A Gay Jewish Pop Star
Ari Gold’s third studio album, Transport Systems , drops this summer. Photo: Duane Cramer
It’s not easy being a gay pop star By Ari Gold
I’m having a blast being a full time "Homofessional Gaylebrity." When I first started, everyone told me I couldn’t do it. Gay people, straight people, friends, family, music industry professionals, all said to me, “Why do you have to make being gay an issue? It should be about the music.” But its not just about the music. All the great music I can think of has been inspired by political and social issues. The great artists write to change the world. So I set out to do just that.
Growing up an Orthodox Jew in the Bronx, N.Y., I learned in yeshiva about the way Jews throughout history were forced to hide their beliefs, rituals, and practices for fear of being killed. I learned this on the days that I wasn’t taken out of class to sing jingles on TV for Toys ’R’ Us or My Buddy (the “butch” doll for boys.) I was the only yeshiva boy in show business. I did my own share of hiding during this time by taking off my yarmulke and tucking in my tzitzit while I sang backup for Diana Ross when she needed a children’s choir. While I was considered “too ethnic” to be on camera, off camera I was a huge success. I particularly enjoyed doing girls’ voices for the cartoon series Jem and the Holograms and for Cabbage Patch Kids-you could dial me up on the Cabbage Patch Kid talking telephone and hear me say,“Hi, I’m Sybil Sadie, want to come play with me?” Playing girls’ voices was not something I wanted to brag about in gym class, though, so the hiding continued in grade school as well.
By age 12 I recorded my first demo, and by 14 I had started writing my own songs, inspired by the popular music of the day One of the first songs I wrote was called "Experienced Girl" about my older girlfriend Dahlia, who more recently asked me to sing my song "Bashert/Meant to Be" at her Orthodox Jewish lesbian wedding. As now made famous by a Logo promo spot and the VH1 My Coolest Years special, I came out to my family in an 18-page letter that I read to them the year after I left yeshiva high school. In college I quickly became a politicized gay man studying queer theory at New York University and Yale. At this point I knew that if I was to continue to write and sing, I was going to be the kind of artist I never saw growing up-an out and proud pop singer, singing about living as a gay man.
When I came out with my first album in 2000, there was no other openly gay R&B or pop singer who was out from the beginning of his career like I was. Certainly no one else was singing about being gay. With the help of a publicist friend I got myself on the cover of every gay rag. I tried to see if any of the mainstream record labels were interested in the album, but they wouldn’t touch it. When I played "Write Me a Love Song," which included male pronouns in the lyrics, one exec said, "I won’t even go there." Ironically, the exec was a gay man.
The album received positive attention from the gay media and music industry trade papers, and it garnered the attention of a very well-known music producer. As he was out himself, I thought this producer would embrace my gayness-but he wanted me to go back in the closet and come out later, something I felt would be disrespectful to all those great artists who came out in the ’90s. When I played him my song “He’s On My Team” about the time my friend Kendra and I were fighting over the same man, he asked me, “Why would you waste your time writing about this?” In the same breath he told me to write from a place of truth.
I refused to take his advice, and in 2004 I came out with my sophomore album, Space Under Sun, on my own label, Gold18 Records. This album proved to be even more successful than the first, selling enough copies to be considered a success for an independent artist. I toured the world, put out a coffee-table book and remix CD distributed in 25 countries, got heavy play of my video “Wave of You” on Logo, and bumped Madonna out of the number 1 spot with my second video, “Love Will Take Over.” I became the first out artist to debut on their video charts, and I proved that there was in fact a market for an artist like myself.. And for a few years, I stopped going to any label meetings, figuring I would have a great career as the gay male pop version of Ani DiFranco.
Now it’s almost 2007. Gay people are finally starting to show up in music like they’ve been showing up in film and television for years. The music industry is taking notice, and we are seeing the birth of new gay record labels. I figured I should at least meet with some of these labels and see what opportunities I might have to expand my audience with a bigger company behind me.
At the first gay label meeting, the record exec said to me that he thought I didn’t need a label since I was already doing everything on my own. He told me about all the resources for marketing and promotion his label provides, while I told him that I hadn’t been able to do half those things because I’d never had the budget. I pointed out that a label marketing gay artists would be a great place for me, and that if I had done all this on my own, just think how much more could be done with a bigger team. His response was, “Just because an artist is gay doesn’t mean we are going to sign them.” Guess it wasn’t bashert.
At the next meeting, with another gay label, the exec told me that while I was “a pioneer” and I should be “really proud” of myself, he thought I was too niche for their label. Too niche for a gay label? Kind of ironic, since I had just been told by an indie label that my music was too mainstream for their indie sensibilities. So...how could this be? Too niche for the gays, and too mainstream for the straights? The execs at this label told me they would rather have an artist that “just happens to be gay” or was “willing to say they are gay” than one who emphasizes his sexuality to the press and in the content of his music.
So the gay labels didn’t sign the gay pop star. Big deal, right? I’m still fabulous! But with these experiences come larger questions. What’s the point of having a gay record label if the gayness of the artists needs to be downplayed? Isn’t that what straight record labels are for? With gay people reportedly having $641 billion in disposable income, I figure that I should not have to erase the gay content of my music or soften my sexuality. We have the power to support our own without having to worry about whether we are acceptable to straight audiences. And further, we don’t need to compromise who we are in order to cross-over to the mainstream. Samantha on Sex and the City said it best: “First the gays, then the girls, and then the world.”
Or maybe some of us feel as though it easier for us to accept ourselves when we don’t emphasize our gayness too much. Lately gay celebs have been prone to saying things to the press like, “My gayness is the least interesting thing about me.” The few gay musicians that are actually out say, “We don’t like to use male pronouns ’cause we don’t want to alienate our straight audience,” or, “We are artists-not gay artists.”
Labels don’t have to define us. They simply describe us-they shouldn’t confine us. I for one am proud to be known as a gay artist when too many artists on the music scene don’t want to be. I’m done with hiding and done with shame in any form. As long as my friends are being beaten on the streets, as long as there are still kids killing themselves because of shame, and as long as we are still fighting for our basic civil rights, I will continue to shout from the queer rooftops. Aren’t we ready to express the fullness of who we are and what it means to be gay in all of our sexuality and complexity? The personal is political. And in art, it is the specificity of our experience that is universal.
Is being gay all of who I am? Of course not. But at this particular moment, while our rights are still being contested and while we are still learning to accept ourselves, I will continue to emphasize that part of me... even if it means having to do it on my own.