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Rocking the Closet: How Little Richard, Johnnie Ray, Liberace, and Johnny Matis Queered Pop Music

by Vincent L. Stephens University of Illinois Press
Pub Date:
12/2019
ISBN:
9780252084638
Format:
Pbk 240 pages
Price:
AU$59.99 NZ$63.47
Product Status: In Stock Now
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The all-embracing, "whaddya got?" nature of rebellion in Fifties America included pop music's unlikely challenge to entrenched notions of masculinity. Within that upheaval, four prominent artists dared to behave in ways that let the public assume—but not see—their queerness. That these artists cultivated ambiguous sexual personas often reflected an understandable fear, but also a struggle to fulfill personal and professional expectations.  


 


Vincent L. Stephens confronts notions of the closet—both coming out and staying in—by analyzing the careers of Liberace, Johnny Mathis, Johnnie Ray, and Little Richard. Appealing to audiences hungry for novelty and exoticism, the four pop icons used performance and queering techniques that ran the gamut. Liberace's flamboyance shared a spectrum with Mathis's intimate sensitivity while Ray's overwrought displays as "Mr. Emotion" seemed worlds apart from Little Richard's raise-the-roof joyousness. As Stephens shows, the quartet not only thrived in an era of gray flannel manhood, they pioneered the ways generations of later musicians would consciously adopt sexual mystery as an appealing and proven route to success.
The contemporary mainstream LGBT narrative claims that artists should out themselves for the greater good. But Rocking the Closet makes a persuasive case that 'open secrecy' helped make stars of Little Richard, Liberace, Johnny Mathis, and Johnny Ray in the decades prior to and after Stonewall. These (until now) academically under-examined, yet enormously successful and influential musicians used the surprising leeway of the glass closet to develop artistic personae that were both appealing and ambiguous, leading to commercial success that rivals that of our current musicians. Stephens' insightful intersectional book will liven the debate in identity and popular culture scholarship!--Shana Goldin-Perschbacher, Temple University
Vincent L. Stephens is the director of the Popel Shaw Center for Race & Ethnicity and a contributing faculty member in music at Dickinson College. He is a coeditor of Post Racial America? An Interdisciplinary Study.