Saturday, December 10, 2011

Identity Culture?

 I’ve been a fan of French composer Francis Poulenc for decades. It was only a year or so ago that I learned he had been gay. I can’t say that makes the slightest difference in how I feel about his music. But it does make me think that there has been a lot of B.S. about “gay” culture.

Let me be up front about this. I'm in favor of gay marriage, and think it's disgusting that the religious right is trying to bring back the bad old days, not only by banning gay marriage but by reviving the ban on gays in the military  -- some fundamentalists here are even promoting capital punishment for gays in Uganda. I don't know that many gays, but none of them resemble the old stereotypes in the slightest. They're just ordinary people who happen to have a different sexual preference. But gay identity politics, like all identity politics, can get silly, and identity cultural politics even sillier.

I remember that the music section of Borders Books in Wayne, NJ, which closed several years before the rest of the chain went bust, had a section devoted to “gay” music. I can’t even remember who the composers were, but I rather doubt they had any more in common than those I already knew about or know about now. Bur rather than argue theory, I’ll just give examples.

Here’s a historic performance from 1962, just the year before he died, of Poulenc himself performing his Concerto for Two Pianos and Ochestra with Jacques Fevrier, conducted by Georges Pretre:

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was a closet gay (Like, what other kind was there in his day?), and there have been accounts that he lived in constant fear of exposure. This YouTube video of his “Waltz of the Flowers” includes images of fairies, which might draw sniggers from people who remember how that word was used before gay liberation, but that’s irrelevant to their use here:

And here’s a signature piece by Aaron Copland, “Fanfare for the Common Man,” which he incorporated into a symphony and which, I seem to recall, was used as the theme for CBS Reports back in the 1960’s. In the spirit of FDR and the New Deal, I suppose, but hardly a gay anthem:

Leonard Bernstein was a switch hitter when it came to sex, but he played it “straight” (Yes, I can hear you going "Argghh!") in “Tonight,” one of his classic songs from West Side Story, for which he rehearses cast members here for a stage production:

I defy you to find anything these pieces have in common besides being great music. I don’t have any idea what “gay” music would be, except by association. I know there’s an opera based on the life of Harvey Milk; I’m not familiar with it, and there don’t seem to be any clips from it on YouTube. But a video clip of the memorial service for him and Mayor George Moscone opens with music from Beethoven’s Seventh:

You can’t get more universal than that.

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