An exploration of how superstars and up-and-comers alike are queering pop music.
“Only want a girl who ain’t afraid to love me, not a metaphor of what we really could be,” sings Hayley Kiyoko on her song “What I Need” featuring Kehlani.
Even just a decade ago, these lyrics – explicitly gay, sung by an out lesbian pop star on a track that features another queer singer – would have been unthinkable. Although the world still threatens LGBTQ+ lives and rights, pop culture has made huge strides towards representation in the past few years. Music, an often subversive and intensely personal medium, is the perfect landscape for the largest of those strides.
I figured out that I was bisexual when I was sixteen. The realization hit me with a gut-punch sick feeling and a skipped heartbeat. But I wasn’t alone – I looked around and saw so many women like me. I had Courtney Barnett, St. Vincent, Hayley Kiyoko. Being queer wasn’t weird and different, it was cool. It was fun.
Today, the pop music world is flooded with LGBTQ+ singers. Hayley Kiyoko is Lesbian Jesus, King Princess is our king (and our princess), and Troye Sivan is our prince. So many huge pop singers are queer that I can’t even name them all: Sam Smith, Halsey, Sia, Tegan and Sara, etc., etc. Some of these musicians have come out recently, some have always been out. Some sing very explicitly about their sexuality, some write ambiguous and subtle lyrics. But they’re all defining the pop music industry and pop culture in general as a tolerant, representative, liberated environment.
Troye Sivan’s newest album, Bloom, is a tribute to the painful uncertainty and exquisite joy of being a gay teenager. “An ode to the boy I love,” he sings. “I want you all to myself/don’t leave none for nobody else/I am an animal with you.” His desire is unabashed, greedy, but loving and pure – so much more desire than gay men have historically been allowed to express.
A new voice on the pop horizon, King Princess sings about the Generation Z experience of queerness. Her pain is a pain from heartbreak, not from having to love in secrecy and fear. In her most well-known song – made famous when Harry Styles, popstar prince of ambiguous sexuality and androgynous style, tweeted the lyrics – she nods to a time when lesbians had to hide. “I love it when we play 1950,” she sings. Now, that world of secrecy is a like a fading nightmare, a game to play at instead of real life. But even back then, when being openly gay was much harder, singers were still pushing the straight-laced boundaries.
Pop music, I’d argue, has almost always been queer. In the early 1950s, when the pop charts were established and teenagers started to become their own separate consumer class, Elvis Presley burst into sedate and modest suburban living rooms with his writhing pelvis and flamboyant suits. Elvis was most certainly a straight man, but his shockingly sexual hip-wiggling, his pouting lips and lush eyelashes, and his pink suits all defined a new type of male idol. An idol who gained sex appeal from looking more feminine. Slowly but surely, the aesthetic of pop music was queering.
In the decades since, almost every giant of the genre has subverted gender and sexuality. David Bowie wore makeup, jumpsuits, and occasionally a dress. Freddie Mercury dressed in drag for a Queen music video and pranced on stage in skintight jumpsuits. Prince rocked high heels on stage and sang, “I’m not a woman/I’m not a man/I am something that you will never understand.” Michael Jackson’s girlish voice, long hair, and sequined jackets gave him an androgynous mystique. In the hands of these performers, masculinity and femininity warped and blurred, setting a new definition for coolness. Along the way, fully out singers like Elton John brought LGBTQ+ identities to the mainstream.
Whether they were gay or straight, these stars have shaped the sound and style of our culture. We live in a world of increasing equality because of activists and policymakers, but also because of the musicians and icons who introduced queerness to our society on a different front.