Is the Music Industry Purging Its Record of Homophobia?

Awards shows are inherently ersatz, and winners’ invocations of sociopolitical causes are often so inflated with self-importance that the underlying message is lost.

Music award shows in particular have often reflected the medium’s halfway measures on gay rights. From glam to disco, New Wave to “Vogue,” pop music has borrowed from the aesthetics of gay culture for decades without necessarily embracing the social responsibility that ought to have come with it. Still, the Grammys have served as a gauge for measuring changes, which are erratic but seem to be progressing.

When music awards shows have addressed gay rights in the past, the results were often more sound than fury. In 2001, Eminem attempted to defuse criticism of his homophobic lyrics by performing “Stan” at the kudocast alongside Elton John (who had already served as an ambassador for reconciliation a decade earlier, when he performed with embattled Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose). Madonna and Britney Spears caused a tabloid sensation with their Sapphic liplock at the 2003 MTV VMAs, though any intended pro-equality message seemed purely coincidental.

But it’s hard not to see a sea-change occurring. Even genres driven by displays of outsized masculinity — heavy metal and hip-hop — have largely purged homophobia. Metal had a crisis of conscience after the coming-out of Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford, while rappers like Kanye West and Drake have worked to forge a more enlightened image for hip-hop.

In 2013, R&B wunderkind Frank Ocean quietly broke ground at the Grammys by performing “Forrest Gump,” his ode to a male lover, but then spent his time at the podium goofing off with Jay Z.

Last year, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis performed their pro-equality song “Same Love” accompanied by a mass wedding — 34 couples of varying orientations — officiated by a newly deputized Queen Latifah, and presided over by Madonna. But the gesture’s good intentions were dwarfed by the theatricality of the stunt.

And at this year’s Grammys, British neo-soul singer Sam Smith was a triple winner. Aside from nabbing trophies for new artist and song of the year, he won for record of the year, with an unusual dedication in his acceptance speech. “I want to thank the man who this record is about, who I fell in love with last year,” he said. “Thank you so much for breaking my heart, because you got me four Grammys.”

The line drew a great deal of applause. And not as a grand pro-equality statement, but simply for being a sick burn.

Perhaps the biggest political statement here was the lack of a statement. The singer-songwriter had quietly became the first openly gay artist to win the record of the year — and he treated the milestone so nonchalantly that few noticed. Smith broke new ground by treating his sexuality as the new normal.

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