Talking Pride with the king of the parade
The front door is wide open. Giving a little tap on the wooden frame, I hear the boom of his instantly recognisable voice greeting me from the next room. The one and only Páll Óskar strolls into the foyer motioning that he’s on the phone, and leans in to give me the kind of casual half-hug you do with your best friend. Páll Óskar and I are meeting for the first time yet this feels utterly natural, genial, cordial, no false formalities. His sharp black sweatshirt may be scrawled with the word ‘hype’ but Páll is nothing but relaxed.
A household name in Iceland and cult star abroad, the artist and performer’s career spans some 22 years. In that time he has released seven studio albums and two best-of collections, a memorable Eurovision song contest entry (and, for years, hosted several now-legendary Eurovision parties), appeared on Icelandic versions of the reality shows Pop Idol and The X Factor, written regular sex and love advice columns as “Dr. Love” (along with running an accompanying radio show) and performed live shows in Iceland almost every weekend of the year. He even regularly sings at funerals, if the call comes. Páll Óskar is also one of the most prominent gay public figures in Iceland, for decades an outspoken champion for equality, and by now the traditional closer of the Pride festivities. He’s now mentally and physically preparing for the upcoming Reykjavík Pride (formerly Gay Pride, under a new all-inclusive title), which this year focuses on hate speech on the internet and the discrimination LGBTQIA people still face on a daily basis.
What’s the motivation behind the theme of this year’s pride event?
After last year’s parade, there were some really nasty comments about the parade being made on Facebook by prominent people [most notably, kitsch legend-slash-singer Gylfi Ægisson claimed the parade was damaging to children and tried to file criminal charges against the event]. This guy was claiming that the parade was pornographic. And he got a lot of followers and people liking this comment. So there was backlash. Let me be perfectly clear: the Reykjavík Gay Pride parade is not pornographic at all. Not even a bit. I was a member of the committee from the beginning, from 1999 until 2006, while we were forming this parade, and there was one thing we were always absolutely clear on—no tits and asses.
That’s what I noticed at my first pride parade here, was how clean it is.
I do understand and you google ‘gay pride’ and check out the images that come up, you probably see photos from the ones in Berlin, New York, London, San Francisco. And what do you see? Fifty-something men wearing jock straps, if even that. We were absolutely clear from the beginning with our festival that we wanted it to be a family-oriented event. Ultimately, the moment you pull down your pants in the middle of the street, it’s kind of difficult to demand respect.
So it isn’t being prude?
No, of course not. The people who take an active part in the parade have always respected that boundary. We have noticed that the people who break that rule are usually not part of the parade. Those people are usually members of a bachelor or hen party and the irony is that they’re usually straight. They use the parade as a platform to embarrass the bachelor or hen by pushing them into the parade, film it, and the gimmick is to show it at the wedding party and the guests split with laughter.
Wait, what? That actually happens?
Almost every year! And these rituals are, by nature, humiliating. And the parade is definitely not about humiliation. It’s written in the festival programme this year: “unfeathered geese and ganders aren’t welcome in the parade.” I hope they listen.
You’ve never seemed to be shy about making public statements. A couple of years ago coming up to Pride, I remember you said something about the event now being about more than just sexuality because of all kinds of discrimination people face. You called out the fact that nowadays the only ones who have it easy are rich right-wing white men wearing suits, maybe holding a gun and a bible.
It was really interesting to experience the feedback from that statement. There were middle-aged men who thought I was just talking about them, which was far from the truth. Maybe what happened is that straight people are simply not used to being addressed as a group, while it’s very common for anyone else to be addressed and generalised as a group, like women, homosexuals, black people, Jews, Muslims, immigrants.
It’s important to take a stand. People are dealing with lots of bad stuff in their daily lives. People are still being judged by the way they look, or their gender, or their sexuality. There are still wars going on. I have to be really careful when I read the newspaper these days not to become depressed. There is always something out there to write about, and there is always something to put into words. It doesn’t matter if it’s a story that’s been told, you can always tell it again with your own voice. You can add your own flair to a story that’s been told, or look for the next layer.
The content of your music isn’t exactly political in itself. Is the fact of your performance a political act?
Yeah, definitely. I miss artists who use pop music as a tool to make the world a better place. I don’t know if it’s their own fear that is holding them back from taking a stand and making statements, or if it’s the producers or the record companies holding them back or creating puppets out of them. You can make peoples’ lives so much easier and inspire people in so many ways through your art.
But to tell you the truth, I hate politics. I do not belong to any political group, I hate the game, I don’t want to play the game, I don’t understand the rules, and I don’t want to learn the rules. I want no part of it. My politics have always been pretty simple. It has always been about human rights and has usually been about taking a stand for the one being stepped on.
Is the Pride event more about politics or partying for you?
