“Rocking the Closet” by Vincent L. Stephens— Queering Pop Music

Stephens, Vincent L. “Rocking the Closet”, University of Illinois Press, 2019,

Queering Pop Music

Amos Lassen

The nature of rebellion in Fifties America included pop music’s challenge to ideas about masculinity. Within that, four prominent artists– Liberace, Johnny Mathis, Johnnie Ray, and Little Richard–dared to behave in ways that let the public assume but not see their queerness. That these artists cultivated ambiguous sexual personas often reflected a fear and a struggle to fulfill personal and professional expectations. 

Vincent L. Stephens looks at the ideas about coming out and staying in in the closet by analyzing the careers of these four men. They used performance and queering techniques of all kinds. Liberace’s flamboyance, Mathis’s intimate sensitivity, Ray’s overwrought displays as “Mr. Emotion” seemed far from Little Richard’s raise-the-roof joyousness. They not only  lived but they thrived in an era of conservative men and  they pioneered the ways generations of later musicians who would consciously adopt sexual mystery as way to success.

Stephens questions and complicates “the established historical way of thinking, and to provide a nuanced reading of queerness that admits the powerful possibilities of the ‘open secret’ in a pre-Liberation era when popular male musicians neither could not necessarily desired to come out of the closet.”

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