It’s no secret that gay men have a special relationship with female singers, in particular pop singers. Even the most butch homosexuals, the ones who claim they are not into musicals and pop-culture have a female singer to whom they turn in times of trouble; if they say no, they’re lying. The relationship between gay men and celebrities have been theorized and discussed by many queer theorists but ultimately it can be brought down to the basic fact that female pop-singers – aside from being shiny, sexy, and glamorous – sing about love, or in particular the hardships of loving. Denied the right or the chance to experience love “properly”, to built healthy relationships outside of public washrooms, parks or bathhouses gay men identified with the hurt that fills the songs of Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Gloria Gaynor, Patsy Cline, Janice Joplin, Chaka Khan, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Dusty Springfield. This list of course does not include the more recent breed of pop-singers making this it almost impossible to complete. In the way only gay men can we’ve queered these songs either by empathizing with the singer’s pain or simply bysubstituting their “I” for ours. In such a way Mary J. Blige’s “I Can Love You” becomes a perfect vehicle to express the pain and frustration of loving a man on the down low.
The generation of gay men growing up in the 90s witnessed the rise of R’n’B in mainstream culture. Produced by the musical genius of the decade, the man who could make no mistake- Babyface – Whitney, Mariah, Toni, Brandy, Mary and TLC lead us through the pain, the heartbreak, and the libido of a black American woman. With strong, deep voices full of pain and strenght, accusation and resilience and desire they taught us, their gay followers, that we too will survive, we ain’t gonna cry. But of course, secretly we all did.
Despite, the liberating melodrama of these songs no gay singer touches them, leaving them to that feminized sphere of drag queens. That is until now. Vivek Shraya’s Breathe Again: A Tribute to Babyface, is just what the title says it is. Shraya takes the most iconic of Babyface’s songs and completely reworks them. In his studio Brandy’s “Sittin Up in My Room” (featuring MC Jazz) turns into a bouncy and dancy diary entry about wanting that one special boy while Toni Braxton’s fear of losing her love is accompanied only by a powerful, heart-like beat. Mary J. Blige’s “Not Gonna Cry” gets an acoustic guitar make-over making it actually more heart-wrenching than the original for Mary’s voice carried a resistance and accusation (rightfully so) that Shraya doesn’t offer the song. Madonna’s “Take a Bow” acquires a horn, a heavy drum, and occasional bells turning it into a processional hymn; it’s a dark remake that still manages to sound sexy. But the one thing maintaining that quintessential Babyface quality is Shraya’s soft, sad and sweet voice. Shraya gives a radical make-over to all the songs on the album but still keeps the female-narrative voice in tact. And so, we always know that this boy is singing about love for a boy. For his cover of TLC’s sexually-charged “Red Light Special” Shraya’s falsetto proclaims “I’m a woman”, and it’s liberating.
Yes, yes, we all are men, we love being men, but sometimes it just feels so good to be a woman. And, in Whitney’s “Queen of the Night”, the queen becomes the Queen!
Breathe Again, is available as a free download through here. Get it, listen to it and embrace your diva!