Pop Politics: Melissa Etheridge

Accomplished artist. Outspoken activist. Future Candidate? Melissa speaks candidly with Evie Nagy about her musical journey, growing family, and Election ’08.

Melissa Etheridge has been an icon since the early 1990s, when she not only came out as a lesbian following Bill Clinton’s inauguration, but also became one of America’s rock superstars with her Grammy Award-winning anthem “Come to My Window.” A tireless activist for LGBT rights, Etheridge also became a leading advocate for breast cancer awareness after her own diagnosis in 2004.

While Etheridge’s presence on the pop culture radar has, over time, varied in strength, 2007 brought it back to full brightness. In February, Etheridge won an Oscar for her original song, “I Need to Wake Up” from Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Last month she was a panelist for Logo’s history-making Presidential Forum on LGBT issues, and, after her wife Tammy Lynn Michaels gave birth to twins last October, she became a mom of four. Topping it off, Etheridge releases her ninth studio album, The Awakening, on September 25. GO spoke with Etheridge about her new album, family life and growing presence on the American political landscape.

GO: The Awakening is your first studio album in three years, and you’ve said that it’s your chronological life story. Can you elaborate?
Melissa Etheridge: It is my life journey but then again all my albums are, I’ve always written from a very personal point of view. But this one is more encompassing—it’s a concept album, and I try to take the listener on that journey from beginning to end. I specifically wanted to create a moment like when I was a teenager, and I’d go out and buy an album and I’d run home and put on the first song and listen all the way through, and John Lennon would speak to me, and Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder. I wanted to create that sort of piece.

Why was this the right time in your life to create an album like that?
I think I had to come to the realization that the reason I make music is that I love music. I think I was given a gift, and I want to treat that with respect and responsibility. But what has happened, and what I’ve seen in our society is we have made music a business. Art as commerce is very tricky. I found that with my last few albums, I was trying to chase the hit song. And you know, all these other artists coming out in their belly shirts. I was trying to chase that sort of crazy thing. I wasn’t ready before to just sit down and say, “Now wait a minute, I have a talent, and I have an incredible fanbase who wants to hear what I say and think; why don’t I just go and do what I love, what I absolutely love? Don’t even think about radio or record companies or anything. Just think about the art.” And after going through cancer and chemo and everything, I really needed to come to that place before I could ever create a moment like this.

You’re doing a show on the album’s release day at the Hard Rock Café in New York to support their Rocktober Breast Cancer fundraiser. Do you have other touring plans for supporting the album?

The plans are to go on tour summer of ‘08, kind of let the album sink in with people. I might do something here and there. But now that I’m a mother of four kids, my touring has to be in the summer.

Earlier this year, you won an Oscar for “I Need to Wake Up” from An Inconvenient Truth. I won’t ask “how did that feel,” because I’m sure it felt fabulous, but were there any particular ways that you feel it fulfilled part of your goals as a musician and activist?

An Oscar is, of course, a really fun thing. Growing up in the Midwest it meant so much to me, the Oscars were like the pinnacle of entertainment and show business. So of course there was that going in—but then, to actually get there by being involved with an incredible project like An Inconvenient Truth, it was such an honor to be asked to write a song for that in the first place. So to have that be what I go to the Oscars with, and then come home with one—that made it really poignant, really meaningful.

Would you say it’s fair to call you a “Hollywood rock star”? Are you especially comfortable in that world?
You know it’s funny because that’s a lot of what the album is about, the whole first part. You go to California, for fame and fortune and “look out world here I come”, and then for me it was 12 years of climbing this perceived mountain. I thought “I’ll get there, and when I reach the top all my problems will be solved. I’ll be ‘in Hollywood’”—thinking that Hollywood is a place that I can get to. And I got there, and you know, it’s all an illusion. There is no “there.” Bruce Springsteen is not having lunch with Mick Jagger. That is not happening. Even the Oscars is an illusion—it looks like there’s all these people and they all hang out—but we don’t hang out, not really. I mean I have some really good friends that when I have time as a mom I’ll hang out with, yes—Rosie O’Donnell, absolutely—Stephen Spielberg I’ll see every now and then. After that, there are people that I’ll see at a party after a year and we’ll say, “Here we are, hanging out again.” But when you say “Am I a Hollywood rock star?”—yeah, I mean I’ve lived here 20 years, and I know the people and I’ve seen them come and go, but I just happen to live here. I’m comfortable anywhere.

You were a panelist for the historic Logo presidential forum on LGBT issues. How did you get involved?
The Human Rights Campaign and Logo approached me and said, “We’re doing this, will you come and be on the panel?” And at first I thought oh, it’s the celebrity thing. Then I thought, “If I can represent my community,” which of course is very hard because we are a completely diverse community across the board, you couldn’t get any different. But to try to represent them in this forum, I said, “You know what, I’m going to do it. It’s an honor. I’ll be there.”

