Pete Beat is an old. Pete Beat published an IRL electro punk zine called backklash from 2001-2011. Pete Beat is a failed Twitter comic, a recovering Real Housewives troll, election of 2016 survivor and Ersa’s new pop columnist.
Happy Pride, dear reader. Oops, I mean *readers*! Lord knows there are way too many Pride playlists out there, as evidenced by the fact that you can access my own at the bottom of this page. But with Pride season underway–because really, what is summer but a season-long extension of Pride month?–I couldn’t miss an opportunity to highlight a few of my favorite queer artists who mean a lot to me as a gay male of a certain age (an Old).
I feel as though each year that passes, Pride becomes more normal/mainstream/corporate, which I think is both a good thing and a bad thing. The debate over whether or not Pride is “for” everyone is a bit silly. In general, I despise the “[fill in the pop culture blank] is NOT for you!” argument because it implies that there some sort of litmus test for authenticity that needs to be applied to an individual before they can engage with a cultural subset. This, my friends, is total bullshit because very few of us fit neatly into the boxes that society offers up. Queerness is about having a sexuality which exists outside of these societal norms. Pride is ABOUT celebrating queer people and queer culture, however, Pride is FOR anyone who wants to show up and be counted as supporting said people and culture.
Because queer culture has been forged from years and years of marginalization, it has a tradition steeped in outsiderness, avant-garde, and the just plain Weird. Most of us queer people have at one point or another felt a sense of alienation from mainstream society that drove us to seek inclusion amongst those who gather on the fringes of what is considered acceptable. It was from these spaces–gay bars, underground clubs, drag balls, etc–that so much of what we consider to be queer culture was born. Social media has replaced a lot of that (which again is a good thing/bad thing), but I am old enough to remember a time when physical spaces were crucial to the notion of an alternative community. And I love that Pride is about bringing all of that good old-fashioned queer culture Weirdness back into the public square, even if it is only once a year.
It is in that grand tradition of the fabulous misfits of past and present, I present to you this mini Pop Notes Pride queer pop playlist. Welcome to my Ball, celebrating the strange, esoteric and obscure!
Ani DiFranco – Little Plastic Castle (1998)
I learned about Ani DiFranco from the first person to ever come out to me, this girl I knew in high school. I already suspected might be a lesbian because of her obsession with Indigo Girls, Dar Williams, Alanis (we agreed on that one, even though I kept my copy of Jagged Little Pill well-hidden from my scenester friends). And of course, Ani DiFranco. I didn’t exactly share her passion for folk songstresses, whose music I probably would have dismissed as too flaky or granola for my tastes back then. But Ani DiFranco stood out to me–her fierce independence and anti-establishment mindset resonated with my teenage punk values.
“Little Plastic Castle” is the title track from one of her most accessible albums. Within it, we find Ani addressing criticism–from the homophobic patrons of a small town cafe, as well as from her fellow feminists and queer punks (“People talk about my image/Like I come in two dimensions/Like lipstick is a sign of my declining mind”). There is something about this song that spoke to me when I heard it. Perhaps it was the bright horn section on the chorus that sounds vaguely ska-adjacent (skadjacent?). I really enjoyed the way her lyrics alternate between impressionistic and literal, as she paints a story of “a day, which is every day.” You have to understand that at that time, Ani DiFranco was a titan of cool. It wasn’t just that she was a critical darling, she was hugely respected because she was an entirely self-made woman who founded her own successful independent record label. She was an outspoken feminist, a loud critic of the commercial music industry, and just an all-around badass. But no matter who you are, when you reach a certain level of notoriety you can’t escape some kind of backlash, and part of this song is the artist’s way of addressing that. It gave me chills when “Little Plastic Castle” turned up in a poignant coffee shop scene in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird (2017). The film was already so drenched in such a palpable, melancholic nostalgia that when this gem from my formative years began playing, it brought back a rush of feelings and memories of a time and place I had long forgotten. Like so many other moments in that film, the lilting horn section in the background made me smile and also slightly teary-eyed. Ani DiFranco deserves to be celebrated and admired, always and forever. By the powers vested in me by the Board of Local Gays, and Ersa, patron goddess of this magazine and column, I declare “Little Plastic Castle” to be Pop Notes Weird Pride Anthem™ of 2018!!!
