Alright so before we get to this far too long article, I’ve got to lay down my bona fides. I absolutely adore Nick Cave. I am also gay. This presents some problems because uh… well Nick Cave has a bit of a pattern with his treatment of gay people, specifically gay men, in his lyrics. We’ll get to the specifics of this in a minute, but I want to get the fact that I do not hate Cave or dislike his music out of the way first. I’m going to say some unkind things about a few of Cave’s songs, but he has made a lot of music I enjoy, and he has an engaging public presence through his website where he shares insightful thoughts about the world, and his newest music is some of the best music of his or anyone’s career.
I had privately given up on writing about such a cliche “Cancel Culture,” topic as Nick Cave and gay people until I found this Reddit thread, Asking queer fans for opinions about Cave’s more troublesome lyrics. The responses were… interesting, and it made me think that perhaps there were more people like me wondering how to process Cave’s work. It also signified something that I’ve suspected for a while, which is that Cave’s fanbase does not just happen to contain some gay people, but is perhaps disproportionately gay, something Cave has alluded to as well. So, for the two other people that still care about this topic, let’s get into it.
So, there’s no delicate way to introduce Cave’s songs about gay men. The lyric you’ve probably heard thrown around to signify this is “A f– in a whalebone corset dragging his d—- across my cheek… and the walls ran red around me, a warm arterial spray.” This lyric has gained notice for obvious reasons, not the least of which being that the song it’s from, Papa Won’t Leave You Henry, is one of Cave’s most popular songs. This was also the topic of his brief stint into the cancel culture discourse, but I’d like to start you off with a different song because it’s the one that took me by surprise.
On the album “Murder Ballads,” Nick Cave covers the American folk song Stagger Lee, a song about a man who murders someone in, depending on the rendition, a gambling dispute or conflict over a woman. The song, in its original form, is a melancholy and understated tale, ruminating on vice and sin by dramatizing an actual murder in 1897. The song has existed in one form or another quite literally since the year of the murder (#TooSoon) and was first published in 1911. It’s a personal favorite of mine among early blues songs for how it blends true crime style gawking with empathy for both Stagger Lee and his victims. Nick Cave’s version imagines Stagger Lee as a gay serial killer who likes to rape men before he murders them.
I do not know why he did that.
So, okay, in Nick Cave’s defense, he claims that he did not invent this from whole cloth. Supposedly, this version of Stagger Lee is adapted from a toast poem (a kind of pre-rap slam poetry) that appeared in a compendium of poetry by prisoners. I say claims, because I have been unable to find an online transcription of the original poem, and the book has been out of print for a decade. I actually considered tracking down the book through NC State libraries, but the only version is in Charlotte, exams are coming up, and it doesn’t really matter because regardless of whether Cave took substantial liberties with the poem, his version of Stagger Lee is just stunningly bad. Like I personally don’t think Nick Cave is “edgy.” he writes in a dark tone but there usually is a reason for all the gloom and doom and a coherent aesthetic to back it up, but oh my god this song is just the epitome of middle school edge lord who just learned how to curse. Cave grunts and groans out a solid 25 profanities (I counted) in a song that’s barely 400 words long, making the song an impressive 8% cursing. This isn’t a problem per se, but it’s all in service of a story that involves multiple rapes for no discernable reason, and the charming line “I’ll crawl over fifty good p—— just to get one fat boy’s a——.”
So why do this? Why turn a century-old folk song into a story of a psychopathic gay serial killer, and why does Cave write so many songs about gay men trying to rape him? Well, the lazy answer would just be to brand Cave a homophobe, throw him in the bin of canceled musicians, and move on, but I don’t think this is fair or honest. My reasoning for this is twofold: one, Cave has a consistent track record of being friendly to the LGBT community, especially towards his queer fans, and there is an interesting (but not altogether defensible) aesthetic function played in his music by his many gay caricatures.
