It's hard to know whether to applaud Victoria Starr for pulling off this spirited biography of k.d. lang while flouting such basic journalistic protocol as citing sources, or to fault her for stooping to the cut-and-paste school of biography in which St. Martin's Press specializes. But once you've deduced what Starr neglects to tell you herself that this is an unauthorized book larded with secondhand quotes from lang you'll forgive her professional shortcomings and warm to the integrity of her approach.
Equal parts biography and sociology, k.d. lang: All You Get is Me focuses on lang as the first avowed lesbian to win a Grammy. In fact, her 1992 coming out "may have been the key to unlocking the closet door for the entire pop music industry." (David Geffen, Melissa Etheridge, and others soon followed.) Having interviewed lang's family, childhood friends, and collaborators, Starr (a journalist and radio producer) pieces together the singer's history, from her rugged childhood in Alberta, Canada, to her controversy-studded adulthood. Lang piqued country purists by toying with tradition, enraged carnivores by making a "Meat Stinks" ad for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and defined "lesbian chic" by posing, in what became one of Vanity Fair's top-selling issues, in a barber chair with a scantily clad, razor-wielding Cindy Crawford.
Starr maintains a respectful distance from her subject not just for lack of access, but also because of her clear intention to sidestep sensationalism. She describes lang as an uncompromising ham with a mischievous sense of humor who became a symbol of gay rights by chance, not design. Lang "never imagined herself a lesbian role model. And while her feminist approach to country music may have seemed like a radical gesture at the time, it was motivated more by a personal desire to remain true to herself than by any real plan to change the world."
Starr's use of astrology to explain the fluctuations of lang's career is silly, and her vivid but sometimes unpracticed writing style grates in spots. But she reflects intelligently on gender and sexuality in the music business, highlighting the hypocrisies of an industry where it "was still easier to find violently homophobic rap and rock groups on MTV than it was to buy records by openly gay artists." This is a compelling portrait of the genre-hopping pop diva who once said, "I know these radio guys pick up my album, see the picture and say, 'Who's this faggot?'" B+