Soapbox: Melissa Etheridge

Melissa Etheridge marked much of 2012 as a return to her roots, having finally performed her first Pride concert in Pittsburgh in June and with the recording of a nostalgic and reflective new album, 4th Street Feeling. But with marriage equality gaining mainstream momentum, same-sex parents saturating prime-time TV and a major honor on the horizon from the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the LGBT pioneer still keeps her focus on the road ahead.

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Finally President Obama came out for marriage equality. That’s nice. Better late than never. I think those of us who are 30 and over—we’ve been around the block politically, and we realize that politicians really want to count on our vote. But when it comes to our turn to actually get in line, they’re like, “Wait a minute!” It’s like we’re stepchildren. Now let’s keep this moving forward. We can’t go back. Sexuality and homosexuality to my children and my children’s friends in school—it’s a whole different thing. In high school, it’s now a question of, “Hey, are you into sports or music? Are you Republican, Democrat, gay, straight?” It’s commonplace. Things are changing. We’re moving up, but I wish it would happen faster.

It was such a delicate thing to break through the fear I grew up in in the ’60s and ’70s that somehow gay people shouldn’t be around children. For us to stand up and say, “We’re having children. We’re creating families,” it blows people’s minds! I remember a moment not too long ago when the light bulb went off in my oldest kids’ heads and they said, “Oh, my gosh, I better be a good kid, because people actually think that Mama shouldn’t have had kids and if I turn out bad...” It was a beautiful moment. I was like, “Yeah! Don’t do it for me—do it for the rest of the world!” I think what we’re seeing is just wonderful: kids who are growing up with these gay parents and they are wonderful members of societies. We have our problems—everybody does. But we are part of the fabric  of America.

It’s funny—I often write my most American songs in Europe because I miss America so much. I was touring Germany in February, and I wanted to paint a picture [with the new album’s lead track, “Kansas City”]. I wanted it to be like a John Steinbeck moment to start my album with, about going back to Kansas, going back to my roots. I learned in my journey to becoming 50 that I was always running away. I was going out and trying to make myself something else. I found out that the only way I can be whole is to incorporate my past, look at my past and perceive it with love and understanding. I had to go through all of this to be who I was. “Kansas City” is like, “Come on back with me. I’m just going to tell you my experience.” I want to tell the story and paint pictures of my life.

So, in Kansas, if you take Interstate 70, get off on Highway 7 and keep going straight, it will turn into 4th Street, which goes through Leavenworth. That 4th Street was where I drove around my first car, a Chevy Impala. In the Midwest, the car is an American icon. It’s a ritual as a teenager—you get the car, you get freedom. Now I have four children, I’ve got a pretty big career and big life, so sometimes I’m like, “What if I just ran away? What would happen?” But I don’t want to do anything else. I love what I do; that’s what it is. I just love what I do.

I started out in the lesbian bars. My act was pretty gay, as I was playing to my audience. When my first album came out, I was like, “Oh, I’m part of the straight world now,” so I toned down the gayness, though I didn’t do it too much. But now, to play a show with 5,000 people where it is assumed you are there to celebrate gayness...I just walked out onstage and screamed, “I am gay!” I was so happy to tell the stories and hold myself in the comfortableness that we do in our own company. Pittsburgh just lit it up. It was awesome.

I’m so fortunate that in loving what I do there are many others who participate in that and also enjoy it. Whether I’ve got a hit on the radio or not, I can do a concert and a good number of people show up and celebrate with me. That’s priceless. I’d never trade that in.

Moderated by Jonathan Higbee; art by Dave Arkle. 4th Street Feeling is out now