Songs about the queer experience, LGBT+ declarations of love, and subsequent break up ballads are now all commonplace in mainstream music across much of the Western musical world. While not always on prominent platforms, LGBTQ+ orientated music has always existed. Looking at gay and transgender narratives in lyrics and music videos throughout history, we can see that the trajectory towards all types of relationships and identities being included in music hasn’t necessarily been a straight path.
Beginning back in the 1920s, Ma Rainey’s ‘Prove It On Me Blues’ is an example of early LGBTQ+ lyricism. Her bisexuality is well documented, and this song clearly depicts sleeping with women and experimenting with gender expression. It is hard to determine the impact on LGBTQ+ people within her time but Angela Davis views Rainey’s work as a basis for the lesbian movement in the 1970s gathering around music that reaffirmed their identity.
These artists put their careers at risk in some capacity to advance LGBTQ+ representation in their music
Moving into the 1970s and 80s, there was a development of more queer music and music videos. Homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK and US but was followed swiftly by a wave of social conservatism under Thatcher and Reagan. The music and visuals of the era helped to begin a more noticeable representation of LGBTQ+ people in the mainstream, but still with a degree of hesitation to be overtly gay for fear of persecution and public backlash.
The blurring of gender boundaries by Bowie, Freddie Mercury’s visuals in ‘I Want To Break Free’, and the ambiguous “somebody” of Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody’ allowed for gay and trans people to find themselves in songs. But there was still a reduced ability to launch personal attacks on the artist themselves. Some did dare to push the industry further such as The Village People’s ‘YMCA’ music video and Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s video for ‘Relax’. Regardless of how overtly queer their content was, these artists put their careers at risk in some capacity to advance LGBTQ+ representation in their music.
Since 2000, the greater acceptance of LGBTQ+ people, and subsequently musicians within the community, there have been a few steps back for the representation of LGBT+ narratives in music. Katy Perry’s ‘I Kissed A Girl’ significantly upheld the stereotype of bisexuals as promiscuous and framed sapphic relationships as less valid or real in comparison to heterosexual ones.
In 2011, Lady Gaga, who happens to be bisexual, released ‘Born This Way’, a better example of promoting love and acceptance from a position of privilege without trying to speak for the entire community. This song, in part, can be seen as akin to that of straight, cisgender gay icons such as Madonna, Cher and Janet Jackson and their activist stances, recognising they have benefited from the support of the LGBTQ+ community. Macklemore’s ‘Same Love’ does a similar thing but less well, collaborating with a gay singer on the piece and using real LGBTQ+ people in the video, but the credit goes to him, a straight man.
The co-opting of the queer experience and musical aesthetic by straight artists now causes an issue
Today, the success of these gay icons demonstrating how powerful a queer fanbase can be has in part resulted in a new era of straight artists trying to capitalise off the queer culture without any personal risk. Forcing artists to come out is undoubtedly invasive, but it is also okay to question how artists are presenting queer relationships and culture in their music. Ariana Grande’s lyrics in ‘MONOPOLY’ and her ‘break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored’ video are examples of her using shock tactics about her potential bisexuality to sell. More extremely, Matty Healy comfortably dropping anti-LGBTQ+ slurs in The 1975’s recent discography is very uncomfortable while he remains unclear about his sexuality.
We are now in an era where anybody can sing about gay relationships freely which can be viewed as a great achievement. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer and non-binary artists are now able to create work about relationships they have been in with greater freedom than they have before. However, the co-opting of the queer experience and musical aesthetic by straight artists now causes an issue. Previously reliant upon the support and efforts of straight stars, LGBTQ+ artists are now mainly able to be out and proud. Perhaps it is time to leave the narratives to them.