Jobriath and authenticity

Kevin Sweeting reports on The revenge of Jobriath, the first openly gay music star, and our growing collective appreciation for his brilliant music.

Jobriath did not pussy-foot around. While Elton John and Freddie Mercury were snugly in the closet and Klaus Nomi was nothing above 14th Street, Jobriath was unabashedly declaring himself the "the true fairy of rock 'n' roll." Elsewhere, the crazed androgyny of glam was all transgression-grubbing sizzle and no steak. David Bowie was pretty deliberately fooling no one with his prep-school overtures of bisexuality and Mick Jagger and his nail polish could ride that sneer of masculine sexual aggression past any name-calling, but Jobriath? Jobriath made no attempt to pass. "Asking me if I'm a homosexual is like asking James Brown if he's black," Jobriath told the press.

See also a recent documentary, Jobriath A.D., and this review by Marc Almond of Soft Cell. Jobriath would be getting on for 70 now, had he lived, and Sweetings' is my favorite article about him yet. Sweeting not only offers some why in addition to the usual vaguely-mysterious what, but makes a striking point about the nature of Jobriath's growing fame: that his success now is the dividend of past failure.

That said, there's something too easy about a conceptual keystone often placed in the arch of Jobriath's rise and fall:

the idea that his ostentatious homosexuality was not just a failed gambit against the times' homophobia, but that he was somehow betrayed by the inauthenticity of pop culture's contemporaneous pretensions and transgressions. That he was too glam for glam.

Many misunderstood the appeal of glam, especially to young women, and Jobriath was the essential manifestation of that misunderstanding. The evasive, ambiguous, having-one's-cake-and-eating-it quality of British glam always conjured, in some, the thought that it would be better if there were a more full-throated, authentic homosexuality at large. But this idea–that sexuality maps to a binary scale with authenticity only at its extremes–is problematic for all sorts of reasons. Yet it is a significant part of why the music business thought it was onto a winner with Jobriath.

When it came to selling records, Jobriath's problem wasn't that he was too homosexual; it was simply that he wasn't bisexual enough.