As part of a University project, I've been looking at homosexuality and its relationship to hip hop. In it, we've regularly said that LGBTQ artists have a far greater representation in other genres of music; freely citing the likes of Freddie Mercury, Elton John and George Michael. But beyond these iconic figures of the 80s, how well does our assertion actually stand up? In order to try and back ourselves up with some quality data, I went on an exploration of some of the hits from yesteryear.
Quality not quantity. It's an old adage and one that anyone looking at the sales of non-heterosexual rap music might have to take heart from. The same might equally be said of the UK Top 40. And there has certainly been a hefty amount of quantity there.
Carly Rae Jepsen's Call Me Maybe for example, is now the UK's 1192nd ever No. 1. So, with so many singles and genres, LGBTQ artists are bound to have been represented adequately at the highest level... How many No. 1s though, have actually been played by musicians and bands who were openly gay or bisexual?
To find that out, I took a look at all the artists who had ever got a No. 1. The list is, needless to say, extensive. I then went through, researching as I went, ticking off all those who I knew or could discover were openly gay.
Before I get into the figures though, I should explain how I got my data. The basis for the charts was laid in 1952 when Percy Dickins, a journalist from the NME, collected and compiled the figures for the sales of sheet music from some local shops. While these figures are accepted, it was only in 1969, when the British Market Research Bureau was established, that there was an officially recognised UK Chart.
However, I was willing to accept a bit of lenience in this department. What I really thought I should use as a cut-off point though, was the decriminalisation of homosexuality in July 1967. While the move was not without its controversies, from both homosexuals and heterosexuals alike, the landmark year is an ideal place to start.
So, the answers? In total, there have been 56 No. 1 singles from artists who were either openly gay/bisexual or bands with a gay/bisexual member. In the case of artists who were both lead singers and solo artists, the hits have been attributed jointly.
With that in mind then, who is our number one gay/bisexual artist? Well, out in front with a whopping 11 No. 1's is of course George Michael.
|Artist||No. of Number 1s|
|Pet Shop Boys||4|
|Frankie Goes to Hollywood||3|
|Boy George/Culture Club||2|
|Dead or Alive||1|
That said, it does pale in comparison with Elvis Presley and The Beatles' 21 and 17 respective chart smashers. It also seems to make for awkward viewing when compared with the total number of hits. As a proportion, LGBTQ artists make up just under 5% of all No. 1s.
In fairness though, this would seem to reflect the government's statistics that roughly 5% of the UK population considers themselves as other than heterosexual. In terms of time spent at the top however, these artists fair slightly better, spending a proportionally greater time at the top than their physical numbers suggest. So, while LGBTQ songs might only take up 4.7% of the chart's No. 1 spots, they've spent over 163 weeks there out of a possible 2366. That may not sound like much, but it adds up to a more considerable 7%.
The one thing that does stand out as potentially worrying however, is that the majority of these hits come from the 80s. In fact, looking at a chronological spread of the hits, it's easy to see.
With heavy-hitters like George Michael, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and the Pet Shop Boys at their peak, the decade is a stand out performer. And, while the 90's and 2000's are hardly a return to the doldrums of the 60s and 70s, it does seem odd that LGBTQ artists should be represented by so few a number.
While it would certainly be both unfair and unwise to blame this decrease on the rise of hip-hop's rise, it seems an interesting point to consider given the nature of this project. As the 2007 cult hit Thou Shalt Always Kill put it, the acquisition of "guns, bitches and bling" seems to have steadily forced out some of the other ideas that music was about. I'll freely admit, a song like Relax (which coincidentally was banned from Radio 1) is not the pinnacle of philosophical self-expression but it certainly pushed the boat out for homosexual freedom in art. Try and find a similar No. 1 in the last ten years and the closest you'll get is the video for t.a.T.u's All the Things She Said, in which some teenage girls fondle each other in the rain; a project their manager Ivan Shapovalov, readily admitted he created as an "underage sex project". The less said about it the better.
However, one thing over the course of this project far has stood out: An increasing number of artists see that the most 'modern' way they can get their message of sexual tolerance across is not by making their sexuality a major statement of their music. Instead, they let their sexual preference be known if it's asked about but really they let the music do the talking.
The numbers may then still appear to betray a declining popularity of LGBTQ artists. Jessie J currently stands as the only LGBTQ artist of the 2010s to make the top spot, and she famously has little time for much debate on the subject of sexuality. But, with projects like OutSpokenUK trying to foster attention in as positive a way as possible, who knows? Before ending though, it is worth mentioning one musician in particular:
The name of Long John Baldry may not mean anything to you, and likewise his song Let the Heartaches Begin may not be your kind of thing. Yet, with his voice faintly reminiscent of Louis Armstrong and a hearty chorus of "I've lost that girl for sure", the song has a nostalgic charm. And, in November of 1967, Long John became the first openly gay musician under the UK's new legislation to score a No. 1 hit. Later, John had a brief relationship with Dave Davies from the Kinks and even helped Elton John on his own path coming to terms with his sexuality.
For many artists, these charts still mean a lot. At a basic level, it's the most palpable acceptance that musicians will ever get and, while many artists will be doing it just for the sake of their music, that gratification is special. That LGBTQ artists ever since Long John have rightfully taken their place at the highest end of the charts is a reflection of music's unique power to form a community of millions. Keep up the good work.
Follow Thomas Morris on Twitter: www.twitter.com/iamdjcarlo