In recent years there has been increasing debate over the portrayal of queerness in the music industry and whether celebrities can be accused of “queerbaiting”, with people such as Harry Styles, Billie Eilish and Rita Ora being accused of it. “Queerbaiting” is often defined as a marketing technique in entertainment where a person/company is purposely ambiguous about sexuality to profit from queer people, without necessarily claiming to be part or supportive of the community. Do celebrities owe strangers this information? They don’t. How can we possibly tell whose experiences are ‘genuine’ and who is ‘looking for attention’ or profit? We can’t. I think that queerbaiting goes beyond the individual artist and responsibility lies with companies projecting an inclusive image yet being actively against LGBTQ+ rights, such as the owner of Coachella funding homophobic organisations.
It is nice to feel connected to our idols, but they have every right to keep their identity private or to simply be unsure. The reclaimed concept of ‘queer’ to some is to avoid labelling and accept the fluidity and individuality of gender and sexuality. Ask someone what being ‘queer’ means to them and you’ll likely get a different answer. There is no one way dress, sound, or act, and as someone who simultaneously gets told they look queer yet not queer enough, playing into these stereotypes by demanding a label can be damaging. How can people demand that celebrities publicly label themselves, when remaining unlabelled or not wanting to come out is valid? Despite this exploring queer narratives should be full of self-discovery and celebration, not fetishisation. ‘Queerbaiting’ can become a problem when there is misrepresentation. Damage is done when non-queer artists are taking up spaces and talking over LGBTQ+ artists when discussing queer issues. It is also an issue when they don’t speak out against discrimination or actively perpetuate it. Musicians can be allies and amplify queer voices, without necessarily revealing their own identity.
I think intention is important. Pressure should not be put on individual artists but on their teams whose job it is to curate an image and sell records. For example, fetishisation of queer women in music videos and in their promotion on social media is a problem because it caters to a straight, largely male audience. Whilst exploring identity through lyrics is deeply personal to an individual, the oversexualisation of women can be exploited for profit. There is a difference between sex positivity that has queer artists at the centre and straight people using it as an aesthetic. Billie Eilish caused controversy in 2021 with her single ‘Lost Cause’ and the promotion surrounding it. The music video was seen as provocative, as she was in bed with a group of girls. She also posted a photo from the promotion shoot, captioning it: “I love girls”, which many assumed was a coming out post. Though I thought it was distasteful, since it wasn’t necessarily needed to promote the music, Billie shouldn’t be expected to label herself. It is also interesting to see how gender plays a role in the amount of backlash and ‘queerbaiting’ accusations musicians receive. Harry Styles’ unlabelled sexuality has largely been accepted by his audience and people are keen to make the distinction that his image and sexuality don’t have a correlation.
It is a divisive topic, but I can’t help thinking that the term ‘queerbaiting’ should be reserved for fictional characters, not real people. Speculation is intrusive and outdated. Instead, we should channel the energy in making sure the music industry appeals to LGBTQ+ audiences in a positive way such as creating a safe space for queer musicians, authentic representation and funding LGBTQ+ specific charities and initiatives.