Alex Blaze

Queer music Friday - Scott Free album review

Filed By Alex Blaze | February 15, 2008 5:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment
Tags: music, queer music, Scott Free

thepinkalbumcoverfinal543.jpgScott Free
The Pink Album (A Pop Opera)
Leather Western Records, 2008

I read a book of gay short fiction a while back edited by certain prominent gay writer, with all the coming out stories, the "I'm living two lives" stories, the religion-sexuality reconciliation stories. I was pretty tired of it before I read that collection, and it begged the question: why wasn't anyone pressing these writers further? Why weren't they using the coming out narrative to make a deeper point about identity, or ending the "two lives" narrative with something other than harmonization, or coming up with a more creative solution to the religion-sexuality divide that real-live queer people are using?

Then I realized that these weren't stories about gay men, they were stories about the Essential Gay Man, who preferred chatting up boys in hot tubs on Fire Island to, say, seducing boys with video games or participating in church bake sales.

Scott Free's Pink Album sets out to "create a window into the lives of gay men in the second half of the twentieth century in America," and, with such an undertaking as representing the lives of literally millions of diverse people, it's hard to avoid reducing and silencing to create a coherent narrative. That itself isn't all that wrong if it were centered around a shared experience, but centering it around a sexual identity is slippery at best. When the goal is to market to that identity, I suppose one isn't to stray all too far from the idiom.

The main character of the album is the Essential Gay Man. He was the perpetual victim of bullies for being a nelly when he was in school. He was told homosexuals were going to burn in hell in church. He thought he was doomed to loneliness when he came out to himself. He came out to his unaccepting parents by sitting them down and having a heart-to-heart about what it means to be gay (it's even called "Mom Dad I").

Those are just the first four songs, and the fact that they can be "about" anything in particular, and a particular that can be captured and conveyed in one sentence, shows the kind of lyrical content we're dealing with.

Free's project, trying to encapsulate the gay male experience in album form, would generally require some method of finding material and constructing it into a narrative. The only hint to his methodology provided in the liner notes - he simply says it's a "collection of stories - some my own, some of friends, ex-lovers, and acquaintances" - indicates that he probably wasn't even thinking about the "how" of representing such a vast group, but simply accepted the dominant narrative of the Essential Gay Man and decided to redeploy Him, now singing 16 tracks about all the Essential Gay Male Experiences.

But worse than being tired, the Essential Gay Man actually prevents any sort of lyrical depth on this album. Far from being rich in imagery, metaphor, word play, or anything poetic (I underlined the only metaphor in the whole album on my first listen-through, it was "cut me like a knife" on the eighth track), the lyrics describe those Essential Gay Male Experiences with a flatness that makes one wonder if anything on here is Free's personal experience and a pace that prevents anything more from happening than the telling from "show, don't tell." The lyrics read more like rambling blog posts than music, seven miles wide and two inches deep, stuffing long sentences into shorter lines creating verses-that-were-never-meant-to-be.

It's hard to focus on anything besides the lyrics since most of the songs place the vocals pretty high in the mix. Most sound like a lounge-style, depressed Randy Newman who got his hands on a bunch of synth sounds. A couple of the tracks step into other genres, like "Meet Mr. Right" in swing revival, "GRID" sounds like a dramatic Broadway number, and "Free" sounds like a country/pop song complete with a female back-up singer, harmonica, and fiddle. But those songs that have a different sound generally come off as superficial in their appreciation for their respective genres and don't adhere to them vocally or compositionally.

But that's to be expected working in niche-marketed art. The fact that it's "gay," not just gay but Gay, is supposed to be enough to overcome artistic mediocrity, we're supposed to see ourselves in that music, and the narrative lives on for someone else to come along and repeat the same experiment.

There are a few decent tracks on this album, like "Death Toll," the death toll of AIDS set to a trance beat complete with the distorted vocals endemic in that genre. It's one of the few songs that where it actually feels like Free is singing something that really happened instead of something that was supposed to have happened. "Equal" has a nifty little lap-pop sound with a guitar and a distinct melody (the latter being a find in these parts). And, even though I was hoping for a pedal steel guitar, "Free" is a quasi-cute country/pop song.

I'm sure this album will do well on LGBT radio and music charts and might even garner a few LGBT awards because this is the sort of thing those organizations eat up. And I'm sure there's an audience for this, just as there's an audience for books of coming out stories.

I just don't think that many people reading a site that focuses more on "What exactly is our vision for a queer-accepting society and how do we get there?" than on "Is it OK to be gay?" are in that market.


The Pink Album (A Pop Opera) will be released on Leather Western Records on March 4, 2008. Visit Scott Free's site for more information.


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This is good criticism! I appreciate that you went beyond simply trashing it for being so obvious and lame, and went into the larger questions behind why this kind of culture exists, what motivates it, and why it matters.

