All my icons are dead. Well, that not quite true. But most of them are. And they died much to soon, in their 40s and 50s.
On June 25, 2009, I was working on final edits to my dissertation when I heard the news that Michael Jackson had died. I immediately broke into tears and called my friends to come pick me up because I did not want o be alone. I was in a state of shock. Growing up, MJ meant everything to me. He still does. “Thriller” was one of the first albums I ever bought. And I practically wore it out. I remember a white female in my class consistently dressing up as Michael Jackson and playing his music on the bus on a portable tape recorder. While I see this as horribly insensitive now [cultural appropriation], it showed how much he was loved by young people in the early to mid 1980s.
Next was Whitney Houston, which was yet another mind-blowing tragedy. If MJ was the king of pop, Whitney was “the voice.” I remember singing along to her songs so often and it being part of my queer development as a youth. She was a diva like no other and I just adored her diverishness. I want to be a queen diva like her. She was beautiful and fierce and ultra talented. A talent ordained directly by God. Her voice has carried me through many a trouble and I am thankful for the music she has left behind, but said it ended far too soon. The fact that her daughter died not long after her is another tragedy of epic proportions. I only hope they can be together now in peace and serenity. “I didn’t Know My Own Strength” as performed on Oprah is my go to picker-upper.
Next came Prince, the beautiful one and the purple one. What a gift he had and how wonderful his androgyny was. He also meant a lot to me growing up, especially the album and movie Purple Rain. I remember when music videos used to be shown on regular TV and I especially liked his video “When Doves Cry.” I got goosebumps when I heard he had passed because I knew that another legend had left this realm behind. and far too soon. I would have liked to see him making music into his 80s.
Finally, last Christmas George Michael died. I will never forget when I first saw George Michael sashaying down the runway in bright dayglow short shorts for his video “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go.” Later, his work became even more explicitly sexy and queer. While he was loathe to come out of the closet, he finally did and brought camp and fun to a thoroughly queer aesthetic. His voice was angelic and he lifts me up like few other musical artists can. He, too, was a musical genius, just like MJ, Whitney and Prince.
All of these icons were queer to me, whether because of their androgyny, their lyrical content or their diva qualities. I am heartbroken that they are gone but thankful that their musical gifts persist. I will never forget the mother of Notorious B.I.G. saying how much comfort she felt when she was on the street and suddenly heard her son’s voice come on when a song from a radio or whatever came on or car playing his music passed by. The voices live on, the music lives and the legend lives on.
I’ve cried about my icons that are gone. I include non-musicians in this as well like Leslie Feinberg, Audre Lorde and Harvey Milk. All we can do as the living is try to carry on the work that they were trying to do in the world. This is a responsibility but also an exhilarating possibility. Their music, spoken words or written words can make me filled with fire, the fire to be fierce and fight tooth and nail for a better world. They can remind to fight the fuck back. They can remind me to dance to get out the rage and let the beat overtake me. I love my icons and am glad to have many more. I salute them all.