If you’re gay, I’m gonna need you to go ahead and just be gay without all the equivocation and pretending and nonsense. I know, I know, it’s easy to say “come out already” when I’m hetero and I don’t really understand what it’s like to be ashamed of my feelings, or my life and everything in the world tells me that I’m wrong for being the way that I am. Except for the fact that I know EXACTLY what you’re going through because the closet of #mentalillness is still quite large and quite full of folks sitting at work wondering if they can sneak out to that weekly therapy appointment without anyone finding out. But this isn’t really about my issues, I’m writing this week about how I want public figures to proclaim their homosexuality and stop faking the funk like folks can’t see the truth. In particular, I’m talking about one of my favorite performers of all time, Maxwell.
Before you start sending me hate mail realize that I am a HUGE Maxwell fan. In fact, I’m listening to his oeuvre on my iPod as I write this, not just for inspiration, but because I love having his voice in my ears. The man can SANG, unlike the Drakes and the Trey Songzes of the world trying to pass off that trash as male R&B. But back to Maxwell, who I used to want to be my future baby daddy until I realized he’s probably in a relationship with a dude as gorgeous and talented as he is. I’m not trying to insult the brother by saying that I think he’s gay; I just want him and his fine self to be happy. And when I saw him this last time in concert he was not a happy man. Let me tell you how I know.
This falsetto for hire: he had me at “ooohhh…”
Long ago in a galaxy far, far away known as the 1990’s, Maxwell arrived on the scene like the second coming of Al Green and Sam Cooke in a pretty brown wrapper with a curly Afro and dimples. When you’re blessed with that kind of voice and those looks, there’s little else for you to do but croon your heart out and wait for the sisters to sop it up with a biscuit. Enter “Urban Hang Suite”, which the artist told the world described the journey of a love affair with his fantasy woman. #Swoon.
Having always loved a true male R&B singer, I saw Maxwell in concert at Radio City Music Hall and I may have drooled the entire time. Not only was he just beautiful to look at, and to listen to, but he looked supremely comfortable onstage amidst the velvet couches and slinky backup singers. He rocked the sweet falsetto and the sexy, raspy lower register with equal aplomb. He did his now-signature cover of Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work,” long a favorite, and I literally cried. He also covered Nine Inch Nails’s “Closer” (that’s right, the “fuck you like an animal” song) with a tambourine and a quasi-gospel feel and I nearly fell out of my seat. If you saw that show, and you went to the concert on a date, you definitely got some that night. Maybe you even fantasized that your man was Maxwell. Either way, you had a good time.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago when, after 3 albums, a label dispute and a long hiatus from the industry, Maxwell returned to New York City and I had a ticket in my hot-and-bothered little hand. I’d been talking about the man’s live show since 1996, the ambiance, the versatility, the quality of the performance. You should know that I’m a music snob and I’d pay good money to see in only a handful of artists in person. Not everyone can sing live, Taylor Swift, and not everyone can hold my attention for more than 2 songs in a row. But I was sure that Maxwell would deliver a great concert experience in spades. I wasn’t wrong, exactly.
Putting the “MAN” in “romance”
When Maxwell came onstage, something wasn’t quite as I expected. First, the sound was a little off in the arena and I couldn’t really hear his voice like I wanted to. If you paid attention, you could tell he wasn’t happy with something and he kept taking out his earwig and talking to the musical director. If you were too busy looking at his heiney in them sharkskin pants, you probably missed it. Eventually they fixed the levels but the high register never really came out over the speakers. When you could hear Maxwell his voice sounded good, but you couldn’t hear a lot of it. Maybe he was annoyed and that’s what I noticed as being different.
Next, he was a little flaming, not exactly prancing around, but more effete than I’d seen him before. Not quite Freddie Mercury, but noticeable to me and my gay-dar. Now, I don’t go around branding all non-thug men of a certain style as homosexual just because they’re not grabbing their crotch 24/7. I know enough gay people to know they come in all shapes, sizes and ranges of personal habits, and the stereotype of the fastidious, slightly swishy gay man is limiting and insulting to men and women alike. Still, if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it’s a good chance it fucks like a duck. Look, I don’t really care who Maxwell sleeps with so long as he keeps singing and works the funky jazz ensemble into his band. But I’m not the typical fan.