The Pride parade stands for many things, to me. It started off as a celebration—and it is a celebration!—of the harvest of all our hard work, it’s a show of gratitude to the straight people who actually got the picture. We can’t forget that where we’ve come to now is due to heterosexual politicians who got the picture. Like, feminism will take root and you will get the harvest of that labour when men finally get the picture!
It really has so many layers and the most beautiful thing is that the parade becomes what you put into it. If you are proud of yourself, you experience the parade as a beautiful celebration of life. It’s fine and it should be political. I think it’s fantastic when we manage to have a fifty-fifty mix where it’s political and a great party. Mission accomplished. You should not forget that this parade has political roots. You should not forget that is the primary purpose of the parade. Another of our policies is that we do not
allow any commercial advertisement in the parade. I was in New York City for their last pride event and I was deeply saddened. The whole parade felt like one big huge beer commercial. All the political undertones had vanished. Like, are these the queer staff members at Diet Coke throwing Coke cans at us? Very few floats made a point or made me feel good.
What is the most important message of the parade for you?
Every single year when it’s getting close to Pride I usually get asked the same two questions: “why do you have to flaunt your sexuality?” and “why shouldn’t we celebrate “straight pride?” I usually give the same answers: I flaunt mine in the same way that straight people flaunt theirs. It is necessary to “flaunt” my sexuality because I remember the time when it was a total taboo. People always ask me “Why do you have to bring this on the streets? Isn’t it your private business what you do in your bedroom?” Yes, what I do in my bedroom is my private matter, but if I’m walking down the street and I see a straight couple taking a walk, holding hands, with their wedding rings and a baby stroller and I’m somehow not free to do the same thing on that same sidewalk, that my hard-earned taxes paid for, without that being considered “flaunting”? It’s not a private matter. It matters to you and it matters to me.
The Pride parade comes from the necessity to be able to walk down the street with full dignity during a time when being gay was illegal, when society violated you, you could be put in jail, you were a second class citizen and you were even physically abused. So when people ask me why they shouldn’t have a straight pride parade, I say be grateful you don’t need one. Be thankful.
COME OUT, PITCHER-AND-CATCHERS
What are the issues you’d like to see change in the queer community here?
There are so many great, interesting, brave, intellectual people who have given their faces and names openly to our cause, but if there’s one group of gay people that I would like to see more of, or who need to have their voices heard, it’s people in sports! Each and every member of the sports world who comes out is lifting a huge load off so many peoples’ backs. I encourage queer people in sports to have their voices heard. They don’t need to say more than those three little words. It’s going to be a huge inspiration for so many people.
Bisexual people still have a long way to go, as well. Transgender people have done a lot of good work, not only coming out, but they have pushed the envelope. They demanded their own legal rights. They give their own cause faces and names, they’re public and visual and they’ve done a great job. Bisexual people still are between worlds. It’s like they’re looking in the mirror and checking their own self-respect and wondering where it can be found. It’s probably taking such a long time for them because it is a matter which is entirely their own. This is their own private tug of war. In my whole life I’ve only met two—I repeat, two—bisexual men who are out and proud, who embrace the talent of being able to fall in love with both sexes, both genders. To this day it amazes me that I have not met more.
Has there been any outreach to those specific communities to bring them into the parade in a significant way?
Well, I don’t believe in outing people or dragging people into the parade who don’t want to be there. If you’re not proud of yourself enough to walk that parade, why should you enter something that is all about pride? It has to be done wholeheartedly. But I’m a firm believer that this will happen in the near future.
The reason why I always choose to make a float that is as fabulous as can be is for the closet cases. It’s for those people who are still living a double life. I’m not trying to force anyone out of the closet—you should always have a choice—but I want to be there to remind them that I came out of the closet and no harm done! Nothing bad happened. I have the same chances of having a marvellous life and a fantastic career and to be respected despite my sexual orientation.
Despite it, or maybe because of it?
I thank God that I was born gay! I love being a faggot. I love being queer. This is the best thing that could have happened to my life. I wouldn’t be the artist that I am if God wouldn’t have given me this gift of homosexuality.
A Brief Biography
Born in 1970, Páll Óskar Hjalmtýsson was the youngest of seven children raised in a small flat in Reykjavík’s Vesturbær neighbourhood. Both his parents were classically trained singers which led to a very musical household. “We were nine people living in about 90 square metres so it was kind of crowded,” Páll says. “Most of my brothers and sisters were searching for their identity through music, and none of us were necessarily listening to the same thing, but being the youngest, I got a taste of everything.”
