Three Fundamental Truths With the Exact Same Rhyme (Missy, Aaliyah, Amy and the Big Gay Vibe)
Updated: Oct 19, 2018
The American High School Pep Rally is an atavistic site in working memory. Barbarism masked as “dance” routines to celebrate the 80th-in-the-state ranked Varsity Basketball team; ritualistic human sacrifice; finger-banging; demon-summoning and consequent exorcisms; sacrificial “can your AP Government teacher dunk better than the Front Desk Secretary everyone shits on all day” ceremony; more finger-banging; and so on. Pep rallies were where the limits of your strength and mettle were tested far beyond the points you thought they could go (how stoned can you get for this and not have your bag searched after school? How much really haphazard finger-banging can I get away with? Should I pretend like I have more than two friends when choosing where to sit?). Pep rallies were odious fart chambers where gossip flourished, blood oaths were made, and no one ever orgasmed from finger-banging. And pep rallies made people gay.
That last statement isn’t entirely accurate. While the tragicomical, carnivalesque quality of pep rallies is certainly evocative of some of the campier or ironically dramatic forms of queer culture, it wasn’t so much the pep rallies themselves that were Gay-Makers, but the music that was played, the baroquely ritualistic performances that transpired, the exaggerated mockery of normalcy that made the bleakness of high school and middle school seem even more surreal (an honestly offensive). My **moment** (or, **the call**, as nuns might call it) was in ninth grade. An English teacher (who will remained unnamed out of respect of privacy and because my insatiable ego leads me to believe that everything sees everything I do) who exuded a sort of, shall we say, aura—immensely sporty; erudite yet inviting; simultaneously soft and protective; YOU GET IT OK, YOU DO—presented a routine with the girls she coached in volleyball (OKAY???). This routine was a meticulously choreographed dance number to Ciara and, very importantly, Missy Misdemeanor Elliot. I had never quite grasped what 1, 2 stepping was in its rawest form (to be clear, I probably still don’t ACTUALLY understand 1, 2 stepping) until a literal squadron of the gayest-presenting girls (and, in fact, very few of these girls were gay, or were ever going to come out at least, but they certainly PRESENTED like a Gay-OK Teen Nick special) that our Jesus Christ High School had to offer dike-stomped their little hearts out, led flawlessly by the closest thing our school had to a Token Lesbian.
The profound gayness of the whole spectacle was probably not lost on the everyone in that unairconditioned gym, but it made quite the stir for the smattering of us in the bleachers that experienced a dislocation of our bowels hearing the name Shane McCutcheon (the fact that The L Word ran exactly from when I started freshman year of high school to when I graduated high school really seems like a cruel, personal attack).
And while the whole situation was pretty outlandishly gay, what really stuck with me was the inescapable presence Missy Elliot’s aura had over the whole procession. There exists a sort of unspoken but inchoately understood canon of queer icons in music who carry the reputation of being inexplicably but irrefutably gay in their essences. Whether it’s for their bravado, the brashness or baroque-ness of their lyrics or performances, their emotiveness that is readily transmutable into the inexpressible fray of passions and frustrations that are innate to queerness (or coming out), or the massive, primal cult reaction of their queer fans, they are artists who cull an irrepressible swarm of queer fans. (Importantly, many of these artists have neither announced queerness nor are actively queer in sexual practices, but rather embody a sort of existential queerness that transcends the pronouncements of who fucks whom, or who identifies as what that we are so fixated on).
And there are very specific women who are undeniably emblematic of and inextricably bound to a certain queerness unique to a diverse group of queer women. When doing a search of the gay playlists on Spotify—or gay anthems or Pride jams or “Yas, Bitch Hits”—there is a conspicuously cis-gay-male, monolithic quality to these collections. Sure, I get it, a lot of queer identities are a product of or reaction to capitalistic culture in which we all live; and, SURE, I get it, there’s no more enticing or profitable of a capitalistic enterprise than a hegemonic gay man and his infinitely consumable products; AND, SURE, I completely understand and am in no way going to refute the wild lust for happiness that can only be sated by hearing “Just Dance” or “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” for the third time that night (while on your fourth Long Island since last call). While I won’t venture to call the majority of these nostalgic or Big Gay Mood playlists exclusionary, they homogenize the queer listening experience in such a way that effaces queer women and reduces them to the forlorn Lilith Fair warbling sidelines (no shade to Lilith, by the by).
