Gay songwriters write for both gay and straight audiences, but they may not be delivering them the same message.
Melissa Etheridge is the most obvious example of a famous “out” artist who hid for years behind lyrics that spoke metaphorically to gays and straights with equally powerful, though subtly different meanings.
Here are some lyric excerpts from one song, “Bring Me Some Water,” written well before the artist came out fully to mainstream America. The words work on different levels: whether you’re a man or woman being cheated on, the effect is still the same: devastation. I can remember my straight friend, a man, and I rocking to the tune. I was dreaming of women. He was dreaming about me. That couldn’t last, of course, and neither can water evaporating in the heat, failing to douse the harsh flames ignited, metaphorically, by a cheating heart.
I know you’re only human…
tonight while I’m making excuses
some woman is making love to you
Somebody bring me some water
Can’t you see I’m burning alive
Can’t you see my baby’s got another lover
And I don’t know how I’m gonna survive
Etheridge’s lyrics today are weaker than those early tunes. Take “Skin,” for instance, an album from 2001 whose similes and metaphors are stuck in trite images: water changing into wine, walls and prisons and an uncomfortable yearning to hatch from “skin painfully new.” The theme is about failed love and trying again. Maybe it’s just a symptom of where Etheridge ended up emotionally after a hard, public breakup with Julie Cypher. The writing isn’t lazy as much as it is superficially felt. Not that Etheridge faked her feelings, just that they aren’t as raw or expressive.
In gaining openness and ground as an out lesbian in recent years, Etheridge has not had to hide behind her words, but those words have lost their edge precisely because she is no longer commanding unique, strong metaphors that work at relaying multiple meanings. Of course, the woman still rocks. But words matter to songwriters at least as much as the melody, and words that work as metaphor ramp up the relevance and reach listeners at their core.