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Queer Noises

Male and Female Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century Music

1995
Author:

John Gill

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This fascinating account of gays and lesbians in the music industry considers the lives of a host of performers-from Benjamin Britten and John Cage to Bessie Smith and Janis Joplin, from Billy Strayhorn and Cecil Taylor to Sun Ra and the Pet Shop Boys. Witty, opinionated, and occasionally outrageous, Gill attempts to end the silence about the contributions of gays and lesbians to twentieth-century music.

This fascinating account of gays and lesbians in the music industry considers the lives of a host of performers-from Benjamin Britten and John Cage to Bessie Smith and Janis Joplin, from Billy Strayhorn and Cecil Taylor to Sun Ra and the Pet Shop Boys. Witty, opinionated, and occasionally outrageous, Gill attempts to end the silence about the contributions of gays and lesbians to twentieth-century music.

Savvy and engagingly written, John Gill’s Queer Noises opens a series of windows on music and-music as-queer culture. Besides adding to current discussions-in-progress on Britten, Cage, and the rockers, the book illuminates for the first time the queer jazz scene and other bent corners of the musical demi-monde. Music's closet door is (at long last) starting to swing open. Queer Noises gives it a big push.

Gary C. Thomas, coeditor of Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology

Gay men and women have been involved in making music since music was first made. But as John Gill observes, many of the central figures of twentieth-century music have been forced to keep their sexuality a secret.

Witty, opinionated, and occasionally outrageous-“Did Elvis Presley want to be tied up?” asks Gill about this rock legend’s famous pose-Queer Noises is an attempt to end the silence about the contributions of gays and lesbians to the canon of twentieth-century music. That silence, says Gill, is all the more problematic given that rumor, scandal, and gossip in the music industry-the most devalued sources of information in our society-have known about and discussed homosexuality in music for many, many years. And sometimes that silence can have tragic consequences, as in the case of Janis Joplin, one of rock’s first out lesbians.

Gill’s revealing yet sensitive treatment of the lives of a host of performers-from Benjamin Britten and John Cage to Bessie Smith and Janis Joplin, from Billy Strayhorn and Cecil Taylor to Sun Ra and the Pet Shop Boys-makes public what has always been known but all too frequently suppressed: that many of this century's greatest musicians are gay. In the process, Gill also examines the forces behind this “code of silence”-families and relatives, managers, and business associates, journalists and critics, historians and musicologists, the inner workings of the music industry itself.

A book for lovers of music of all kinds and of all kinds of music, Queer Noises is not simply the story of homosexuality in the music business; it is a very personal account of how one gay critic sees himself, and by extension, his culture in relation to music and musicology in the late twentieth century.

Copublished with Cassell Ltd, London.

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John Gill was music and books editor at Time Out from 1981 to 1988 and has written about music for various publications including Sounds, Vox, and Smash Hits. He published a novel, Hype!, in 1990, and claims to have appeared on MTV masquerading as a member of the Residents.

Book Default Image

Savvy and engagingly written, John Gill’s Queer Noises opens a series of windows on music and-music as-queer culture. Besides adding to current discussions-in-progress on Britten, Cage, and the rockers, the book illuminates for the first time the queer jazz scene and other bent corners of the musical demi-monde. Music's closet door is (at long last) starting to swing open. Queer Noises gives it a big push.

Gary C. Thomas, coeditor of Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology

Amusing, accessible, and highly entertaining.

Contemporary Literature

British music critic Gill has penned a tell-all tome, although he’s careful not to out anyone who hasn’t already left clues waiting to be pieced together. Using a variety of primary and secondary sources, he pinpoints the contributions of gay musicians throughout the century, showing how their sexuality shaped their careers and their artistic visions. Curiously, during the Birth of the Blues, queer noises were resounding. Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, both women of independent means, were quite open about and in hearty pursuit of their sexuality. But while the signature of the Jazz Age was musical improvisation, the line was drawn at homosexuality. One particularly hostile critic remarked that because Cecil Taylor was queer, he couldn’t really play the piano ‘properly.’ The advent of rock and roll coincided with the arrival of a monolithic music industry that actively sought to control its artists. It was not so long ago that a hint of homosexuality could threaten artists’ livelihoods, yet today such major pop stars as k. d. lang and Elton John can be visibly gay without losing their audiences. This engaging musical survey-which also looks at opera, avant-garde and punk-deconstructs a century of repression and reclaims the contributions of gay musicians for the world to see.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Gill is always provocative and entertaining.

The Daily Telegraph (London)

I welcome Queer Noises, an historical survey of gays in pop music by John Gill, music and books editor for London’s Time Out from 1981 to 1988. The book frequently takes us away from the critical crises of the moment to enjoy again the decades of break throughs and accomplishments and known gay figures, and of course, some we didn’t know. The book is a fast survey of gay presence and influence in a wide range of modern music. In Gill’s book, some gay performers are almost inseparable from their stage persona, while some aren’t identified much by it at all. That Gill, and others are open to an abundance of interpretation rather than a couple of strict truths sounds positive to me, for it creates a wider common ground for those seeking validation for atypical gay passions.

City Pages

Gill’s book offers interesting insights into 20th Century queer musicians. Informative.

etcetera

Gill is at his best. He has met and interviewed many of the performers he discusses, and these chapters are extremely readable and entertaining. Queer Noises is a fun read.

Lesbian Review of Books

Interesting information. Mr. Gill writes warmly and well.

IMPACT: Gay and Lesbian News for New Orleans and the Gulf South

This book, in clear, concise terms and language, demonstrates why it is necessary to come out of the closet and be true to yourself-no matter what your job is. Read to be entertained. Read it to learn.

Metroline (CT)

Queer Noises is a very readable and entertaining book-Gill’s prose is often witty and quite humorous. Queer Noises raises useful and provocative questions about the intersections of queer identities, politics, and music-questions that are nowhere near fully answered in the (still new) field of queer music studies.

NOTES: Quarterly Journal of the Music Library Association