The LGBTQ community has always paid obeisance to pop music. You need only to have attended a drag show sometime in the past 40 years to see how the queens of the Top 40 world, from Diana Ross to Beyoncé, play a starring role in queer culture. But that reverence has not always been returned. Until recent years, LGBTQ fans were often ignored by the artists they idolized. To make matters worse, many of those artists played coy about their sexuality or openly gay-baited in interviews and photo shoots to stir up controversy for clicks. At long last, that tide is turning, but not without some awkward fits and starts.
Earlier this month, singers Rita Ora, Bebe Rexha, Charli XCX, and the biggest superstar of the moment, Cardi B, released their song "Girls," which had been hyped as the "Moulin Rouge" diva teamup of the decade. Instead, the song saw a swift backlash. Artists such as "lesbian Jesus" Hayley Kiyoko criticized it for "fueling the male gaze while marginalizing the idea of women loving women." Cardi B collaborator Kehlani, who identifies as queer, called the lyrics "harmful." Ora has since apologized and called the song an "accurate account" of her "romantic relationships with women and men." But as Kiyoko bitingly put it: "I don’t need to drink wine to kiss girls; I’ve loved women my entire life."
"Girls" dropped ten years almost to the day after the gay-baiting so-called anthem "I Kissed a Girl" launched the career of Katy Perry. Though Perry has since been embraced by the LGBTQ community and recognized by GLAAD and the Human Rights Campaign, her playing coy with "cherry Chapstick" on "I Kissed a Girl" and then using the word "gay" as a slur on her downright embarrassing track "Ur So Gay" have been criticized in queer circles for years. The differing groundswell of reaction to "Girls" is an indication that LGBTQ fandom possesses a growing voice that matches its long-held influence in the pop-music world.
Another indication there's been a major cultural shift is the approach that emerging pop stars are taking when exploring their own queer identities. Tour mates Harry Styles and Kacey Musgraves are two prominent examples of artists who are rewriting the rules about how queer communities and identities should be approached in the mainstream medium of pop music. Interestingly, in shaping their approaches, both singers have taken cues from the queer icons of yesteryear.
Styles, for one, left behind the teen pop of One Direction for a solo career that leans more toward David Bowie and Queen than today's EDM-driven pop charts. His colorful suits and flamboyant, ruffled fashion nod to Freddie Mercury's memorable style, and songs such as the debut solo single "Sign of the Times" are reminiscent of Bowie's most grandiose, wall-of-sound productions.
But it's not only stylistic cues that bind Styles to the queer gods of the classic-rock era. Like Bowie and Mercury, Styles has not felt the need to restrict his sexuality or public perceptions of it. For years, he has rebuffed journalists' efforts to corner him on questions about his sexual orientation, and this past March, he debuted his song "Medicine," in which he sings, "The boys and the girls are in/I’ll mess around with them, and I’m OK with it." It was hardly the most overt declaration about orientation — as far as "coming out" goes, it was more Anderson Cooper than Ellen DeGeneres.
Styles has not made any further declarative statements about his sexual orientation beyond this song (and he should not be forced to do so), but whether he's still exploring and learning about his sexuality or affirming his identity, Styles' honest approach has been a refreshing alternative to that of past pop stars. It's even more striking given the erasure of bicurious, bisexual, and pansexual men in pop culture.
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Musgraves identifies as a straight woman, but she has become a powerful ally to her LGBTQ fan base. In 2013, she released the single "Follow Your Arrow," off her debut major-label album, Same Trailer Different Park. With lyrics such as "Kiss lots of boys/Or kiss lots of girls/If that's something you're into," the lighthearted song became an unintended gay anthem, and Musgraves' embrace of camp in her music and styling attracted LGBTQ fans in much the same way that gay icon Dolly Parton has appealed to them for decades.
"Follow Your Arrow" came one year before Taylor Swift sang, "And you can want who you want/Boys and boys and girls and girls," on the 1989 opening track, "Welcome to New York." And though Swift sang the sentiment on her first straightforward pop album, Musgraves affirmed her queer fan base within the framework of country music, a genre that is making progress but continues to lag behind other forms of popular music when it comes to queer visibility.
Understanding that her role as a mouthpiece for the community is limited, Musgraves has said she looks forward to the day when an openly gay artist rules the country charts. With established stars such as Styles, Frank Ocean, and Halsey, as well as up-and-comers like Troye Sivan and former Fifth Harmony singer Lauren Jauregui, making waves in the pop world, that day can't be too far away.