Folks: This is my first post at Bilerico. I'd been having an ongoing discussion with Mr Free about The Pink Album in preparation to writing my own review, when he gave a heads up about this one. As I read it, I started to write a running commentary to Scott about what I was reading. Then I read Mr Erickson's comment that "This is good criticism..." … and realized I couldn't leave this review unchallenged. It took me until now to find time post what I'd written. I've left it in the form I wrote it, as a letter to Scott. (I've made a few minor edits to the original to improve readability). It's lengthy, but doesn't cover all the issues I have with Mr Blaze's review .


Well, Scott, the good news is I never visited Bilerico.com before and
the site is interesting, so I thank you.

But ... that review seems to exist in a world of its own.

I'm going to comment about the review as I read...

The first thing that got my dander up is that Alex Blaze (is that a pen name?) bases his entire review on his belief that the album is about Essential Gay Men.

I don't consider you as projecting the personality or image of what I'm pretty sure Blaze means by an "Essential Gay Man." You can socialize with Essential Gay Men, you enjoy some Essential Gay Men (EGM - whoopee! an new acronym!) on an individual basis, sure. But you're no EGM. Also, it's not just my experience of you that's the basis for my saying that. I think Blaze should have taken one look at the cover - yes judged, in part, the CD by the cover. My visceral response to the cover of The Pink Album was mixed (of course), but after admiring how well done it was, part of what I thought was that it was not inviting but challenging, was not a representation of the Essential nor average Gay man but a comment on our / Gay society -- not that I thought those things in so many words until now. I probably thought more in terms of the words "Wow. Hmmm. Yeah. This will upset as many people as it will attract." You look weary, behind a veil of color. And the color is a very uncomfortable (now that we're supposed to fit into the new conformist box that's trying to co-opt the term "post-Gay") pink.

So, as that relates to Blaze's review: Mission accomplished. You put a challenging image out there and many people won't meet that challenge. He doesn't get you.

If he saw what was right there in front of him, he'd see you separating yourself from the EGM. He'd see that you were commenting - unfashionably so, in a blatant if not explicit way - as an artist. And it is as an artist that you really separate yourself from the EGM. EGM may include a few artists in their circle, but I've NEVER. seen the most important aspect of an artist, to do the essential work of questioning the obvious, the status quo, being the reason why that person was allowed into EGM circles. One's celebrity, yes; one's ability to be decorative or colorful or witty, yes. But as an artist? The EGM is far too crippled by insecurity (often deep beneath a veneer of confidence) and shackled to conformity to truly and publicly appreciate an artist.

Moving on... No, backtracking in fact: "The main character of..." ????There's a main character??? […] How off-track is that?!?!?! Certainly, there's a *voice* - yours. There's a central perspective - yours. But, a main character? If anything, if there's a unifying perspective which can bee seen a "main character", it's the *NON*-EGM, average-joe Gay Man, just trying to survive the strength of the attacks against him as an Out Gay Man with his soul relatively intact. But I'm clear that there are multiple characters and persons' stories in the album.

Besides, you, the artist Scott Free, are not the characters. Again, it's your voice and your life experience informing the songs. But I'm pretty sure, for all you succeed at making the songs personal, it's a persona behind the "I" in the lyrics. The clue to that is the liner note: "The Pink Album (A Pop Opera) is a collection of stories -- some my own, some of friends, ex-lovers and acquaintances." There are songs I currently *believe* are more likely yours than others, but without having confirmed any with you, which ones I'm not sure.

And now that I'm at the liner notes, I have to backtrack again into Blaze's review to wonder (as I fight off becoming exasperated with his density) about how he begins his critique by starting out with the premise that "with such an undertaking as representing the lives of literally millions of diverse people, it's hard to avoid reducing and silencing to create a coherent narrative" when what Blaze *does* quote from the liner notes, "to 'create a window into the lives of gay men in the second half of the twentieth century in America,'" you, Scott, follow up with an important bit of self-awareness from the liner notes which he doesn't quote: "By no means definitive, and limited in scope to the gay male experience..." Can it be more plain that The Pink Album is not a reduction of anything? It aspires to do what most classic works of art do: To deftly provide glimpses into a world for an audience to explore and experience. Who here is doing the reducing? I'm thinking it's the reviewer. I'm thinking Blaze reminds me of those who similarly complained about "Queer As Folk"'s representation of Gay folks (as if they were meant to be a projection of who they want Gay people to appear to be in public) and for whom "Queer As Folk" had to add an up-front disclaimer that it was not intended to depict all aspects of Gay people. Duh.

