Pretty Persuasive

Hey! That song there is about gay people!

Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was a man who loved other men. It was perhaps this aspect of his life that inspired him to write, nearly 100 years ago, that "the only sin is stupidity." He also wrote "It is through art, and through art only, that we can realize our perfection; through art and art only that we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of actual existence."

Oscar Wilde is of special interest to a man like Wayne Studer. Growing up Southern Baptist Studer fought hard to repress his homosexuality. When David Bowie came to prominence in 1972, Studer was repulsed. But a few years later when disco exploded Studer, a college student by then, came out of the closet and on to the dance floor.

Despite all the dancing, Studer found time to earn English degrees at the College of William and Mary in Virginia and a Ph.D. in American Studies at the University of Minnesota. He settled in Minneapolis with a man named George and a couple of cats, and began a career in the computer-software field. Two months ago Leyland Publications issued Studer's first book, an impossible-to-resist compendium called Rock on the Wild Side: Gay Male Images in Popular Music of the Rock Era. If the title seems like the ponderous musings of an obsessed academic, rest assured the tome's content is anything but.

Studer's delicious premise: Many songs, by everyone from Aerosmith to Zappa, contain gay references. His goal: to provide insight into the opinions of both the artists and society in general about gay men .

Many who made it into Studer's book -- organized encyclopedia-style, alphabetically by musician/band -- were obvious choices: the Village People (who get several entries), Sylvester, Boy George, Marc Almond, Bowie. Others are surprising: the 2 Live Crew, the Ramones, Guns 'N Roses). The volume is not comprehensive, nor does it pretend to be. For example, in his introduction Studer explains at length why he chose not to include lesbian-related music. (Maybe that'll be the subject of his next book.)

Likewise, inclusion in the Wild Side doesn't by any means imply that a given artist is gay. Take R.E.M. for instance, cited for "Pretty Persuasion," specifically the lyric "He's got pretty persuasion/She's got pretty persuasion/God damn your confusion." In his commentary Studer admits it is not unreasonable to read into that chorus hints of bisexuality. But he concludes that it's something of a reach. Significantly, Michael Stipe, R.E.M.'s singer, has long been whispered about, though Studer steers clear of such innuendo. "I had read a story in some gay magazine about him and Morrissey preferring celibacy," says the author. "But it was in some dishy little gossip column, and I always take those things with a grain of salt. I never heard him say it."

We should all avail ourselves of the grain-of-salt approach, but alas, we don't. The mention of Garth Brooks or Dire Straits in such a context is bound to inspire one to read on, sometimes, perhaps, for the wrong reason entirely. "People tend to take for granted that a person is heterosexual," says Studer. "So when it's something that's not taken for granted, people become interested. We have a fascination with that which is different. You only hear about a heterosexual's sex life when it comes to the tabloid stuff, like adultery. That's prurient, and in some cases it is just prurient interest."

Sometimes it is something worse. Studer remembers a woman who used a sort of pseudo-outing approach as a weapon. "Years ago I worked in an office," the writer recalls. "This young woman was rather homophobic, and she liked to speculate about [the sexuality] of people she didn't like. She would cite various rock stars, including the famous rumor about Rod Stewart [in which the singer purportedly had to have his stomach pumped after an all-night fellatio binge]. She thought that must be the gospel truth, even if it is ludicrous. It seems that the more outrageous -- well, I don't want to gossip."

In the book, Studer avoids such pettiness. In fact, he was taken unawares when told that Steven Tyler of Aerosmith was rumored (ahem) to indulge in cross-dressing and male-male sex back in the group's Boston days. Those who had heard these tales no doubt found Aerosmith's hit "Dude (Looks Like a Lady)" to be the affirmation of the gossip. (In the vid, Tyler actually appears briefly in drag.)

"I really don't know," Studer says. "There's no evidence. Often in my experience, rumors about such-and-such a public figure being gay almost invariably turn out to have been spread by gays. Gay people network. I was certainly not going to say someone is gay based on rumor. Anyone that ID'd as gay is publicly out." Studer accepts the notion that "gay networking" and other aspects of outing may be attributable to a search for external validation. He also notes that those pesky "rumors" are often true: Rock Hudson and members of the B-52s, for example, were thought to be gay long before the closet door actually swung open. (By the way, Garth Brooks is cited for "We Shall Be Free" [which includes a lyric about "when we're free to love anyone we choose"] and Dire Straits is included for "Money for Nothing" [with its mentions of "the little faggot"].)

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