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Queer Up Your Stereo! Underground Music by LGBTQIA Artists

Daniel Tures, Adult Librarian, Edendale Branch Library,
Collage of albums by LGBTQIA artists
"A whole universe of lesser-known queer artists have been making brilliant music for decades, many of whom are deserving of better recognition."

Ever since the Stonewall riots brought the struggle for queer rights and representation to the forefront in June of 1969, June has been celebrated as LGBTQIA Pride Month. The struggle is far from over, and as the political scene evolves, artists and musicians too have crossed boundaries, shone a light on hatred and violence, spread love, and heightened visibility. Music can be an effective means of communicating to and inspiring a mass audience, opening hearts and minds on a scale that could hardly be accomplished otherwise, as the worldwide success of icons like Freddy Mercury, Elton John, and Lady Gaga shows. A whole universe of lesser-known queer artists have been making brilliant music for decades, many of whom are deserving of better recognition. Here are some of my favorite underground LGBTQIA artists, new and old, that you can listen to for free on the library's music streaming partners, Freegal and hoopla.


Arthur Russell

Although obscure throughout his musical career in the 1970s and 80s, Arthur Russell is now considered one of the greatest artists of his time by many critics. Posthumous reissues have brought a great deal of his leftfield disco, minimalist composition, and curious balladry back to record stores in recent years. He was born in Iowa in 1951, moved to a Buddhist commune in San Francisco in his teens, where he studied Indian classical music and worked with Allen Ginsberg, and then to Manhattan in the 1970s, where he got involved with the downtown avant-garde music scene. The minimalist potential of disco captured his imagination, and he brought his own wide-eyed but experimental approach to many now-classic dancefloor tracks. In a different mood, he often paired his lilting murmur with his cello and guitar playing, for some truly winsome and heartbreaking tunes. Freegal has a few stray Russell gems, but also the entirety of the ingenious album 24-24 Music by Dinosaur L. For this project Russell organized a group of session musicians to play his eccentric vision of disco, directing them to shift the rhythm every 24 bars to a delightfully disorienting effect. A coterie of oddball singers belt out weird vocalizations and repeat awkward phrases; for “#3 (In the Corn Belt)” a stentorian voice cuts loose with “In the corn belt / Corn corn cooooooorn!” Prancing horns and freaky electric piano vamp along dubby, irresistibly stiff grooves. But perhaps the best way to appreciate Arthur Russell in full is with Matt Wolf’s wonderful 2008 documentary, Wild Combination, which tells his story up to his 1992 death from AIDS-related complications with tenderness and insight.

Wild Combination
Arthur Russell


Syd (tha Kyd) / The Internet

Sydney Bennett got her start among a group of super-creative friends and family from the Crenshaw area of Los Angeles that wound up transforming contemporary hip hop through their various projects under the general banner of the Odd Future collective (full name Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All). Tyler, the Creator is known for anarchic rap, Frank Ocean for dreamlike R&B, and Syd (formerly tha Kyd) for leading future-funk ensemble The Internet, from which she emerged into soulful, powerfully understated solo work. The Internet took slippery bass and crisp grooves into odd time signatures, underpinning hazy, yearning choruses and framing the tough-love vignettes of their singer as she began stepping more into the spotlight. She found a new confidence on her solo debut, Fin, casually dropping swagger, love notes, and self-analysis over minimal but sensual tracks. Without calling attention to her queer perspective, Syd quietly succeeds at making music for everyone who’s experienced love’s hard knocks. Her brand new song “Missing Out” slows it down with newfound maturity.

