She bends gender clichés, seducing audiences with each breathtaking performance, k.d. lang—born on the Canadian prairie, exiled from Nashville"s country-music clique—has skyrocketed to pop stardom with her sensuous platinum album,Ingénue. Taking a break from her globe-hopping, lang tells LESLIE BENNETTS about growing up gay, animal rights, finding her voice, and clowning around on aV.F.
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photo shoot with Cindy Crawford
All of which is irrelevant next to the voice, an octave-spanning wonder that soars and swoops and slides from such ethereal sweetness you find yourself holding your breath to a powerhouse blast that raises the rafters. It"s the most amazing voice to hit pop music in at least a generation, and the audience is blown away. They"ve given her one standing ovation after another and brought her back for two sets of encores. She leaves them begging for more. It doesn"t seem to matter whether they"re lesbians, gay men, or straight couples; the middle-aged husband next to me is screaming, "k.d.—you"re beautiful!" His wife is just screaming. I"ve seen Jagger, I"ve seen Elvis, I"ve seen Sinatra, and they"ve got nothing on k. d. lang. Even Madonna is smitten: "Elvis is alive—and she"s beautiful!" she exclaimed after meeting lang backstage at a concert. Critics turn into jelly at her performances, comparing her to everyone from Judy Garland to Peggy Lee to Bette Midler, "k.d. is God!" babbled one American reviewer after a New York concert a while back.
And she"s just getting started. In the past year lang has broken through from country-music outlaw to certified pop star. She won the Grammy Award for Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Female last February, for the single "Constant Craving," which she co-wrote with Ben Mink and which was also nominated for Record of the Year and Song of the Year. She got another nomination for Album of the Year for Ingenue, a torchy triumph that has already racked up nearly two million in sales. Lang is only 31, but after years of trying to win acceptance as a country singer and being rebuffed by the overwhelmingly white, male, heterosexual, Christian, and not exactly welcoming Nashville establishment, she has finally burst through the categories and the restraints, and the ones who stood in her way will find themselves eating her dust.
Of course, the rest of the world isn"t too sure what to make of her either. "If Elvis and Barbra Streisand had a child..." suggested one reviewer. "Patsy Cline"s sublime power. . .inside Pee-wee Herman"s mind," pronounced another. (This was before Pee-wee got arrested.) Among the items on sale in Amsterdam is a video of highlights from seven years of lang"s performances, and the metamorphoses of her persona are enough to make you dizzy. In one clip she"s sporting a chartreuse brocade suit an elderly lady might wear to a wedding; hopping around the stage shoeless, her hair in a brush cut, she"s a sight to behold. For another song she turns up in a bouffant 1950s hairdo and a matronly pink polyester dress. Then there are the years of k.d. as cowgirlfrom-hell, wearing the most hideous western outfits imaginable, with fringed shirts and swingy skirts in patterns so garish they make your eyeballs ache. As an added touch, lang used to pin little plastic farm animals to her clothes. Her feet were usually clad in beat-up farmer"s boots she"d retrieved from a Salvation Army bin and chopped off just above the ankle. With a buzz cut and harlequin glasses, she looked like a wonky teenage boy in drag after having wandered into Loretta Lynn"s closet. Then there was the time lang won Canada"s Juno Award for Most Promising Female Vocalist and accepted in a classic white wedding gown, complete with flowing veil. "I promise that I continue to sing for only the right reasons," she said, as breathless and girlish as a blushing bride. These days lang is most likely to appear onstage in what some describe as "men"s clothes." Others might simply call them comfortable."I pride myself on being 100 percent woman."
One way or another, gender bending has always been lang"s stock-in-trade. At first glance she seems undeniably bizarre, but hers is a deeply subversive presence; after you watch her for a while you realize how warped your own stereotypes are. In the beginning you simply see her as unnatural. Her face is utterly bare, devoid of makeup. Her hair has been shorn with what appears to be complete disregard for how flattering the results will be; one day she started hacking at it with what looked to be hedge clippers, and by the time she finished she was nearly bald, although the back of her head had the patchy, uneven choppiness of a cut performed by someone who couldn"t see what she was doing. She had a major concert that night, too. She wears clothes that don"t reveal or exploit her body, clothes to move in, and boots that could carry you for miles. You can watch her for years and never even be aware she has breasts. She is as different from a female icon like Dolly Parton as if she were another species.
