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"].)

Studer puts this aspect in perspective with a quip he cites in his book: "Is 'gay music' music that's attracted to music of the same sex?" Oscar Wilde cast the sentiment more broadly: "There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all." Studer's book is well written.

Which is not to say the writer didn't face his share of problems. The biggest was an internal debate about whether to include his own editorial voice, a dilemma exacerbated by the subject matter. "There were times early in the writing of the book, when I was trying to be very objective, leaving myself out of it, that I realized I couldn't get very far with it. Without the personal perspective I saw two possibilities: a) I won't be able to finish it, or b) it'll be boring as hell. I felt kind of funny about it, because I'm a relatively private person, and this is my first published book. Now I'm glad I did it."

Just as a mention in Studer's book doesn't mean the cited artist is gay, it also doesn't mean the cited material is gay-positive. (And just because it's gay-positive, Studer's comments reveal, doesn't always mean it's "good" musically.) Many of the inclusions are antigay tunes, things like Audio Two's "Whatcha Lookin' At," about which Studer states, "Why let logic get in the way of such a perfect rhyme [as "faggots" and "maggots"]. It's not easy to find another word that rhymes with 'faggots.' Take my advice, guys, it's much simpler to rhyme 'queers': beers, ears, gears, jeers, rears, tears -- and fears."

So far Studer's work has met with mostly favorable feedback. "There've been two local reviews that were very positive," the author says from his home in Minneapolis. "I also received a phone call from one of the performers. It was one I won't name, but I had given him a rather ambivalent review, and I got a call from the performer himself. He was pleased he was in the book along with the Beatles and Paul Simon. He was displeased by what I said. And a gay-activist writer in L.A. took me to task for writing about someone. That was an ad hominem attack, but I figure it's publicity just the same. If I'm going to dish it out, I have to take it. I criticize other people, so I have to accept criticism." (The entry in question is Pussy Tourette, a drag queen who often performs misogynist material, a tendency for which Studer takes him to task. "It was perfectly legitimate," the author says. "I criticize performers for saying negative things about gay people, so I'd be a hypocrite if I didn't criticize gays for doing that to other people."

Though Studer's criticisms are perfectly legitimate, they're also arguable, particularly in their gay-sensitivity. The author saves some of his harshest verbiage for Frank Zappa's "Bobby Brown," a blatantly offensive song about "homos," "dykes," "golden showers," "rape" -- and those are just the inoffensive parts. Many have long held that Zappa was making fun of hypocrisy and those who inhibit others' preferences. Studer, however, declares the tune to be "wretched," and "one of the most ignorant, repulsive songs in this book -- and considering the competition, that's saying a lot."

"That's an interesting case in point," the author comments. "Zappa was so wrapped up in satire, you often can't be too sure what he is satirizing directly and indirectly. To what extent is he satirizing? There are levels and layers of satire. And Randy Newman is even trickier than Zappa."

Besides, arguing is half the fun. "One of the marks of a great work is its ability to mean different things to different people," Studer offers. "T.S. Eliot, Shakespeare -- their work can be interpreted different ways. [Paul Simon's] 'Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard' doesn't have any one meaning. [Studer writes that the song points "in the direction of homosexuality," while adding that he might be "totally off base," and concluding that the song is "curious."] I do believe any art is collaborative between the artist and audience. It's not art if no one perceives it."

And then sometimes it's not art, at least not great art, no matter how many people perceive it. The 2 Live Crew are included for their 1989 song "S&M," which Studer decries subtly, writing that the song, which concerns a whips-and-chains orgy, is "unbridled disdain, frightening in its intensity, for the basic humanity of other

people." Says Studer on the phone: "I don't think that song can be taken seriously. It's so outrageous, which is just a device to sell records. But it's also disturbing in its implications. Yes, it is a sick-joke thing, and it's humorous, but what makes it funny? Something disturbing makes it funny."

The Crew's right to sing it, however, Studer would defend to the death. "The whole business of putting them on trial and arresting record sellers," begins the Wild Side's writer. "Well, I'd never suggest a boycott or banning, that's abhorrent. It's disgusting that people think music causes people to take certain actions. Desensitization is one thing, but music doesn't cause anyone to go out and do anything. To say it does is an irresponsible cop-out."

One word choice Studer does have a problem with is the phrase "it sucks," as in "it's terrible." Because of its oral-sex etymology, "sucks," Studer asserts in his book while mentioning the buzzphrase "Disco Sucks," is a homophobic word. He is much more accepting of a similar term: "giving head." About Elton Montello's 1978 underground classic "Jet Boy Jet Girl," Studer writes, "A recurring line both propelled its gay popularity and doomed it to commercial radio limbo: 'He gives me head.'" That same line, ironically, never hindered a much earlier tune: Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side," which includes the poorly rhymed couplet, "But she never lost her head/Even when she was giving head." From the book: "The truly amazing thing is that those lines didn't even get censored out when the song was played on the radio in the early Seventies, presumably because most radio programmers, deejays, and listeners back then didn't know what 'giving head' meant!"

Much has changed, and already Studer is considering a followup, if sales of this volume justify such an undertaking. Much was omitted from Rock on the Wild Side, and new music with gay themes continues to be issued. Since the end of last year, when his book went to press, Studer says, "Elton John and RuPaul released their duet of 'Don't Go Breaking My Heart.' Erasure has a new album out and I don't even have it yet. And Bruce Springsteen's 'Streets of Philadelphia' is his biggest hit since 'Dancing in the Dark.' I'm really grateful for performers like Springsteen doing things like that; it can only help. I mean, it was by no means a fantastic, great movie, a Gone with the Wind. It was a good movie, with a noble goal in mind, designed for mainstream audiences. If it were made for gays, it would be preaching to the converted. It's getting better, which is the best thing you can say. Little by little America is coming around."

And coming out. Studer recalls a telling anecdote about his own revelations back in his college days. He knew a young (hetero) couple. The male was somewhat homophobic to begin with. When Studer announced to his friends that he was gay, "she was very supportive, but he was still shaky. Once he realized that his friend was gay, and that I was still the same person he'd known, he came around. He was cured."

A final note about the book's title, a pun on Lou Reed's classic. In his review of that song, Studer brings up an interesting theory. "Does anybody know...if the use of 'wild side' to describe 'gay life' is somehow linked to Oscar Wilde? Considering that at one time Wilde was probably the best-known homosexual person -- that is, the person best-known to be homosexual -- in the whole world, was 'wild' ever used as a 'code word' of sorts to refer to homosexuality?"

Whatever the etymology of that, it is certainly refreshing to see homosexuality brought to the open. Studer flings wide plenty of doors to discussion of his theories, whether the reader prefers the tangential questions of semantics or the serious criticism that makes the book so compelling. As Oscar Wilde once wrote, "I suppose society is wonderfully delightful. To be in it is merely a bore. But to be out of it simply a tragedy.

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