Exploring identity is nothing new, especially through music. Music is the final artform, an amalgamation of an artist’s most vulnerable moments and life influences. Without a doubt, music will always reflect an artist’s inner identity. So, when artists step outside of the binary, they do so defiantly.
The relationship between popular music and queer culture has stood strong through time, a testament to the underground ballroom culture started by Black, trans and femme people, creatives and artists throughout history. In 2021, the exploration of varying identities within queer culture has been at the forefront of the national conversation. Pronouns, transness, gender non-conformity and any other identities challenging the binary have been leading the discussion, with brands, companies and people alike adopting a push toward inclusivity on all levels.
'Mixed with a side of stereotyping, the ‘powers that be’ can profit from a queer audience association whether the artists actually identify within the community or not.'
However, when observing the current UK music scene’s relationship with queer artists, we can see that their queerness is framed so that it sells to the mainstream, dealing in the stereotyping of feminine presenting men for hordes of rowdy hen parties, or the prideful anthemic choruses and visuals for the nights out at G.A.Y, heavily focused on the cis-white, male gay experience. But as an understanding of queerness and identities beyond the gender binary are broadened, it is individual expression, not clichéd marketing techniques, that gives way to a deeper understanding of queerness in music.
As the number of artists exploring their queerness through music rises, the intersection at which the identity of an artist and their prospective audience meets has been heavily commodified. They are polished and packaged within the realms of a very basic understanding of sexuality and gender. Mixed with a side of stereotyping, the ‘powers that be’ can profit from a queer audience association whether the artists actually identify within the community or not. However, that has not stopped queer artists from exploring their identities outside of this ‘polished package’, which is the overly camp, white-washed and highly sexualised lens that LGBTQ+ people are often viewed through.
'Often, much like Blackness, that the only problem with ‘mainstreaming’ queerness is that it comes along with queer people.'
Grammy award-winner Sam Smith came out in 2020 as non-binary, choosing to use they/them pronouns. Similarly, just a few weeks ago, we witnessed the public declaration of Demi Lovato’s own sexuality and their journey into defying the gender binary. With an Instagram account boasting one hundred and seven million followers, Lovato has arguably become the highest profile non-binary artist in the world.
Whether they’ve been ambiguously referencing a same sex relationship, changing their gender presentation or making a ‘coming out’ statement, there has always been a presence of queer artists both inside and outside of the mainstream pioneering a push toward representing the expansive spectrum of gender and sexuality. Queer artists such as MNEK, JGrrey, Tiana Major9 and Olly Alexander have all recently been a part of curating and obtaining a queer audience through a voyage of their own personal experiences as part of the LGBTQ+ community; with realisations of their fluidity when it comes to sexuality, each are just a small example of young queer artists now gaining a diverse, fluid and relatable audience. Even presumed heterosexual artists throughout the history of popular music have explored gender non-conforming presentation and identities. Artists from Prince to David Bowie, Grace Jones, Harry Styles and even Jaden Smith have all been praised for breaking barriers. But when artists who do identify as queer start exploring their identity on a level deeper than presentation, do we see a conversation opening? Or do they pay a price for living in their entire truth?
Often, much like Blackness, that the only problem with ‘mainstreaming’ queerness is that it comes along with queer people. When queerness is displayed, celebrated, and lived out loud by the very people who inhabit the culture, it comes with the most resistance. However, when put on like a costume - camped up and queered out to build an audience, gain a fanbase, sell some records or to be approximated as close to ‘cool’ as possible – it’s fully accepted. So, when built for sale and sexualised by the rest of the world, queerness is permitted to thrive. But when displayed on Black, trans or femme bodies, it is often treated with the utmost disrespect, almost as if it’s open season for criticism.
'Queerness is a never-ending journey of insightful and intrinsic self-expression, and those who do exist outside of the traditional identities deserve to live out loud to the uttermost extent, expressing the deepest need of life.'
MNEK, for example, arguably one of the most prominent Black, queer artists in the UK, openly displayed gender non-conforming styles during the promotion and release of his debut studio album, Language. At the time, it felt like he was shunned by a wider audience for expressing his individualism and fully embracing his identity, often donning make-up and nail varnish to do so.
So when we speak on Pride, the time of year when rainbow flags meet corporate logos and sandwich names are changed to sell us back a diluted version of our culture, it’s important to bring to light that the music industry has some way to go. Yes, it’s an industry that boasts individuality, pride, uniqueness, exploration and vulnerability, but there are still huge strides to be taken to support the queer artists doing the work, representing themselves, and the community, 365 days a year. Encouraging artists to express themselves through the safe space of their music and to be able to explore their identity - even in the public eye - should come with a duty of care; driving home the idea that everyone is fluid, forever changing and can be many different things to many different people whether queer or not. Our society can only be as strong as our weakest parts.
As a Black, queer, non-binary executive working in the music industry, the stark reality is that my identity does not fall within the traditional norms of what people are used to. In 2020, I changed my pronouns from she/her to they/them. Cut off from the world, in the midst of a global pandemic, it seemed that all I had to do was change my Instagram bio and hope that people noticed. Easy enough. But when entering back into a life where we spend more time in the office with our colleagues than at home with our loved ones, I became the focus of unrelenting questions. As a result of this, I found myself responsible for educating others, a responsibility I did not ask for. Simply put, I would love to just do my job, however I know that existing fully as I am in this world means that my visibility is a protest. And of that I will forever be proud.
'The ultimate goal is an odyssey of self-expression; a plethora of identities that exist beyond, and are breaking free from, the gender binary.'
Now, in 2021, we are still experiencing a so called ‘glitch’ in our matrix - the withdrawal of traditional identities. We’re realising that queerness must not only be celebrated when flamboyant, loud, and camp – all of which are valid – but also when quiet, subtle, non-traditional, on Black bodies and as queer as they come. Sexuality and a binary that is easy to digest and understand is not intended for everyone. Some people are more complex than that. It’s now time for the people – the average listener and audience member – to educate themselves while listening to their favourite queer artists, so that the entire spectrum of varying identities can finally become the norm.
The ultimate goal is an odyssey of self-expression; a plethora of identities that exist beyond, and are breaking free from, the gender binary. Alongside this, we should see an exploration of queerness and gender identity, not only from artists, but their teams and their audiences. Queerness is a never-ending journey of insightful and intrinsic self-expression, and those who do exist outside of the traditional identities deserve to live out loud to the fullest extent, expressing the deepest need of life.
Popular music has always been a vehicle for the individual to express. We must then realise that queerness is not a commodity to target an audience with, but an elite level of self-expression, truth and vulnerability – a way to live authentically in a world that still isn’t ready for us.