Missing Out
Syd


Le Tigre / MEN

Feminist punk iconoclast Kathleen Hanna helped catalyze the Riot Grrrl movement with Bikini Kill, who encouraged a politically militant fanbase and a female-centric concert experience, with Hanna personally diving into the crowd to attack male hecklers. After four albums of explosive, trailblazing agitprop that still haven’t lost a scrap of power, Hanna moved to New York in the late 90s and changed gears (but not politics) with an artier, more danceable approach. Le Tigre is charged, clattering New Wave critique, with buzzing synths and samples over lo-fi electro drum machines. Still laser-focused on feminist politics and confronting homophobia, Hanna’s lyrics are hilariously deadpan takedowns of the patriarchy, from classic rock to the boardroom. Their self-titled debut and follow-up Feminist Sweepstakes are highly recommended; Hoopla has their third and final album, This Island, for which they somehow got signed to major label Universal, giving them their biggest platform yet. The Le Tigre dance machine is in full effect, supercharging Hanna’s caustic wit on some of their slinkiest tunes. You can also stream albums by J.D. Samson and Johanna Fateman’s spinoff band, MEN, on Freegal, including their trans-positive dance opus Talk About Body.

This Island
Le Tigre


Jobriath

Before signing to Elektra for a massive sum in 1972 as outer space glam troubadour Jobriath, the first openly gay major-label rock star, Bruce Wayne Campbell had studied classical piano, joined the Army and gone AWOL, worked as a prostitute, and performed in the cast of Hair. His two albums were mostly forgotten by the time he ‘retired’ to a pyramid-topped apartment on the roof of the Chelsea Hotel and tragically died of AIDS in 1983, but fans like Morrissey have helped spearhead reissues and reappreciation. Though his albums were far from the smash hits Elektra’s hype promised, Jobriath broke down barriers for mainstream queer artists who would follow. Enjoy them both on hoopla: they abound in bold Bowie/Reed-style rock balladry, funky clavinet, haunting string arrangements that he taught himself to compose, and his distinctively mutable keen. You can also watch an interesting documentary about his elusive life and music, Jobriath A.D., on Kanopy.

Creatures Of The Street
Jobriath


Big Freedia

Born Freddie Ross Jr., Big Freedia has reigned for many years as the undisputed Queen Diva of bounce, an upbeat and hard-partying style of New Orleans hip-hop that incorporates second line chants and callbacks. She got her start in high school and church choirs, finding her voice in the drag scene. Hurricane Katrina forced Freedia to evacuate; on returning she helped kickstart her hometown’s musical rebirth with her now-legendary FEMA Fridays nights at Caesar’s. Her early performances featured energetic rapping over lo-fi electronic beats cranked way into the red, but recent albums have upped the production and the star power for maximum party pleasure. The albums and accomplishments keep coming: television shows, an autobiography, leading an NYC crowd to set the Guinness record for mass twerking, and of course, getting featured by Beyonce on “Formation” and Lemonade. Gangsta rap is sometimes criticized for its violence and aggressively sexual lyrics; Big Freedia reclaims that perspective for queer voices. Even hip-hop agnostics can’t hold back when Freedia takes the stage—her manic charisma and beats can put the stodgiest grump on the dancefloor.

Big Freedia: God Save the Queen Diva!
Big Freedia


Hunx & His Punx

Seth Bogart, aka Hunx, emerged from his teens as an East Bay hairstylist and vintage clothier, and joined the electroclash band Gravy Train!!!! (along with Chunx, Funx and Junx). After a few years of B-52s-inspired zaniness, he stepped out on his own with Hunx and His Punx, instantly nailing a garagey blend of girl-group soul and snotty mid-‘70s punk that sounds like it leaped right off the CBGB stage. With his greased-back hair, pencil mustache, skinny heartthrob smolder, and leopard-print thong, Hunx belts out tuneful odes to gay love and heartbreak on great albums like Too Young to Be In Love and Hairdresser Blues. Bogart has since diversified his portfolio, with web series like Hollywood Nailz and Feelin’ Fruity, as well as solo art installations of full-scale bedrooms and bathrooms filled with ephemera like toothbrushes, beauty products, and sex toys all reproduced in Pee-Wee’s Playhouse-esque ceramics. The Hunx empire maybe just getting started.

