One of the earliest gay-themed pop songs to chart was "Lola" by The Kinks. It came off the band's eighth album, a concept record called Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, part 1. "Lola" is about a naive young man who ventures out into the world for the first time and inadvertently loses his virginity to a drag queen calling him/herself Lola. The big twist is that the narrator of the story is not only not appalled, he actually enjoys himself. "Lola" hit #2 in the UK and #9 Stateside despite touching on a very sensitive issue in 1970, which was practically the dark ages for queer culture. Maybe most listeners just didn't pick up on the subject matter of the lyrics. Heck, I've heard that song played on grocery store muzak beside the most family-friendly tunes imaginable.
By the time David Bowie released The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stadust and the Spiders From Mars in 1972 he already had a reputation for being the preeminent showman of the counter culture, but he'd never really recorded an unabashed love song about an androgynous man before. "Lady Stardust" began as a ballad about fellow rocker Marc Bolan of glam pioneers T. Rex. The song's story describes a young man with "long black hair" and "animal grace" who moves fluidly between masculine and feminine attributes, grabbing the attention of men and women alike. There's nothing lurid or seedy about the song, just gently passionate praise for an alluring individual punctuated by the recognition of cultural stigmas. Bowie sings, "I smiled sadly for a love I could not obey". Or, as it is more widely known, "a love that dare not speak its name."
Smiths singer/lyricist Morrissey has always thrived on sexual ambiguity. Both with The Smiths and in his solo career he was never shy about writing from a female perspective, but even more brave than that was his willingness to write emotionally complex lyrics with a clearly homosexual perspective. The first track on The Smiths' first album "Ring Around The Fountain" is about the way homosexuality has been unfairly equated with abuse, but it was the band's first big hit "This Charming Man" that captures the mix of longing and trepidation that so fascinated Morrissey about queerness in the 1980's. It wouldn't be the last time that Moz got his fans to sing along to a gay love story, but it remains his most stirring.
Franz Ferdinand's 2004 eponymous debut was a smash hit just as a new crop of bare-bones rockers took the spotlight in the pop world. Buried deep in that album and eventually released as its fourth single, "Michael" is a sharp, mildly punky track about two men hooking up at a night club. The song drew some attention for its homoerotic lyrics and naturally created speculation that some of the members of Franz Ferdinand were gay. Lead singer Alex Kapranos explained that "Michael" was about two of his friends, but it doesn't really matter. In the 21st century, a sexually charged love (or lust) song about two men charted sans euphemism or ambiguity. That's what we call "progress".