Dream Nails

Joy as defiance: exploring the full complexity of queer lives

To mark Pride month, M delves into the joyous soundtrack behind the liberation that comes with no longer feeling like the minority.

Gary Ryan
  • By Gary Ryan
  • 25 Jun 2024
  • min read

When former child star-turned-pop musician JoJo Siwa proclaimed in April that she sought to invent a new genre called 'gay pop', social media reacted with ridicule. Looking through a long history of queer artists, what, various commenters pondered, would you class the pulsating, leather-clad bacchanalia of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s 1983 opus Relax as? Or, sticking with the 1980s, Bronski Beat’s pulsating fightback against prejudice, or the then-sexually ambiguous synthpop of Culture Club and Soft Cell? Straightcore?

What about George Michael wittily responding to his 1998 arrest by an undercover officer for engaging in a ‘lewd act’ in an LA toilet with that year’s disco-banger Outside, where he sings: ‘I’d service the community — but I already have, you see’ (the video, of course, saw the late singer dressed as an LAPD cop and was set in a lavatory decked with disco balls)? Or Pet Shop Boys’ Being Boring, their 1990 elegy to those lost in the AIDS crisis? Then there’s Dusty Springfield (who came out as bisexual in 1970), Freddie Mercury, Tegan and Sara, Pete Burns, Janelle Monáe, Peaches, Placebo, Sufjan Stevens, MNEK, Sylvester, Hayley Kiyoko, Halsey, Rufus Wainwright, John Grant, Bright Light Bright Light, Olly Alexander…

Essentially, throw a dart in a record shop and chances are you’ll hit a record by an out queer artist talking about their experiences, or a closeted creator metabolising repression into art while offering a trail of breadcrumbs for their listeners. JoJo’s statement felt curiously out of step with music in 2024 — which thrives on authenticity, lore, community and a sense of social responsibility  or, at the very least in the streaming era where the past is the perpetual present, failed to give those who paved the way their flowers.

After all, the LGBTQ+ community are now dominating across the cultural board, and a new generation of queer artists and songwriters are transcending simplified hashtag-friendly Pride narratives and getting into the thorny weeds of the full complexity of gay life.

Gay anthems used to be lyrical Trojan horses, smuggling their meanings in like the aural equivalent of the old ‘Hanky Code’. Even in the mid-2000s and 2010s, same-sex attraction could sometimes be fetishised as a titillating experiment, epitomised by Katy Perry’s 2008 bi-numbers single I Kissed A Girl (maligned as the pop song equivalent of a girl drunkenly kissing her mate at a party to impress her boyfriend). Fast-forward to today, though, and there’s nothing coded about the lyrics to Billie Eilish’s mega-pop hit Lunch: 'I could eat that girl for lunch / Yeah, she dances on my tongue / Tastes like she might be the one.'

'A new generation of queer artists and songwriters are transcending simplified hashtag-friendly Pride narratives and getting into the thorny weeds of the full complexity of gay life.'

Equally, there’s nothing pandering to the male gaze about the glorious queer fantasia of Chappell Roan. One of this year’s big breakthrough US pop stars, her music reflects a general post-pandemic trend of music that’s theatrical and fun. Her recent single Good Luck, Babe! could be the inverse of I Kissed A Girl; its subject matter concerns the emotional minefield of loving a closeted woman who returns to men, and how desire is an unstoppable juggernaut. 'When you wake up next to him in the middle of the night,’ she sings. ‘With your head in your hands, you're nothing more than his wife / And when you think about me, all those years ago / You're standing face to face with: “I told you so.”

Chappell joins the huge uptick in lesbian artists currently having their moment, from big names like Reneé Rapp to grassroots talent. Manchester’s Nxdia, for instance, offers another corrective to outdated stereotype of acoustic-leaning sapphic artists.

As queer artists now have direct communication with their fans — who, in turn, expect their musical escapism to arrive with honesty and personal disclosure — an opportunity to plainly address aspects of gay life has been created. Always clad in a mask (similar to gay country star Orville Peck), London avant-pop maverick Lynks mined the perennial Venn diagram intersection between sex and shame on his recent debut ABOMINATION. Hypersexual zingers like 'I put the ass in blasphemy, baby' and ‘[I’m] the only low-key gimp that could make Sean Cody [a beefcake porn studio] look like a Disney movie' are counterbalanced with toxic religious shame and lyrics that reference the UK’s pre-2021 discriminatory blood donation restrictions towards gay men. 'Every time I see the British Heart Foundation, I’m reminded I’m an abomination,' they sing on the LP’s title track.

