For better or worse, the question of what it means to be Mikaa pop star whose rise in Europe and the U. K., in particular, has been nothing short of meteorichas become inextricably bound up with what it means to be a gay artist in 2007. The musician, whose debut single, Grace Kelly, earned him comparisons to Freddie Mercury, has made a fine art of dodging the question of whether hes gay, straight, or something in between, but the more he ducks and weaves, the more pertinentand persistentthe question becomes. Is he being coy or calculating? Is he part of a new generation of artists who feel able to divorce their sexuality from their music, or does he reflect a more typical (and dispiriting) scenario? George Michael, Morrissey, and Elton John have all been here, coming out only after their careers had peaked or when events forced their hand. Is Mika just the 21st-century version of Mozza?
Or is Mika not gay at all? He may even be making a profound point about the inherent futility of labels. Why pigeonhole myself like that so immediately? is his practiced response to the question, but given the ubiquity of the words camp and flamboyant in profiles and interviews, its clear that many writers have already made up their minds. So should we care if Mika resists clarifying the medias implicit assumptions?
Yes, according to R&B singer Ari Gold, who has been open about his gay sexuality for the duration of his adult career. Ultimately its someones prerogative to disclose their sexuality, but it definitely irks me when someone is deemed more intriguing and press-worthy if he or she refuses to say anything, or later has some splashy coming-out, he says. I personally find artists who arent afraid to say they are gay and are willing to risk a little popularity in the hopes of social change far more interesting.
In a way, I find it slightly cowardly, says alt-pop singer Patrick Wolf. Though Wolf bristles at labels, he readily admits to relationships with both men and women. Were living in more liberated times than we were 10 or 20 years ago, but its still very tough in many parts of the world. There are still kids being beaten up, committing suicide. In Egypt, if a boy kisses another boy, they get hanged. You make the choice whether you want to be a political artist or an entertainer, or somebody whos very aware. Obviously, [Mika] belongs to a canon of musicians that are entertainers.
At first blush, Mikas answer feels like a cop-out. How many artists have ever said they didnt want to discuss it when they were in fact straight? The George Michaels and the Morrisseys and the Boy Georges all said it was industry pressure that kept them closeted early on, but times have changed. Does Mikas refusal to say whether hes gay mean something different than it did when others said the same thing two decades ago?
Indie rockers Tegan and Sara express weariness when on the topic. We always get, Oh, youre twins? And youre gay? And youre from Canada? Wow! Tegan Quin told the San Francisco Weekly. Half the time, I dont know why anyone writes anything about us. They should just write, Twin lesbian duo from Canada. Too oftentheres no time left to talk about the music. Perhaps because theyre more PJ Harveypunk than pop, their following is predominantly straight, and the press seems to care more about their sexuality than audiences do.
Dan Gillespie Sells of the U.K. band the Feeling has little difficulty discussing his homosexuality, having grown up with two lesbian mothers in an activist household. He officially came out in the British gay magazine Attitude, though apparently he hadnt actually been closeted prior to that. Despite or because of songs like Sewnin which Gillespie sings Danny boy, dont be afraid / To shake that ass, and misbehavethe Feelings Twelve Stops and Home has gone double platinum in the United Kingdom.
Kele Okereke of Bloc Party came out this year in Londons Observer magazinesort ofby quoting a lesbian novel, comparing himself to famous bisexuals, denouncing the definite homophobic bias-slash-persecution in music media, and admitting that a gay love song, I Still Remember, was autobiographical, at least partially. In rock, Okerekewho is black, media shy, and somewhat openly queeris an enigmatic anomaly, one we may feel less entitled to scrutinize. While queer fans cant be faulted in looking for role models, Bloc Partys audience probably wonders less about Okerekes sexual orientation than Mikas fans might rightly wonder about his.
Would it make any difference to the way we listen to his music if we knew his sexual preference? Last October, Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters told The fact that three of us are gay is the least interesting thing about us. But does anyone really buy that?
Mikas preternatural cheeriness, seemingly boundless energy, and celebratory circus-stage imagery belie the traumas in his oft-repeated back-story: Born Mica Penniman to an American father and Lebanese mother in Beirut, Mika was evacuated with his family to Paris when he was just a year old. They later moved to London, where as a student Mika was bullied by peers and teachers at Lyce Franais Charles de Gaulle.
School was really hard, Mika says. I had a lot of trouble with the kids in my class, but at the same time I had a lot of trouble with teachers because I had a lot of learning disabilities. Im very dyslexic, and by the age of 11, I couldnt read or write. My life was kind of falling apart. I was a complete outcast freak. I got into trouble for everything that I said, so I stopped talking. I got pulled out of school [and] didnt go for about seven, eight months, and during that time I started to learn how to sing because I had nothing else to do.
Trained as a soprano, he joined the chorus of a Richard Strauss opera at the Royal Opera House at age 12. At 19 he enrolled in the Royal College of Music in London. While on breaks from school, he began discussions with record companies. One label executive told Mika hed make the deal if he changed his style and sound to match that moments hit makers. They didnt care whatthat was the worst part of it. They just wanted a hit, Mika says. Of course, theyve no idea what a hit is. No one does. Whats a hit?
Unwilling to bend creatively, Mika delivered Grace Kelly, a buoyant middle finger to the sausage-making tendency of the industry. I had this realization that no one in the music industry would wave a magic wand and turn me into what I thought I could be, he says. So if I was ever going to do it, I would have to proscribe every single aspect of my career, from my logo to the clothes that I wear. I realized that it was that vulgar and you just had to spell things out that much.
