We all know comedy often has a grain of truth in it. Not only that, comedy is also a way to open up the minds and ears of those listening. No one knows this better than The Lonely Island. On their journey from internet fame to international stardom with SNL, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, the Lonely Island have entertained audiences around the world. Their lyrics are often clever, always hilarious observations on culture and the music industry. However, in two particular songs ‘No Homo’ and ‘Equal Rights’, the Lonely Island turn their attention to homophobia. More specifically, the shifting approach to queer rights and queer people, both in the media and in culture. Between the two songs, The Lonely Island critique a culture that has largely gone from outward hate to simple outcasting.
The concept of ‘No Homo’ is elegantly simple – a call and response, each line punctuated with “no homo”. The first lines explain exactly what’s going on:
“When you want to compliment a friend (no homo),
But you don’t want that friendship to end (no homo).
Tell a dude just how you feel (no homo),
Say no homo so he knows the deal (no homo)”
This is the central premise of the song. Two words save the straight man from their friends possibly misinterpreting their platonic compliment as an expression of homosexuality. Theorist Michael Kimmel, in his essay ‘Masculinity as Homophobia’, explains that homophobia often does not stem from an unmediated hatred of the other. Rather, it arises out of a fear of being identified as ‘other’. As Kimmel outlines, the biggest fear of many young American men is being identified as queer. Indeed, this observation extends to Western society as a whole. This is because of the effect such an identification would have on the power inherent in particular kinds of masculinity in our society. Being perceived as queer in any way is linked to weakness and femininity.
The Lonely Island seem to understand this underlying homophobia and play on it in the song. When one considers it for the briefest of moments, saying “no homo” couldn’t possibly change their sexuality. Nonetheless, it acts as a handy indicator to other men in certain situations that your actions should not be perceived as queer – “Say no homo so he knows the deal”. This expresses two important things, the first being the repression of expression that is inherent in this form of homophobia. These men, though the song plays it for laughs, cannot express platonic love. So much so, that a simple compliment must be expressed with the stipulation that it won’t effect other men’s perception of their masculinity:
“I like the way your shoulders fill out that shirt (no homo),
It’s hard to pull off but you make it work (no homo).”
The second is the underlying fear of queerness that expresses a deeper homophobia in society. While the song clearly exaggerates, the truth of the piece is that fear of being seen as queer is an expression of homophobia. This highlights an interesting manifestation of homophobia in today’s society. While there is rarely outright hatred of a queer subject, there is a distinct ‘othering’. While it’s fine if some people are queer, it’s not okay for me or my friends to be, thus the need to say ‘no homo’. As the song progresses, a variety of gay stereotypes are engaged in order to show the absurdity of the statement, culminating in an outward expression of queer sexuality:
Hey yo no homo but today I’m coming out the closet ,
Wanna scream it from the mountains like a gay prophet.
These two words have set me free (no homo),
Damn it feels good to be (no homo)
These final lines underscore the ridiculous nature of this cultural quirk. “I’m gay but no homo” essentially. This disconnects queer masculinities from queer sexualities, outlining the perception of queer masculinities in our culture and showing the cultural homophobia towards it. It’s okay to be gay, as long as you don’t act gay. To reiterate, this says that it’s okay to be gay, as long as we’re not seen as gay. This ‘otherness’ is central to the song and The Lonely Island cleverly, comprehensively critique this form of homophobia. Perhaps more articulately than one would expect from the same people who brought us ‘Motherlover’ and ‘Jizz in my Pants’.
In their feature mockumentary Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, one memorable moment comes when fictional popstar Conner4Real performs ‘Equal Rights’. In the context of contemporary culture, this reads as a critique of the ‘straight saviour’ trope. A trope appearing more and more in contemporary media and celebrity culture. As with ‘No Homo’, the singer creates a division between himself and the communities he claims to help. Once more reiterating, “it’s okay to be gay but I’m not”. The opening lines say it all:
I’m not gay, but if I was I would want equal rights,
I’m not gay, but if I were, I would marry who I like.
It’s not fair (I’m not gay), that the government has a say
In who can love who (not gay),
And to which God you can pray (I’m n’gay)
Here, as with large parts of the film, The Lonely Island target some of the absurd quirks and trends of contemporary celebrity culture. It’s not a massive leap to view this as a direct response to rapper Macklemore’s song ‘Same Love’. A track which is largely an endorsement of same sex relationships but opens with a verse outlining, in no uncertain terms, that the rapper himself is not gay. God forbid someone might think for a second that you’re gay, right? ‘Equal Rights’ apes this, showcasing the possible hypocrisy in stating your support for queer rights while reassuring your listeners that you are not, in fact, part of that community.
The cynic in me attributes this rush for celebrities to outline their support for queer rights as simple bandwagon hopping. It’s ‘cool’ now to be queer (though I must say it’s a very specific kind of queer identity that’s cool) and to support queer rights in general, while simultaneously expressing that one is not part of that community. Having your cake and eating it too. Like ‘No Homo’, this expresses an othering that occurs in contemporary society. The chorus, in particular, reinforces this:
I was born this way (straight!)
You were born your way (your gay)
It’s time to make a change (yes!)
It’s time to stop the hate (uh)
‘Cause who you are in beautiful (not gay)
There’s even a verse towards the end where Conner4Real simply lists “straight” things he loves. This verse covers everything from flying kicks to courtside seats, and drum solos to missionary sex. To be honest, he is so desperate to prove he’s not gay one wonders if there is a bit of repressed sexuality going on there, but that’s a story for a different day. In Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, a Ringo Starr interview immediately follows the video for ‘Equal Rights’, where he responds, “does this guy not know same sex marriage is legal now?”
That is the final laugh of the piece, but also an important point, namely: where was all this support before? Stars are more than happy to support a particular form of white, male queerness now that the majority of society largely smiles on that community, but where was the support beforehand? Where is the support for trans rights? For queer persons of colour? Perhaps this is the most striking point – it is easy to pretend that the battle is won, homophobia is over, thank god we solved it, but that simply isn’t true. It is no good supporting those who no longer need it and until there’s a major pop song supporting trans rights or a similar struggle, I think this song and its message remains strikingly relevant.
It’s easy to dismiss ‘Equal Rights’ and ‘No Homo’ as silly comedy songs from a particular culture and time. However, I believe that The Lonely Island, with both of these songs, open an interesting discussion of how homophobia in our society has not disappeared. Instead, it has shifted to something different, something harder to detect. These songs make us laugh but also show us the inconsistencies of our society’s approach to queer masculinities, queer rights, and who exactly we mean when we say that everybody now has equal rights.