The xx, meanwhile, continue to explore the gamut of gay life via their respective solo releases. Romy Madley Croft’s 2023 salvo Mid Air is a club-ready elegy to her wife Vic Lentaigne, while Oliver Sim’s [pictured below] bracing 2022 release Hideous Bastard, where he sings 'been living with HIV since 17, am I hideous?’ on the opening song Hideous, saw him being momentously joined by forebear Jimmy Somerville. Elsewhere, building up a super-loyal fanbase from the ground up has helped the likes of Girli’s bubblegum sapphic-pop and the anthemic soul-baring of Fred Roberts.

Oliver Sim

Queer pop music has hastened our acceptance in the mainstream, while clubs have helped transform us from something to be chastised, ostracised or othered to suddenly being the party everybody wants an invite to. But, as Le Tigre (led by butch lesbian JD Samson) once sang, it’s always: ‘One step forward, five steps back’. Visibility will be followed, inevitably, by backlash. There was the widespread adverse reaction to Sam Smith’s full embrace of queerness in last year’s I’m Not Here to Make Friends video, while Lil Nas X was targeted by comedian Dave Chapelle in his relentlessly punching-down 2023 Netflix special The Dreamer.

But amid any resistance, there’s a sense of joy as defiance. Lil Nas X’s unapologetic sexuality certainly acted as a lodestar for Troye Sivan: 'I was just so inspired by how unafraid he was to take up space,' Troye told The Guardian last year. Releasing the garlanded Something To Give Each Other album last year, Troye went full demon-twink in its ecstatic lead single Rush (named after a popular brand of poppers), which is all sweat, alkyl nitrites and pheromones rising up from the dancefloor. When they go low, we get high.

'Amid any resistance to queerness, there’s a sense of joy as defiance.'

Proud queer ally Charli XCX might be the current ‘Queen of Gay Famous’, following the lineage of such supporters as Kylie Minogue (once described by Rufus Wainwright as ‘gay shorthand for “joy”’) and Kate Bush. Charli recently launched her new album Brat — which features a poignant song about the late, game-changing trans hyperpop producer SOPHIE — with a whistle-stop tour of London’s hottest gay venues, receiving a rapturous response wherever she went. Elsewhere, Kim Petras — who became the first openly trans artist to have a US Number One and win a major category Grammy for her appearance on Sam Smith’s global chart-topper Unholy — has defiantly responded to the inflammatory climate of anti-trans moral panic with the lubriciously sex-positive bops on 2022’s Slut Pop and this year’s Slut Pop Miami EPs.

In more direct ways, London’s DIY ‘feminist punk witches' Dream Nails are staring into the barrel of anti-trans prejudice. The riot grrrl-indebted band’s incendiary Molotov cocktail They/Them elicited a minor controversy last year due to the lyrics ‘Kick TERFs all day, don’t break a sweat’ (referring to Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists, who believe trans people have no place in their advocacy), while Femme Boi defied society’s expectations of a feminine trans-boy.

The Iggy Pop-championed Brighton duo Lambrini Girls’ [pictured below] Terf Wars, meanwhile, challenged gatekeeping with the lyric: ‘Justify your hate with an Oxford education / Gender-neutral toilets are not the problem’. From Jayne County and Pansy Division to Beth Ditto’s Gossip and Against Me!, nobody could ever accuse punk artists of bringing a lyrical knife to a gunfight.

Lambrini Girls

Jake Shears, who hosts the podcast Queer the Music, once questioned the very nature of the concept queer music, asking: 'Is it a label to box us in? Is it something you can willingly create?' It’s a valid question when you consider that we use the prefix 'queer artist', but you rarely see a similar ‘straight-act The Weeknd' or 'avowed heterosexuals The 1975' description. Queer artists aren’t one-size-fits-all and, in the past, some artists have worried that having their music described as ‘gay’ may imply it’s limited to one group of people: themes of liberation, freedom and sexual pleasure are, of course, universal.

Speaking of Jake, 20 years ago the UK’s biggest-selling album was Scissor Sisters’ omnipresent self-titled debut, packed with tales of backroom boys and crystal meth’s deleterious effect on the gay community. Yet, as we’ve seen in the intervening years, inclusion and acceptance is a swinging pendulum: progress doesn’t follow a linear path.

One thing, however, remains steadfast: queer people want to see their experience reflected in the mirrorball; hear a voice in their headphones to make them feel less alone; or be inspired by a boundary-pushing, renegade pop star promising that a better way of life is possible. From disco to Chicago house and tachycardiac hi-NRG, we’ll always crave a soundtrack to finding our sexuality sea-legs in queer clubs or at Pride, and the liberation of no longer feeling like the minority.