He recalls the various catalogues of artists each of his siblings curated for themselves. His sister Diddú, who is now a classical singer in Iceland, listened to great female singer-songwriters like Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, and Cleo Laine, while the youngest of his brothers butched it up by playing Thin Lizzy, Mötörhead and KISS on his lunch breaks at home. His eldest sister worked in one of Iceland’s oldest discoteques in the seventies, Klúburinn, and would bring home all the latest disco singles. His youngest sister, who dated local punk musician Mike Pollock in the eighties during the peak of his band Utangarðsmenn’s success, got him into Nina Hagen, Lene Lovich and Siouxsie and the Banshees.
Páll hit high school during the eighties and began to experience a personal awakening as the world was in the peak of the AIDS crisis. “It was 1987 and we were just as petrified as the rest of the world. People were dying,” he says. “There I was, 16 or 17, still taking my sexuality as a joke. When I was growing up I was not the hottest guy at school. I was not the hunk. I never considered myself a sexual being or worthy of loving or being loved. I knew deep down in my heart that I was gay, but I had no place to go and no place to express these emotions.”
While people were terrified of the virus that no one yet understood, the gay community centred around Samtökin ’78 (Iceland’s National Queer Organization) began demanding responsible information. In the midst of this, the media started publishing stories about gay men and the gay community was becoming more visible. This led Páll to begin looking for information in books, and while the books he found at his school library proved to be useless to him, he met his first love.
“The emotion of falling in love was so strong and so real, it was the first time I felt something that I was willing to do anything within my power for,” he says. “Finally I felt vibrant and alive and everything came alive to me—the clouds, the sky, the sea, nature, weather. I woke up.” This time he turned to Samtökin ’78 to help him find the information he wanted to have when he came out to his parents. “I didn’t want to come out to my parents and not be able to answer the questions that would rain on me. And rain down they did.” he says.
After coming out, Páll headed to college at Reykjavík’s Menntaskólinn við Hamrahlið, where he joined the theatre committee that put on Iceland’s first production of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. He starred as the show’s gender-bending anti-hero, Frank-N-Furter, and the show was a great success. After college he moved to New York City where he recorded his first album, ‘Stuð.’ Once back in Iceland, he had a stint as the country’s Eurovision entry in 1997 with his song “Minn Hinsti Dans” (“My Final Dance”), which placed 20th of 25 entries but stood out for its provocative choreography at the live final. Páll continues to host famous Eurovision parties in Iceland every year.
Nowadays, he has spent the vast majority of his time performing live, as he has for the past 22 years. His performing calendar is full year-round, with events drawing him to every part of Iceland for raging dance parties, annual company gatherings, sit-down concerts, small town festivals and the occasional funeral. “I’m so grateful to be able to host huge parties for a standing or dancing audience, but then again I can also do concerts for sitting audiences,” he says. “I’m equally grateful for the funerals, because those are the moments where I realise that the role of the performer or musician is one of service. That’s where the musician comes into the picture, because music can be so healing and powerful.”
“I wish I could spend more of my time in the studio,” Páll says. “I wish I could be writing all of the time. I wish I could be doing film scripts or music videos or simply have more dinner parties for my friends, but mostly I am performing. And absolutely I love it.”
The Albums According To Páll Óskar
Most emotionally charged album:
“What happened on this album was something that probably only me and a handful of people believed: that I was going to be a popstar. The idea that I would become a competitive popstar up against the top artists in Iceland wasn’t so common, because of my background and my being openly gay. Few people thought I would make it to the A-list. But this album gave a hint of what was to come. I always think of that album really fondly. I always had childhood dreams of becoming Donna Summer and this is the album where those dreams took off.”
Most challenging to make:
Deep Inside Paul Oscar (1999)
“First and foremost, it taught me a lesson: do not take the cake out of the oven half-baked. It was almost there but not quite. But I was in a hurry! That was an expensive lesson to learn. I lost a lot of money on it. It was the only album I’ve lost money on in my career. It took me a long time to recover from it. It was a hard blow. But the next lesson I learned was more important: it’s not how you fall down that matters, it’s how you stand back up. At the same time, I can’t slag it off because it does have its moments.”
Album closest to his heart:
Ef Ég Sofna Ekki (2001)
“This was my first collaboration with my harpist, Monika Abendroth, and it has such a beautiful energy to it. I met Monika through a mutual friend, Hreiðar Ingi Þórsteinnsson, who is a brilliant songwriter. This album was the first time I really heard myself sing. I discovered a brand new voice inside me that I had never allowed myself to express. It was much more complex and technically challenging, much more lyrical. I could not hide myself behind all the noise. In some cases it was just me and her. The result was a really intense and raw performance and it has a quality that I like a lot.”
His all-around favourite:
Allt Fyrir Ástina (2007)
“This is the best album that I’ve done, hands down. It sums up my life in so many aspects. I’ve always been an avid fan of disco, Europop and trance, and my songwriter, Örlygur Smári, and I were just determined to make a great pop album. So many good songs came out of it that will be linked to my life forever. I like performing them to this day.”