(originally published 3/24/11)
A string of suicides by young adults in the last few years has pushed anti-bullying and gay bashing campaigns into the mainstream.
Obama has led the charge. On March 10, MTV announced at the White House Conference on Bullying Prevention that it plans to air a TV-movie based on the story of Abraham Biggs, a 19-year-old student with bipolar disorder who took his own life using anti-depressants on a live webcam while people egged him on in real time. One of the first celebrities to get behind the project, according to the article on MTV.com, was Britney Spears, who tweeted her support.
Obama also contributed a widely circulated YouTube video to the It Gets Better Project, a nonprofit created by columnist Dan Savage (whose column runs in this paper) in 2010, whose website says it has inspired “nearly 10,000 user-created videos” and has racked up “over 30 million views.” It lists prominent figures who’ve contributed videos — politicos Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi, pop stars Adam Lambert and Ke$ha, actors Anne Hathaway and Colin Farrell, many others — and corporate entities — Google, Facebook and Pixar — who’ve helped out in one way or another.
Phil Gentry, a music professor at the University of Delaware, studies anti-bullying efforts as a subset of gay rights activism. Gentry believes music-biz types 10 years ago wouldn’t have jumped on board so quickly. “Artists like Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber: all these pop stars are getting into the one little corner of the activism,” Gentry said over the phone from Delaware. “Lady Gaga has gotten a little further into it. What I’m interested in here is this: How does this kind of work make them more marketable?”
On Sunday, March 27, Gentry’s giving a talk in Middletown at Green Street Arts Center called The Law of Gaga: Queer Citizenship on the Pop Charts in which he’ll analyze hits like Gaga’s “Born This Way,” a song he said gets automatically assigned by a lot of critics as a gay rights anthem (it was recently censored in Malaysia for encouraging public acceptance of homosexuals), alongside songs by Katy Perry and 17-year-old phenom Justin Beiber.
A San Francisco native, Gentry got involved in campus activism and gay rights as a Wesleyan undergrad at the end of the ’90s. He went on to earn a master’s in music history from Brandeis University (where I met him in a graduate seminar) before getting his doctorate at UCLA, whose music department is well known for its embrace of popular music studies.
“I would say Lady Gaga full bore believes in gay rights issues,” Gentry said. “Justin Bieber, I’m not so sure. Of course, with someone like [Bieber], you don’t really know who’s pulling the strings. Gaga, I think, is a little more in charge of her career. Katy Perry is in the middle. She feels very keenly — the video of ‘Fireworks’ she casts as an anti-bullying statement — she realizes that the gay fan base is marketable.”
Being gay-friendly, Gentry said, doesn’t necessarily add significant numbers to an artist’s fan base but works in more subtle ways to boost careers: “It’s not so much that the gay market is large, but rather it makes you more marketable to a youth-oriented, mainstream audience. ‘Glee’ is a big part of this as well.”