I feel like music videos have a renewed cultural importance these days, because watching short videos of all kinds has become a major way for people to entertain themselves, especially when they should be working. When I was a kid I had to tune in to The Chart Show on ITV every weekend in the vague hope of catching a good music video, and I was frequently disappointed. Now good music videos find you, because people want to share the videos that they’ve enjoyed.
So after years of MTV-imposed exile, music videos have a renewed presence in the Zeitgeist. Just as plants make their berries look extra delicious so that passing birds will propagate their seeds, so videos need to resonate with their audience to ensure that they go viral. For that reason, music videos may be a better barometer of our culture today than they ever were before. (It does also help if the music is good.)
One trend I’ve noticed in recent music videos is that there’s an increasing presence of gayness. I don’t mean the gay sensibility or the camp aesthetic that have informed pop musicians for as long as there have been pop musicians; I mean actual gayness. I mean same-sex relationships.
It’s not unprecedented, of course. Christina Aguilera showed boys kissing in the video for Beautiful more than seven years ago, and even she was not the first. But Aguilera’s video was edited on most TV broadcasts, and fear of having their music kept off our screens steered most artists away from exploring gay relationships in their videos. Now we live in a world where Cee-Lo Green’s video for Fuck You has had over 25 million views on YouTube; the old rules no longer apply.
Our Friends the Divas
As Christina’s example suggests, one place where there’s always a chance of some man-on-man action is in videos by modern pop divas, who know which side their bread is buttered. If the gays don’t love you, you’re nothing.
Examples from the past few months include videos from Pink (Raise Your Glass), Kylie Minogue (All The Lovers), and even sometime opportunist homophobe Katy Perry (Firework). If there isn’t a gay kiss in the videos for Lady Gaga’s Born This Way next year, I will eat a goat.
Of course, these videos have also been edited or blurred somewhere in the world, but the censors are less relevant every day.
The Gay Artist
Interestingly, I don’t remember seeing any gay relationships explored in videos by The Scissor Sisters or Adam Lambert, the foremost chart-troubling gay disco acts of our age, possibly because it’s tougher for actual gays to push the envelope. Only Nixon could go to China. Only a tiny straight Australian woman can writhe on a rising tower of omnisexual orgiastic naked bodies in the middle of the street.
The first Idol winner, Will Young, has been making music videos for the best part of a decade, and his videos are usually tremendous short films - but they’re never gay love stories, at least not explicitly. It took four albums before Young dared to even mention a male lust object in a song.
But Will Young is part of the old system, the big music label system, which still runs scared from the idea of teen girls ripping posters off their walls in horror at the idea of their favourite singer batting for the other team. It’s now easier and easier for small label artists - or no label artists - to make and circulate videos that don’t play by those rules.
One example is gay musician Tom Goss’s video for Lover, about a man waiting for news about his soldier boyfriend, and featuring real soldiers discharged under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Another example is Ice Cream Truck by gay rapper Cazwell, which became a viral hit this summer precisely because of its risqué uber-gay go-go boy response to booty-shaking R’n'B videos. I should warn you now that it’s not entirely safe-for-work.
The Shameless Tease
Then there is Robbie Williams, who has never been afraid to flirt with the myth (probably) of his own gayness. This year, in his reunion with Gary Barlow, he crossed a Rubicon of gayness with his Brokeback Mountain-themed video, full of lingering looks, bromantic shirtlessness and homosensual tension. It’s tongue-in-cheek, and there’s certainly no kissing, but for any straight (probably) male major recording artist to make a video like this feels like a watershed moment.
When is a music video not a music video? This clip from Glee wasn’t made as a video, but it served the same purpose. It was released a week before the episode aired, and spread like wildfire across gay blogs and entertainment blogs. As a result the show’s 113th single (113th!) became its biggest seller, even outperforming its very first single.
This is a slightly bigger deal than you might think. The video shows one gay teen serenading another gay teen with a song about love, skintight jeans and going all the way, and the core of the song’s appeal - besides the delightful harmonies of the Tufts Beelzebubs - is singer Darren Criss’s flirtatious enthusiasm and Chris Colfer’s bashful, enchanted reactions. This single didn’t scrape its way to the top in spite of the video’s gayness. It distinguished itself from a crowded field because of its gayness.
The Sweet Love Story That Is Older Than The Sea
I thought Glee’s Teenage Dream would be the peak of the year, gay-musically speaking, but the last week has brought something that might be even better into my life.
Like Robbie Williams, Cosmo Jarvis is (apparently) a straight singer with a gay-themed video. As with the Glee clip, Jarvis has created buzz by showcasing a same-sex relationship. Like Cazwell, he made the video on the cheap, without major label support. And like Kylie, he put some gay kissing in there.
But Jarvis has gone one further than any of them, because his Gay Pirates is a whole gay love story in song. It sounds like a cheeky sea shanty, but it has something to say about homophobia, and it’s surprisingly sweet, sad and tender.
Gay Pirates has scored almost 90,000 hits on YouTube in just over a week. That’s not bad for a singer you’d probably never heard of.
The internet has led to the democratisation of creation. We don’t need MTV any more, and our media consumption is no longer constrained by conservative standards. In among the Kylie flash mobs and the videos of waxed twinks lip-syncing to Miley Cyrus, there is room in our media for gays to fall in love. If these are videos that people want to share, then maybe one day they actually will stop blurring out the kisses on TV.
As Cosmo Jarvis sings; “We deserve much better than we’ve had”.