Please don't misunderstand: Personally, I am NOT represented in ANY media as the kind of Out Gay man I am. Nothing I've ever experienced has ever given me anything but universally metaphorical opportunities to relate to a character on a screen. My experience is better in music, but mostly in overlooked songs like your "Emperor's New Song" and "Who Do I Thank?" or Joe Jackson's "Slow Song". Just to skim at what's missing, I see no Out Gay Men depicted in the media, mainstream or Gaystream, who don't assume that they are obligated to keep the closet shut on a closeted Gay Man, even without an explicitly made prior commitment to do so; nor do I see any Out Gay Men with a broad interest in different kinds of music without kowtowing to any social group's unwritten rules for what makes for "good" music. No, I've lowered my expectations to the point where in social conversations I'm praising Ralph Fiennes amazing performance in "Doris & Bernard" on HBO because I'm finally seeing a queen (a term I use with full respect) depicted not as a hyper-tragic nor hyper-comedic figure but simply as a queen, foibles and strengths fully operational. But I digress.

Apparently I missed the memo that unpacked and translated the code that explains what this part of Blaze's review means: "The fact that they can be "about" anything in particular, and a particular that can be captured and conveyed in one sentence, shows the kind of lyrical content we're dealing with." Is he saying it's a bad thing to be able to describe the particulars of a song in a sentence? (I thought that was what well-written reviews do.) Is it that it's bad for a song to be " "about" " something? If so, then we have a deep, extreme, and frightening-to-behold disagreement about what makes a song *good*. I remain mystified about what he's saying your "kind of lyrical content" IS.

Clearly I disagree that your lyrical content is "tired". To me, it's quite the opposite. Among other things, it functions as a tonic, something necessary to recharge when the everyday experience of observing and experiencing the world as best I can becomes depressing and I have trouble self-generating the wonder and awe (or even the desire to engage others) I know is best for me.

However, in Blaze's criticisms in the paragraph which begins "But worse than...", I won't much argue. I like your lyrics, Scott, in part because you work to create metaphor without much using the metaphorical form (such as "It was a dog of a day.", "That car is a lemon."). You paint pictures more pointillistically, and I, the listener, get to view the images and form my own metaphors.

But technically, I think Blaze means "simile", not "metaphor" in the sentence: "(I underlined the only metaphor in the whole album on my first listen-through, it was "cut me like a knife" on the eighth track)" -- although I'll give way to the perspective that a simile is a kind of metaphor. And now that he's brought it up, if he's including similes with metaphors, how did he miss the title of the first lyric, which is "Like A Girl"? Hmmm?

While I simply disagree that "It's hard to focus on anything besides the lyrics", since I've been focused, for example, on your uses of dissonance and consonance, I actually kind of like his characterizing you as "a lounge-style, depressed Randy Newman who got his hands on a bunch of synth sounds." Harsh as that may be, and uncomplimentary as it was intended, it does flail its way towards the approximate territory you work in, it has a certain creative flair to it, and hey -- being compared to a depressed Randy Newman (which to me seems like stating something redundantly) isn't bad at all, really.

Which leads into the one paragraph of criticism I largely agree with: "But that's to be expected working in niche-marketed art. The fact that it's "gay," not just gay but Gay, is supposed to be enough to overcome artistic mediocrity, we're supposed to see ourselves in that music, and the narrative lives on for someone else to come along and repeat the same experiment."

I agree that the niche is far-too-often self-referential in a self-reverential way. On the other hand, I also, as evidenced above, believe that capitalizing Gay when referring to us Queer folks (and capitalizing Queer, Lesbian, etc, too) is just the right thing to do. Blaze doesn't seem to able to conceive of the possibility that one could both want Gay pride at the level of it being face-forward enough to capitalize the word Gay (Gasp! How bold!) AND be tired of too-easy Gay tropes. But c'mon: in a world where 95% of the Out Gay folks I know still won't hold hands over the table at a romantic dinner (never mind when out for a quick lunch) capitalizing Gay is what you want to criticize?? Of course, in any genre, 80-90% of anything is crap. If one gets to see or hear much more than the tiny percentage of crap most consumers get to experience of any genre, as I assume Blaze is privileged to do as a reviewer, then one gets to see much more crap than most consumers do. And yet, to bring back the example, there are few depictions of us in the media as honest as Fiennes as Bernard, or, to use musical examples, as does Ron Morris in his current "Boyfriend" song (even if it isn't the greatest performance) or as does God-dess and She in most of their songs. So, cliches certainly do become tiresome, but there aren't nearly enough good instances of Gay folks depicted well in song and story for me to be tired of them. Nor do I think that's possible, or else we would long ago have become tired of hetero love stories and dramas.