Watching lang, you inevitably start to think about what this culture has traditionally defined as feminine: frothy masses of tortured hair, thick layers of makeup, lips dripping with sticky artificial gloss, false eyelashes painstakingly applied with glue, waist-cinching gowns you can hardly breathe in, let alone move, high heels that make you mince and totter instead of striding around as if you owned the stage. And they call k. d. lang unnatural?
We are sitting on the deck of lang"s farmhouse an hour outside of Vancouver, overlooking a breathtaking panorama of lush greenery stretching to the blue Cascade Mountains at the horizon. As lang leans against the clapboard wall, her face reveals an angular simplicity and an elemental strength reminiscent of the young Georgia O"Keeffe. It is an extraordinary face, with its clean, sharp jawline, high cheekbones, flawless complexion, dramatic dark brows, and piercing blue-gray eyes, a face that hints enticingly at the rich brew of its heritage. Lang is part Icelandic, part Sioux, part Dutch, with English and Irish and Scottish thrown in, and a few months ago she found out she"s even part German Jewish. You would never call a face like this pretty, a word that seemsabsurdly trite and ordinary next to such majestic bone structure; you might call it beautiful, although that isn"t quite right either. One day many years ago, when lang was suffering the inevitable growing pains of any adolescent, let alone one as oddball as she was, her mother gave her unexpected solace by describing her as handsome. It is the perfect word. Lang has just finished nuzzling with Hannah and Arthur, the goats, and bringing a bucket of something wet, grayish, and disgusting to Gracie, the very dirty pig. Lounging in various states of alert repose are two greyhounds rescued from a racetrack, a whippet, and a mixed-breed part-German shepherd that looks like the kind of mangy cur you"d find prowling around a city trash can. Missing but not forgotten is Stinker, lang"s beloved Benji-like mutt, who disappeared and was presumed eaten by a coyote; lang was heartbroken. Her sister Keltie, who lives on the farm and is currently dedicating her life to dressage, is attending to the horses in the bam. A fresh breeze rustles the ancient cedars towering overhead, fat bullfrogs emit an occasional croak from the pond, and the whole scene is as pastoral and relaxing as could be. But lang is restless, thinking ahead to her flight to London tomorrow. "I get itchy if I"m in one place too long," she says. ""I don"t really feel like I"m ever home anywhere."
One look at her house and you know she"s not a nester. This is not the home of a star. This is not even the home of anyone who pays the slightest bit of attention to her domestic surroundings. The house itself is a weird and quite sickening pinkish brown; lang keeps meaning to have it painted white with green trim, but she hasn"t gotten around to it yet. The outdoors is pleasant enough, with masses of pink rhododendrons surrounding the house and, providing a welcome distraction, but inside, the place is as barren as if lang had moved there two weeks ago instead of two years ago. What furniture there is looks as if it belongs in the town dump, it"s so broken-down and frayed and stained. The sagging"living-room sofa is in shreds, and all the other upholstery is equally well clawed, thanks to a shifting array of cats. A dog is lying on its back on the sofa, snoring, its legs sticking straight up. There are no rugs on the floors, no pictures on the walls, no tchotchkes anywhere to soften the stark emptiness. The downstairs bathroom is utterly bare except for one lonely hand towel, a dead moth stuck to the sink top that looks as if it"s been there a long time, and a dying beetle feebly waving its feet in the air. In the garage are a Jeep and lang"s favorite car, her battered "64 Mercury Meteor, a rusting junker that still sports its original arresting shade of bright robin"s-egg blue. In less than a day lang will start whirling through the capitals of Europe, dazzling audiences and dutifully submitting to an endless barrage of interviews in one country after another. She has always known her life would be like this. Eight years ago, when her collaborator, Ben Mink, first met her, at the World"s Fair near Tokyo, he was taken aback by the self-assurance of this most unlikely creature, who was then at the beginning of her career. "She said, "I"m going to be one of the world"s biggest stars," " he reports.
Gazing out toward the snow-speckled mountains, lang says, "I"ve always known that"s what I was, that that was what I was going to be." For a moment she seems lost in thought, and then she looks back at me as it occurs to her that I might take this the wrong way. "It"s not even like an immodest thing," she explains apologetically. "It"s like somebody saying, "I"m going to be a doctor." It"s not a big deal. I"ve known since as long as I can remember."
