‘A lot of queer people missed a decade’ – Why the musical acts at Pride are rooted in nostalgia

LGBT+ people enjoy watching bands like Kylie and All Saints, writes Sophie Wilkinson, because we could never properly enjoy them in public the first time around

Saturday 06 July 2019 12:00
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Melanie C performing at New York City Pride last month
Melanie C performing at New York City Pride last month

OK, we’re going to do one of our new ones,” Melanie Blatt from All Saints told the brightly-dressed crowd at the Mighty Hoopla festival in south London last month. Most of the crowd cheered. Some booed.

Because this crowd, predominantly LGBT+ people and their be-glittered allies, was here for the old stuff. You can see it throughout Pride bookings this year. At Pride In London’s main stage this weekend, Sinitta will, once again, trot out “So Macho” (even though the guy who wrote it is now a preacher with what many would describe as homophobic views). Next month, at Brighton Pride In the Park festival, Björn Again, Kylie Minogue and house pioneer Marshall Jefferson will play. Closing the summer at Manchester Pride, acts include Bananarama, Freemasons and Tulisa. And at New York’s World Pride last weekend, Madonna, Cyndi Lauper and Grace Jones were the big-hitters.

Nostalgia has long appealed to gig-going demographics, especially those old and established enough to have the cash needed to stump up the £80+ ticket charge commanded by legacy acts like The Rolling Stones, Madonna and Elton John. But Pride festivals are far younger affairs, with the majority of attendees in their twenties, thirties and early forties. And yet, we still listen to the old stuff.

Every Pride month, and especially this one, 50 years on from the Stonewall Inn uprising, we look back into our past for inspiration. But we also listen back. Why might that be?

Glyn Fussell, who co-founded and organises Mighty Hoopla, and is just back from World Pride touring with Mel C, explains: “Nostalgia brings everyone together through a childlike freedom, taking people back to a time where we weren’t bogged down by all these labels and social constructs and careers and all that crap. It makes people feel youthful, silly, free again.”

Melanie Blatt performs in 2018

Indeed, life in the big cities can be stressful. And the LGBT+ community knows this well. Cities are generally considered more queer-friendly than the alternative, despite a general uptick in hate crime reports against LGBT+ p­eople across the UK. Cities have the gay bars, more liberal-minded progressive sorts and a hustle-bustle that helps diffuse our differences. However, with exorbitant property prices, a competitive job market in which we’re paid less than our straight cohorts and the compulsion to prove ourselves outside of the traditional rubric of “2.4 families”, LGBT+ people have a lot of work to do. Quite literally. Letting off steam is vital. And, Fussell explains, we never got to do this properly the first time around: “A lot of us queer people missed a decade, we skipped it because we were living internally when everyone else was out there externally exploring their identity.”

Any LGBT+ person aged 20 to 45 will have lived under Section 28 or its shadow. The law banned local authorities from promoting homosexuality, and this intolerance seeped out into culture. Queerness was regarded as a lifestyle choice for certain grown-ups, rather than an integral part of people’s lives that, if hidden, could truly stall the way so many children grew up. Ostracised from our straight peers around the time we discovered ourselves, we never felt comfortable at those under-18 discos, or at gigs, or even, sometimes, at school. Listening and dancing and singing along to the songs we could never properly enjoy in public the first time around, for fear of being too camp or too butch and outing ourselves, is a relief and joy. It helps, too, Fussell says, that “that kind of nostalgic pop is euphoric and celebratory”. That’s why at Mighty Hoopla, you’ll hear everything from the grunge of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to the pop of Jamelia’s “Superstar”. It’s not about the music, per se, it’s about the emotion that music brings, and the freedom to feel that emotion.

That said, LGBT+ festivals and Pride events do tend to have a type: women. Last year, 45 major events declared that they will only manage a 50:50 gender split on their line-ups by 2025. Yet Pride events are brimming with women.

This all goes back to those days sequestered in our bedrooms, enjoying culture from within our closet, Fussell says: “We were listening to music and watching MTV and looking at these amazing queens singing to us, and then to see them as flawed human characters that are usually misunderstood, that speaks to us as well. There’s a loyalty there, and it goes both ways – a lot of them are loyal to their fans.”

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This has been a trope for decades, with Judy Garland, Dorothy Parker and Dusty Springfield (who was herself queer) being popular amongst LGBT+ people – particularly gay men – well before Madonna, Lady Gaga and Beyoncé turned up. But thanks to the internet, LGBT+ people have been able to maintain an interest in gay icons long after they’ve fallen out of mainstream consciousness.

With Tulisa or Cheryl or Samantha Mumba in the palm of our hands, via Instagram, every day, we maintain an interaction with these many flawed women. And, Fussell adds, music from years back “connects people, everyone knows the words: they sing together, they club together”.

It’s also hugely possible, too, that the legacy acts are still as good as ever, and it’s the LGBT+ community who get to see it firsthand. The new songs that Mel Blatt wanted to play? Not so bad. That Cheryl song? Written by gay icon Nicola Roberts, it’s a banger.

Later, at Mighty Hoopla, Chaka Khan performed the old classics alongside tracks from her 2019 album, including “Like Sugar”, a funk track that sounds so fresh and contemporary it featured on Love Island, the apex of youth culture amongst LGBT+ and straight people alike. Who better to celebrate that iconic timelessness with than the crowd who never left her?

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