Too Young To Be In Love
Hunx & His Punx


William Basinski

Born in Houston in 1958, William Basinski has emerged as one of the foremost composers of ambient experimental music of recent decades. His father was a NASA scientist, and he grew up attending his family’s Catholic church. He started as a jazz saxophonist but fell under the spell of minimalist composers like Brian Eno and turned to experiment with tape loops and effects. Throughout the 1980s and 90s he amassed a huge library of found-sound tape recordings and his own ambient pieces, some of which are now being reissued. Basinski’s breakthrough work was 2001’s epic four-volume Disintegration Loops, which came about when he was trying to digitize some old tape loops he had made in the 80s of processed radio snippets. As they played, he noticed the magnetized metal coating of the tape crumbling away, the sound degrading progressively each time they passed over the reels. The results were reworked into a set of cavernous, elegiac pieces that are the apotheosis of his theme of mortal decay. He combined them with a video taken from his Brooklyn rooftop of smoke rising over lower Manhattan late in the day on 9/11, stills from which he used for the cover art. Since then he has worked with scientists to translate the cosmic sound of two black holes merging a billion years ago, as well as continuing to alchemize loops of voices, instruments, and background noise into haunting, immersive sound experiences.

The Disintegration Loops
William Basinski


Hercules & the Love Affair

One of the most dynamic debuts since the Millenium has been Andrew Butler’s first album as Hercules & the Love Affair for DFA in 2008. Updating the classic dub/house/disco sounds of Larry Levan and Francois K at the Paradise Garage, Butler blends past and future into a compact, sparklingly creative set of tunes. Anohni (formerly Antony Hegarty of Antony & the Johnsons) takes a star vocal turn on the euphoric heartbreak of “Blind”, one of the year’s universally lauded singles, as well as on four other cuts here. Love and bliss practically beam forth from these unstoppable tracks. Butler’s interest in classical mythology led him to name his project for the divine hero Hercules’ (Heracles in the Greek myths) love for Hylas. Various bandmates have joined and guest vocalists have contributed since and their sound continues to evolve, as well as their always-ecstatic live show.

The Feast Of The Broken Heart
Hercules & Love Affair


Nona Hendryx

Criminally underappreciated soul-rock diva Nona Hendryx has had an impressive career, written a whole catalog of amazing songs, and by rights should be as big a star as her distant cousin Jimi Hendrix. She started with Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles in the girl-group 60s; when that sound dried up, the trio moved to England, changed their name to Labelle, grew out their afros, and released more adventurous albums. They toured with The Who and the Stones and hit it big in 1974 with the outrageous funk jam “Lady Marmalade”, by which point they were rocking silver space suits onstage. Hendryx stepped up her songwriting on Labelle cuts like “Space Children” and “Who’s Watching the Watcher?”, channeling a bit of Pete Townshend’s bombast. Her solo career starting in 1977 found occasional success, but many labels and listeners seemed perplexed by her fierce mashup of soul and progressive rock (unlike Grace Jones, who crossed over more successfully). She sang backup on Talking Heads’ Remain In Light and lead on Material’s disco crunch “Bustin’ Out”; Material went on to produce her excellent 1983 electro-dance record, Nona. She co-wrote with Keith Richards, and everyone from Peter Gabriel to Prince guested on her 1987 record Female Trouble. More recently she performed her anthemic “Transformation” on The L Word and joined Cyndi Lauper’s True Colours tour to raise awareness of LGBTQIA discrimination.