Given lang"s upbringing, the fact that she made that vision come true seems incredible. She was raised in the middle of the vast prairies of the Canadian West, near the border between Alberta and Saskatchewan, in a microscopic speck on the map called Consort. An 18-hour drive from where we are sitting, Consort has a population of 714 and is about as rural and isolated as you can get. It was 220 miles across the plains to either Edmonton or Calgary, the nearest major cities, "on gravel roads when I was a kid," lang says. Back then k.d. was still Kathy Dawn, the youngest of four children of the town pharmacist and his schoolteacher wife. Consort had "one TV channel, one radio station, no movie theaters, one bar, one drugstore, no police—and no swimming pool," lang adds with a grin. "I guess when I was about 10 we got pavement." There were six or seven streets, and the Langs" square little one-story house was right on the edge of town. "On one side was a slew, the other side was wheat fields," lang says. "Lots of sky. Fields and sky. I was dying to get out, but I didn"t hate it. I loved growing up there. I just knew when it was time to leave I was going to leave. My dreams didn"t have anything to do with staying there, but my roots are very happily situated there. There"s been some turbulence between my roots and me, but what I loved about it I still love about it. I like the geography, the wind, the openness—not the people but the land," she adds wryly.
She doesn"t even consider such relative deprivation to have been a liability. "I think there"s a certain freedom growing up in a limited cultural environment," she muses. "It allows you to become more imaginative. If you"re inundated with culture, sometimes you become jaded and start closing things off before you can assimilate them. Growing up in Consort, you took what you could get, and you found something positive and creative in everything. Every sort of information I got would be a huge thing for my fantasy life. An album cover would be like a movie—a whole other dimension I would travel in, like stepping through the looking glass. Everything I ever did was part of the development of my imagination and lust for discovering new cultures and new sounds."
And what was she imagining? Lang leans back and watches a hawk tailing a smaller bird high overhead. "I was imagining travel," she says, her voice dreamy. "I was imagining being onstage. I was imagining lovers. I was imagining owning something like a place like this. I imagined what I would be like when I was older. " " Even when she was just starting out, however, she knew exactly what to do when she got in front of an audience. Carl Scott, the senior vice president for artist relations at Warner Bros. Records, first saw lang perform with the Edmonton Symphony, surrounded by bales of hay and cutouts of little bams. "She came out onstage and it was just incredible," Scott says. "She was totally superior to anyone I had ever heard. She was very shy and withdrawn back then, but onstage she was completely in charge. When she gets out on a stage, she"s queen of her domain. She understands everything about it, and she loves it." Despite lang"s strangeness, her potential was always clear, even when she still considered herself a performance artist and appeared in vehicles such as a 12-hour re-enactment of Barney Clark"s heart transplant, using pickles and vegetables as organs. As a singer, she was given her first major contract by Seymour Stein, founder of Sire Records and the man who signed Madonna, the Talking Heads, and the Pretenders, among others. When Stein flew up to Canada to see her, he says, "I was just transfixed. She was wearing country square-dance clothes and real short hair, but you could close your eyes and imagine her singing anything—show tunes, R&B, hits from the 50s, country classics.""I have a little bit of penis envy. They"re ridiculous, but they"re cool."
Ben Mink suspects that lang"s gift was always apparent. "She was just a born ham,"" he says. "There"s some famous footage of her at her first or second birthday party, and you can see the charisma. She was always an entertainer.""
Most of lang"s other passions haven"t changed much either. Her custom peagreen Harley Springer is down at her place in L.A., but it is only the latest in a long line of motorcycles. She has ridden them since she was a child. "I love the wind," she says. "I love the feel of them. I love the aloneness. I love moving and seeing things. I like the romance of being on a motorcycle." Thanks to her parents, lang seems to have grown up remarkably free of most sexual stereotypes, even as an adolescent. "I was raised with no gender barriers and a real healthy dose of self-confidence," she says. "My father treated me like a tomboy. I did very "boy" things with him. He bought me a motorcycle when I was nine; I"ve been riding cycles for 22 years. I was a marksman; I used to shoot guns with him—revolvers, shotguns. But we shot targets; I never killed animals.... I remember him getting me an electric guitar for Christmas when I was in grade six."
