Listening to club mixes on Gaydio, I was struck by how often the word ‘free’ came up in the music, as a long, held, emphasised word. While some of this is undoubtedly due to the lure of endless granular stretching of the ‘eee’ sound, this is clearly an idea that resonates still within the gay club scene. For example, in Outrage’s 1996 hit, Tall N Handsome a low-pitched voice first says ‘I’m looking for a good man’ and then sings, ‘He’s got to be tall n handsome. and he’s got to be free.’
But what does it mean for the good man to be ‘free’? While an obvious interpretation would be ‘single’, when this song is played in a long set of club mixes, a more clubby interpretation of ‘free’ is suggested.
Although by 1996, gay men in England, where the song was recorded, had more freedom than previously, they still had much less than straight people. The song itself, however, is not a strident call for freedom or action. Freedom is an individual project – the good man must be free as a pre-requisite for the narrator. Again, the precise meaning of this is not specified, but the onus for attaining this freedom is squarely placed on him. Indeed, the vocal tones of the man-seeker suggest a political safeness. The spoken part sounds theatrical and light, as if they were spoken by a dame in a panto. The speaker says ‘Now, I’m looking for a good man, but not just any man. He’s got to be someone special.’ And then, as far as I can tell from the recording, he says, ‘Someone in like Popye.’ The sung part follows.
The version of this song that I heard twice on Gaydio yesterday, mixed by Paul Morell, removes a lot of the comic ambiguity of the original. The original narrator is replaced by Boy George who sounds more typically like someone speaking over a love song, says, ‘Now, I’m looking for a good man, but not just any man. He’s got to be someone special. Someone who can light my fire.’ Of course, it’s possible that the lyrics are actually the same in both versions, but of the two, the newer one is clearly intended in earnest. The update suggests that some took the original song seriously from the 90s.
The repetition of the good man’s requirements, centres the importance of his freedom – a long held word at the end of the chorus. The good man’s individualised freedom, in a 90s context, may refer to a personal authenticity. A free gay man then was free of the closet – at least some of the time in at least some circumstances. This suggests he does not have a woman in his life acting as a ‘beard’ – he’s not married nor in a sham straight relationship. As to his outness more generally, then, as now, people make choices about how gay they feel they can act in various circumstances. I’m reminded of a shop in San Francisco’s Castro District in the 1990s called ‘Does Your Mother Know?’ Like the original song, this uses humour to get at a truth. Many gay people at that time were not out at work and had not told all or sometimes any members of their birth family. The freedom required was likely not this kind of political freedom – instead the good man was somebody who was liberated in certain circumstances.
I remember stickers and chalked slogans (again in California) from the mid 90s which said variations of ‘free your mind and your booty will follow.’ At the time, I took this to mean that free-thinking would lead broader horizons in one’s physical circumstances, but other interpretations are possible. One’s booty is, of course, one’s arse. This can be used to mean one’s whole, grounded physical self (‘get your ass out of here’), or it can refer more specifically to one’s undercarriage (‘shake your booty’). Another interpretation of the slogan is that a free mind will lead to a sexual freeing. It’s likely that the narrator wants somebody who is tall and handsome and who is not overly sexually inhibited.
However, the word ‘free’ is not unique to this song. Someone at a club would hear it several times in several songs over the course of an evening. The type(s) of freedom and paths to freedom may lead towards sexual openness, but that is a destination, not an origin. Indeed, given the distinct lack of personal freedom most gay men experienced most of the time, they could only be free in safe, gay spaces. Freedom thus comes from the club.
This extremely personal sense of release and liberation – a temporary reprieve from a hostile outside, is exhilarating. The club offers a chance to be as gay as one wishes to be, without significant risk. This is in stark contrasts to public outdoor spaces, which were really only safe on Gay Pride Day and sometimes not even then. Freedom in the club and the bedroom gave one enough space to exist and to live. It called for celebration and repetition in song.
However good it felt, though, it contained an inherent contradiction. Someone who was actually free, as this is understood in straight society, would not need to rely on clubs and bars to experience their freedom. Therefore, freedom while it is celebrated is also redefined to fit the circumstances. In 1991, Rozalla released the prototypical anthem to the freedom of the club, Everybody’s Free (to Feel Good). The chorus of the song lingers on a long held ‘free’, resolving with the less prominent but still affirming parenthetical. This is not a freedom of the mind, but a physically embodied sensation of drink, drugs and dance.
The circumstance and ritual of the clubs and bars does not lessen the temporary sensation of freedom, quite the contrary. The transient nature of the experience makes it al the more compelling, as the feeling of camaraderie, community and sexual possibility relies on physical access to the space. For decades, activists complained that most gay people were only interested in this temporary freedom and not doing the work to secure a more enduring political freedom. These spaces, however, provided a launchpad for gay culture, like the charting Tall N Handsome to enter straight spaces and slowly normalise the idea that a man might be looking for a good man who is tall, handsome and free.