As he tries to conquer America, Beirut, Lebanon-born, British-raised singer-songwriter Mika is forcing people to consider whether American audiences are likely to accept an openly gay pop star. (Audiofile featured his "Grace Kelly" as a Song of the Day a few weeks back.) Currently touring behind his just-released in America/already huge in England debut album, "Life in Cartoon Motion" (accurately described on his MySpace page as sounding like "Beck via Queen and Elton John and a touch of Rufus W."), the 23-year-old Mika has been lighting up the blogosphere with discussion about his sexual status and earning the love from high-profile fans like Perez Hilton. Furthermore, in a recent interview on the ThisIsLondon Web site, Mika revealed that he has received death threats for not confirming his sexuality. As to why he's not interested in clarifying what people want to know, Mika says, "I never talk about anything to do with my sexuality, I don't think I need to." Frankly, given Mika's stated influences, his Freddie Mercury fixation and the lyrics to some of his songs -- "Oh Billy Brown had lived an ordinary life/ Two kids, a dog, and a cautionary wife/ While it was all going according to plan/ Then Billy Brown fell in love with another man" -- I don't think he needs to explain anything either.
The effect that coming out could have on Mika's burgeoning stateside popularity gets at a couple of interesting issues. Foremost among them is the old saw that American audiences are unwilling to accept a certain level of campy theatricality in their pop stars. A recent cover story in the Village Voice about the inability of the out disco-pop band the Scissor Sisters to translate their massive worldwide success to their native USA hit at much of the same stuff swirling around Mika. In the piece, Tricia Romano writes: "The 'Can they break America?' question won't go away. They might be too dance-y to get radio play, or maybe they're too campy. But these are just code words for 'too gay.' Homophobia is the last refuge of accepted blatant prejudice in a country that has laws banning gay marriages."
American audiences' unwillingness to accept "campy" pop stars has been pointed to as a reason for the failure of English exports like glam rock in the '70s, Robbie Williams (not gay but still super-campy) in the late '90s and the Scissor Sisters more recently. I've seen people explain that embracing the artifice that goes along with a camp sensibility is at odds with some sort of American preference for authenticity. Hogwash. The truth is that American audiences love camp with their pop.
Kiss is maybe the campiest band that has ever existed. Prince masturbated his guitar at the end of "Purple Rain." Axl Rose had a fondness for skin-tight cycling shorts and incredibly overblown video epics. But those acts were all straight? Well, as much as it pains us to remember, the Village People were once big stars, Boy George and Culture Club had no problems scoring U.S. hits, and it seems to me that Elton John has managed to do OK since he came out. The remaining members of Queen were even able to play sold-out arena concerts last year with a show that was essentially a tribute to the memory of Freddie Mercury. Now I'm not sure at what point in their careers the aforementioned acts came out, but you'd have to have been particularly blindered if you were surprised when you heard the news. How much truck should we give to the idea that a musician like Mika would suffer irreparable career damage if he came out? I hope Mika continues his ascent and feels comfortable enough to come out (if, that is, he's even gay), if only because I think it'll be instructive to see the response to a pop star who comes out while on his way up. I'm optimistic.
-- David Marchese