What Makes a Gay Song?

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Jason DeCrow / AP

Well, at the very least those plaid pants are pretty gay. Amy Ray, left, and Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls perform during the True Colors tour stop at Radio City Music Hall

Can a song be gay?

It's a question that doesn't have an easy answer, but it's sure fun to try to puzzle out. And the True Colors tour that has been traveling across America this month would seem to be a good place to do that.

The tour, founded by Cyndi Lauper last year, is highly unusual in that its main purpose, besides entertaining crowds, is to rally for gay, lesbian and transgender rights. The tour features a diverse cast of performers — including the B-52s, Tegan and Sara, the Indigo Girls, Rosie O'Donnell and Regina Spektor — onstage for nearly five hours.

There's never really been this kind of organized gay-themed tour before, and its very existence, during what many urban crusaders consider a postgay era — a "whatever" age in which identity politics are on the wane — seems quaint and comforting. When the Indigo Girls hit the stage for True Colors at Radio City Music Hall recently, their set of barnstorming folk brought back warm memories of early 1990s pink-triangle-bedecked marches, a period when the movement seemed in overdrive.

But is their music gay? Folk music itself is a political form and deeply entrenched in the 1970s lesbian-power movement. The Indigo Girls themselves are two gay ladies. But their songs rarely touch on gay topics. The Indigo Girls are not known for explicit anthems or same-gendered love songs. Yet so much about an Indigo Girls show is very gay.

But why? Is a gay song about the orientation of the performer, as in the case of the Indigo Girls? Is it about sensibility and context, like most of the disco music of the '70s that was performed by straight artists for gay crowds? Is it about explicitly gay lyrics?

J.D. Doyle, a radio DJ who hosts a Houston-based show called "Queer Voices" and keeps an archive online called Queer Music Heritage, has specific notions about what makes a song gay that are at odds with other people's conceptions. For example, he disputes the common notion that disco music is synonymous with "gay music."

"I could be describing my radio show to someone who hasn't heard of it, and I'd say its purpose is to share and preserve the history of gay music," Doyle said on a show a few years ago. "They'd say, 'Oh, disco music.' No, no. And I'd climb up on my soapbox and ask why they would think disco music is gay music, since most of it is by straight artists, mostly women, and only a tiny percent is lyrically gay. Very little of it is actually about our lives. By this time their eyes are quickly glazing over, and I realize once again I've taken the purist approach. But I certainly can't deny that to most people disco or dance music is the genre most associated with gay culture."

Those searching for a more fluid definition might check out a hefty tome by University of Michigan professor Nadine Hubbs called The Queer Composition of America's Sound, which purports to find gay sensibilities in instrumental music. That's right, no words, even. Anthony Tommasini, classical music critic of the New York Times, was among those who were skeptical, asking "just how is a gay sensibility expressed in music? Especially purely instrumental?"

Like all the great gay arguments, such as whether Ernie and Bert are more than just friends, getting there is half the fun. To fuel the debate, TIME talked to people who were both at and part of the True Colors tour to find out their favorite gay song. Listen to the podcast.