What did you take away from the experience?
It was really eye-opening, to sit there and be talked at. Because these are candidates, especially the top three, who are very clear that they support our rights, but they are not going to support gay marriage. I tried to just sit there and say, “can’t you just be a leader and do what’s right?” And then they say, “Well, it’s my personal view” or “it’s my religion” and it’s like, “No, it’s not.” I mean, it might be. It’s just a feeling that I get that it’s this shady line of politics. It only saddens me that the only candidate—well, I’m not talking about Mike Gravel, because he’s incredible and I’m so glad he’s in the race, but he’s a little kooky. But the only man who is really standing up for what our community, or the majority of our community, the future that we see, is Dennis Kucinich. And we can’t even say his name. Everyone’s like, “Who’s that little elfy guy?” And we say he’s completely unelectable, but why? He’s the one guy who’s standing up and saying it’s about equal rights, you have to do it all the way or not at all. So I went into the forum an Obama/Clinton fan, and I still am. I will absolutely support whatever ticket my wonderful Democratic party comes up with. But I’m a Dennis Kucinich supporter right now. Because I have to be, because otherwise I’m being hypocritical. It’s important to get him heard and considered as a real candidate, because his platform, his views, are the views of the future. He’s just way ahead of his time.

Assuming Kucinich does not win the nomination, who among the frontrunners would you like to see on the ticket?
Obama/Clinton, Clinton/Obama… it really doesn’t matter. To me, they’re kind of interchangeable. I mean, there are big differences, but when you get down to it, not really. I think a woman and an African-American, that’s the sort of change our country needs. Just to have them there. They’re professional politicians, and that’s still there, but believe me, anything’s better than what we’ve got going now.

What went through your mind when Bill Richardson said he believes homosexuality is a choice?
Oh, my God. To me, he was kind of the middle of the road guy, no harm no foul, he had answered the questions and stated his gay and lesbian policies and what he’d done, and I was like, “Cool man, you’re alright.” And I really thought I was throwing him a soft ball. Because I felt no need to pressure this guy, he had really done some great stuff. His record is fabulous. I thought this was an opportunity for him to say, “Well that doesn’t really matter” or “it’s about equality,” or anything. And I tossed him that, and I saw him melt right in front of me. I was like, “O-o-o-oh no, sir, I don’t think you understand my question.” Then I said ok, let me get it really clear, do you think I, we, as homosexuals were born this way, or do you think in seventh grade we go, “Ok, I’m gay.” And then I saw him just stumble around and I thought oh, oh well.

Did you read or hear his apology afterward?

I did, and I heard that he misunderstood the question, and I know that “choice” is sort of a buzzword, and as Democrats we’re supposed to be all for “choice.” And I didn’t mean to trick him or anything like that.

Between the forum, An Inconvenient Truth and Live Earth, this is a pretty big year for you in terms of political visibility. Moving forward, do you have any particular political priorities, or, dare I ask, plans to run for office?
You know, running for office is certainly something that’s not in my near future, I have a family to raise, and I’m in the middle of my career. I wouldn’t say that it’s not something I ever think about, though. You come home from something like the Logo forum and think, “Wow, maybe what this world needs is leaders who just believe and understand the truth,” and the truth has really been a part of me. So I’m not going to say that I would never run. Certainly not in my near future though. It’s interesting, because the universe has certainly been handing me a lot of political issues. The thing that I keep finding is that each time I just speak the truth, it becomes political. I live in a world where it’s courageous and crazy to speak the truth. What kind of funny world is that?

You’ve obviously been a great ally of Al Gore and his campaign to stop global warming. Are you disappointed he’s not running for president?
Well, no, probably because having known him personally now, when you ask him the question he just looks at you and sighs and says, “Well, I’ve run for president four times, and it’s a very soul-sucking experience.” And you just say, “Yeah dude, why would you want to go through that again?” So I completely understand that position. And then as I kind of pull back, I can see that he is doing so much for the world not being in an elected office. He’s just doing what he loves, he loves the environment and the earth so much. So no, I’m not disappointed.

Shifting from the global to the local, what has life been like with the new twins (who, by the way, were born on my birthday)? Did you do anything special for their first summer?
Every day is special with the twins. It’s unbelievable. Having gone through singletons, too, then having this experience—two babies, two souls, two loving, lovely entities, side by side at the same time, and a boy and a girl, which is mind-blowing—I used to be a crazy feminist, saying, “Oh, it’s just our society that makes us different, we’re the same,” but no, no no no. There is a biological difference between boys and girls, it’s just there. They’re just so loving, so wonderful, so rewarding. And we went to Indiana this summer to a lake, and sat by the lake and had some Midwest folk fun.

How are your older kids dealing with them?
Ooooh, you should see—they’re the perfect age, because they can help. They love—love the babies, it just warms my heart.

Besides motherhood, and supporting a huge new record, and your ongoing political involvement, any other special plans for 2008?

I’m going to rest when I can. 2008 will be the album, in the summer we’ll do a big tour, take the whole family. But it will be school and stuff this winter, things here and there. Taking it easy, I hope.

The Awakening will be released on September 25th. For more info on Melissa’s projects, visit melissaetheridge.com. To learn more about Logo’s LGBT presidential forum, go to visiblevote08.com.

Evie Nagy is a New York City-based music and culture writer, associate editor at Billboard Magazine, and freelance back-up singer.

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