Lang was very close to her father, and nothing prepared her for the seismic upheaval that occurred when she was 12. "We were a pretty normal family," she recalls. "We had supper every night at six o"clock, and Saturday mornings I had to vacuum the carpet and clean the bathrooms. I loved both my parents very, very much, and of course I went into shock when my father left." He didn"t just leave; he simply vanished. Lang hates to talk about it; she feels that discussing the wreck of her parents" marriage or the lives of her siblings constitutes an invasion of their privacy. Whatever the circumstances, his departure marked his daughter forever. "It was very sudden and drastic," she says, her voice low, her eyes fixed on the floor. "I didn"t hear from him for about eight years, until I ran into him on the street in Edmonton one time. I haven"t really talked to him since. I think I"m just processing it now."
Lang"s father did show up at a concert in Edmonton once, according to her manager; he watched his daughter perform with tears streaming down his face. That scarcely made up for the years of silence. His disappearance shaped lang"s view of love as something that may be ecstatic but can"t be relied upon over the long haul. It may not even be mutual; the entire song cycle of Ingenue was based on lang"s own experience of unrequited love for a married woman. "Maybe I"ve developed my spirituality around coping, but I truly believe it"s the law of nature that love isn"t something we necessarily own," lang says earnestly. "It isn"t necessarily shared. There are moments of sharing, but I don"t think there are any rules. I don"t think my father didn"t love me. I just think he felt like he couldn"t deal with what was happening in his own life. I knew there were troubles, but him leaving the way he did was a shock, and very hard for me to watch my mother go through. He left everything, so my mother would teach in the day and then go down and try to run the store. I had to take on some of the responsibilities, whether it was working in the drugstore or getting home on time so my mother wouldn"t worry. I went from being a kid to being an adult very fast."
Recently lang went into therapy, where a major focus is her difficulty in maintaining intimate relationships. "I think there"s a deep pool of pain, a deep hurt that I manifest in different ways in my life," lang says slowly. "That is not why I"m gay; it has nothing to do with that. But there is a difficulty trusting, and it"s exacerbated by being famous. I think resolving it, and understanding how it"s affected me, is something very deep and intricate, and I"ll be dealing with it all my life.... I think I sabotage relationships because I"m afraid of being left again. I"m extremely loyal, but I"m extremely scared, so I just do things to tamper with things so I can get rid of it so I don"t have to worry about it leaving." She thinks about this for a moment, then throws her head back and yelps with dismay. "Maybe my potential true love is reading this and saying, "Oh, she"s never going to be able to have a relationship!" " she moans.
In any case, there is little doubt which gender her true love will be. Lang knew she was a lesbian before she ever learned the word. "When I was five, I remember playing Batman and Robin," she recalls. "There was this one point in the play where we were going home to our spouses. I was playing with two little boys, and they said they were going home to their wives. I said I was going home to my wife, too. They said, "You can"t have a wife!" I said, "Yes, I can." I remember that really clearly. My earliest memories are of being attracted to women."
"Androgyny is making your sexuality available to everyone, using the power of both male and female."
Her view of why someone grows up to be homosexual is complex. "I think it"s a lot of things," she says. "I don"t think it"s any one thing. I think it"s a choice, for some people. I think it"s genetics. I think it"s the result of being abused, like a reaction. I think it"s completely natural in some cases. I don"t know why I"m gay. I find women more enticing, both emotionally and sexually." Although one of her songs, "Nowhere to Stand," is about child abuse ("A young heart is broken / Not aware that it"s just / A family tradition / The strength of this land / Where what"s right and wrong / Is the back of a hand"), lang says it wasn"t based on personal experience. She has always adored her mother, and came out to her when she was 17. "I was having problems with my girlfriend, and my mother said, "What"s wrong?" " lang reports. "I said, "You wouldn"t understand." She said, "Try me." " Her mother apparently took the news in stride. "I didn"t want to live a life of dishonesty with my mother," lang says now. "I wanted her to understand me. And I had known this for years and years and years."
