In the early 1960s, when Lesley Gore became an overnight sensation with her 1963 hit “It's My Party,” being openly gay was never a possibility. “My label just sort of set up a persona for me and — boom! — I was leading not necessarily a double life, but living parts of it that weren't accurate,” said Lesley Gore, who was just 17 years old when her career began.
It wouldn't be the first time a record company manufactured an identity for one of its artists, a practice that continues today. And you don't have to watch American Idol to realize that image is often overvalued compared to raw talent. But today, many things have changed, often for the better. Sony launched the first major-label specialty division for LGBT musicians this fall, and lesbian musicians such as newcomer Kirsten Price can look to trailblazers from Melissa Etheridge to the Indigo Girls to show them that it's not career-suicide to be out from the get-go.
Gore, who is still recording and touring, was a quintessential star of '60s girl pop. She exuded the subdued boy-craziness expected of a starlet in that era, even though it wasn't the boys who were making her crazy. She later recorded “You Don't Own Me,” now a longtime feminist anthem, and thinks the material she chose to record at the time reflected a teenage search for independence: “Probably the little middle-class white rebel in me was trying desperately to get out.”
Still, coming out as a lesbian simply wasn't an option for a successful artist at that time.
Openly lesbian artists such as Cris Williamson and Meg Christian were able to build successful careers in the women's music scene in the 1970s and '80s, but it wasn't until k.d. lang and Melissa Etheridge came out in the early 1990s that mainstream, openly lesbian musicians proved that coming-out would not automatically lead to a drop in sales.
“When Melissa Etheridge's first album came out, all of us knew she was a dyke, but it's not like she would ever say that in the press or the record company would ever confirm it,” recalled Dina LaPolt, an out lesbian musician and entertainment attorney whose clients include Chastity Bono. LaPolt, who co-produced the Oscar-nominated documentary Tupac: Resurrection, recently was named one of POWER UP's 10 Amazing Gay Women in Showbiz.
“It was so many years later that she would actually confirm that she's a lesbian,” LaPolt said of Etheridge, “but it's not like that today.” Now it isn't as rare for new talent to be open about their sexual orientation from the start, or even to be marketed specifically as queer. According to LaPolt, “If you're a lesbian and an artist, it's not something that you hide anymore.”
Apparently, in some cases it's even something you fabricate. The Russian band t.A.T.u. was marketed as a lesbian duo, and the video for their 2002 hit “All the Things She Said,” a song about two girls in love, shows the two teenage band members kissing — an act that became a mainstay of their live shows. But in 2003, the girls admitted that they are not lesbians; it had all been a marketing ploy devised by their producer.
The puppet show worked: Their bold sexuality got a lot of attention, sold records and concert tickets, and got them television gigs such as The Tonight Show With Jay Leno and the MTV Movie Awards.
But that kind of shock value would be worthless without a culture of pervasive homophobia, and the young artists weren't really risking anything in their phony coming-out. While genuinely gay artists have historically been marketed as straight, these two straight girls could afford to be marketed as lesbians. Their queerness was merely a fashion accessory for them to discard at will.