Pop icon Belinda Carlisle headlines 10th annual MetroBall, but her Dallas trip will be bittersweet
For those old enough to remember the release of the 1981 album Beauty and the Beat, its debut was a kind of dividing line in music history: B.C. (Before Carlisle) and A.D. (After Disco). Belinda Carlisle, frontwoman for The Go-Go’s, ushered in the era of the “girl band,” a subgenre of pop that helped spawn everyone from The Bangles to Destiny’s Child. With their first single, “We Got the Beat” and equally catchy post-punk hits like “Our Lips Are Sealed” and “Vacation,” The Go-Go’s rode the musical new wave into the record books.
The group split up within a few years, but Carlisle continued her solo career, highlighted by her No. 1 smash “Heaven is a Place on Earth.” But more than a musical pioneer, she has also been politically and social active, especially in her support of animal rights and LGBT issues. (Her son James Duke Mason — grandson of film legend James Mason — came out at 14.)
Carlisle will bring all that energy to Dallas next week, when she headlines the 10th annual MetroBall, a fundraiser for the Greg Dollgener Memorial AIDS Fund. But her appearance will also be tinged with tragedy: Earlier this year, one of Carlisle’s oldest friends, Dallas personality Jack E. Jett, died.
We chatted with Carlisle about her memories of Jett, as well as her upcoming album, her activism and why she loves the gay community.
Dallas Voice: Like a lot of men my age and younger, your work with the Go-Go’s was kind of the soundtrack to our early dance life. How often do you get approached by gay guys — or women — telling you your music was the way they let loose when they came out?
Belinda Carlisle: I get told all the time how the Go-Go’s were the soundtrack to people’s lives. It’s always flattering when someone comes up and tells you that.
Certainly you’re a feminist icon — and by extension, one of the divas of gay culture. Were you aware of what you were forging when you first hit it big? Well, all I knew is, we [The Go-Go’s] from the beginning had a sizable gay following, and when I began my solo career, it did grow. I would say that it’s about 70 percent of my following now, and of course I love it!
How has the music business changed over the years, especially as it deals with feminist issues?
The music business has changed completely since I began — it used to champion artistry and help young artists develop and [labels] were with you for the long haul. Now it is completely disposable and about money. Art has, for the most, part lost its importance.
I’ve wanted to interview you for many years, in large part because my dear friend Jack E. Jett always talked so fondly of you. I was devastated by his sudden death earlier this year. Can you share some memories about him? (I’m sure he was looking forward to seeing you at the MetroBall. How will that affect your appearance here — tinged with melancholy, perhaps?)
Of course, I was shocked and saddened at losing Jack. He was my friend for 35 years — we had many funny times together. I think my favorite memories are from Japan when he was a big model. We spent a lot of time there getting into mischief. I was looking forward to seeing him [in Dallas]. So, yes, this trip is tinged with melancholy for sure.
The Go-Go’s were one of the most successful girl groups of all time, but you were actually around just a few years — you’ve had a much longer solo career. In your own mind, do you think of it all as one career, or do you tend to compartmentalize the stages of your work?
I think of my career as one — I started with the Go-Go’s, and then pretty much went right into my solo career after the breakup. I went right into the studio and then a year later my first solo album came out. It all has gone by very quickly.
I do embrace my work with the Go-Go’s — I’m proud of that band. I find it easy to be able to switch gears when I have to. At the end of it all, it’s pop music.
Do you feel like you get pigeonholed as “New Wave” or “neo punk” artist or that your musical interests defy categorization? I guess I would be [pigeonholed] as an “’80s artist,” but actually I have had plenty of success in the ’90s, too. It doesn’t bother me — people like labels.
Your son, James Duke Mason, came out as a very young man. How has having a gay son affected your feelings or activities about gay issues?
I’ve always been interested in gay issues but of course having a gay son makes you think about them a lot more. When he first told me he was gay, I immediately thought, “What kind of world is he going to have to make his way in?” It’s tough out there — I know it’s getting better, but still there’s a lot of homophobia out there, and I find it shocking.
How important is the gay community to you? Did you have any gay mentors or inspirations, either musically, about gay issues?
Well, I live in West Hollywood, in the middle of a gay community, and I find it interesting and it’s amazing how everyone really watches out for each other, which isn’t something that happens in other communities. It will always be a big interest for me … and especially now with my son.
As far as personalities that really interest me — I would say Stephen Fry, Gore Vidal, Elton John … there are so many more, but those are the three that come to mind.
Do you have a favorite song, or particular feelings that are stirred every time you perform specific songs?
I love performing [“Heaven is a Place on Earth”] — I love seeing people’s reactions. The same with “We Got the Beat” — they love that, too. Personally, I love singing “Mad about You” and “Summer Rain.”
What are your favorite memories from the heyday of the ’80s?
There are so many! I think “Heaven” becoming a No. 1 song all over the world is one of my top memories.
What are your current goals or future projects? Is there anything you haven’t yet accomplished that’s still a life goal (or career goal) of yours?
I’m making an album as we speak — it mixes pop and mantra (which is something I’ve been very into and studied for the past 10 years as a Buddhist). Some of it is in English and some of it is in sanskrit gurmukhi [the ancient yogi language]. It’s a science and it has an amazing effect chanting it or listening to it. I love it, and it will be out probably in January 2016 — at the latest, next spring. I also have an animal charity project in Calcutta, called Animal People Alliance — I just did a 750-mile rickshaw ride across India to bring awareness to the plight of India’s street animals. I’m interested in service and adventure know!
For more information, visit Belinda’s Facebook page, Facebook.com/animalpeoplealliance?fref=ts.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 29, 2015.