grew up, it never really occurred to me that people were gay. It wasn't something that people really considered (with the exception of Boy George. Everybody knew he was.) To me, synthpop, or New Wave as we called it at that time, was music that was elegant and sophisticated, plus it was fun to dance to, and that was what drove its popularity with fans that I knew. This is similar to the Continental Europe view, even today.

That said, it's hard to deny some kind of greater than coincidental link between the gay population and synthpop. Without doing any scientific survey (or looking to see if someone else has done so) it certainly seems as if a higher proportion of synthpop artists were gay than other musical genres; some of them quite openly. Andy Bell (of Erasure), Neil Tenant (of The Pet Shop Boys) Jimmy Sommerville (of Bronski Beat and The Communards), Marc Almond (of Soft Cell) Boy George (of The Culture Club) and more were relatively high profile gay icons. And the entire Blitz Kids scene, in which much of the early synthpop music and associated New Romantic fashion was founded, was purposefully androgynous and sexuality ambiguous. If Duran Duran were dubbed the "Fab Five" by the music press (in reference to the Beatles as the Fab Four), Spandau Ballet were in turn called the Fag Five because of their image. Even Vince Clark era Depeche Mode sang a song that was literally gay--"What's Your Name?" is a song about picking up a pretty looking boy--although none of the band members were gay (and both Martin Gore and Andrew Fletcher claimed in 2005 on a TV interview that it was categorically their least favorite DM song of all time.)

And certainly in the years since synthpop faded, it's come to be seen in the US as somewhat "faggy" music, and I've had to become resigned to the fact that my favorite type of pop music has acquired a reputation as "gay music." Exactly what caused this shift in perception isn't exactly clear to me. It never appeared during the 80s that only gay audiences were enjoying this type of music, and in fact that implication is ridiculously unreasonable from a numbers perspective, if nothing else. The underground synthpop movement that has chugged along in the 15-20 years since doesn't appear to be any more gay than any other genre of music in terms of performers, fans or subject matter, and folks who remember synthpop fondly from the 80s appear to cross all walks of life. Needless to say, the shift in perception appears to be quite real regardless.

Of course, it's a bit harder to dispute the gayness of at least some synthpop material. Bronski Beat were three British artists, all three of which were gay, and which often sang about gay issues. Their modestly successful "Smalltown Boy" and "Why?" and later songs by some of the same artists working under different names, such as the Commundards "Don't Leave Me This Way" and "Never Say Goodbye" to say nothing of "There's More to Love than Boy Meets Girl" are all so overtly gay in terms of subject matter and presentation that it's hard to argue the connection. I suspect, however, that emphasis on fashion and style were seen more and more as gay characteristics, and that was sufficient, when the genre became suddenly unpopular, to label the entire movement as some kind of "gay thing" to later generations of music listeners.

But, honestly, I can only speculate about the paradigm shift. Any serious journalism on the subject seems to already accept as a given that synthpop and gay go together, despite the fact that the huge numbers synthpop songs were seeing on pop charts couldn't possibly mean anything other than significant mainstream popularity. Lacking any critical thought on the subject that I can find, I'm left to guess.

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