Meat Loaf, arguably the most unlikely musician to have ever become a full-fledged pop star, has reportedly died at the age of 74. Otherwise known as Michael Lee Aday, the artist was known for his long, lush songs, largely produced in collaboration with Jim Steinman (as meticulously detailed by Chris Molanphy in a truly unmissable episode of Slate’s Hit Parade podcast). He was also known, at least by some of us, as an icon of queer masculinity—an inspirational and aspirational figure of manhood and butch lesbianism for people of all genders.
Gay and queer aesthetics are known for stepping outside of stereotypical categories for male/masculine and woman/feminine, but they often they make that step in one fairly predictable direction that we call androgyny. Androgyny is an aesthetic of masculine emotional detachment combined with feminine prettiness. What made Meat Loaf so special was that he bent these aesthetics along the opposite axis, in the way you’re not supposed to do it—sincerely, yearningly, with emotion permeating every line he sang. His trademark was an intense sincerity of delivery at war with his intentionally parodic lyrics. As a pop icon, he was the anti-Madonna; he was florid and baroque, with a solid, earthy physique grounding his excesses. Meat Loaf’s style was every bit as over the top as any pop diva, but he eschewed the ironic detached stance and sense of superiority that normally accompanies that style.
The artist’s body type—he was overweight for most of his career— was integral to this. On a thin or traditionally attractive pop star, we allow velvet, ruched, and/or ruffled costumes to be played, well, straight. These artists, dressed in melodramatic flourishes, are considered beautiful, royal, or even other-wordly. We’ve decided that we won’t force the beautiful people to reckon with just how extra all their extraness is; instead, we will celebrate them for their inhuman confidence. Meat Loaf wore these same sorts of beruffled and bedecked costumes in his stage shows, but as a fat dude, he didn’t have the option of coming across as a hot untouchable alien, and his art was so much better for it. Instead of unreachable perfection, he embraced the clownishness of his own grandiosity and, by proxy, all human grandiosity. He grounded that impulse to be grandiose in human vulnerability, emotionality, and yearning for connection.
[Read: How Meat Loaf Became Music’s Most Unlikely Megaseller]
You can hear it in his guttural, husky voice when he sings that he “Would do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That).” It’s in “Paradise By the Dashboard Light,” “All of Me,” and all of his other big songs,minor hits, and album tracks. His music laughs from the heart. It makes you feel all kinds of things, but with a gentle warning to not take your feelings too seriously.
Laughing from the heart, in the mode of “Paradise By the Dashboard Light,” became a touchstone for my transition into maleness. At 5’2” and 200 pounds, I don’t have the option not to appear a little ridiculous. When I looked to traditional masculinity to find myself, the only way of being I could ever see was thin-skinned and defensive about it. I found I wasn’t interested in putting on a lot of muscle, buying some guns, and being a big-enough jerk that no one ever dared to mention how silly I was deep down within earshot. The other available option for fitting in, according to heteronormative models, was the male comedian’s route of making jokes at my own and others’ expense, deflecting human connection, and hiding any hurt or insecurity behind humor at all times. That didn’t feel right, either. Instead, I found something that made sense to me in Meat Loaf’s approach to being a pop star: a sense of confidence and humor that was self-defensive without self-deprecating, self-aware without self-consciousness. Meat Loaf’s ownership of his idiosyncrasies—and the acceptance he received in return for it—instilled in me a willingness to open myself out and embrace the absurd in myself and in everybody else, with love.
This is what I personally took from Meat Loaf’s music and career, and what many other queer people who didn’t fit the androgynous gender box have taken from it as well. It’s why Meat Loaf became a butch lesbian icon, something I called for in 2014 in an article for the Toast, and which was subsequently taken up by many in the lesbian and transmasculine communities, just as I’d hoped.
In Meat Loaf’s work, we could find a key to transforming the queer and cis aesthetic cultures that exist and create new masculinities that can let go of toxic defensiveness and macho-posturing, without having to become indistinguishable from femininity. Perhaps it’s melodramatic to suggest that in a pop star’s persona lies the path toward diffusing the toxicity of patriarchy, which dates back as long as Western Civilization at least. Besides, Meat Loaf himself was a Republican who supported Mitt Romney, appeared on The Apprentice, and has already been eulogized by former President Trump, after all—perhaps not the best role model for effecting societal change. At the same time, it feels appropriate that this melodramatic path is also a deeply ironic one—both are things we could stand to inject a little more of into our daily lives. And so I say: Rest in peace, Mr. Loaf; you will forever be a butch lesbian icon in my heart.