Why male perfomers kinda have to be straight, or at least straight-acting
If you stood outside the Garden before the show, you would have seen hundreds of typical Maxwell fans: women who clearly expected him to spot them from the stage, and propose marriage or at least a post-show quickie. Groups of sisters with hair did, nails did, sporting new outfits complete with uncomfortable shoes. That level of preening was designed to extend some fantasy that the artist is singing romantic words and sexy phrases directly to them. I do understand that music-industry stardom is predicated on some level of physical attraction, and I can fantasize with the best of them, but I’m really gonna need some of these women to get a life, especially if they were buying the most egregious pretense of heterosexuality I witnessed from Maxwell, in which he sang an interlude to women’s private parts and referred to them as all manner of seafood. Yes, he did. No, it was not cute. I can accept wearing the cloak of heterosexuality to keep your fan base happy. Luther Vandross did it for years, though we knew exactly what he meant when he sat on Oprah’s couch and talked about “the person” he was in love with. But fun with pronouns is less egregious than totally missing the mark with a cunnilingus reference. I don’t know why Maxwell even had to go there.
Actually, I do know why – he has to be straight so women who find him attractive will buy his records and attend his concerts. And the sexuality has to be so overt as to make an arena full of sane woman scream wantonly at some man proclaiming himself a “sushi eater”. *face palms* No hetero man in the world would use those words, so I’m convinced that whole part of the concert was cooked up by record company executives to distract the audience from the gay-boy flounce. As were the pairs of panties that magically flew through the air, which Maxwell daintily put in his pocket. Then there was a woman who tried to kiss him and, even though he had to hug her to keep the fantasy alive, it was more like a pat on the back than a passionate embrace. Not that I like strangers trying to put their mouths on my face, but the look on his face during the whole interlude was all about, “um, no THANK you.”
“I feel just like a weight has lifted” – Maxwell, Fistful of Tears
Of course, throngs of women all caught up in the magic of straight smoke-and-mirrors also didn’t see what I really saw from Maxwell that night: someone who is just going through the motions but not really feeling it. Sure he hit all his marks and covered the stage like a good performer should, but the movements were highly contrived and choreographed. This was not the Maxwell from years ago, freely striking his hip with a tambourine, but rather someone wearing and saying and doing what he’s SUPPOSED to do to make the women scream like they’re supposed to so he can get his paycheck. Mission accomplished, even though he looked a little hemmed up the whole time like he was trying to break free from something and couldn’t quite get it to happen.
Then, during “Fistful of Tears”, one of the best (an non-romantic) tracks on BLACKsummer’snight, Maxwell broke it down for the audience the way a singer sometimes does when they’re having a moment. He brought down the fourth wall and talked about being proud and overwhelmed by his success, and happy to be welcomed back to his hometown of New York City. Woo hoo! (The home crowd loves humility.) He also talked about growing up poor in Brooklyn and never imagining he’d get to perform at Madison Square Garden. More cheers! Then he made mention to having felt such despair that he wanted to end his life. Yay…um, wait, what?
*scratching record sound*
That’s the moment when I knew, REALLY knew, that I was seeing a performance not just of Maxwell‘s music, but of his life. Some artists wear their hearts on their sleeves, or in their lyrics, and if you really pay attention you can see what’s going on with them. Such is the case with Maxwell’s touring mate, Jill Scott, who talks about divorce, kids, record company bullshit in between songs. You could feel the lightness in her confessions, and the sister actually cries onstage. But you can’t be that transparent if you’re gay and watching thousands of women scream about how much they love you. Or if your new label has packaged you up like Marvin Gaye and expects you to put some sexual healing on the female record-buying public. When you’re looking at how to reconcile your public image with who you really want to be and it doesn’t make immediate sense, the struggle could send you off the deep end. And I wouldn’t want that to happen to an artist as talented, versatile and seemingly genuine as Maxwell.
So, if you’re reading this, at least know that I’d still love you if you came out. And the gay mafia would make a run on your catalog on iTunes.