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Any Love: Silence, Theft, and Rumor in the Work of Luther Vandross
Part 2: Plum Nelly: New Essays in Black Queer Studies
Lonely house, lonely me!
Funny with so many neighbors, How lonely it can be!
Oh lonely street! Lonely town!
Funny you can be so lonely with all these folks around.
The night for me is not romantic.
Unhook the stars and take them down.
I'm lonely in this lonely house
In this lonely town.
--"Lonely House," words by Langston Hughes,
music by Kurt Weill
A chair is still a chair, even when there's no one sitting there
But a chair is not a house.
And a house is not a home when there's no one there to hold you tight
And no one there you can kiss goodnight . . .
--"A House Is Not a Home," words by Hal David,
music by Burt Bacharach
1947: Langston Hughes writes the lyrics to Kurt Weill's classical opera Street Scene (based on Elmer Rice's play of the same name). The show's most captivating arioso is "Lonely House," in which a young male tenor cries out for a romantic partner to 'fill' the emptiness of his house. Though it has now become something of a jazz standard, "Lonely House" is a rare sentimental song about male romantic longing within the context of domestic space. Although critics of the era make mention of the unique collaborative effort between its Negro lyricist and German composer, few catch the complex portrayal of male sexuality so effortlessly tucked into Hughes' lyric.
1992: filmmaker Isaac Julien directs the independent short Looking for Langston. Non-linear in narrative and abstract in concept, the film fastidiously opposes the way Langston Hughes has been memorialized in mainstream culture as heterosexual, and attempts to reclaim the literary icon as a gay artist. Julien declares that his intended project is to redefine the closet as "an area [End Page 422] of knowledge especially in black popular culture" (Grundmann 30, my italics). Yet the controversial film ultimately 'outs' Hughes to the mainstream public, and Julien himself ends up in legal wrangling with the relatives in charge of the poet's estate. As a critical project, however, the film invites a re-evaluation of the Langston Hughes canon. What does it mean that the lyric to "Lonely House" may be composed by a black gay man? What's more, Looking for Langston asks its audiences to reconsider African-American cultural and collective memory as a field of political and ethical contestation: who do we remember, how do we remember, and why?
1981: Luther Vandross debuts on the R&B scene with another song of male domestic yearning, "A House is Not a Home." A stunning reworking of Dionne Warwick's 1964 original, the song helps bring Vandross massive worldwide success, and it still stands, in the eyes of many of his fans, as the defining artistic triumph of his career. Although Vandross releases, over the 1980s and 1990s, a bevy of multi-platinum albums chock full of original material, he is perhaps most cherished for his remakes of popular songs of the 1960s and 1970s. Although critics tend to praise Vandross' body of work, few have addressed the complex issues around male sexuality that help constitute his musical achievements and his star discourse.
Although parallels between the work and life of Langston Hughes and Luther Vandross seem rather explicit, even from a comparative reading of the epigraphs with which I opened this paper, I am not aware of any writer who has openly claimed Vandross in terms of his contribution to queer cultural politics (as Julien did with Hughes). I want to note upfront that I have no interest per se in Vandross' 'real' or off-stage sexual identity, if only because there is no 'real' Luther Vandross that can be ascertained or ever truly known. His discourse, like that of all celebrities, is a collection of images, ideas, representations, artistic and informational data, advertisements, clues, and conversations, that in the...