Toni Oisin H.C. (QSO)
"I Would Have Been Brave": Living Vicariously Through Gay Love Songs
How Bloc Party, R.E.M, and Car Seat Headrest gave me a voice when I didn't have one
I came out ‘properly’ as trans (and by extension, a gay man) this year. I had spent a lot of time hokey-cokeying in-and-out of the closet in the years running up to it, like Mike Wazowski trying to fill up a scream canister. I often found myself needing an outlet - either consciously or subconsciously - for my identity, and with the gift of hindsight I think I used music as this outlet a huge amount. Sometimes this was in the form of character/fan mixes (I have a whole article about this filed away somewhere from before I came out that I was too chickenshit to publish at the time), or in the form of projecting myself onto stories that didn’t quite fit.
For the most part, I think I found my voice through the words of others – men – who I identified as being like myself. When I was charging through confusingly quasi-heterosexual teenaged romances with boys who either didn’t understand who I was, or chose not to understand who I was because it was easier, I would mythologise my feelings through the canon of gay, bisexual, or otherwise queer men’s song writing to feel less alone. I am so grateful I could engage with these people’s stories throughout otherwise often isolating or lonely experiences.
I love Bloc Party. I have for a long time – I remember hearing them as a kid, on music TV, on the radio, and undoubtedly on FIFA (as I have been informed by many boys at house parties). When I was around 14, I consciously started listening to them. I’m not sure what the moment was that I became a ‘proper’ fan of them, but I remember grabbing their CDs in charity shops and, bizarrely, Poundland and burning them onto my phone to listen to on basically every car journey. Sometime around then I learnt that Kele Okereke, Bloc Party’s vocalist, lyricist, and guitarist, is gay.
Very quickly, I started projecting onto Okereke’s beautiful stories of love and anguish throughout his young manhood. A Weekend in the City, although not necessarily my favourite Bloc Party album, proved to be a particular treat to my tiny self thanks to the tender single I Still Remember. In case you aren’t familiar, I Still Remember follows the story of two young boys who were in love, but never overtly acted romantically towards one another – at least not in terms of traditional physical affection. The longing in Okereke’s voice, the regret of not advancing his relationship with this boy in the way he would’ve liked to, the sweetness of the almost-romance that formed throughout the song: I identified myself in these feelings from my longing for gay intimacy that was ‘really’ gay in my eyes, with a full understanding from all parties. I still – oh fuck – I still remember – there it is – I still remember a particular winter commute where I must’ve listened to this song on repeat wishing I could be inside of the song’s pansy-tinted world.
I knew I was a gay boy at this point, in a sense. I knew I was a boy who liked other boys, in some part of my soul. I pushed it down and out-of-sight a lot, but I would try to acknowledge it, and try to express it, before I thought it was too much for myself and others to bare, and I would reframe it as something else. It was hard, and it was lonely. I’m really glad I’m not in that place anymore. I’m also very glad I had music to vent these emotions somehow. Someone I interviewed talked to me extensively about using music as emotional ventilation once, and I could instantly see how their words connected back to this feeling I had experienced for years.
Bloc Party were far from the only band that held this meaning for me. I am basically a walking encyclopaedia for who’s gay, who’s bi, who’s queer, and who has never said anything but has songs with homoerotic subtext so thick you’d have to cut it with a knife now. I just constantly listened to Suede, Car Seat Headrest, Frank Ocean, Placebo, Of Montreal, Bright Eyes, Tyler, The Creator, R.E.M., and so many others. I think I still predominantly listen to LGBTQ+ artists and I don’t think that’s a habit I’m ever going to drop. I hope I don’t ever drop it, anyways.
Sufjan Stevens is an artist that particularly struck this chord with me, as with many other lovesick twinks. A little before I got together with my partner of almost six years(!), I got heavily - *heavily* - into Sufjan (I can’t call him Stevens, it sounds like I’m talking about Shakin’ Stevens). As my partner and I were falling in love with each other, I found Sufjan could express the way I was feeling for him better than I could myself. I feel this is because, in a sense, a great deal of my romantic experiences as a teen were through the lens of being expected to ‘be a girl’, so I didn’t always have the words to express how I was feeling in those experiences where I was really getting to ‘be a boy’. My partner isn’t necessarily the first time this happened, but having musicians such as Sufjan Stevens and Bloc Party whispering in my ear sure did help me to understand and express these feelings in a way I don’t feel that I had previously been entirely capable of. Sufjan was right: he WAS* my best friend, and we WERE* in love.
I also would be betraying myself if I didn’t talk about Car Seat Headrest in this article: I basically lived in a Twin Fantasy hoodie all the way throughout college, and I have the lyrics to Kimochi Warui indelibly plastered on my bicep. I remember my partner (the same one from ^there^) contacting me and insisting I listened to Car Seat. At first, I heard Vincent and Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales, and I just texted them back like “that was okay”. That was it. Then they told me I had listened to the wrong album: I needed to listen to Twin Fantasy. So I did. Then I listened to it again. Then I listened to it again. Then I lay down on my hot bedroom floor and listened to it again, staring at the ceiling, in total silence the whole time. I suddenly felt so seen: here was this album, all about queer love and torment and being closeted and loving someone who was far away. Something in my brain really just clicked that day.
(It was Brexit Referendum day when I did this. I don’t know why I remember that. It does undercut the romance of the scene somewhat.)
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found other outlets for my ~gay reality~, alongside finding an incredible volume of other amazing LGBTQ+ artists that I either didn’t listen to as a teenager, or weren’t even creating music back then. It’s great being able to move past only knowing how to express yourself by contorting your feelings and reality to fit other people’s stories. Sometimes now I even make my own garbage gay ass music – really walking the walk when it comes to expressing my own gay ass feelings! However, without being able to project myself onto this litany of men-loving-men songs, I’m not sure I ever would’ve reached this point. I at least know I definitely wouldn’t have reached this point in the same way.
Listen to a playlist approximating the kind of shit I was listening to as a closeted teen here:
Toni Oisin H.C. is the Head of Audio at QSO Media. Read more of his writing here.
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