There are times when it seems right and necessary to challenge the presumption of a gay culture, if only because it assumes the existence of its opposite -- a straight culture (in which we implicitly have no part). And then there are times when you are going innocently about your life, minding your business, thinking happy assimilationist thoughts, when out of nowhere comes a huge rock to knock your equilibrium off-kilter. Last month that rock came wrapped in lyrics that sent me spinning (not a metaphor) back to my tender youth, just as songs are supposed to do. The lyrics went something like this:
"I don't wanna talk / If it makes you feel sad /
And I understand / You've come to shake my hand /
I apologize / If it makes you feel bad /
Seeing me so tense / No self-confidence /
But you see / The winner takes it all ''
Well, OK, the lyrics went exactly like that. And they were sung by Meryl Streep. To Pierce Brosnan. On a Greek island. And as Meryl belted out the lyrics to the best Abba song ever, her red scarf fluttering in the breeze of a Greek summer evening, I might actually have shed the gayest tear of my life. We've been talking a lot in the office lately about when we first knew we were gay -- those 'aha' moments we come to appreciate only in hindsight -- but it was only in the darkness of the cinema watching Mamma Mia! that I remembered my own. I was 12, maybe younger, performing 'Winner Takes It All' for my parents, with a deck of playing cards and my arms windmilling madly. I loved that song -- and not in any kind of ironic way. A few years later I'd be walking around my village barefoot, listening to the Smiths on my Walkman, because they made me feel authentic and maudlin, but at 12 I was all about Agnetha because she made me feel'what? Validated?
I'm not sure why certain songs and albums become touchstones for gays, while others seem irretrievably straight (Creed, anyone?), but I do know that few boys at school would admit to liking ABBA -- which is why reading the critics on Mamma Mia! took me right back to the gender wars of the schoolyard. The bullying contempt of New York magazine's David Edelstein, for whom nothing short of a lobotomy could explain Streep's performance, was instructive: ABBA's entire catalog was 'synthetic,' which is the kind of flip jibe that has been used for decades to denigrate the kind of music that women and gay men, in particular, gravitate to. How else can you explain why, in a list of the 100 Greatest Albums of All Time, the staff at Rolling Stone managed to identify only seven albums by or prominently featuring women (including Fleetwood Mac and the Velvet Underground with Nico)? To put that into perspective, that's one fewer than the number of Beatles albums that made the list.
We always knew that our panel of musicians, artists, and writers wouldn't commit the same sin of ignoring Madonna, but even we were surprised by the results of Out's poll to find the 100 Greatest, Gayest Albums of All Time. Madonna is there (multiple times), but so are Laura Nyro, Sleater-Kinney, and Grace Jones. Judy Garland makes the top five, but so do Tracy Chapman and the Indigo Girls. In fact, female artists, or bands in which they prominently feature, take 51 of the 100 slots. Meanwhile, the Smiths, a notable absence in Rolling Stone's top 100, have four albums on our list, five if you include Morrissey solo -- which is four more than the number of Beatles albums that made it (not that we don't like them; Sgt. Pepper's sneaked in at 100).
Lists like these, of course, are a bit of a gimmick -- the world's 100 greatest albums are the 100 you like best -- but it's always fun to quantify popular tastes, if only to take issue with them. So when you're done griping that The Sound of Music soundtrack didn't make it (hey, we're upset too), take a moment to discover forgotten genius Arthur Russell, and genius-rising R'is'n Murphy, two artists championed by music editor Jason Lamphier, to whom much of the credit for this issue belongs. OK, R'is'n is no Agnetha -- she needs more eye shadow for that -- but she knows how to make us dance. Is that so much to ask for?