Brazilian songs out of the closet

Brazilian songs out of the closet

Pride season is making me think about the importance of Brazilian music in my life and all the songs that left marks in my sentimental education. It is funny how sexuality seems to always have been at the center of Brazilian popular music in a way that I don’t think happens in other cultures.

I do not mean all the carnival songs about sex, which range from funny to tasteless and outright sexist. Neither am I referring to all the seemingly homophobic songs, some of which — such as Tim Maia’s “Vale Tudo” (“Anything Goes”) — have been reappropriated by gays and lesbians in Brazilian dance clubs. Rather I am talking about all the songs that are more or less ambiguous in terms of gender and sexuality and, as such, created a language — at least for my generation — in which to express alternative sensibilities and sometimes the very experience of the closet.

I remember, for example, going to a Secos & Molhados concert when I still lived in a small town in Minas Gerais in the early 1970s. It is incredible that these androgynous performers, who sang about masculinity and sexuality as they gyrated their hips and crotches wildly, were extremely popular, even (or especially) among children. I will never forget how as early as the group’s first concert, frontman Ney Matogrosso changed clothes on stage, provocatively and playfully showing his butt to uncensored audiences. All this during the hard years of military dictatorship!

Matogrosso soon pursued a solo career and continued to challenge received versions of sexuality in classics such as “Homem com H” (“Man with a Capital M”), or play with stereotypes in songs such as “Calúnias (Telma Eu Não Sou Gay),” a 1983 parody of an old Brazilian ballad sung in English, “Tell Me Once Again,” which was also recorded by the new wave group João Penca e Seus Miquinhos Amestrados; its title translates as “Slander (Telma, I’m Not Gay).” Matogrosso did record at least one song explicitly about same-sex love, “Seu Waldir” (1981) — and although here, as in other cases, it is possible to claim that the poetic voice is a woman, this is not what most gay men want to hear.

It was Gilberto Gil who first made some of us feel that we were not alone in our desires and in the way we imagined masculinity. His “Superhomem — A Canção” (“Superman — The Song,”) released in 1979 (a year after the blockbuster Superman — the Movie) was quite a revelation for the teenagers of my generation. It may sound a bit cheesy today, but at the time, at least for me, it was quite liberating to hear someone say that men did not have to act macho, nor should we be ashamed to respect and admire women. Gil would later write other songs that suggested homosexuality in one way or another, such as “Pai e Mãe,” and the more explicit tribute called “O Veado,” which literally translates as “The Deer,” but is also the popular term used to refer to gay men. Gil also wrote “Corações a Mil” (“Hearts Going Full Tilt”), a celebration of bisexuality that became a hit in the voice of lesbian icon Marina Lima.

Caetano Veloso was equally fundamental in this story, not only because of his songs, but also for his gender presentation: he often wore skirts and kissed all the members of his band on the lips. Tell me if you have ever seen anything sexier and more flirtatious than the encounters between Chico Buarque and Caetano singing “Tatuagem” and “Esse Cara” or “Cotidiano.” Who is the man and who is the woman here?

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I am an Associate Professor of Brazilian and Comparative Literature at Northwestern University. I previously taught at Rutgers University and was a visiting professor at Columbia University and at the Eduardo Mondlane University (Mozambique) as a Fulbright Scholar. I was also a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Brazil Institute at King's College in London (2013) and a post-doctoral fellow at University of São Paulo (2006-2007). I am the author of As Promessas da História: Discursos Proféticos e Assimilação no Brasil Colonial (2003) and the editor of Ligeiros Traços: escritos de juventude de José Lins do Rego (2007). I am currently working on a book-project that deals with representations of male friendship and interracial sociability in fiction and essays written in the aftermath of the abolition of slavery in Brazil (roughly from 1888 to the early 1930’s).

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