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.