“Life’s So Fun!”: A Commentary On Queer Music

An insight into how LGBTQ+ artists and themes are at the forefront of a distinct musical subculture...

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From punks to mods, hippies to northern soul, subcultural emergence influenced by music has become a defining concept in modern history.

The past decade has arguably seen the development of an ever-present subculture, an emergence of a genre in its own right from the shadows of oppression to the forefront of popular musical consumption. The genre, of course, is queer music.

Traditional industry logic has long dictated a stigmatising discourse for sexuality in music. Many queer artists have indulged in success in decades past – take Elton John, for example, who had the best-selling single of the 1990s with Candle in the Wind. It is only now, however, that mainstream artists are writing explicitly about sexuality and identity. In recent years, the commercial viability of producing a wider variety of representation and sexual identities in music has led to canonical shifts from subtlety to unabashed openness in pronoun usage and lyrical themes. Artists are owning their own identities in their lyricism, no longer feeling the need to hide behind heteronormative narratives and implicit imagery. Inward lyrical examinations of harboured passions replace emotional suppression and themes of resentment, while sentiments are delivered more universally with often gender non-specific pronouns.

Music is just one indication of a much greater overarching cultural shift

Decisions are no longer beyond artists’ control, and many over the past decade have increasingly been allowed – through the rising popularity and accessibility of social media – to connect more immediately and authentically with their fans, cultivating fanbases that speak as much to them as vice versa. Music is just one indication of a much greater overarching cultural shift that has encouraged interconnection on a global level. Social media, streaming platforms, and other changes to the way in which music is now consumed have also increased popularity and outreach, while also decreasing the opportunity for material to be censored and controlled by external entities, leaving the power firmly with artists themselves to independently curate individual public image.

The more recent advent of platforms such as TikTok in mainstream popular culture has solidified the significance of media and queer music. With algorithms directing content to those most likely to engage, queer music is reaching its audience on an unprecedented scale. Artists identifying as LGBTQ are being catapulted onto a viral level, sparking worldwide trends with their music; from Beach Bunny’s pronoun shakeup with Tegan and Sara, to Orla Gartland’s “Why Am I Like This?” and the ultimate queer-coded question “do you listen to girl in red?”, queer music TikTok has exploded on a mass scale.

Beach Bunny teamed up with Tegan and Sara to shake up the pronouns in the song 'Cloud 9' (Video credit: YouTube, Beach Bunny)

Modern music, across all genres, is experiencing a revolutionary continuum of artists embracing their queerness both publicly and artistically in increasing numbers like the industry has never seen previously. While societal acceptance perhaps plays a role in this, it is in the most part the sheer volume of openly queer artists in music which is fuelling these changes. The true drive lies in queer visibility – in a society where, according to GLAAD’s 2017 study, over 20 percent of millennials identify as LGBTQ, queer artists now feel as seen as their fans. Modern queer artistry draws on lived experience to allow fans to enter into a vulnerable intimacy that can only be found in relatability – without the openness this would not be possible. 

Regardless, the surge in openly LGBTQ artists and subsequent rise of the queer genre hasn’t been entirely smooth. Backlash has been rife as wider socio-political macroclimates continue to grapple with total acceptance amidst turbulence and resistance. The road to a diverse industry remains rocky, and many artists are experience continued homophobia and transphobia resulting from the freedom of identity they now feel. Just last year, star Lizzo was captured by paparazzi defending fellow artist Demi Lovato after the latter was misgendered as “she” by a present photographer despite openly identifying as non-binary and using they/them pronouns. Misgendering of stars, gender identity and gender performativity have posed previous problems – singer Sam Smith has often spoke candidly about their experience as a non-binary individual in the music industry, claiming in a 2019 interview with SiriusXM’s Hits 1 that the industry “can be a bit homophobic, a bit sexist at times”, leaving them “scared every day” to embrace their femininity. American trio MUNA also acknowledge the problems with being an ‘out’ queer artist, discussing with PinkNews in 2020 the pressures of dealing with self-acceptance and societal shame in the public eye.

Queerness is no longer just objectified in mainstream music

However, art as a whole, and encompassing many different forms, is ultimately enabling a deconstruction of binaries and perceptions; gender and sexual identity are becoming increasingly accepted as concepts of fluidity. The music industry is constituent of this, opening up a creative space for queer recognition, representation and acceptance. Boundaries within music are being continuously pushed as fans crave material steeped in experimentation and ideological challenges. There is perhaps still a way to go before music is an industry categorised by complete equality, but diverse music is making waves; it’s here, and it’s queer. The representation we see now is leaps and bounds from the scarce examples seen in the decades previous, examples which may have seemed almost revolutionary only 15 years ago. Queerness is no longer just objectified in mainstream music (note: Katy Perry’s male-gaze-centric “I Kissed a Girl” is hardly the pinnacle of positive same-sex portrayals), but it is instead celebrated in explicitly honest declarations of LGBTQ love – MUNA’s 2021 single “Silk Chiffon” epitomises this in a way that is more than we could have ever hoped for.

Music has an inherent power to resonate on a deep and personal level with a vast number of people. Confusion about sexuality and gender identities, particularly (but not exclusively) regarding a younger audience, can be an isolating experience, with a long process to understanding and self-acceptance. Somewhere amid this confusion, however, music can provide an escape – music to which young queer people can relate opens the door to an entire community of individuals they can relate to. It is this, the sense of belonging that can be found from seeing yourself mirrored in mainstream popular culture, that defines the true importance of queerness in music. It is something which a new generation are being allowed to experience like those before them have not, and while room for improvement remains, that is truly something to take pride in. 

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