Rod Stewart’s surprising slot in gay musical history

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

Robert Morrison, Professor of English Language and Literature, Queen’s University, Ontario, recalls how Rod Stewart earned a surprising slot in LGBT musical history.

Recently, Rod Stewart re-released a newly imagined version of his 1978 classic, “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy,” with multi-platinum group DNCE. They premiered the single together on Aug. 27 at the MTV Video Music Awards, introducing Rod Stewart to a new generation.

While “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” is one of his signature songs, peaking at No. 1 in six countries, some of his other songs stand out for their lyrics and ability to raise social awareness. What many don’t know is that 40 years ago, Stewart wrote the first commercially successful pop song to address gay rights.

I have seen Rod Stewart live seven times: Calgary in 1984; Wembley Stadium in London in 1986; Brighton in 1987; Calgary again in 1988; Edinburgh in 2002; London in 2013; and on Prince Edward Island in 2015.

There are a number of reasons why I keep going to see him. In part, it’s my small way of saying thank-you for all the times when listening to him has salvaged a bad day or improved a good one. In part, it’s because he is now 72 years old, and yet still loves his job and is still having fun. These are worthy aims at any life stage, but especially when your 20s and 30s are firmly in your past.

In part, of course, it is his voice, which so convincingly delivers a wide range of emotion, from callousness and exuberance, through anger and whimsy, to hurt and self-deprecating mockery. Elton John summed it up in his acceptance speech at the 2013 BRITs Icon Award Show. Stewart, he said, is “the greatest singer that rock ‘n’ roll has ever had.”

What is sometimes overlooked, though, and one of the primary reasons I have been a fan for 40 years, is Stewart’s abilities as a song-writer, and particularly as a lyricist.

I teach and research 19th-century British literature for a living. But I have also spent time listening to and thinking about rock ‘n’ roll lyrics. Language is at the crux of both these projects, and it is a short step from one to the other. Great poems, like great lyrics, work in strikingly diverse ways. But at some level both almost invariably challenge set assumptions and break new ground – literary, political and social.

Rod Stewart’s 1976 album, A Night on the Town. The cover is based on a Renoir painting with Stewart in the centre. Rhino reissued the album in 2009.(Courtesy Warner Bros.)

Take “The Killing of Georgie” from Stewart’s 1976 album, A Night on the Town.

The song is about a young gay man who is murdered in the “so-called liberated days” of the mid-1970s. Stewart is British, but he sets the song in America, where he has lived full-time for more than four decades.

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