My first encounter with Melissa Etheridge’s music was in the winter of 1992, when my friend Maggie popped a cassette of Never Enough in her car’s tapedeck. “Do you hear what she’s saying after that song ‘Must Be Crazy For Me’?” Maggie asked me. She replayed the tape and we listened to Melissa Etheridge saying gleefully, “I didn’t say it! I meant it, you know I meant it!”
Maggie gestured to the tape again and said, “She’s gay. She’s gotta be gay.”
Growing up in small-town Colorado without a visible lesbian community, we didn’t know that Etheridge had been playing in lesbian bars and at women’s music festivals for years. Although her lyrics—which were always carefully gender-neutral—could be interpreted as suggestively lesbian, it wasn’t until 1993 that Etheridge came out, declaring, “I’m real proud to say I’m a lesbian.”
Over ten years later, 43-year-old Etheridge has become the most famous lesbian musician in the world, having sold over 25 million records worldwide, with eight albums and two Grammy awards to her name. Last February she released her eighth album, Lucky, just a few months after she married actress Tammy Lynn Michaels (Popular, The L Word) in a Malibu wedding that was featured on ABC’s In Style Celebrity Weddings.
Etheridge has gone through her share of ups and downs as a celebrity, including her much-publicized breakup with Julie Cypher in 2000, shortly after the couple announced that the father of their artificially-inseminated children was rock legend David Crosby. Etheridge has weathered these public invasions of her personal life with an aplomb that is rarely seen in our media-saturated society. Most recently, her announcement that she was diagnosed with breast cancer showed the same steady strength and personable attitude that has characterized nearly all of the coverage of her relationship with Tammy Lynn Michaels.
In response to the news of Etheridge’s diagnosis, fans created pink bracelets emblazoned with the words “Be Strong,” the proceeds of which go to benefit the Dr. Susan Love Breast Cancer Foundation. News reports about Etheridge’s surgery, which was successfully completed last week, have been uniformly positive—another sign that this musician has done what few other lesbian celebrities have been able to do: create a public persona that resonates with many people, gay or straight, male or female. Few other lesbian couples have been featured in a People Magazine spread or a Cartier ad the way Michaels and Etheridge were shortly after their engagement.
Etheridge’s popularity has a lot to do with her music, which has always been decidedly mainstream, middle-American rock and roll. As she told The Advocate in 1994 shortly after she came out, “I have always been the working woman’s singer. I come from the Midwest. Mine is heartland music. My audiences are very mixed.”
After touring with Etheridge this summer, comedian Kate Clinton noted in an interview with AfterEllen.com that Etheridge’s concert audiences are “very mixed….After I did my set I would just kind of go through the screaming crowds, and…there was this one couple…a man and a woman…they were both very white-haired and they were standing, singing the words as well, and they had to be in their seventies. It was just so cool.”
Etheridge was born in Leavenworth, Kansas on May 29, 1961 to a father who was a math teacher and a mother who was an army computer specialist. She began taking music lessons as a child, started writing songs by the time she was ten years old, and began performing with adult musical groups when she was 12. Her childhood was not an idyllic one, however; in her autobiography The Truth Is…(2001) she writes about being sexually abused by her older sister.
After high school, Etheridge briefly attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she also began singing in lesbian bars. Although Etheridge had a girlfriend in high school, she credits her time at Berklee with opening her eyes to the gay community. She soon dropped out of Berklee, however, returning to Leavenworth to save money to move to California, where she planned to start her music career.
It was during her stopover in Leavenworth that she came out to her parents—with decidedly mixed results. Her mother discovered that Etheridge was a lesbian by finding that her daughter had brought a lover home with her, and it took years before their relationship became close. (In 2003 her mother participated in her marriage ceremony with Tammy Lynn Michaels’s mother.) In contrast, when Etheridge came out to her father just before her 21st birthday, he was immediately supportive.
After Etheridge moved to Los Angeles she began playing in women’s bars, and soon found a manager, Bill Leopold, to represent her. It was at the Que Sera bar in Long Beach, a lesbian bar, that Island Records CEO and founder Chris Blackwell first heard her sing, immediately signing her to a record deal.