She seems always to have had a reasonably easy relationship with her sexuality. Her connection to her femininity is more problematic. Looking at her right now, one could easily mistake her for a very cute, smooth-faced boy, despite the assortment of silver bracelets on her wrist. She is wearing ripped jeans, a white T-shirt with a denim shirt over it, and those rubber boots. It takes a while to realize that there is a quintessentially womanly body inside those clothes. "Her figure is a revelation!" exclaimed one critic after seeing lang"s nude scene in Salmonberries, a Percy Adlon film written for lang, who plays a half-Eskimo mine worker in a remote, desolate outpost above the Arctic Circle in northern Alaska. When she becomes infatuated with the town librarian, the librarian assumes that the young ruffian is a man until lang suddenly takes off her clothes. For a long, startling moment she stands there between the rows of books, utterly naked. Massive and voluptuous, her body has the gravitas of an ancient female fertility figure, all rounded thighs and belly and breasts. There is nothing boyish whatsoever about that body, but lang"s attitude toward it is clearly ambivalent. She has, of course, capitalized on that ambivalence. "I really pride myself on being 100 percent woman, but with this great luxury of pulling from both sides equally," she explains. "Like a lot of women, I have a little bit of penis envy. Yeah, they"re ridiculous, but they"re cool. As much as I hate it, I admire the male sexual drive because it"s so primal and so animalistic. I think that"s one of the reasons women have a hard time with them, but it"s one of their greatest assets; there"s a certain freedom in that. It"s very elemental. I think female sexuality gets convoluted because of social pressures. All these different ways women are pulled—everything from being a virgin to not being a virgin, getting pregnant, having a nice body—I definitely have been affected by that disease. I was 170 pounds in the seventh grade, so I don"t have a very healthy attitude toward my body. My brother and sister used to call me "Mama Kath Elliot," so I was scarred for life." She rolls her eyes, laughing ruefully. "But it has to do with more than siblings. It"s social pressure, the pressure society puts on us to be beautiful, thin, stylish."
I remark on how much of her body she keeps hidden, even onstage. "I guess because I"m not comfortable with it," she says. "My body is very womanly; I think that"s why. Or maybe because it"s so overused in the entertainment industry. Maybe it"s like a deep rebellion. I don"t understand my own feminine power yet, in terms of my body. I don"t know how to use femininity as a powerful tool. I use my sexuality, but I eliminate the gender from it. I hesitate to use the word "androgynous, " because it"s overused and misunderstood, but androgyny to me is making your sexuality available, through your art, to everyone. Like Elvis, like Mick Jagger, like Annie Lennox or Marlene Dietrich—using the power of both male and female."
Like all successful people, lang has also found ways to transform weaknesses into strengths. Onstage in Amsterdam a few nights later, she closes the show with "Big-Boned Gal," introducing the song with the kind of thunderous, rollicking drumroll that ushers in the elephants at the circus. Sashaying across the stage in a hilarious parody of feminine wiles, lang belts the lyrics with her usual high voltage: "She was a big-boned gal / From southern Alberta / You just couldn"t call her small / And you can bet every Saturday night / She"d be headed for the legion hall.... You could tell she was ready / by the look in her eye.... She walked with grace / As she entered the place / Yeah, the big-boned gal was proud!" The song is the kind of irresistible country rocker that makes you want to get up and dance, and lang also makes it extremely funny, but like most of her work it resonates on deeper levels as well. She takes everything a woman is not supposed to be— big, funny, fearlessly defiant, physically powerful—and makes it not only O.K. but glorious. What appears on the surface to be just another good-time country song turns into a thrilling statement of triumphant self-assertion.
When she finishes, the audience erupts. By this time lang has shed her jacket to show a loose, flowing white blouse that drapes fluidly over her body, revealing the womanly fullness of her hips for the first time. A black bra is just barely visible underneath. The audience is screaming and jumping up and down; they will not desist. When lang comes back for her first encore, it"s "Crying," the Roy Orbison classic she has made her own. Her rendition is awesome; this is the number that brought down the house when she sang it on the Songwriters" Hall of Fame TV special after Orbison"s death. You watch with your heart in your mouth, wanting it never to end. When it does, all hell breaks loose again. Lang"s final encore is "Barefoot," the song she wrote with Bob Telson for Salmonberries. "I"d walk through the snow barefoot / If you"d open up your door," she sings, the soaring purity of her voice conjuring up the vast, frozen bleakness of the Far North, the ache of a lonely heart, the ineffable yearning for a love to thaw the soul. The song"s chorus is a haunting wolf howl that vaults through the octaves, reverberating in an unforgettable cry of longing. It"s a passage to defeat almost any singer, but lang makes it seem effortless, her tones so rich and full you feel as if they"re pouring over you like honey. Long after the concert is over, her melodies linger in your mind, echoing with the unearthly power of the wolf howl.
