When I was a 11 years old, I discovered pop music. It was a bright, multicolored world where I could go to escape the monotony of my grey, rainy life on the east coast of Scotland.
Like millions of other gay kids, school wasn’t an easy time for me. From sissy and pansy in primary school to poof, bender, and bum-boy in secondary, the name-calling was relentless.
Eventually someone just gave me a girl’s name and the whole school, including some of the teachers, started calling me that.
When my classmate Jennifer Skinner found out that my favorite song (that month, at any rate) was Cherish by Madonna she told everyone and it became another arrow in the quiver of the bullies. I can still hear her spitting at me ‘Oh my God, you’re sooo gay.’
‘Even after I had escaped the bullies I couldn’t shake the shame’
So my love of pop music became yet another thing on my list of stuff to hide from the world. A dirty, femmy secret that might give away my sexuality. I started assessing every record with an eye on acceptability. Fleetwood Mac, Black Box, Michael Jackson were OK. But Kylie, Sonia, Bananarama? Definitely NOT OK.
When I went off to university I carefully cultivated a collection of indie and brit-pop CDs to casually put on when friends visited, keeping my beloved Celine and Mariah albums for alone time. Even after I had escaped the bullies I couldn’t shake the shame.
When I was 19 I decided I needed to meet some gays, so I got a job behind the bar in Club X, Glasgow’s premiere, gay nightclub.
It was a bit like joining the mafia just because you fancy trying ravioli.
Frankly, I was terrified. But there – flailing around in the deep-end of gay culture – I found a place where it was more than OK to have an hour long debate about which remix of Confide In Me is the best, or whether or not Nicki French had improved on Total Eclipse Of The Heart (she hadn’t).
‘Pop music was, and remains, part of our brotherhood’
The songs and music videos which had been a secret sanctuary during my early teens became a shared history with the gay men that would become my friends. Pop music was, and remains, part of our brotherhood.
But why pop and not some other kind of music? Well, I have a couple of theories about this.
The first hinges on the common themes we hear in pop songs. Most of us first develop an interest in music during adolescence. And it just so happens that the vast majority of pop songs are a perfect reflection of our emerging teenage emotions.
There’s the ‘OMG I’ve fallen in love and it’s the best thing ever’ song. The ‘Oh God, you don’t love me anymore and now my world has ended’ song. And course, the timeless classic: ‘I love a boy, but – waaa – he doesn’t know I’m alive’ song (the worst, and obviously best).
My theory is these songs help us all play out the adult situations and feelings we’re discovering. In time, the straight kids could leave the songs behind as they began to practice those situations in real life, but the gay boys couldn’t move beyond a secret crush for years (sometimes decades).
Maybe things are changing now – I hope so – but for many of my generation we just had to keep playing at love in the privacy of our bedrooms, with the help of Whitney, Pet Shop Boys and Paula Abdul.
My second theory is based on what pop music represents for us. When I moved to London in 2000 (I know, pre-Gaga – can you imagine?!), the scale of the gay scene was staggering to me. It was overwhelming.
On my first visit to G.A.Y. at the Astoria, when Better The Devil You Know came on accompanied by the biggest balloon drop this side of Vegas (as it always did at 12.30am on a Saturday night), I felt a rush of euphoria that was totally new to me. It took me a while to figure it out, but it was freedom.
Everything I’d worked hard to suppress all my life. Everything I’d added to my list of things to hide away. Things that could put me in danger. I could let it all go here. This was a safe place to be myself. And I knew everyone else felt it too.
Celebrating pop music
In December I launched the Unflopped podcast with my friends Joe and Sean. It’s all about the pop songs we love that should have been hits but weren’t. It’s so much fun to do, I’d be quite happy even if no-one was listening, but one of the most joyful things about it has been connecting with gay men all over the world through the celebration of pop songs.
Importantly for me, we’re taking the songs we listened to secretly in our bedrooms and celebrating them out loud, proudly and free from shame.
I’m no expert. I don’t know if there’s any truth in my theories about why gay men love pop so much. And to be honest I don’t really feel the need to defend my music tastes.
What I do want to say is: Jennifer Skinner, if you’re reading this (and even if you aren’t), yes – I still love Cherish (although I’m more of a Confessions on a Dancefloor fan these days).
Oh, and yes: I am ‘sooo gay.’ One hundred per cent, actually. One hundred per cent gay, pop-music obsessive. And completely proud.