do we really live in the year 20gayteen?
Queer visibility in pop is at its brightest, but something is amiss.
It took less than 24 hours for 2018 to be labelled 20GAYTEEN. In a tweet on January 1, the fan-labelled Lesbian Jesus herself, Hayley Kiyoko, wrote, “It’s our year, it’s our time. To Let our souls feel alive. #20GAYTEEN.”
Hayley’s tweet, so far at least, has been prophetic — 2018 really has been the year that pop music went delirious with queerness. Within weeks, Troye Sivan was strutting through a warehouse, emulating Erotica-era Madonna and living his best popstar life with My My My. Hayley herself followed this up with her debut album Expectations, an unabashed rollercoaster of emotions, desire and the celebration of lesbian sex. Nakhane released a moving meditation on queer repression and emancipation with his album You Will Not Die. Trans singer Shea Diamond just released the follow up to her thrilling and powerful debut single, I Am Her, with the banging Keisha Complexion. Playful pop group Years & Years, who returned with Sanctify, a song that lead singer Olly Alexander has said is about fucking straight boys. And then Janelle Monáe exuded sheer pansexual delight with her album Dirty Computer. Yeah, things have gotten hella queer.
Among pop music fans (and so-called Gay Twitter), the diminuendo of The Issue surrounding artists’ sexualities and genders, and said artists overt display of queerness in their music, is a welcome and much needed form of representation. LGBTQ artists have always existed, sure, but the last 12 months have pushed visibility in the pop world to where it’s never ventured before. What’s more, the music is really, really good; these artists aren’t flinging their sexualities and gender identities at mediocre beats and lacklustre hooks. Instead, the songs are genre-bending and groundbreaking; commercial and, importantly, super catchy.
Nevertheless, 20GAYTEEN’s burst of queer pop is far from utopic. The overt sexiness of a Troye Sivan’s Bloom (which he dubbed in a now deleted tweet a #BopBoutBottoming), the eyefucking in MNEK’s Tongue video and the candidness of Olly Alexander’s straight-bait narrative posits a problem: queer sex doesn’t sell.
Nearly all of the songs that I’ve mentioned have failed to gain traction with radio and on the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. Years & Years, whose debut album had massive #1 success and whose profile in the UK is big, saw Sanctify peak at #25, before it slowly fell outside the Top 40. Janelle Monáes critically lauded Make Me Feel plateaued at #74. And Hayley Kiyoko’s album spent just one week inside the Top 100. While the LGBTQ community are living their best lives bopping to queer pop, the rest of the world seems to be giving a collective shrug.
This indifference, according to Grace Medford, a writer and pop fan who works in the music industry, stems from the fact that straight audiences get “squicky” when things get too queer and sexual.
“My musical interests intersect with what, traditionally, the gay community are interested in: pop music. I've always been exposed to queer people, queer art and queer pop music. But I am still a straight person with straight privilege. So I see both sides of the coin,” she explains. “So, as far as you can go with mainstreaming a queer act, there is always a wider feeling. And when that feeling kicks in, straight audiences start to press against it.”
Grace calls to mind the iconic queer group Scissor Sisters who, after two fairly palatable, honkytonk records, shifted their focus for their third album Night Work. “That album was about [lead singer] Jake Shears spending five nights in a Berlin sex club,” she says. “The artwork was a guy grabbing his bottom. I think people didn't realise that it wasn't Jake and was actually a Robert Mapplethorpe photograph. But basically, once gay people start to get sexualised, straight people drop out.”
It’s disheartening to say it, but Grace has a point. In the last 20 years, the only bold manifestation of queer sexual practices in pop that springs immediately to my mind is George Michael’s Outside, a song that referenced his brush with the law for cottaging. But still, the video — while lol-inducing and camp as disco balls — initially frames cottaging as a straight activity. Similarly, Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Relax, while a hit, was also banned.
The fear of queer sexuality is something that record labels are very aware of, too. In a recent interview with the BBC, Olly Alexander revealed that he was told that his lyrics were “not accessible enough”, a thinly veiled homophobic microaggression if there ever was one. Likewise, Will Young told The Telegraph that, after winning Pop Idol, he was told that his voice was “too gay”. And Demi Lovato, who said she dated both men and women late last year, was particularly cagey about aligning her sexuality to her bisexual banger Cool for the Summer when I met her following the song’s release in 2015. Indeed, that song — clearly Demi’s best (don’t @ me) — wasn’t the pop juggernaut it deserved to be.
Even artists like Sam Smith, who was once an unstoppable sales force that many, myself included, thought would match Adele’s success, has faltered due to discussions about his sexuality. During his first album cycle, Sam hesitated to come out, and when he did he was vehement in ensuring that his music was as accessible and hetero-friendly as possible, leaving the pronouns ambiguous. “I'm not in this industry to talk about my personal life unless it’s in a musical form,” he told The Fader in 2014. “[It's] important to me that my music reaches everybody. I've made [it] so that it could be about anything and everybody — whether it’s a guy, a female or a goat — and everybody can relate to that."
Sam has since declared himself a “dick monster” in front of soul legend Patti LaBelle, been pictured necking his new boyfriend, 13 Reasons Why actor Brandon Flynn, and, in an interview with Sarah Jessica Parker for V Magazine, said that with the release of his second album, The Thrill of it All, he properly “became a gay man”. That record, while certainly a commercial success, has been nowhere near as ubiquitous as his debut, and its chart run, again still impressive, pales in comparison (Sam’s debut spent a collective eight weeks at Number 1, whereas The Thrill of it All has managed just two).
I’d be remiss to discount the beautiful display of queer visibility of 20GAYTEEN as anything short of extraordinary. What could be better than straight-as-they-come act like Charlie Puth featuring Kehlani in his video where she flirts with a woman and makes out with her in a pink hot tub? Likewise, the sizzle of joy I felt seeing two queer people of colour, both with fabulous makeup and nails, cruise hard at a glamorous dinner party in MNEK’s Tongue video was incomparable. And as someone who has slept with their fair share of straight boys, Olly Alexander crystallising my experiences into a glorious sex song was life-affirming. LGBTQ pop stars aren’t hidden or brushed aside, and displays of our sexual desires are no longer wrapped in metaphors or fetishized for straight audiences.
Nevertheless, exhibitions of queer sexuality in pop are clearly still too much for the mainstream. There exists instead a tolerance of LGBTQ people, especially when our queerness is performative and anodyne. Acceptance and celebration are still a way off. Our passions in all their lustful messiness are still too adult for pop music that brims with heteronormative hypocrisy. But if 20GAYTEEN is going to teach us anything it’s that the louder and queerer we are, the more in-you-face we become, the harder we’ll be to ignore. And if that fails, at least we’ll know that LGBTQ artists are making the best pop music around. It’s their loss, not ours.