Let’s tackle that second reason first. What aesthetic function were songs like Stagger Lee and Papa Won’t Leave you Henry intended to play? Well, I would hardly be the first to point out that Nick Cave’s music has some strange gender subtext. Cave himself has attributed this to growing up in often repressively masculine Australian culture. Australia has a reputation for being more queerphobic than its Anglo-American sister nations, and it has a strong association with rugged masculinity and eschewing homoeroticism. Nick Cave has blurred and outright violated these norms in the past, his aesthetic in the 80s was evocative of the overtly gay New Romantic movement, and obsessive fans have long documented his close relationship with other Bads members, but since the 90s, this has taken different forms. One fan referred to his 90s aesthetic as “drag queen energy” but I think a more direct description might be that he’s perhaps the world’s first male drag king. His persona is generally an outsized parody of masculine folk archetypes, taking toxic or aggressive tropes and extending them to outright psychopathy. I’m unsure whether this is a conscious effort on Cave’s part, and songs exemplifying this hyper-masculine aura usually have other themes, but the effect is still there.
When we consider this dramatic persona, Cave’s obsession with homophobic tropes makes a little more sense. The conscious disdain of gay people while simultaneously leaning into homoeroticism is a stereotype of toxic masculinity. Honestly, it’s a cliché I’m a little sick of, as it’s overused as a source of cheap comedy, but Cave puts an extremely different spin on it. However, just because there was an artistic intent and reasoning behind these lyrics, that does not make them good. I’ve already spoken at length about Stagger Lee, which I think banks too hard on the inherent shock value and presumed hilarity of its subject. And while Papa Won’t Leave You Henry is a good song musically, I’m not going to pretend I don’t wince hearing that lyric, especially given Cave’s hateful delivery.
As long as we are talking about negative effects, satire always runs the risk of attracting the very people you sought to mock. Additionally, Cave’s lyrics tend to show little actual interest in the thoughts or feelings of queer people, especially his older work. Gay men especially are used as violent props, either as degenerate, well, “f–s” who deserve the violence they bring upon themselves, or as violent abusers. This does not equate to Cave seeing gay men that way, nor does it mean that those songs are 100% bad or you’re a bad person for liking them, just that for all his references to us, he never seems to consider gay men as anything but the other.
Though, to really get to the heart of the matter, I think it’s this brazenly problematic style that draws so many queer people to Cave’s music. The pride-centric approach to gay rights has led to great strides, but there are costs to this. For one, media has mostly gone from depicting gay people as machinating effete Disney villains to just not depicting queer coded characters at all. Also, the constant pressure to publicly and visibly perform pride creates a kind of imposter syndrome when most queer people are still raised to feel shame over their sexuality or gender identity. In this context, there’s something kind of cathartic and even liberating about relishing in the derogatory and deranged ramblings of Nick Cave’s queer characters, even if we acknowledge that they are offensive and regressive.
To wrap this up, I want to acknowledge the attention surrounding Nick Cave’s cancellation and tell you something I’ve observed in the process of researching this. Cave came under a lot of public scrutiny when he addressed these old songs in an entry of his fan response series, “The Red Hand Files.” This essay was mostly an excuse for Cave to give his thoughts on cancel culture and how actually we all need to respect Morrissey’s right to go on half-literate racist screeds even we disagree with him, and he indicated that while he refrained from performing his more problematic songs, he would not be editing them. I don’t technically disagree with anything he said, it is kind of ridiculous to expect artists to go back and rerecord 30-year-old songs to “fix” insensitivities, and Morrisey does indeed have a first amendment right to be a racist prick. However, the essay is written in this kind of condescending and defensive tone that’s hardly flattering, especially considering that he was not yet the subject of any cancellation, could have easily ignored the topic, and the original question was fairly polite. On the other hand, I do feel compelled to point out that all public interactions I’ve read between Cave and his queer fans are just exceptionally genuine and sweet. The letter response about his “drag queen energy,” stood out to me especially, because Cave both validates and intellectually engages with a presumably fairly young non-binary fan, reflecting on his own history with gender in a way that supports some of the most charitable readings you can give his music. So, in short, I guess my hot take is “Nick Cave is good actually?” Not a bad takeaway, I guess.