Chely Wright — the country singer who came out as a lesbian in an issue of People Magazine last May — told the lesbian entertainment site Autostraddle.com that her sales have dropped dramatically since coming out, and that of her peers, only Mary Chapin Carpenter has offered a public statement of support.
While the music industry has examples of artists whose careers don’t seem to have been affected by coming out — Elton John, for example — there are indeed other musicians who don’t seem to have achieved their pre-coming out level of fame, and Wright has it especially rough as a country artist, since the audience for that genre is more conservative than most. That being said, it’s difficult to gauge whether an artist’s commercial decline can be directly correlated to his or her sexuality.
Indeed, Wright’s seemingly lowered expectations for her career speak to a sad reality for openly queer musicians. Even established artists such as George Michael, Michael Stipe of R.E.M. and Rob Halford of Judas Priest have not had the same success scoring big hits after officially coming out. And they likely felt comfortable doing so because they had already made it big in the music industry. Artists who have always been open about their sexuality, such as the Indigo Girls, Melissa Etheridge and the Scissor Sisters, typically find themselves with large niche audiences.
But it could be that Wright’s poor sales have nothing to do with her sexuality. Wright’s most recent album, Lifted Off the Ground, came five years after her previous record and 13 years after “Single White Female,” her biggest chart hit. That lack of career momentum combined with mixed reviews and virtually no support from mainstream country radio may be a better explanation for the album’s anemic sales than anything else.
Of course, that lack of airplay on mainstream country radio may be rooted in homophobia, but it could just as easily be a case of a career artist losing heat after years outside the spotlight. If anything, the publicity she has received for coming out may be improving her sales.