“I am fully aware of my influence and my responsibility to society in general representing the gay community. But in the same time, I don’t represent the entire gay community because it’s a vast, vast community, as one can imagine.“
Before there was George Michael, Elton John, Melissa Etheridge, Rufus Wainwright, or even Sam Smith, there was k.d. lang.
Her stunning, pitch perfect, unadorned voice, androgynous look (she’s the girl next door and the boy next door), plus her brilliant live performances have fully engaged me and swept me away to new emotional heights for the past 35 years. She is in that small group of artists, along with Lyle Lovett and Bette Midler who I have seen in concert more than six times.
Genre jumping lang won the first of her six Grammy Awards with her third album, winning Best Female Country Vocal Performance for Absolute Torch & Twang (1989). She received her next Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for Constant Craving from her album Ingénue (1992), her bestselling album to date. I don’t know if you kids are aware, but constant craving has always been. She had a number 1 single from that album with Miss Chatelaine. The salsa-inspired track was really quite ironic; Chatelaine was a women’s magazine who had named lang as its Woman of the Year and the song’s much played video shows exaggeratedly feminine lang surrounded by bright pastel colored bubbles reminiscent of the Lawrence Welk show. The result is funny, sweet and sexy.
Born Kathryn Dawn Lang in Edmonton, Alberta, of English-Irish-Scottish-German-Russian Jewish-Icelandic-Sioux stock, she grew up in a small town on the Canadian prairie. In high school she became fascinated with the life and music of Country Music great Patsy Cline. She formed a Patsy Cline tribute band called The Reclines in 1983. They played Canadian country music bars for a few years. Lang recorded an album that received airplay on Canadian country stations and won 8 Juno Awards (the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy) and then she was off to Nashville.
She recorded a pair of delicious country albums, Angel With A Lariat (1987) with Dave Edmunds producing, and then the gorgeous torchy Shadowland (1988) produced by the legendary Owen Bradley, Cline’s original producer and mentor. But, the Nashville Country Music establishment was not digging on lang, with her bravura singing style and kitschy cowgirl outfits and her spiky hair. She received almost no airtime on American Country Music stations, although Shadowland made it in the Top Ten Albums on the Billboard Country charts. lang:
“I was there in Nashville, a lesbian, a vegetarian, a Canadian, and trying to get in with this white, male, Christian society. They were like, ‘What the hell are you doing here, girl?’“
After that, lang refused to be limited to any musical genre and she moved easily into recording her own brand of pop, putting out 10 more studio albums, one soundtrack, one live album, three greatest hits albums, 44 singles, and bunches of cool collaborations with all sorts of other musicians.
How could I pick a cut that would be her best or my personal favorite? I know that every time she did Roy Orbison‘s Crying in concert, every hair on my body would stand on end. I am crazy for her album of covers about smoking, Drag (1997) and I still dig the stripped down pop of her third album All You Can Eat (1995).
Lang has continued to record & to slide into different genres: the lovely summer bon-bon Invincible Summer (2000), Hymns Of The 49th Parallel (2004) which featured cover versions of songs by fellow Canadian singer-songwriters.
lang did a track on Tony Bennett‘s gorgeous duet album Playin’ With My Friends: Bennett Sings The Blues (2001). The two musicians from two very different generations really hit it off which led the pair to team up for a collaborative Jazz album with the great Louis Armstrong for the Grammy Award-winning A Wonderful World (2007). They seemed to have real affection for each other & true chemistry with the blend of their voices. Bennett called lang “the best singer since Judy Garland“.
Just when I began to think of her as a tradition pop crooner, lang returned to a country sound with the lovely Watershed (2008) and the sassy Sing It Loud (2011).
The Husband loves her, my 90-year-old dad loves her, my rock music loving friends love her, heterosexuals (not that there is anything wrong with that) love her, lesbians lover her, gay men love her, even educated fleas love her.
Lang is an activist for liberal causes and a vegetarian, two labels I myself wear. For hair raising virtuosity and for the glory of her voice I would have to point out her cover of Hallelujah by fellow Canadian Leonard Cohen.
My personal favorite is gay songwriter Cole Porter‘s So In Love from Red, Hot + Blue the first in the series of compilation albums from the Red Hot Organization, an international organization dedicated to fighting HIV through pop culture. The organization’s name is taken from Porter’s musical, Red, Hot & Blue (1936). The album and accompanying videos are exceptional and lang’s amazing and disturbing video in the best. It breaks my heart.
The Vanity Fair cover from the August 1993 issue featured lang with supermodel Cindy Crawford. It was meant to be as controversial as lang’s career. Herb Ritts photographed Crawford shaving lang who is dressed like a guy. Gender bending in the 1990s was still considered brave. Nowadays, who cares? According to the cover story, Lang got more grief from the country music industry over her decision to join PETA than being gay.
Lang lives in my town of Portland, Oregon. My people have spotted her around town, walking her dog in the Pearl District with pal gay film director Gus Van Sant, or picking out fresh, local organic veggies at the farmers’ market. Maybe she plays on a ladies softball team and dates her former girlfriend’s therapist, I wouldn’t know. I seldom leave the house, but lang is invited for a meat-free dinner at my place post-pandemic. Today I am celebrating lang’s birthday by listening to her music all day.