Scissor Sisters – Electrobix (2002)
The debut Scissor Sisters single has unfortunately been relegated to obscurity. Just linking to this clip here will probably lead to this low-quality upload taken down. But this is an important piece of history! If this link dies, hit me up and maybe I’ll drop a needle to my vinyl copy of this vintage Scissor Sisters 12” vinyl single for you. The lyrics address a host of gay male themes: from bullying to body dysmorphia to loneliness and toxic masculinity. To hear a queer-fronted band talk about that kind of stuff on a dance record sounded absolutely radical to these young gay ears in 2002. The song’s opening–a dramatic call to arms: “Are YOU a Scissor Sister?”–made me feel like I was being recruited into this radical underground gay secret disco infiltration movement, which is EXACTLY what was happening. By the time we get to the sampled Jane Fonda workout VHS outro, it has become clear that this funky electroclash throwback established exactly why the Scissor Sisters was worthy enough to later become one of the most prominent and acclaimed queer bands of this century.
Bonus Fun Story!: on the b-side of my copy (A Touch of Class Recordings, 2002) there is a version called the Hungry Wives Passive Depressive Mix, which I played in my mix this one time when I was deejaying a house party that happened to be filmed for MTV’s Frat Life. The bros got kinda playfully freaky with each other on the living room dance floor–in a major no-homo way of course–but for a minute things got a weird and I am not sure anybody knew what was happening. Sadly, when the footage aired any homoerotic subtext was cut and 50 Cent was dubbed over the soundtrack. And even worse, they didn’t show me on TV, not even once in the background! Worst Pride ever
Freda Payne – Band of Gold (1970)
Sylvester – Band of Gold (1983)
The original “Band of Gold” by Freda Payne is a stone cold soul classic. It has long been a part of boomer gay male culture (no citation needed; as a gay pop culture historian I am the citation). The lyrics deal with a young bride whose relationship is so devoid of intimacy, they sleep in separate rooms on their wedding night. Imagine finding you’ve gone from bride to beard over the course of your wedding night, the poor dear! Freda’s vocals are soaked with a longing and a kind of muted desperation that make her a relatable yet iconic 70s diva. But there is some debate to the “true” meaning of the lyrics (which, of course, there is no “true” meaning once the audience gets ahold of it–the art exists for us to do what we want with it. But let’s stick a pin it that rant), and the queer read is just one interpretation. So can we call it a Pride classic?
Enter Sylvester, the self-proclaimed Queen of Disco–Muva’s gonna sort it all out! Born in Watts, Los Angeles, and later based in San Francisco’s Castro district, Sylvester IS gay culture. It’s in his early affiliation with avant-drag pioneers The Cockettes, in his friendship with Harvey Milk, his gorgeous falsetto vocals and genderfluid image, his audacious presence on the music scene and early embrace of disco music. If you don’t know Sylvester, then Pride month is the perfect time to learn about this legendary queer icon–this brief BBC audio documentary is a great place to start.
Sylvester’s entire discography is one big essential Pride playlist, but I’d like to highlight his revved-up disco take on Freda Payne’s earlier classic. He drops a glitter bomb on the original and then doubles the drama, matching his soaring and elegant vocals to a celestial symphony of heavenly strings. The track is underpinned by a glorious disco beat is both pure and dirty at the same time, and sounds utterly fueled by poppers and MDA. The extended 12” remix is an essential listen–the interpolation of “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch” in the third act a brilliant touch. And tag yourself in the dub breakdown about midway through if you can hear the bassline that Scissor Sisters would later lift for their own dirty disco classic, “Filthy/Gorgeous.”