I also think his conclusion is interesting, because I am inconclusive about how to respond to it. It makes a case that yours is a kind of old thinking and that his is a progressive way of thinking. Having only visited the site for the first time to see the review of your album, a quick glance around does NOT lead me to believe that the site "focuses more on "What exactly is our vision for a queer-accepting society and how do we get there?"," but I've seen too little of it to be confident of that. A quick glance at recent posts about music don't give me much cause to change my mind, but if they're all reviews by Blaze, then the lack of additional perspectives and tastes explains that. I would like to think that I perpetually envision a progressive world based in far beyond feel-good complacencies like "Gay Is OK," and your music most often strikes out at complacency, with no poseur poses. I'm potentially open, but doubtful, that my mind can be changed on what makes for a progressive queer vision. I'm more inclined to think that there is something psuedo-progressive about rejecting your work as irrelevant to a "vision for a queer-accepting society", and thus it's discardable.

And, in quoting "queer-accepting," the alarm goes off in my brain about that word "accepting", an alarm that I'd installed decades ago. (Since I'm being picky about single words, I also give credit for using "queer," but) I am ultimately strongly dissatisfied by working for "acceptance" for Gay folks. I think that basic respect is more in order. There are those who claim respect is earned. I say that if you aren't looking to see the work I've already done to earn that respect, then you're part of the problem. [Not you, Scott; the indefinite use of 'you'] If one doesn't see the work you, Scott, have already done to earn that respect, you're part of the problem. More fundamentally, personal respect is far less begrudging than acceptance, and it is his missing the necessity for society to give us the respect that is due - that is long overdue - that leads me to suspect that perhaps Blaze is missing what we need in order to make any progress at all. And that is why I don't get a sense that he shares a vision for how we get anywhere we aren't already at.

Which leads me to his initial paragraph, one I've neglected until now. I can answer him. Is there a market for those stories? Because, based on what I see in Q-focused bookstores, websites, and book clubs, like most stores, 99.9% of what people are selling, lets face it, to earn a living, it's not trying to challenge or be very creative at all, it's just marketing to an established niche. Of course Blaze probably knows that already, and it doesn't explain it away nor excuse it. Specifically, with music, I'm as frustrated as anyone (perhaps more) that I keep hearing indie Gay releases from guys whose ambition, based on what they sound like, is to become the Gay Ben Folds or the Gay Christopher Cross or the next George Michael. Most of what gets produced by indie folks (often with positive financial results) is just fantasy-fulfillment bullshit. More specifically, with you, I'm pretty certain that among the reasons The Pink Album isn't even more challenging than it is, besides that it often is engaged in trying to depict scenes from the past, is that more than half of it consists of songs you've had in some form since before "They Call Me Mr. Free" was released; that, like 99% of indie queer musicians, you make no profit from doing what you do (and in fact invest many thousands of dollars from your own pocket into producing recordings), and that there is no substantial and responsive audience to something halfway towards "a more creative solution to the religion-sexuality divide that real-live queer people are using" or for much of anything that speaks from a "real-live", honest and individual perspective at all.

If there were, I'd be leading a movement of queer spiritual humanists, a movement that largely doesn't exist because people largely don't care.

Is even that an excuse for works of art not getting made that address that, stories not written, songs not composed? There is no excuse. But having an audience and being able to make a living at one's work would help. It would help if the audience bought Scott Free instead of The Cliks, bought Sleater-Kinney instead of Scissor Sisters, bought Mark Weigle or Robert German instead of Rufus Wainwright. But they don't. So the reason why these stories and songs don't get done is that the only ones even attempting them do so by risking life and soul to make them as best they can on a shoestring with little hope of making a living at it, and when someone does make a work of art that doesn't conform to what everyone else is doing and has substantial value, it gets largely ignored, it isn't acknowledged for what it is, and it is passed over in favor of something familiar and "likable".

But why am I telling you that? You're more aware of it than I am, and less judgemental. I just find Blaze's dismissal ultimately as distressing as a Phelps screed, and more problematic. Guess I needed to vent, and then some. I'm going to go play "Free" again now.

Bill

K, Bill, no one's forcing you to dislike this album, I just posted my own review and everyone's free to disagree. Your comments are here for people to read another perspective, although I'm afraid that in general you didn't understand much of the review ("Like a girl" isn't a simile or a metaphor or an anything, it's a direct, concrete comparison; the "Essential Gay Man" is the average gay joe because defining what's "average" is essentialism-in-a-nutshell; etc.).

But I did want to respond to this:

But c'mon: in a world where 95% of the Out Gay folks I know still won't hold hands over the table at a romantic dinner (never mind when out for a quick lunch) capitalizing Gay is what you want to criticize??

I think that's the thing, do we want to just hear about those gays (myself included sometimes since I'm from rural/exurban Indiana) who won't hold hands at the restaurant? Do we just want to hear that they exist? Or do we want to know their experiences, discuss solutions, explore their psyches, know how that experience relates to others, understand the artist's specific take on it, or anything more than a "just sayin'"?

That's the heart of the criticism. But we don't have to agree. :)