The iconic singer talked to me about the community, Pride and being an unexpected leader.
She’s a rock legend and an inspiration. She is also the voice in a generation of celebrities who went against the advice of industry leaders and came out even when doing so could ruin their livelihoods.
Melissa Etheridge epitomizes the word Pride. Not only did she come out at the height of her career, she broke ground for others to do the same. That drive is still present and maybe even moreso given the current presidential administration and its attempts to undo everything Etheridge has fought for. Perhaps her voice is stronger than ever.
The words to her song "Come to My Window" might have another meaning in modern times:
"I don't care what they think.
I don't care what they say.
What do they know about this love, anyway?"
The rocker took some time out of her busy schedule to talk to me about a lot of things. When I picked up the phone I was a bit nervous, not because she is an A-List celebrity but that she is also an activist. And not just any activist, one who broke ground for my generation to be a little bit more at ease about coming out. I answered the phone and heard this very calm but confident voice on the other end, "Hello Timothy, this is Melissa Etheridge." I nearly bit my fist in excitement.
Whether you're a straight fan or a gay one, there is no denying Etheridge is one of the most talented singer/songwriters of modern times. Forget about Pride for a moment, her career has earned her multiple industry nominations; she has a Grammy and an Academy Award.
She s also a cancer survivor, who after losing her hair to chemo, still went on stage to perform at the 2005 Grammy Awards. It's not hyperbolic to describe her as a hero.
Etheridge is performing at San Diego Pride this year and I wanted to talk to her about the importance of a community and those under the rainbow coming together every year to celebrate.
“Oh, it’s huge," she said. "I’m in my fifties now and I remember when we had no rights. And it was about getting out there and counted. And in these days of feeling like people want to push back on those rights, yeah we still need to stand up and be counted."
She believes unity has the power to take down a giant. "I remember the first gay Pride I went to it was about 1984, I think, and just the feeling—just the experience of standing in a group of thousands other gay people you felt that you were not alone, I should never think I’m alone. It’s really helpful and healing for all kinds of things but especially these days when it’s just so—you know, how it is.”
But alone, or at least dividing the community, is one of the reasons she feels the current administration was voted into office. Etheridge says it's easy to conquer people if you divide them by using fear; it's an easy way to control them. That goes for LGBT in-fighting too. Combating that is daunting, but it can be done.
"The best thing we can do is to be fearless," she explains, her voice turning serious. "And the best thing we can do is to come from love. And when we start dividing and going, ‘all of us except them,’ that doesn’t work, you know you have to meet it with love and understanding. And yeah it doesn’t make sense. A lot of things don’t make sense. I mean ‘gay’ didn’t make sense to my parents--they didn’t understand what that was--and now it does.
She adds: "As long as we travel through this time and keep applying radical love to every problem, that we can do. And as a community, we are leaders in that."
Believe it or not, this activist side of her came as a surprise. I asked her if she ever dreamed that one day she would be a resounding voice of the LGBT community. She was very frank in her response, "Oh no, no, no. I wanted to be a rich and famous rock star!"
Luckily, her destiny would eventually allow her to be both. She says a path opened up and she took it.
"You know, activism comes when you just make a choice and there came a point when I was like I don’t want to hide, I don’t want to lie; that’s going to make me sick. When I came out it was for me it was for my own health. It was for my own…life. All of a sudden you start answering one question and then you answer two and all of a sudden everyone wants to talk to you. And you end up talking about being gay for five years and you start getting awards for it," she laughs.
To that end, I wanted to ask her if there was an end in sight. It seemed the LGBT community was making great strides in the last decade and suddenly it was sent into a tailspin after the Trump election. Etheridge says change has to come from within before it can be useful.
"There’s no guarantee in life, and the key is your vigilance means every day you wake up and fill yourself with love of yourself," she says. "And if we love ourselves as a people as a community, and we see ourselves as contributing, loving, giving members of the whole society. If we hold that light we become the light at the end of the tunnel, we become that."
Her latest album The Medicine Show is available now. I was taken by the title because to me it represents healing. That's no coincidence. Etheridge says she made the album as a treatment for the souls (including her own) affected by the last election. "It comes from 2016. It comes from November ninth, waking up and going ‘oh no!’ It comes from seeing the contrast, you know, the push back and knowing that we have to stay in healing mode. You can’t fight fear. If you fight fear you become fear."
This is her sixteenth album, perhaps one for the ages. "The songs are very...they’re healing, they speak to the times," she said. "There’s a lot on it. There’s some personal stuff. This is the job of music, this is what art does. Let’s heal.”
As I prepared to wrap up our interview, I reflected on all the things we spoke about. There were two main words that stood out to me: healing and fear. So I wondered if this rock legend, this cancer survivor, this out celebrity was afraid of anything.
“I tell you, going through cancer was a journey of understanding fear; an understanding of what fear can do, and how it can affect your health,” she said. “You know it’s kinda silly to say, ‘I have no fear,’ because of course, fear is a natural reaction. It’s about what I’m afraid of. I’m not afraid anymore of what someone else can do to me. I’m not afraid of a lot of things I used to be afraid of now."
And as a true activist and motivator she is, Etheridge says there is good that can come from being afraid, but that's only if you use it as fuel for something else.
"My only fear would be that it would keep me from doing something," she said. "And so I really, really pay attention to what I am fearing and I work on lessening that and understanding and converting the fear to as much love as possible."