So, it felt necessary to pay homage to the artists that are profoundly linked to growing up queer, coming out, and all the gut-punches that come with those phenomena. The artists that stand out in queer conversations as signifiers of an uh-huh, her mythos; artists who you cannot mention or hear in a club or on the radio without some fucking ‘mo groaning “ohhhh, but this ONE TIME…” or singing along as if their little gay lives depended on it. I tried to narrow it down to three to avoid making this too much of a dissertation, so without further ado…
Of the many things queers and the straights could align on in my generation was the obnoxious, raunchiness with which we, as ten and eleven-year-olds, aggressively informed everyone in ear shot that we were getting our freak on (and that they, too, should do themselves a favor and get their freak on as well). As we slouched into pubescent hell, we also felt very inclined to let everyone know our adroitness in putting our thing down, flipping it AND reversing it (despite not really knowing what our thing was, and, honestly, probably not having that memorable of a thing at all). And we proudly announced that we were all about poppin that, poppin that and jiggling that fat, despite the fact we were coming of age in one of the most body conscious eras and the thought of fat made us recoil. Missy Misdemeanor Elliot—Virginia native, proving yet again there is no east coast/west coast rivalry, there’s only the South--was not only the omnipresent soundtrack to our inappropriately advanced vernacular and sexual curiosity, she was a uniquely queer icon. Probably without ever intending to be.
Relentlessly talented and incomparably groundbreaking in lyrical, production, and visual feats, Missy Elliot’s place as a queer icon—specifically, an icon for queer women—is as much a product of her music as it is her purposeful fashion and aesthetic. In the mélange of hyper-sexualized and overtly-subjugated women in hip-hop (who I in no way want to diminish nor strip of their agency), Missy, following and sharing the legacies of fellow female trailblazers (often in LITERAL blazers? Eh?) Queen Latifah, Salt n Pepa, Lady of Rage and Da Brat, had a certain look about her that was unequivocally queer. Her outlandish style, which made no accommodations for any conceptualization of body type, physical standards, or fashion norms were, and continues to be defiantly queer. Bold, gender-bending, multichromatic, even intergalactic, Missy has continually made style choices that align her with the ostentatious brazenness that is so synonymous with queerness and queer identity. Moreover, for queer women and queer women of color, Missy’s unapologetic look (and why the fuck should there ever be an apology, really) embraced and emphasized a body type that bucked the heteronormative conventions of what pure sex appeal could be, a physical proclamation that is so deeply queer in nature.
I’m not entirely certain what a “heeee” is, but I know countless queer girls have tried to hit someone with one in Missy’s honor. And I’m sure Tweet knows all about that.
There’s a sort of dichotomy in growing up queer. There’s a hushed, discreet dimension of your coming up and coming out in which stolen, furtive glances and calculatedly repressed desires are the most momentous parts of your day. And then, simultaneously, there’s a fierce, extravagantly loud quality, that element of you that makes the parts of your identity that are subject to erasure or castigation as prominent and noticeable as possible. And for a certain generation of queer women that I happen to be a part of, no artist more uniquely typifies this dichotomy than Aaliyah.
Aaliyah made me queer for a lot of reasons. Many, many reasons. Many of them, shall we say, very, very obvious.
But aside from her, you know, stellar body of work, Aaliyah, who tragically passed far before her time in a plane crash in 2001 at the age of age of 22, was the ultimate personification of that dichotomy of queer femininity in her music, her demeanor, and in her vulnerable grit. For myself and so many queer women I know (particularly queer women who are often excluded from or overlooked in the landscaping of the queer narrative) listening to any Aaliyah track, letting her transcendentally effortless voice completely take over any space, is achingly interwoven into the complex feelings of queerness. I can’t hear any Aaliyah song—be it the cool yet resolute frustration of “We Need a Resolution;” the playfully demanding “Are You That Somebody” (which is the only song that samples a baby crying that I’m willing to bump to); or the infectious banger “Try Again” (which, aside from all of its other appeals, also became my generation’s college application anthem)—and not be consumed by the feelings of suppressed longing, the agonizing savoring of glances or exchanges with people who I would never have a real connection with, and the still dogged feeling of bravado and self-assuredness that kept my ego afloat despite being immured by devastating isolation and depression.
