Long before the pop sounds of Troye Sivan, Lady Gaga, Janelle Monáe and Sam Smith, queer artists have been around and creating music — openly or otherwise. While we are in an era where musicians, for the most part, no longer need to deny their sexuality or gender identity, many people are unfamiliar with the roots of queer music and how it has subtly shaped mainstream pop music.
As early as the 1890’s, gay jazz musicians such as Tony Jackson and Bessie Smith arose in New Orleans — Jackson being a mentor to Jelly Roll Morton. Duke Ellington’s arranger and composer, Billy Strayhorn was an openly gay man as well.
As the jazz scene rose, so too did many queer blues performers singing about their homosexual encounters — namely, bisexual artists Ma Rainey and Lucille Bogan singing about other women; and opening the scene for other artists like Nina Simone, Clare Teal and Billie Holiday. In Europe, queer musicians were thriving pre World War II. This gave way to Broadway shows and musicals gaining popularity.
The 50’s brought in more LGBTQ artists from a variety of genres. Johnnie Ray was a crooner whose career took a hit when a Detroit vice squad arrested him on charges of soliciting an undercover policeman.
Esquerita was an African American rocker, known for his wild performances and flamboyant nature. Jazz musician Billy Tipton, who was well known from the 40’s to the 60’s, was a transgender man. His family revealed this after his death in 1989. R&B duo Charlie and Ray, wrote sexually ambiguous music in the 1950’s despite being out gay men. Arthur Conley, known for his hit ‘Sweet Soul Music’ in 1967, came out as a gay man and then left the United States.
Disco Culture and The 80’s
The rise of disco culture in the 1970’s allowed the expansion of gender expression along with sexuality. DJ Larry Levan started his career at Paradise Garage, a famous gay disco.
In tandem with the liberation of women, the sexual liberation movement began to increase social tolerance allowing more LGBTQ artists to come out publicly. Elton John, Indigo Girls, k.d. Lang, Queen, David Bowie, Melissa Etheridge, The B-52’s, Grace Jones are just some of the queer musicians that stemmed from this era.
With the increasing exposure to gender-bending and cross dressing, the 80’s also saw an increase in artists that blurred normative lines. Notably; Erasure, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Pet Shop Boys, Dead or Alive and Culture Club are some example of the androgynous and non-conforming artists.
A rise in pro-LGBTQ laws and more artists condemning homophobia lead to a saturation of queer music in the 1990’s. Placebo, Alcazar, Mana and many other musicians joined a growing list of LGBTQ artists and allies. Dubbed “queercore” bands such as Pansy Division and Tribe 8 led the way as early hardcore punk began to embrace LGBTQ artists.
2000’s and 2010’s
Coming into the turn of the century, queer artists have long been seen across many genres. Artists such as Lady Gaga, The Scissor Sisters, Tegan and Sara, Adam Lambert were supported by a growing industry spreading equality and positivity messages.
Despite many genres embracing LGBTQ musicians, like Against Me! singer Laura Jane Grace’s transition in 2012 and Will Young’s best-selling single “Anything is Possible”/”Evergreen” in the 2000’s, some genres fall short. Country artist Chely Wright dealt with declining sales and death threats in 2011 after coming out.
Not only embracing their fellow musicians, straight and cisgender allies produce music inclusive of LGBTQ folk. “Bobbi with and I” was a 2009 song by Phil Vassar, using his platform to encourage the acceptance of transgender people. Lesbian singer Mary Lambert, worked with rapper and producers Macklemore and Ryan Lewis for the song “Same Love” a same-sex marriage anthem with the underlying love conquers all message.
Hozier’s music video for “Take Me to Church” focused on religion-based homophobia and in his music video for “Silhouettes”, the late Avicii shows a sex reassignment surgery.
The mental health focused song “1-800-273-8255” by Logic and Alessia Cara focuses on the pain that homophobia brings. Lady Gaga’s iconic 2011 song “Born This Way” is a self-love anthem that was claimed by queer folks.
Currently, LGBTQ music is found across most genres and lyrically expresses the frustrations, liberation and enjoyment from their identity (gender, sexuality or both) and non-straight/cisgender views as the byproduct of LGBTQ acceptance.
Music, specifically pop music, provides a stage where voices often unheard or can be heard. Mainstream music and culture is beginning to reflect the acceptance and solidarity of queer musicians.
While the prominence and popularity of artists like Kehlani, Hayley Kiyoko, Demi Lovato, King Princess, Halsey, Troye Sivan, Sam Smith, Olly of Years and Years, Frank Ocean, Against Me, Janelle Monáe, Tyler the Creator and Lynn Gunn of PVRIS are recognizable progress in tolerance and acceptance, queer musicians are still often marginalized.
Composer Leonard Bernstein was in a heterosexual marriage despite having many same-sex relations with other musicians and composers. He is among many artists that have had to hide their sexual identities from the public, notably Liberace who adamantly denied allegations of homosexuality.
Does the success of LGBTQ artists mean that sexuality and gender identity are irrelevant for musicians?
Unfortunately in many countries across the world being gay, transgender or gender non-conforming is still a criminal act. Having LGTBQ representation not only normalizes queerness but also provides comfort for those who may be questioning their sexuality or gender.