Pride: The Songwriting
When Shura was 16, the now-27-year-old British synth pop musician found herself holed up in the attic, “frantically Googling ‘lesbian musician.’” To her disappointment, the only names that came up were Tegan & Sara. “They’re amazing,” she tells TIDAL, “But it’s great that there’s more than just the two of them [now].”
Shura is one of several queer musicians who TIDAL spoke to about how their gender and sexuality factors into their songwriting — specifically love songs, breakup songs and songs about all matters of the heart. “My songs will always be pretty queer,” she tells us. “I find it very, very difficult to write anything unless that music comes from something that I’ve experienced.”
And she’s not the only one. In 2019, openly LGBTQ artists feel much freer to explore themselves and their relationships in their songs, videos and on stage. And, as a result, more same-sex pronouns — or indications of varying sexual and gender identities — are popping up all over the place in popular music.
From Frank Ocean’s 2012 track “Forrest Gump” (“Forrest Gump you run my mind, boy/Running on my mind boy”) to Halsey and Lauren Jauregui’s 2017 duet “Strangers” (“She doesn’t kiss me on the mouth anymore/’Cause it’s more intimate, than she thinks we should get”), explicit expressions of sexual fluidity are becoming less taboo.
Plus, these more fluid tracks are hitting the sweet spot with fans, climbing the charts and studding playlists. For example, Halsey, who is openly bisexual, uses both he/she pronouns in songs like 2017′s “Bad at Love,” which spent 33 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100.
“It is no longer surprising to have songs that specify homosexuality or bisexuality,” Judith Peraino, a Professor of Music at Cornell University, tells TIDAL. “The reason is obvious: same-sex relationships have been gaining mainstream acceptance in all entertainment forms and in society in general; trans identities too, but slower.”
The music world — not to mention the world at large — wasn’t always as welcoming. In the ’80s, the BBC banned queer-fronted Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s single “Relax” for its explicitly sexual and gay content. (It became a hit, anyway.) And even out musicians like Elton John and Melissa Etheridge tended to stay in the shadows, using universal pronouns and avoiding queerness — at least any direct show of it.
Etheridge’s beloved Grammy-nominated 1988 single about tortured love, “Bring Me Some Water,” could be mistaken for a heterosexual love song — depending on the listener — but she later confirmed what queer fans could already suss out: it was about her jealousy in a relationship with another woman: “Baby tell me does she love you like the way I love you? Does she stimulate you attract and captivate you? Tell me does she miss you, existing just to kiss you, like the way I do?”
Even songs we now call gay anthems, such as Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” (1986) or Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out” (1980), never explicitly mention homosexuality, but instead deal in vagaries: “True colors are beautiful, like a rainbow.”
Nowadays, however, we’re seeing a marked change in the way gender and sexuality identity is dealt with in popular music — from Troye Sivan to St. Vincent — and those leading the charge are inspiring even more musicians to come out in song.
Indie artist Arthur Moon, for one, credits Frank Ocean with her decision to embrace her queerness. “He drastically shifted the whole conversation,” she tells TIDAL. “That was particularly inspiring to me, because, at the time, I was just starting to figure out how to make a career in music and I was thinking I wasn’t going to be out because I was afraid of being pigeonholed. And I think Frank Ocean really changed that for me.”
Ocean came out as bisexual just before the release of his debut album, Channel Orange in 2012, which won him his first Grammy (Best Urban Contemporary Album) and led to his performing “Forrest Gump” at the 2013 Grammy Awards. Many others in hip-hop congratulated and supported Ocean publicly, from Beyoncé and JAY-Z to Russell Simmons, indicating a shift in support from a genre that has historically been unfriendly to LGBTQ people.
Pop singer Sir Babygirl says that once she realized she was bisexual, she wanted to make that explicit in her music — in part so she could take ownership of her own narrative. She opines that it’s been easier for straight artists to flirt with ideas of queerness in songs than it has been for actual LGBTQ artists: for example, Katy Perry kissing a girl and liking it in 2008. Now that queerness has gone more mainstream, she wants LGBTQ artists to benefit.
“I don’t really think that suddenly there’s more bi and gay and trans and queer people in the industry, I just think we’re allowed to be out a bit more than we used to,” she says. “We’ve always been here — it’s just a bit more monetizable to be queer now, which I think is important to remember. But the people who need to be profiting off [of queer songs] are queer people, not straight people profiting off queer people.”
Peraino agrees. Although she allows that bicurious songs like Perry’s can offer positive messages in support of youthful experimentation, “The cons are it plays to prurient interests, i.e. the sexual fantasies of straight men,” she says. “To my ear that sounds more like a cynical formulaic song trying to capitalize on the shock of the lyrics, which are rather pedestrian as lyrics go.”
In other words: these songs aren’t for LGBTQ listeners. And, instead of queer women finding a true connection with a song about a same-sex relationship, they find stereotypical and harmful tropes that delegitimize and sometimes stigmatize their identities and relationships.
