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Supercool Wainright appeals to straights and gays.

Glad to be Wainwright

Musician can't keep a straight face

By Gina Arnold

IT'S HARD TO BELIEVE, now that nerds and punk rockers rule the planet, but "faggot" used to be the standard epithet hurled by jocks at anyone who wore glasses or dressed slightly differently than they did. And it was the word most rednecks used to describe people in rock bands as well. Maybe it was the silver lamé pants, the satin scarves, the eyeliner or the poofy hairdos, but something about rock and homosexuality seemed to go hand in hand in the minds of those who found its beat dangerous, sexy or liberating. And "homosexual" was then considered a pejorative to such people.

Ah, but that was then, and this is now. Nowadays, being called a faggot is practically a compliment--at least in the world of MTV, where even butch rock stars like Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20 assume a look that has its feminine aspects (earrings, eye makeup and so on). And in the real world? A professor at Bard University recently informed me that the modern college campus is pretty much run by homosexual students, whose sexual identity has provided them with a direct route to popularity and empowerment.

That may sound farfetched, but Rufus Wainwright, who plays the Fillmore March 9-10, is the poster boy for that kind of thinking: a supercool, supergay, popular and empowered singer/songwriter whose work appeals as much to straight folk as to gay ones. The son of folk singers Loudon Wainwright and Kate McGarrigle, the 27-year-old Wainwright performs cabaret-style rock songs while seated at a grand piano. His songs are not particularly homosexual in nature: "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk," for example, from his latest album, Poses, is simply about vices in general. Other songs are about California, Paris and, as Wainwright himself put it to me in a recent phone conversation, "the sexless heart."

But despite his music's lack of campiness, Wainwright himself has always been unabashedly out. He admits that when he first got signed some people in the music industry suggested he try to keep it a secret. But he says laughingly, "I'm just a terrible liar. I wouldn't be able to keep a straight face--literally!--about it. Besides, it would take so much energy out of your life, trying to hide something like that."

Wainwright's attitude, though sensible, is a fairly new one in rock--or at least, a revival of sorts. In the 1970s, many rock stars owned up to being, at the very least, bisexual. Then disco unearthed a huge streak of homophobia in America. And after AIDS came along, associating with gay artists or admitting to being gay became even more taboo. Since 1984, few artists have been willing to risk the consequences--or perceived consequences--of admitting they're gay.

Wainwright is an exception and, one can but hope, the beginning of a trend. "I don't mind being called a gay artist at all," he says. "In fact, I love it. I'd love to be like Oscar Wilde, and known for that. But that doesn't mean I want an entirely gay audience. I hope [my music] will help the gay community realize there is diversity in rock music; that there really is no such thing as 'gay' music. I mean, not all gay people are the same or dress the same or have the same ideals, either."

So is there such a thing as gay music? "I don't like to think of music in those terms," Wainwright says. "I mean, I like show tunes and stuff, but I don't think every gay person needs to love Barbra Streisand or whatever. But I do think there is an element to certain musics--to Cole Porter, to Queen, to Tchaikovsky ... even to Morrissey and Michael Stipe. There's this certain sound of resigned longing, a sort of bitter pill they have to swallow ... that I can hear in their music and relate to. I don't know if straight people hear it. Maybe it's like a secret code."

If so, it's a code that more and more people are less and less concerned about cracking, which in itself is a tribute to the power of rock. Without the gay element, it would be a much poorer and less colorful art form.

Rufus Wainwright performs Friday-Saturday (March 8 and 9) at 8pm at the Fillmore, 1805 Geary, San Francisco. Tickets are $25. (Ticketmaster, 408.998.TIXS)

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From the March 7-13, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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