Aaliyah was that universal blast-while-you-shot-hoops-for-69-hours-to-clear-your-furious-head (the international Queer Sporty Girl Depression Past Time), and the go-to for crying softly in your twin-size bed all night (probably wearing a backwards hat of your favorite sport team I AM JUST SAYING). She may not have been queer, but her swag, her presence, her indomitably soulful vocal finesse and unmatched, self-possessed sex appeal made her the iconic spokeswoman of young queer desire and heartache (in various forms). Also, remember that time she bopped around in a hawk in a music video? That shit was gay (and fly) as hell.
What can I say about Baby Amy that hasn’t already been said about going through a debilitating cycle of manic-depression. Savagely saccharine, equal parts uncontrollable, blisteringly talent and incorrigibly paralyzing sadness, Amy Winehouse was the paragon of the unique phenomenon of my queer longing growing old before its time. In his piece the “Queer Art of Failure”, Jack Halberstam provides an erudite soliloquy of sorts for the inherently queer experiences of failure and loss. To intimately know failure, to be deeply intertwined with loss, and to fortify identity through a resistance to legibility, are resoundingly queer traits. And who gut-wrenchingly evokes the strange triumph and devastation in failure better than Amy Fucking Winehouse?
Winehouse certainly seems more like a “for the boys” (specifically, gay boys) broad—a modernized vamp and messy diva who seemed like she’d knock your block off in the same breath she’d bawl on a street corner for hours with you. Winehouse always had a certain allure for cis gay men, a melancholic chanteuse who served as fodder for wistful, embittered romance and exaggerated drag alter egos. But the same elements of her persona that enthralled and enticed cis gay men were the same qualities, if not more doleful and disenfranchised, that made her a beacon of excruciating coming out and falling apart for queer women (particularly me). Her roguishly sad, amplified look, and her 1960s biker broad put through the late 90s club ringer vibe, was both overwhelmingly, familiarly DIKE and intensely, otherworldly sexy. Queer women couldn’t decide if they wanted to be her or be the boy in the rolled-up sleeves and the skull t-shirt that she had to inform of how much trouble she was. Winehouse scintillated that peculiar queer impulse for vintage aesthetics and rowdy, uninhibited sexuality that was a rallying cry for so many queer women.
But Winehouse’s divinely unique looks couldn’t touch her unbearably tender, anguished talent and her agonizingly doomed essence. There wasn’t a single song in the Winehouse canon that didn’t tremble with a craven yearning and incurable heartsickness that stings even more piercingly after her tragic death in 2011. And while her songs were typically very declaratively about men, there was something profoundly anthemic to the heartache and indelible want that go hand-in-hand, inevitably, with the queer experience. Winehouse’s rhapsodic testaments to loss, frustration, foregone desire, and general fuckery, were so hauntingly well-paired to so many of the foibles, misplaced feelings, resentments, and unabandoned hopefulness for some clutch of steady love eventually. This particular brand of melancholy and infinite sadness does not feel dissimilar to me to the type of loss and failure that Halberstam attests to. Winehouse’s sadness, ricocheting through every verse of every song, was defiant and self-possessed. Much like queer self-assertion, the agony was a way of resisting rather than succumbing to some pitiful martyr caricature. Her frustration, her sorrow, was her own, just as queer frustration, queer sorrow has and can serve as a divorce from heteronormativity, a reclamation of feelings and failure in such a way that powerfully resists legibility or marginalization.
With her vicious yet vulnerable demeanor, her struggles with addiction, and her rhapsodic heartache, Winehouse is an inseparable, cathartic presence for so many queer women. And I’ll be willing to bet good money (well, my money, so not that good) that you can’t find me one queer gal that hasn’t done some vaguely incoherent version of “Rehab” at karaoke or scream-cried to “Back to Black” during their third (and, they swear, final) romantic catastrophe with their best friend.
These three women are by no means the be-all-end-all of the assortment of iconic and subversively queer artists, but merely the most prominent in my very biased noggin. Consider too artists like Alicia Keys (who I cannot consider after having too much, very depressing sex to, but who is so ridiculously queer it hurts MORE THAN FALLIN’, HUH?), The Yeah Yeah Yeahs (if you’re a sad-gay in a basement, clap your hands!), and Britney Spears (look, she’s just universally fucking gay—SHE BELONGS TO NO ONE AND RULES US ALL). It’s crucial to pay homage to these women and the irreversible impact they had and continue to have as our soundtracks to cry to, to fuck to, to get gin-drunk and yell at our cats to (is that just a me thing?), and, importantly, to play when we want to feel connected to something.
I shudder to think what makes kids gay at pep rallies today. One can only hope it’s Demi Lovato. Otherwise, what hope do we have?