Hayley Kiyoko feat Kehlani – “What I Need” (2018)
Not gonna wade too deep into the controversy surrounding “Girls” by Rita Ora et. al., but I felt that a lot of the polemics and hand-wringing could have been largely avoided had that song actually been, you know, good to great. Rather, than merely okay at best. Hayley Kiyoko and Kehlani are the two most prominent out queer artists who first spoke out about their objections to the lyrical content of “Girls,” and the media helped to turn the entire thing into more of an affair than I think was intended, because that’s just what they do. While these artists’ Notes App critiques were perfectly valid, “What I Need” is a far more potent queer-pop statement, because it achieves a level of frankness and maturity in the way it addresses queer romance. This is something that Rita and company’s “Girls” couldn’t aspire to even if they had tried.
The lyrics here are explicitly clear: “I only want a girl who ain’t afraid to love me,” Hayley sings in the second verse, as she describes a lover who is timid about letting her family know about their relationship even exists. This is something straight people really don’t deal with, and discussion about how difficult it is to be open with the world about your queer relationship is as essential as ever. How refreshing is it to hear this spelled out without ambiguity? It is refreshing as HELL, a place we don’t care if you think we are going, btw.
On top of the lyrical content, this song is a solid BOP through and through–songwriting, production, vocals are all on point in this modern Pride classic. And also, just an overall shoutout to our Bay Area baby sis Kehlani. We stan. She has these effortless cool-girl vibes for days and lights up every record she’s featured on (which, according to my calculations, is 86% of the records). This is certainly the least “left field” selection on this list, but the fact that songs like this (or “Bloom” by Troye Sivan) can be lyrically queer but vie for mainstream popularity is important. And I am just really happy to see these two queer pop queens having a moment, and hope for even bigger moments–and further normalization– for all of the emerging out and proud artists on the scene.
Human Sexual Response – Jackie Onassis (1980)
Relatively obscure, Human Sexual Response is an American post-punk band who has long been a favorite of mine. The band took their name from the famous Masters & Johnson textbook and drew on the wit and charisma of four different vocalists who shared the lead. To the best of my knowledge, at least three of the members are gay men, including now-husbands Dini Lamot and Windle Davis. While their blistering punk-funk song called “Butt Fuck” is a tempting HSR selection to highlight–they notoriously shocked audiences by performing it live on local TV Boston in 1980–I instead will direct you to check out the catchy single “Jackie Onassis” instead. Part campy tribute to an icon, part ironic takedown of media culture, it is the perfect capstone for your any quirky pride playlist, and a great jumping off point for a deep dive into this band’s idiosyncratic discography.
Grace Jones – Walking in the Rain (1981)
Grace Jones may not identify as gay herself, I must insist that Grace Jones IS gay culture. I challenge anyone to watch this live performance of “Walking in the Rain” and come to any other conclusion. In fact, seek out and devour the entire concert/music video collection, A One Man Show, and judge for yourself the impact of this mean, chic queen on the culture. She embodies fierceness. She presents gender in a way which is as appealing as it is ambiguous. When she snarls, “Feeling like a woman/Looking like a man,” it feels so boldly declarative, like some Bible verse but written by bell hooks. And as to why the turn of phrase, “Sit down, no-no!” hasn’t been usurped into the gay lexicon of savage clapbacks, I’ll never know.
G-Flip – “About You”
The first time I saw this video, I knew that G-Flip was gonna be huge. You can’t watch this and disagree with me– it’s Pride and I forbid it! Georgia Flipo aka G-Flip is an Aussie rock drummer turned bedroom pop producer, and she’s got a knack for hooky songcraft and no shortage of charisma. She’s an out queer artist with only 2 singles and I have been raving about her for months. She’s the very type of buzzy artist that I am literally programmed to spot in advance and I urge you to fall in love with her now at once. Again, it’s Pride and I’m gay, you have to do what I say! And you’ll thank me later when you can say you knew all about her way before the Brenda’s and the Susan’s.