By this time a cluster of fans has found the stage door; charged with hope, they wait eagerly, their faces raised to the balmy breeze ruffling the canal in front of the theater. Lang is wandering down a corridor backstage, fretting over the fact that she forgot to introduce her drummer and brooding about whether the concert was good enough, a question that wouldn"t even occur to anyone else but that tortures her after every performance. Compared with her electrifying presence onstage, she seems only half there—not tired but simply absent, a faraway look in her eyes. A large part of her has just shut down, and will not reawaken until the next time she gets onstage in front of an audience.
"She lives to perform," says Ben Mink.
When Mink met lang in 1985, both realized immediately that they were soul mates. She could tell from his violin. An electrified fiddle with a cutaway body, it harbors a secret world inside it, a complex miniature scene of tiny toy figures that range from naked musicians to bathing beauties to British soldiers. There are plastic farm animals, a teeny-weeny bagel with cream cheese, a bottle of Manischewitz, and a sandwich flag from a Nashville restaurant, all carefully glued into an intricate tableau. "She saw that and said, "Do you have any songs?" " recalls Mink with a grin. Their backgrounds were entirely different; Mink, a selftaught musician who grew up in Toronto, is the son of Holocaust survivors with numbers tattooed on their arms, and the grandson of a trained Hasidic singer. But he and lang share a mysterious bond that was apparent during lang"s rehearsals for the European tour. As the percussionist worked on the drum pattern for one of the songs, lang lounged out in front of the auditorium, talking to me while Ben fiddled around onstage with sound equipment. She didn"t even appear to be listening to the drummer, but suddenly she jumped out of her seat. She and Ben converged on him simultaneously: they had independently arrived at the same conclusion about a specific but minute change in the drum pattern. Both are perfectionists, exhibiting the same obsessive attention to every element in a song, no matter how infinitesimal. "When you pay attention to detail like that, it"s like a comma in the wrong place in an entire novel," Mink explains. "That"s really rare. I think it"s just similar sensitivities."
When they started working together, lang was still deeply entrenched in country music, despite its standoffish attitude toward her. She was a student at Red Deer College in Alberta when she landed a role in a musical at a local theater, playing a country singer loosely based on Patsy Cline. Cline"s music was a revelation, galvanizing lang and awakening the passion that launched her career. Cline died in a plane crash in 1963, and for a long time lang even believed Cline"s energy had been reincarnated in her. But lang"s approach to country music made Nashville very uncomfortable. "They wouldn"t let her in the club," says Mink. "They felt she was making fun of them. They were so far off, because she is one of them. She"s a real character out of Hee Haw; she"s a real Minnie Pearl. She grew up in a real rural community. She understands that. She is a country person. She"s the real thing." Lang"s irrepressible sense of humor certainly colored her approach to the music, but to assume she was making fun of her material was to misread her work entirely. The plastic farm animals on her shirt notwithstanding, part of lang"s genius is the ability to take a song like "Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray," camp it up for all its undeniable melodramatic potential, and then stun her audience by segueing seamlessly into a gut-wrenching finale that rips out all the genuine anguish of the classic lover-done-me-wrong genre. Nashville didn"t get it. Well, some of Nashville did; Minnie Pearl always spoke kindly of lang, Roy Orbison shared a duet on "Crying" with her, and Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, and Brenda Lee joined her to record a memorable "Honky Tonk Angels" Medley." But the rest of Nashville closed ranks. "We set out to be part of the changing face of country music, but she wasn"t accepted by the industry," says Larry Wanagas, lang"s manager. "She didn"t look like you"re supposed to look. You"re supposed to look like all the rest of them."
