What if, in 2012, one of the One Direction boys decided to tell the world he was gay? Would his umpteen million devoted female fans take the news OK? That is the question I asked Lance Bass during an interview on my SiriusXM show, The Six Pack.
"I actually think they would," Bass said, without hesitating. "The younger generation is way smarter than we were. They're way more perceptive, and they just don't care. ... Back then there was no way in hell I would come out."
These are bold words coming from Bass, practically the founding father of the yes-I'm-gay pop-star narrative. Bass is a veteran of the boy-band machine, which has experienced a major resurgence since the rise of the UK's One Direction and The Wanted. In 2006, four years after *NSYNC announced its plans to go on hiatus, he finally came out publicly, appearing on the cover of People Magazine with the headline "I'M GAY."
Have minds and perceptions really changed as quickly as Bass believes? If 1D's Harry or Zayn or Louis or Niall or Liam (did I forget any?) were actually to come out, would they be welcomed with open arms, both by their fans and the industry they've revitalized?
Let me be quick to point out that I don't necessarily think any of the One Direction boys is gay. Sure, when you type "One Direction gay" in Google, you get over 60 million results, so I'm not alone in my curiosity. However, most "so-and-so must be gay" chatter falls under the umbrella of wishful thinking (i.e., tales of Channing Tatum getting wild with Elton John or Chace Crawford teasing the oglers at the very gay Chelsea Equinox). I can assure you that I myself am not lusting after the One Direction boys, but given their line of work (singing, dancing, and a whole lot of color coordinating) it's natural for one to speculate. Plus, if the 1-in-10 rule actually holds up, there's a chance at least one of the boys in the group could be gay.
When it comes down to it, sexuality and music go together. While sex is in the bedroom, our sexuality, for better or worse, is part of our identity and affects our sense of authenticity, inside and out. Unlike actors in Hollywood, who need to play a role and be convincing, performers need to be themselves on stage. Ask anyone who's come out publicly: The freedom to be who you are inspires your art, increases your confidence, and, to use Justin Bieber's fave adjective, gives you swag(ger).
Judging from recent headlines, the music industry seems to be more of a safe space for gay swagger. In July hip-hop and R&B artist Frank Ocean revealed on his Tumblr blog that he had once fallen in love with a man, and on his new album Ocean opens up about his sexuality. He even chooses to forego the use of impersonal pronouns, freely rapping about unrequited love with a certain "him." In August Mika confirmed to Instinct Magazine that he is indeed gay (revising earlier statements he had made years ago about being bisexual). He also didn't mince words as to what his music was about: "If you ask me am I gay, I say yeah. Are these songs about my relationship with a man? I say yeah." Finally, Romy Madley Croft, one of the lead singers of electronic band the xx, also came out quietly in the September issue of Out Magazine. She said, "It's not something I really talk about ... I mean, I am [gay]. But if I was singing about a guy, I would probably be singing a similar kind of love song, really." Unlike Ocean and Mika, however, the xx rely upon impersonal pronouns to broaden the meaning of their songs. "I feel like we never explain our songs directly -- what they're about or who they're about," Croft says. "It's the same as everything about us: We don't want to make a big deal out of everything. We're not shouty."
While this quiet yet honest approach may work for some artists, the boy-band genre is incredibly, intrinsically "shouty." Herein lies the rub when it comes to One Direction: Just like *NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys before them, the group has become a brand and an empire, and the five boys who make up the group most likely have very little free will when it comes to making decisions about their image. For example, consider the song "Only Girl in the World," with the lyrics "I'm gonna make you feel like you're the only girl in the world, like you're the only one that I'll ever love." Imagine being the gay one in the group singing those words, thinking about all the hearts you'll break when you tell them you don't even love any girls? One Direction is, by definition, a young-female-targeted, heterocentric phenomenon, and there's no getting away from it.
Whether any of the One Direction boys is actually gay, the intense speculation about their private lives seems to be taking its toll. This past week Zayn Malik announced he was deactivating his Twitter account and saying goodbye to his 5 million followers. The UK tabloids claimed it was because fans were tweeting that his relationship with Little Mix singer Perrie Edwards was fake. His reason? "[I]'m sick of all the useless opinions and hate that i get daily," he tweeted, following it up with a final farewell: "goodbye twitter." (He then rejoined Twitter 48 hours later.) But it's Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson who have been the subjects of the most rumors. A recent headline read, "Harry Styles, Louis Tomlinson 'Gay Affair' Tearing One Direction Apart." In an interview with MTV News, Tomlinson said, "This is a subject that was funny at first but now is actually hard to deal with."
While it may be none of anyone's business, the One Direction members' sexuality matters a lot to their fanbase (again, Google it). Not only have their lyrics promised teenage girls that they're the only girl in the world (itself an impossible promise), but 1D as a business entity has made a crapload of money simply for the fact that they're heartthrobs, so there's a lot on the line for the members personally, as well as for the record-label behemoth that backs them.
On the bright side, it does appear that the music industry has leapfrogged Hollywood to becoming a much more progressive and welcoming place to be who you are. There are more and more gay role models in the industry and a few playbooks to choose from when deciding to come out of the closet. There's the magazine-cover strategy (Lance Bass and Clay Aiken), the blog post (Ricky Martin, Frank Ocean), the "by the way, I'm gay" remark in a magazine (Mika, Romy Madley Croft), oh, and the make-out-with-your-guitarist-onstage-at-an-awards-show route (Adam Lambert). While each of these artists has achieved varying degrees of post-coming-out success, it's safe to say their public image improved and fans have responded positively.
One Direction boys, listen to your boy-band elder Lance Bass: It'll all be OK -- you know, if any of you is indeed gay, that is.
Follow Ben Harvey on Twitter: www.twitter.com/djbenharvey