Q&A with Vincent L. Stephens, author of Rocking the Closet

Vincent L. Stephens is the director of the Popel Shaw Center for Race & Ethnicity and a contributing faculty member in music at Dickinson College. He is a coeditor of Post Racial America? An Interdisciplinary Study. He recently shared his thoughts on his book, Rocking the Closet: How Little Richard, Johnnie Ray, Liberace, and Johnny Mathis Queered Pop Music.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book?

As a scholar of Post-World War Two U.S. popular culture I find the ways Liberace, Little Richard, Johnny Mathis, and Johnnie Ray navigated the conformity of the 1950s fascinating. When you examine their careers and the cultural responses to their work you must expand your understanding of masculine possibilities during years before the sexual revolution and LGBTQ political movement.

Q: Who were your biggest influences?

Christopher Nealon and Jennifer Love’s reconsiderations of gay visibility and issues of pride and shame shapes my thinking for this project. As did the queer musicology scholarship of Philip Brett, Nadine Hubbs, and Judith Peraino. More broadly, I appreciate the non-fiction writing of James Baldwin, Joan Didion, Kiese Laymon, Ruth Reichl, Jesmyn Ward, and Ellen Willis, and the work of great novelists such as Paul Beatty, Percival Everett, Don Lee, Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Celeste Ng, and Philip Roth.

Q: What is the most interesting discovery you made while researching and writing your book?

The fact that black male artists, regardless of sexual orientation, had to “queer” themselves to gain acceptance. Notably, they had to carefully manage their projection of sexuality in the 1950s to avoid appearing too “aggressive” or too “soft.” In the 1950s black men were newly visible and always conscious of the images they projected in popular media.

Q: What myths do you hope your book will dispel or what do you hope your book will help readers unlearn?

I hope readers see how audiences of the 1950s were fascinated by and often protective of non-conformists in popular music despite the politics of the time. Similarly, I want readers to realize how ambiguity served as a useful resource for the artists I study. Ambiguity, ambivalence, and uncertainty, characterize queer life in a way that complicates issues of pride and visibility.

Q: What is the most important idea you hope readers will take away from your book?

Popular music is a fertile site for understanding U.S. identity. What we listen to, who we listen to, and the way music moves us, speaks greatly to our desires, needs, and values. Studying these elements is incredibly illuminating.

Q: What do you like to read/watch/or listen to for fun?

I love reading memoirs, literary fiction, graphic novels, and essays. Recent favorites include Kiese Laymon’s Heavy, Joseph Vogel’s James Baldwin and the 1980s, and John A. Farell’s Richard Nixon. I enjoy watching independent films, such as “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” and “The Farewell”, and innovative TV programs, such as “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “Ramy,” and “Jane the Virgin.” Musically, vocal jazz, saudade, electric and country blues, R&;B, and snappy pop-rock (e.g., Marshall Crenshaw, The Cars, Marti Jones) are staples.

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