Female Trouble
Nona Hendryx


Hüsker Dü

One of the foundational bands in American alternative rock, the Minneapolis hardcore power trio of Bob Mould, Grant Hart, and Greg Norton bashed out searing punk with lightning speed and tortured ferocity. They inspired kids in every scuzzy venue they toured since their formation in 1979, eventually ascending ever further into the realms of melody and harmony until their breakup in 1988. The name, taken from a popular board game from the 1970s, means “do you remember?” in Danish and Norwegian. Early records for SST and other labels were blazingly fast and sonically murky, with occasional stabs at pop like college radio hit “Diane” indicating broader interests. 1984’s double album Zen Arcade soared way beyond hardcore on a conceptual song cycle about a boy confronting a harsh world, with piano interludes and bittersweet melodic gems like “Pink Turns to Blue”. Subsequent albums achieved higher fidelity and moderate tempos as songwriters Mould and Hart seemingly battled it out for who could write the catchier tune, although even their ‘pop’ songs have dark, dire lyrics and are howled out with rage and distortion. Their cover of the Mary Tyler Moore Show theme “Love Is All Around” shows their knack for simultaneously conveying joy and despair, with a video of the boys cavorting in downtown Minneapolis to match the show’s opening credits. By the end, they had signed to Warner Brothers and seemed on the verge of greater success, but drug and drinking problems and the 1987 suicide of their manager brought tensions to a head and they called it quits a year later. Mould and Hart’s sexual orientation was rarely foregrounded in their music; though they quietly had other partners through the 80s, they were never in a romantic relationship with each other. In the 2010 documentary Bear Nation, Mould acknowledged that he is a bear. Both had productive musical careers after their acrimonious split, and never looked back or reunited.

Flip Your Wig
Hüsker Dü


Divine

Infamous for his unhinged performances in the groundbreaking sleaze cinema of John Waters, Divine is less recognized for his musical career, which I find equally enjoyable. Harris Glenn Milstead was a nice boy from a conservative suburb of Baltimore who realized he was gay in his teens; his parents were supportive as he gravitated to hairdressing and drag. He fell in with the counterculture at a beatnik bar in the 1960s, and Waters named him Divine after a character in a Genet novel. Inspired by Warhol, the pill-popping, shoplifting Waters ‘family’ began making no-budget films in which Divine played nuns gone bad, murderesses, and Jackie Kennedy for maximum bad taste. The tall, fearless 300-pound drag queen commanded the camera and destroyed comedically. Van Smith helped create the classic Divine look, with hairline shaved back to mid-cranium and wild eye makeup. Starting in the early 1970s Divine began shuttling back and forth between Baltimore and the more permissive San Francisco, where he performed with the Cockettes and met Sylvester. His popular anti-drag act involved screaming profanity and starting fights onstage, upending traditional beauty queen aspirations, and soon he began incorporating disco songs like “Born to Be Cheap”. In 1982 he started recording a series of Hi-NRG singles with Bobby Orlando, a strangely homophobic character who somehow made a career in classic gay dance music, such as “Native Love (Step by Step)”, “Shoot Your Shot” and “Love Reaction”, belted out in his hoarse growl over pulsing synths. “You Think You’re a Man” was later covered by Scottish twee-pop legends The Vaselines, a few of whose original songs were in turn covered by Nirvana. 1988’s Hairspray was Waters’ biggest success yet, with Divine playing both Tracy Turnblad’s mother and despicable radio station owner Arvin Hodgepile. At the height of his success, the hard-living Divine died of heart failure in Los Angeles at the tragically young age of 42. His acting is a delight and so are his Hi-NRG stompers, which achieved a cult following in Europe.

Essential Divine
Divine


Deerhunter

Founded by Bradford Cox in Atlanta in 2001, Deerhunter graduated from their hazy improvisational beginnings to become one of the great contemporary indie rock bands. Like Sonic Youth or Yo La Tengo, they fuse influences from psychedelia to krautrock into austere, luminous guitar rock, led by Cox’s cerebral but yearning songs. Cox is doubly different, not only as queer but also for his Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that gives him an unusually tall and lanky appearance. He channels this into the clarity and presence of his songwriting, which like Neil Young he often improvises in a single take. The band has excellent taste in influences; you can hear echoes of Harold Budd or shoegaze in their ambient moments, early Factory Records in their gloomy slow burn, and Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd when they upshift to soaring garage-psych. On recent albums they have brightened their melodies, added touches of banjo, drum machine and saxophone, and expanded their lyrics to broader themes.

