Norman Brannon is a pop critic, musician, and author based in New York City. He presents a weekly music update here on Towleroad and writes regularly at Nervous Acid.
Follow Norman on Twitter at @nervousacid.
A little less than a month ago, the Chicago band Rise Against released their sixth studio album, Endgame, to critical and commercial acclaim — making its debut at number two on the Billboard charts and scoring the band their first proper Hot 100 single. But what's gone under the radar so far is the inclusion of a song called "Make It Stop (September's Children)," which — perhaps in an unlikely turn for a hard rock band — explicitly criticizes Church-sanctioned homophobia and goes on to list the names of those LGBT teens who took their own lives last September before proclaiming, "Make it stop, let this end / This life chose me, I'm not lost in sin / And proud I stand of who I am / I plan to go on living." Although singer Tim McIlrath is straight, his lyrics take an unambiguous stand in solidarity with the LGBT community.
Similarly, this week, Scotland's Glasvegas returns with their sophomore album, Euphoric / Heartbreak — a widescreen British rock album that the band is hinging their early success on — but, this time, singer James Allen uses his platform to denounce homophobia on a pair of awkwardly titled songs called "Stronger Than Dirt (Homosexuality Pt. 2)" and "I Feel Wrong (Homosexuality Pt. 1)." Earlier this week, he told Spinner, "Even in this modern day you'd think that people would have more important things to think about than someone's sexuality. It's a shame that this goes on in the world." On "I Feel Wrong," he rues, "God, it's only love."
What Rise Against and Glasvegas are doing is, on some level, unprecedented: Both of these bands are at stages of their career where they've already sold hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of records around the world; both of these bands have access to radio, international press, and major label distribution. But more relevantly, both of these bands belong to a genre riddled with hypermasculinity and subcultural heterosexism. Considering this, their willingness to pave the way for a queer-inclusive hard rock archetype is arguably more radical than "Born This Way," and for many young kids, more meaningful than "It Gets Better" — because while it's nice to know that things won't always be so hard, it's even better to know that there are people you look up to who are actually doing the work to make it better now.
The New Jersey–based Thursday, whose latest full-length album No Devolución also comes out today, are pioneers in this regard: In 2001, they released "Paris In Flames" — a song that tried to convey the isolation of one of singer Geoff Rickly's gay friends and a nod to the movie Paris Is Burning — and then again, in 2003, the band recorded an eponymous tribute to Matthew Shepard for their major label debut. In an attempt to further explore this emerging intersection between hard rock music and gay politics, I spoke with Rickly — a musician whose thoughtful nature and political empathy turns out to be both compelling and authentic.
NB: Back in the days when you released "Paris in Flames" or "M. Shepard," you could probably count the number of hard rock bands openly talking about homophobia or gay sexuality on two fingers. But just in the last few months, first with Rise Against and now with Glasvegas, we've seen at least two major rock bands come out and explicitly tackle the issue. What do you think has changed between then and now?
GR: That's an interesting question. I mean, first, I think more people are thinking about this as a civil rights issue — which is what I think it's always been, but I'm not sure it was always couched in those terms in the general public view. And then with the marriage issue, I think it's become much more of a wider discussion, where everyone is involved with it all the time. I've always felt that I needed to talk from the perspective that I have, which is that of a straight white male; I never thought I could inhabit anyone else's thoughts or ideas. But I have all these friends that I see having a hard time with this — because of pressures that the general public or the government or institutions like the Church are putting on them and that's the kind of stuff that drives me crazy. It's not so much that I want to talk about what it's like to be gay; I don't have any idea what it's like to be gay. But I do think it's sort of the obvious human issue of our time. The fact that there's a group that people still feel comfortable making laws for, and telling them what they can't do, and telling them what they're allowed to have. That's just insane. I mean, if we pushed it back fifty years and talked about, "Oh, I don't know about interracial marriage!" (laughs) … You'd be a maniac.
NB: Actually, just this week actually there was a poll of Mississippi Republicans that was released, and I'm not lying…
GR: (Laughs) This sounds like a set up right here.
NB: No, not at all. A reputable polling firm asked a group of Mississippi Republicans: "Do you think that interracial marriage should be legal or illegal?" And the split came out that 40% said it should be legal, 46% said it should be illegal, and 14% were not sure! That's actually real.
