It Had to Be 'You'

Does queer matrimony require a whole new love song?

The word "you" has enjoyed a long and illustrious career in the modern-day love song. So have the equally indistinct "babe," the related "baby," and an assortment of terms of endearment that often reference flora or food ("sugar," "honey," "buttercup," "apple blossom"). In fact, if you subtract the influence of two decades of music videos, it's clear that unlike film or television—which pair every idea with no-options imagery—pop music leaves audiences with the most flexibility to choose their own adventures. And thanks to the vagaries of most pop songs, queers of all stripes have been able to write themselves into the script of classic American love via one of the most populist forms of expression.

The prospect of gay marriage, however, introduces a wrinkle into this happy-go-lucky fabric of freedom: Will a gay guy who's always derived satisfaction from dedicating Coldplay's "Warning Sign" to his boyfriend feel comfortable having such an evidently heterosexual number played at his most special occasion? Typical weddings are pretty specific affairs, semantics-wise. There's lots of "do you take this woman" talk, and a fair amount of traditions and mandates that work to remove subtlety and define love in clear-cut state and religious language. On these more rigid terms—terms that coax gay couples into "just like everybody else" waters that run contrary to many of queer life's countercultural impulses—is a more expressly gay love song a necessity, or will the universality of the plain ol' love song persevere? Will newlywed lesbians be A-OK taking their first dance to "She's Got a Way" knowing full well that it's a straight Billy Joel tune that wasn't intended for them? For the love of God, where's the gay "Up Where We Belong"?

If there is indeed a new, urgent need for songs that address love and relationships from an expressly gay perspective, thus begins the thorny work of constructing the gay rock/pop/soul/etc. canon—a task as enticing as an afternoon at the DMV. More people know that "Martha My Dear" is the Beatles love song inspired by Paul McCartney's sheepdog than are aware that the Rolling Stones penned an über-gay track called "Cocksucker Blues" that was rejected by their record label in 1970. And while there's most likely a "Queer Cinema" section of your local video rental shop, I've never stumbled into placards designating the "Lesbian Punk" or "Gay New Wave" areas at a Tower Records.

AS IN MANY ASPECTS of American culture, gays have spent years dancing around the outskirts of mainstream music, making a few grand forays into the spotlight to remind everyone "we're here, we're queer, and some of us are commercially viable!" It's fairly easy to name pop's most visible gay stars (can you remember a time when Melissa Etheridge's name wasn't prefaced with "lesbian rocker"?) and even less challenging to identify gay idols of the Cher/Madonna ilk. Here's an even simpler assignment: Add up the number of rock stars who have gone through a bisexual period sometime during their careers. Plus, there have been a significant number of gay icons in rock history, from Darby Crash, Bob Mould, and Rob Halford to Elton John, Joan Armatrading, and Boy George. But while gay rockers have often used music as a forum to express political demands and vent their frustrations (see the lesbian wing of Riot Grrrl, Queercore), as playful release from tensions to conform (New Wave, glam), and to cross over to a larger, mixed audience (pop songwriters like Sir Elton, George Michael), few have dared to make a mainstream career out of scoring love songs for gays, by gays.

That's not to say that nobody's taken up the task: The Indigo Girls are still one of folk-rock's most famously out acts who write 75 percent of their songs about the L-word (that's "love" here, for all you confused cable subscribers). And in 1999, New York indie outfit the Magnetic Fields released three volumes, which together comprised 69 Love Songs—many of which were obviously direct transmissions from gay songwriter Stephin Merritt's lovesick mind. Canadian collective the Hidden Cameras currently make self-described "gay church folk music" (they even boast a track called "Ban Marriage," a vaguely sinister, circuslike song that refers to perverted vows and fag hags), while Rufus Wainwright continues to churn out Tin Pan Alley–esque weepers about his various relationships.

Until recently, wedding bands haven't even had to consider stocking their repertoires with gay-friendly love anthems. However, a handful of less explicitly gay songs written by queer artists have landed on recommended lists aimed at straight couples pondering selections for their first dance. Now perhaps a micro-industry of song strategists will emerge to tap into the gay marriage zeitgeist, advising queer couples to avoid quicksand like "When a Man Loves a Woman" and to embrace empowering numbers like "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now." And as long as good old reliable "you" sticks around, maybe it'll help reinforce that the honest sentiments of the universal love song truly know no distinctions—and that gay marriage, itself, isn't such a far-out idea, after all.

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