Rainwater Cassette Exchange
Deerhunter


Genesis P-Orridge

An utterly unique pagan voyager who stirred controversy and blew minds throughout a prolific career from the late 60s until their death from leukemia last March, Genesis P-Orridge’s life and body was their art. With Throbbing Gristle they drew the blueprint for industrial music and smashed the boundaries of pop to let in surrealism and perversion; with Psychic TV they channeled occult beliefs into ecstatic rock and dance music. Along the way they transmuted their physical appearance to achieve ‘pandrogynic’ unity with their partner Lady Jaye, blurring distinctions between art and life. As a teen in the Midlands, Neil Megson was fascinated by Aleister Crowley and William Burroughs and began going by P-Orridge. At university in the late 60s, P-Orridge was a hippie discontent who sought an art that went beyond peace, love, and sunshine. Pursuing confrontational performance art in Hull and London, they formed Throbbing Gristle with Peter Christopherson, Chris Carter, and Cosey Fanni Tutti, intoning disturbing spoken word pieces over distorted samples and electronics. The band was reviled by mainstream reviewers for their interest in transgressive gender politics and fascist imagery, but influential on like-minded misfits who went on to found labels like Wax Trax! and bands like Nine Inch Nails. When they broke up in 1981 P-Orridge and Christopherson immediately formed the more rock-oriented Psychic TV, named for their idea that television is a kind of mass mind control that could be magickally subverted to combat the establishment. Along with churning noise, Psychic TV recorded some surprisingly catchy material, including the spooky but pretty “Just Like Arcadia”, an oddly faithful cover of “Good Vibrations” and the anthemic “Godstar”, which sounds like Killing Joke doing a very committed Rolling Stones cover. By the late 80s Psychic TV was fully immersed in acid house and its psychotropic potential; the 90s electronica explosion, before being co-opted by commercial interests, seemed to be the culmination of artists like Genesis’ long-standing interest in trance-inducing sound and ecstatic communality. They continued making visual art, touring with iterations of Psychic TV and altering their body up until their death last year, inspiring new converts and never seeking mainstream acceptance.

20 Jazz Funk Greats
Genesis P-Orridge


Wendy & Lisa

As Prince’s closest collaborators during the peak of his career, to say nothing of their own excellent solo albums, guitarist Wendy Melvoin and keyboardist Lisa Coleman should be much bigger stars. Their fathers were both in legendary L.A. session band the Wrecking Crew, and they were childhood friends who played music together growing up. By their late teens, they were a couple in love. Lisa got an audition with Prince and joined his touring band for Dirty Mind, going on to play keyboards on Controversy and 1999. Prince was familiar with Wendy’s playing, and when Dez Dickerson walked out of a rehearsal in 1983 he asked her to play guitar. Everything clicked and Prince added Wendy & Lisa to the Revolution. Their relationship was on some level an intentional feature of his new super-diverse band, black and white, straight and gay, although it was never explicitly stated. (Things got weirder when Prince started dating Wendy’s twin sister Susannah and writing songs with her as well.) Wendy & Lisa were both bursting with creativity and contributed riffs, vocal parts, and arrangements to many Revolution songs, although they later felt slighted when they were only given songwriting credit on a few. By the end of the Parade tour, they were unhappy working in the shadow of the Purple One and struck out on their own. Their 1987 self-titled debut was full of melodic, punchy tunes, like the T.Rex-y “Waterfall” and the danceable “Honeymoon Express”, but barely charted; follow-up Fruit at the Bottom added their sisters to backing vocals on a set of electro-funk that would do Neneh Cherry proud. In interviews, they recall that major labels at the time were put off by an out lesbian couple, but both albums have a cult fanbase and have since been reissued by indie labels. More recently the duo, no longer a romantic couple but still lifelong friends and partners, have found success writing songs for others and composing film and TV scores, winning an Emmy for their theme to Nurse Jackie. Their 2008 album White Flags of Winter Chimneys is atmospheric and ethereal, with shades of the Cocteau Twins or Disintegration-era Cure.

Fruit At The Bottom
Wendy & Lisa


 

 

 

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