Maybe it"s true that you just can"t make it in Nashville without big hair. "The higher the hair, the closer to God," as k.d. likes to put it. But the problems obviously went deeper. "I think country radio suspected she was a lesbian, and even if they weren"t sure, the image was all wrong," says Wanagas. "They weren"t about to put k.d. on a pedestal and use her as a role model for all the young women who want to be country-music stars. By endorsing her, they would have been doing that, and they couldn"t bring themselves to do it." Endorse her? Hell, they wouldn"t even play her. "They were afraid of offending their listeners and losing advertisers," lang says with a shrug. Largely shut out by country radio, lang managed to build a remarkable following even without any airplay to speak of. The country-music establishment still wouldn"t bend. "In 1989 she got the Grammy for best country female vocalist," reports Wanagas. "The National Association of Recording Merchandisers named her the top-selling female country artist, but she never even got nominated for the Country Music Awards." Sales of lang"s country-oriented recordings climbed steadily over the years: Angel with a Lariat sold more than 460,000 copies worldwide in 1987, Shadowland sold more than a million in 1988, and Absolute Torch and Twang sold more than 1.1 million the following year. After that, however, lang finally moved on. "How long can you hit your head against a wall before you say, "Jesus, this hurts, and I"m going to quit doing it"?" says Wanagas. The result was Ingenue, a crossover album that clearly transcended country but is hard to fix a label on; lang and Mink humorously describe it as "postnuclear cabaret" and cite such influences as Kurt Weill.
By then any semblance of peaceful coexistence with Nashville had been blown apart by lang"s public debut as an antimeat spokesperson two years before. Although she was raised in cattle country, in a family that always had roast beef on Sunday night, lang had long been a vegetarian when she recorded a television commercial attacking the beef industry on behalf of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), an animal-rights organization. Hugging a cow named Lulu, lang inquired pleasantly, "We all love animals, but why do we call some "pets" and some "dinner"? If you knew how meat was made, you"d probably lose your lunch. I know—I"m from cattle country, and that"s why I became a vegetarian. Meat stinks, and not just for animals, but for human health and the environment." The commercial never even aired, but Entertainment Tonight broadcast a feature on it, the media covered the controversy as news, and all of a sudden lang was embroiled in a great furor. The meat industry reacted like a gored bull. The American Meat Institute and the National Cattlemen"s Association attacked her. THE WEST WASN"T WON ON SALAD! argued the North Dakota Beef Commission in a billboard message. The folks back in Canada were even more wounded; k.d. was one of their own, and now she had turned on them. A sign proclaiming Consort the hometown of k. d. lang was defaced. "They sprayed EAT BEEF DYKE on it," lang says wryly. Her main concern was the impact on her mother, but the career implications were considerable. Country stations all over the Midwest announced a boycott of her songs, although the move struck many as ludicrous, since they"d never played her in the first place. Gay activists were indignant. "Why wasn"t anything done to James Garner, who had been a beef spokesperson until he had a quintuple bypass?" demanded one Chicago-area commentator. "Why wasn"t anything done to boycott Cybill Shepherd, another meat spokesperson, after she said that one of her beauty tips was to avoid eating meat? Maybe if k.d. didn"t look so dykey she wouldn"t have a problem!"
Lang hadn"t even acknowledged her lesbianism in public at this point, but the meat controversy made coming out look like a day at the beach. As with the anti-beef commercial, lang didn"t consult any advisers and didn"t even tell such interested parties as her manager and her record company until after the fact. "She called me up and said, "I think I just came out to The Advocate," " reports Carl Scott. "I said, "Oh, shit." But it hasn"t hurt at all. People admire her for expressing herself and being who she is and getting rid of the baggage." Indeed, the reaction was negligible compared with the "meat stinks" hullabaloo. "We got well over 1,000 letters attacking her on the meat thing," says Larry Wanagas. "I could have filled my trunk with the CDs and cassettes that came back. When she came out, there was not a phone call, not a letter; somebody sent back one of her records, and that was it. I think it was a huge weight off her shoulders. She felt completely emancipated." Actually, k.d. was somewhat annoyed by all the speculation about her sexuality and the pressure to make a public proclamation. "I think it"s important for people to come out, because it"s broadening the acceptability walls. But I always thought I was out," she says irritably. "I presented myself as myself. I didn"t try to dispel lesbian rumors. I sang songs like "Bopalina," which was about my girlfriend. I didn"t take boyfriends to the Grammys. I didn"t do anything to cover it up; I just lived my life. There was a part of me that really didn"t think it was important to make an announcement. But to the gay community, saying "I"m a lesbian" is dispelling any doubt."