Enter artists like King Princess, Hayley Kiyoko, Kehlani and Troye Sivan, who, rather than just titillate, lean into the explicitness of same-sex song fodder. Instead of singing about the idea of being queer, these artists tell queer stories through their respective lens. In her debut single “1950,” King Princess detailed a relationship dynamic steeped in lesbian history and culture (it was inspired by The Price of Salt, the 1952 lesbian novel later adapted into the film, Carol).
Kiyoko’s “Curious” is about the unrequited love she has for a girl with a boyfriend, and Kehlani’s “Honey” is in praise of the special space she shares alongside other queer women. Sivan’s “Bloom” was seen as an allegory for gay sex, but is also openly expressing the heat of moments leading up (“I guess it’s something like a fun fair/Put gas into the motor/And boy I’ll meet you right there/We’ll ride the rollercoaster”).
Bounce queen Big Freedia tells TIDAL that artists like Sylvester, RuPaul, and Freddie Mercury were all early influences when it came to being open about her gender and sexuality in her music. “They have really inspired me to want to go bigger and harder and to really get into the lyrical flow of expanding and breaking barriers,” she says.
By “breaking barriers,” as Freedia says, these songs are flipping the script on your average stories of love, lust and loss. “Queer listeners have long figured out how to adapt their emotional experience of heterosexual songs,” Peraino says. “The benefit of more same-sex and variously queer-oriented identity and relationship constructions in music will undoubtedly result in straight-identified listeners finding themselves emotionally empathizing with queer lyrics.”
And it’s not just the public that’s changing the way they think. Artists are also expanding the boundaries of their own songwriting. Pansexual pop singer Caly Bevier grappled with the writing of her new single “Hate U Sometimes,” switching the pronoun of the antagonist to fit the identity of her current partner.
“The lyric is ‘Oh I hope you know that I love you even if I hate you sometimes,’” she says of the chorus. “But the original lyric was ‘Boy, I hope you know that I love you even though I hate you sometimes.’” She took out “boy” because she’d just started dating a woman, she says. But then her partner transitioned, and her approach to the song took another evolution.
“I didn’t really think about how serious gender and pronouns and all of that is, and how much it affects a person,” Bevier tells TIDAL. “Being part of someone’s life who is transgender really opens your eyes to how important it is to be respectful of someone’s pronouns. … It really just helped me see that I need to be creating music that makes more people feel accepted.”
Queer pop artist Carlos Vara makes it a point to use pronouns that are true to him in his music. “When I was a kid, I never heard a song I can think of where a guy was talking about himself in a relationship with another guy,” he says. “I think that even those little things — saying ‘he’ or ‘she’ or ‘them’ or ‘they’ — are so important. … There are so gonna be so many people out there who are going to be able to connect and relate and feel heard.”
And there is an added bonus, Peraino says, to this kind of honest representation. “[Explicitly queer lyrics] may contribute to actual empathy in other areas of life,” she tells TIDAL. “Popular music is usually out front of mainstream values and politics, and general audiences tolerate queerness in rock and pop stars as part of their larger than life quality.” Beyond tolerating, audiences also embrace it.
Tove Lo is a good example. “I don’t really have an intense coming-out story; it didn’t feel like something I had to question or worry about,” she admits. “But I noticed that is was important to be open about being bisexual when a lot my fans at my first shows asked me [about my sexuality]. I could tell that it mattered. It feels good to be open about it.”
Peraino adds that pronouns are less prevalent in pop music, which is why their inclusion can pack such a punch. “Most songs use the I/you construction so you don’t know the gender of the person being sung to unless there is a gender giveaway,” she says. “Examples of he/she/they are always harder to find because you need a lyric setup that has the vocals talking about someone in the third person.”
She points to trans artist/DJ SOPHIE and her song “Ponyboy” as an example of queering pop in a way that isn’t solely lyrical. “‘Ponyboy’ has clear gender pronouns, but the sound of the music and the vocals is telling the listener that the genders involved are anything but normative,” she says. “Lyrics alone are not the measure of a song’s queer potential.”
Arthur Moon agrees. “Yeah, I’m probably writing to a person, but the task for me feels more like evoking the feeling; this feeling of joyful outsideness that I associate with the best moments of my queerness,” she says. “So maybe that means being outside of traditional structures of song form … resisting the verse chorus verse structure or writing harmonies that we might call being ‘correct’ in some way in music theory … The idea is to be disoriented — and to like it.”
Queer artists have always expressed themselves in music, but now they’re freer than ever to play with their pronouns — to mine queer imagery that, in the past, they may have avoided. It’s always a win for listeners when musicians are true to themselves, but it’s especially validating for LGBTQ fans who have been searching their whole lives for music that speaks to them. Like Shura, we are no longer in the attic, Googling something that barely exists. The proof is on this page.
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