GR: That can't be! Wow. So I'm guessing my wife and I aren't going to be too happy there as an interracial couple (laughs). That is so scary.
NB: So OK. I was thinking about how hip-hop generally bears the brunt of the homophobia accusations…
GR: It does.
GR: Right. Well, even today, with all the songs that we've released and with all that we've said, people are still totally comfortable coming onto our bus and throwing around the word "faggot" as a pejorative. I find that shocking all the time. People are just saying, "Oh, those dudes are faggots. That band sucks" — as if it's the same thing. As if being gay represents being weak or all of the things a truly ignorant person who has never met a gay person would think.
NB: Do you think that rock artists just assume that gay rights is someone else's fight, whereas pop artists are maybe more sensitive to the diversity of their fans?
GR: I'm gonna say something really cynical, but honestly, in both of those categories there's going to be a little bit of pandering going on to your supposed demographic. I think that in hard rock — like popular hard rock, like Nickelback or something — there's going to be this idea that I have to look like this hard rock tough-guy, and I think in pop, there's a little more sensitivity to like, "Well, a lot of my crowd might be gay and they can be tastemakers for who listens to me." So there's a little bit of that going on. I don't wanna say that that's it, I don't wanna single out any one artist and say they don't care or that they're just playing to a crowd, but…
NB: … But capitalism still drives politics sometimes.
GR: It definitely does. And I think that even some of these people who feel strongly about gay rights are deciding whether or not it's an issue they wanna come out for or not, thinking about how it will affect their career. Pop artists are probably thinking it won't affect them negatively, while rock artists might think it's not a good look to stick up for this.
NB: How much of that is that rock artists are less inclined to discuss gay issues because they're afraid of being perceived as gay?
GR: The crazy thing about that is that [in 2003] around War All The Time, when we were a really high-visibility band, that was the one thing I would read about myself all the time. "Their singer is totally gay." Just because I said something, like automatically, I must be gay — because, like, why would you care about somebody else's life or issues? At the same time, I'd just gotten married to a woman, but I didn't really feel like correcting anybody because, whatever. Maybe if they think that I'm gay they'll be thinking about it. Maybe they'll think, "Hmm, I don't know. He seems all right" — or whatever crazy thing that people who actually care about that are thinking.
NB: I actually noticed that. I was thinking about how you've never really gone out of your way to assert your heterosexuality, and how if you do a search on Google for "Geoff Rickly gay," you just get tons of people agonizing over it. They just don't know!
GR: (Laughs) Well, I would never try to pretend that I was gay. But it's funny that people would go crazy trying to figure it out.
NB: When I was thinking about this interview, it also occurred to me that one of the kids in the recent spate of gay teen suicides went to Rutgers University in New Brunswick — where you guys are from.
GR: Yes, I remember that.
NB: Do you ever feel a responsibility to address these topics to your younger fans?
GR: I think that's a really important question, and that there are layers of responsibility. I think that we are all responsible to set a positive example for the younger audience we have, but it's also complicated because it's like, how much of that dictates what your art is going to be? How overtly political are you going to be in your art? And if you decide to just speak about this on the side or from the stage, but not in the songs, does that make it less valuable in some way? Those are things I think about. No Devolución, our new album, is basically apolitical. It doesn't confront a single thing that could be considered a political issue. But at the same time, so much of the record is about devotion and love, and I see that being connected even though it's not specific.
NB: So considering all we've talked about, do you think we've finally entered a point where the gay experience is going to become a matter of hard rock subject matter? Or do you think bands like yours are going to stay on your island somewhere?
GR: (Laughs) I think that even with Rise Against and Glasvegas being two pretty mainstream bands, that's pretty encouraging that that's happening right now. I also think it will become more of the conversation within rock music, but at the same time, I'm kind of hoping that we start moving fast enough politically to where it just becomes a part of everyone's conversation in a way that changes attitudes. I'm hoping that this will move at such an accelerated place that it just becomes a part of every sphere, in a way that you wouldn't even ask about its place in rock music.
NB: To a place where songs like these might seem completely passé and dated.
GR: Exactly. And I believe that they will be.
Thursday's sixth studio album, "No Devolución," is released today via Epitaph Records.