"That"s why her coming out has been so important," attests Torie Osborn, executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force. "She"s been the first major woman pop star who"s out and proud and fine about it. It signals a whole new era of possibility for celebrities. The classic thing about celebrities is that they supposedly have so much to lose. They"re supposed to allow public perceptions to define them. The thing about k.d. is that she"s Ms. Gender Bender. She"s not afraid; that"s always been part of her appeal. She"s absolutely herself, and when you see her onstage you see a living example of how, when you step out of the closet, you become more whole and are able to be more powerful. She"s come out with grace and ease—and no loss in sales. She counters the mythology." In retrospect, of course, it looks easy, but it might not have been so. "I don"t think I sacrificed anything, but I didn"t know that at the time," lang points out. "My career could have been over. In the industry, they thought that could happen to me. So I was freaked. I agonized over it. My biggest fear was my mum. When I did it, I called her and we had a cry. Any mother wants to protect her children and see them be happy, and I think she thought people would be more negative than they were."
At this point lang is virtually unique among mainstream stars; it"s hard to think of another woman who has so completely refused to conform to male-defined images of female sexuality. "She"s not afraid to let her butch side out—her masculine side," Osborn observes. "She plays a very sexy female, but she also plays what we would call her dykey self. Her concert audiences are overwhelmingly women and a lot of gay men, and a scattering of boyfriends and husbands. This is not a heterosexual male fantasy object." Osborn laughs. "I think she would jam the radar."
Actually, jamming the radar is one of lang"s favorite recreations. She herself came up with the idea of being shaved by a beautiful model, a playful fantasy realized in the photo shoot for this month"s Vanity Fair as a sort of modem twist on Norman Rockwell. She loves to play with stereotypes, and the more provocatively and irreverently the better, as far as she"s concerned. However, lang has resisted the pressure to become Lesbian Spokeswoman of America. "I"m not interested in making that my thing," she says. "I"m an artist." She hasn"t backed away from the causes she cares about; the meat brouhaha notwithstanding, she willingly performed at "Fur Is a Drag," a fashion-show parody in which drag queens modeled fur coats splattered with paint for a PETA benefit earlier this year in New York. "k.d. came in drag—she actually dressed as a woman," notes Dan Mathews, PETA"S director of international campaigns. She did more than that: she wore makeup and bouffant hair and a big yellow chiffon party dress.
Right now, however, she"s on tour, and when she"s performing, her focus is single-minded. "I totally dig the stage," she says. "It"s the same feeling I had when I walked into a gymnasium and could smell the sweat: it"s potential. I felt the space and I felt the potential. I feel a strong connection to God when I"m onstage. Art is my way of communicating love." After the European concerts are over, she and Ben will hustle to finish the sound track for Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, the Gus Van Sant movie adaptation of the Tom Robbins novel, which is scheduled for release this fall. So far their music is decidedly eclectic. "The novel takes place in 1973, so a lot of the music is sort of period-influenced," says Mink. "We had one day where we did a polka, a jazz-fusion tune, a country waltz, and a Sly and the Family Stone boogie tune." When Cowgirls is finished they"ll start working on the next album. The first challenge will be not succumbing to the temptation to recycle Ingenue.
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"Artists are put into a trap," lang says. "They attain success, and there"s pressure to do it again, so they basically just write the same record again. It"s very hard to stay away from formulation when there"s so much pressure to make the money while you"re hot. I"m not interested in producing for success. I don"t think I"m ever going to be selling 42 million records. My legend isn"t going to be based on sales, but hopefully on longevity and the purity of the product—on being unique and doing it my way. I"m not at all in a hurry to become famous. I like to work hard, I like the challenge of touring and the challenge of the business, but I"m not in a hurry. One of my goals is to keep dissatisfied. I am very conscious of not checking out and just going through the motions. It"s like really bad sex. You"re not reciprocating the gift, and you"re going to feel really awful. The pressure I feel most is the pressure of being an artist and of having to create. No one"s making you do that. That is a gift—or a punishment." She laughs sardonically.
The movie scripts are piling up as well, and lang has long toyed with the idea of doing Annie Get Your Gun on Broadway. The big-boned gal from southern Alberta has always had her sights fixed on the big picture, and she doesn"t accept limits. "I would like to be global instead of local," she says matter-of-factly. "As everything—as an artist, a spiritualist, a cook, a singer." She"s well on her way, although sometimes she"s the only one who doesn"t think so. "It doesn"t feel like I am," she says. "I feel like I"m known and recognized and listened to, but I always feel like there are these major mountains I have to climb, creatively." She unfolds her large frame and stretches, reaching out her arms to the mountains and the sky. Then she turns. There is a half-smile on her face. She looks radiant. "I always feel like I"m just beginning."