He and his older sister Yasmine (a.k.a. DaWack), his stylist and Life in Cartoon Motions cover artist, handmade 110 elaborately adorned boxes for his demo; the hype that followed the release of the boxes was what landed Mika a dealon his own creative and financial terms. I had fought so hard to get where I wanted that I really needed the money with no interference in order to have fun and make the record I needed to make, Mika says. So no one A&Rd my projectI just did it! I was even adding up the budgets for the horns myself, to see how much overbudgeting I could possibly conceal until the recording was already done and all they had to do was just pay the bill. I did a lot of that. Who said the music industry was clean?
Does one confuse the art with the artist when finding contradiction in Mikas refusal to discuss his personal life? His songs give off the unmistakable whiff of an Im-OK-youre-OK acceptance. Big Girl (You Are Beautiful) is an anthemic paean to fat women. More to the point, Billy Brown is a musical tale of a married man who leaves his wife and kids for another man. Is this a philosophical inconsistency?
You could look at it that way. Its easy to misinterpret as just a simple contradiction. It really isnt about that, he says. I suppose its because I never really wanted to box myself in. Anyone can label me, but Im not willing to label myself. Does it limit the way that I live my life? No. I still do whatever I want. Nothing like that can be a business decision.
Mika insists that executives at Universal, his label, never told him how to answer questions about his sexuality. I think they know that if they brought that up in a conversation, I would probably not talk to them again. Theyve never controlled me that way. There was a timewhen I handed in Billy Brown, there was talk from certain people that the song shouldnt be released in the United States, and I completely lost it. I went right to heads of the company and just said this is ridiculous.
It is difficult to believe that Mika is guileless on the issue of sexuality alone. Hes a bit of a paradox, admitting that hes very proud to have done cover photo shoots and interviews for Out and Attitude. His claim that his sexuality is no ones business is one matter, but the insistence that his position is not calculated does not easily fit with this astute young man who has carefully engineered every step of his career to date.
The differences in sales figures between the United Kingdom and the United States suggest that gay doesnt sell as well this side of the pond. Scissor Sisters and Antony and the Johnsons, for example, have topped U.K. charts but fare less well here. Mika knows that many openly wonder if hes triangulating his media approach accordingly.
Anybody who says that I dont talk about sexuality or that I dont politically sexualize my music because of taboos, because of being afraid of selling records, especially in the United States, is completely wrong. Ive made a record that doesnt compromise in any way about what Im allowed or not allowed to say in my lyrics.
Keeping his sexuality out of the press must interfere with one of the boons of celebrity: hooking up. Of his record release party in New York City, where he was consistently mobbed by eager 20-somethings of both genders, he says, Like at the party last night, did I meet anyone? Hardly! Got a lot of phone numbers; people would stick them in my pocket. The physical molesting is one thing that really bugs me! Or when people are pinching your ass all the time, sticking their hands down your pants, its just like, Whoa, easy! Thats when Perez [Hilton] got jealous and said, Hey, that never happens to me!
Perez Hilton was one of Mikas early online champions and is no doubt responsible for a share of Mikas stateside visibility. After Hiltons initial blog postings on Mika, in which he declared that Mika is gay (actually, gay gay gay), the two met at a series of events and became friends. Since then, Hilton has been silent on Mikas sexuality. Its a curious pairing, not only because Hilton is unabashedly queer, but because hes strident about the importance of celebrities being out. That discrepancy is glaring to other bloggers, some of whom assume that Mika befriended Hilton to escape targeting.
A dance with the devil? says Mika of the friendship. No, I think that if I do something stupid and I go out and make an ass of myself, he will write about it just as viciously as he would about anybody else. Hes been a huge supporter of mine, and Im not as famous as the other people he writes about. Im not Sharon Stone; Im not Cameron Diaz. But if I did stupid things and tumbled out of a nightclub with crap around my nose, you can be fucking sure that hell put it out there and hell go, What a shithead. Look at Mika. Hes made a complete dick of himself. I wouldnt do that anywayIm not into that kind of shit.
For his part, Perez insists the two never talk about the pink elephant in the room. Of that first post, Hilton says, I thought it was obvious that he was gay. Thats just what Id heard from people in London, but it may be an erroneous assumption. Im also assuming he read [the posts], and he never clarified it.
As far as Im concerned, Mika declares, the most important thing is what is in my songs and the music itself, much more so than what I talk about in front of the press. This is where things started to change. I consider myself a singer-songwriter first, a performer second. Its obvious now that because of the whole celebrity aspect, because of becoming a personality, the performance part of my job is the one thats taking over. And that is the one who is getting exposure.
Hes getting more exposure all the time. In April, Mika played the main stage at the Coachella music festival, holding his own in front of a tattooed rock crowd, and this month hes starting a tour that will take him through the United States and Europe.
That Mika feels he must evolve in the way he deals with media is apparent. I admit that Im young, he says, and the biggest part of my job now is finding my feet with this new performance-celebrity aspect to what I do, and that goes right down to talking about sex and talking about labels and people wanting to label you. But it depresses me as well. Will it change with me? Possibly. Ill probably change the way I respond to things; Ill probably change the way I talk or dont talk about certain things.
Denial and obfuscation are different things, and Mika is acutely aware of this. But well likely have to wait for his second or third album for moreto find out whether Mika becomes part of the pop establishment and to see whether his views on this subject have changed. Regardless of his reasons for not discussing it, sexuality is problematic, for Mika and for other artists who choose not to divulge. He may very well be ahead of the curve on this issue. Nevertheless, the likelihood is that more artists rather than fewer will opt not to discuss sexuality. In an ideal world the question would be irrelevant, yet as Ari Gold notes, we havent as a culture reached the point yet where being coy is somehow more subversive.