Freedom of Male Sexual Expression Forged Through Androgyny in Popular Music

This week’s blog considers the representation of male sexuality in popular music; androgyny, gender bending and sexual revolution. It also considers the effect of AIDS on the music industry.

Homosexuality is generally quite acceptable in today’s Western society but we must remember that sexual offences laws only started to change in recent times! It was in 1967 that the sexual offences act in the UK (Wales and England) decriminalised homosexuality, 1980 in New York, 1982 in Northern Ireland and as shockingly recent as 1993 in the Republic of Ireland.

In the 1970’s rock artists such as Marc Boland and Bryan Ferry started a counterculture of extravagant costumes, effeminate hairstyles and heavy makeup to go along with their new rock sound. The performance of the music was very theatrical in style. Glam rock was born.

Flamboyant Marc Boland

In 1972 Melody Maker made history with an article written by Micheal Watts entitled “Oh You Pretty Thing”. In the article, chart-topper David Bowie admits to being both gay and bisexual. His following album “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” was analysed heavily for it’s lyrical content. “Rebel Rebel” brings the subject of bisexuality straight into the public with lyrics such as “You got your mother in a whirl / She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl“.

Oh You Pretty Thing article. Image source and full article can be read at:
David Bowie- Ziggy Stardust – The androgynous male

Just look at the above photograph of David Bowie in character of Ziggy Stardust. The massive patent boots, skin tight, colourful costume with extravagant shoulders, full makeup and sharp, bold haircut. The image of the effeminate man was brand new in the 70’s and became socially acceptable, giving the young gay community a medium to express themselves.

Classic example of glam rockers Slade. Source:

While the UK was becoming more tolerant and openminded regarding homosexuality, it was illegal in New York to even serve alcohol to gay people. Same sex dancing was also illegal. Illegal clubs and bars which did allow such activities were often raided by the police. The most famous of these is Stonewall Inn in Greenwich and this building became famous on a global scale for the riots which took place there. Gays stood up to the police and fought for their rights.

Stonewall Inn, New York

The music of such places in New York was disco which later progressed into Chicago House music (the music of double exclusion-gay black people). Important music figures of this genre were DJ’s Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan who filled the warehouse, gay nightclub with music to dance to. House music was associated with deviant behaviour such as drug taking, impersonal gay sexual encounters- the losing of self control.

Larry Levan. Source:

The 1980’s saw the return of the chart topping androgynous male music star. Boy George, Freddie Mercury, Dead or Alive are classic New Romantic examples.

Queen- classic male gender bending!
Boy George- plucked eyebrows, effeminate makeup, long hair- androgynous male

In the mid 1980’s gay and bisexual acceptance took a drastic step backwards. With high profile deaths such as Freddie Mercury, Liberace and actor Rock Hudson, the ‘gay flu’ or AIDS became very, very serious (on that note I’d like to take a minute to acknowledge Freddie as it was this day 21 years that he passed). Gay activities were seen as life threatening and this led to the closure of gay clubs and social intolerance. David Bowie denied his gay sexuality saying that Ziggy Stardust was a fictional character and was never a true representation of himself.

Freddie Mercury. Source:

I think it’s a terrible that shame that gay artists were portrayed to be vulgar and something to be ashamed of, I also think it’s terrible that they had to hide their true selves away from the public and media. Though from what I’ve read online, that when the ill celebrities revealed they were sick, their fans were more concerned with their health and well-being rather than the fact they were gay.

I came across this song “Death of the Disco Dancer`” by the Smiths which was released in 1987. Morrissey’s lyrics suggest that he’s singing about AIDS but this remains open to speculation and interpretation. “The death of a disco dancer / well, it happens a lot ’round here/ Well, I’d rather not get involved / I never talk to my neighbour.”

Rock music performers in general did not often talk about AIDS publicly or raise awareness, instead female performers such as Madonna pledged support. Elton John is an exception who pledged money to support AIDS organisations in Europe and the USA and held benefit concerts.

Following the death of Freddie Mercury, a huge concert took place in Wembley which really sparked massive awareness for the AIDS crisis. The concert was successful in raising money for AIDS organisations and research.

Wembley 1992

Interestingly says “Although the fund-raising activities of performers in the entertainment field have been extremely successful in mobilizing public support for AIDS causes, it has also been noted that the media coverage that links AIDS with the arts has actually reinforced with the public the false notion that the disease is confined to certain cultural sectors and lifestyles.” (

What is also interesting that in the time of gay repression, popular music with gay/bisexual lyrical content was being created and released into the mainstream. Heterosexual people were often unaware of the song’s gay origins and went about their daily lives singing these songs. The repressed gay community found comfort and strength in these songs and could relate to them. One of such songs is the Pet Shop Boys hit “It’s a Sin” released in 1987.

When I look back upon my life / It’s always with a sense of shame / I’ve always been the one to blame / For everything I want to do / No matter what or when or who / Has one thing in common too: It’s a sin.

“Unlike art forms such as literature or drama, music is often not explicitly tied to diagesis and narrative. In fact, even when music purports to be “about” something, telling a story, or representing an object, the signifiers used to do so are usually more ambiguous and less describable than those used in other forms of expression. As a result, intended meanings in music are more open to subversion, and either listeners or producers can easily insert subtexts or counter-readings.”


From this statement I agree that music is the most important form of expression, certainly for the gay community.


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