Pop’s Vital New Voices Are Queering The Mainstream

Heteronormative barriers are shattering, letting a more nuanced, coloured depiction of identity flow through...

Earlier this month, Rita Ora dropped the video for ‘Girls’ a summery party tune about kissing, you guessed it, girls.

There’s a lot to critique about this song, and we're not just referring to the nonsensical metaphors for lesbian sex. Ora and her contributors Charli XCX, Bebe Rehxa and Cardi B seem to be guilty of performing queerness à la 2008 Katy Perry, who confessed that she’d kissed a girl and liked it. The Internet seems to agree: there’s already been a large-scale Twitterstorm, the magnitude of which was so strong that Ora was pressured into publicly coming out.

No-one (at least not in this context) is contesting the right to freely flaunt one’s queerness wherever and however they want. But here there’s an obvious issue with the execution. Regardless of Ora’s own orientation, boiling same-sex attraction down to a few catchy hooks whilst pandering to the male gaze was never going to win her any friends in the queer community.

However, the whole debacle raises some other, not quite so cut-and-dry, questions which need answering. The criticisms which have been levied against Ora were easy enough to spot from the offset; but isn’t it the mainstream LGBTQ+ representation we’ve all been pushing for? When is representation not good representation?

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Elsewhere in the pop world, Harry Styles is alluding to his own bisexuality in track ‘Medicine’ and twink poster boy Troye Sivan is releasing tracks with Ariana Grande. In this light, it looks like pop has never been so queer.

When you break it down though, it’s a whole other story entirely. The Styles lyric in question; "The boys and the girls are in, I’ll mess around with them, and I’m okay with it…" is a pretty blatant example of queerbaiting: when a queer relationship is hinted at, but not actually depicted, in an attempt to entice an LGBT+ audience without alienating the heterosexual audience.

Regardless of his own experience and sexual orientation, Styles’ ‘Medicine’ just simply doesn’t go far enough to be considered an example of a queer pop song and seems to prioritise his hetero audience above his queer one. It puts across the message that Styles thinks it’s cool to hint at queerness in order to gain a bit of edge, but the risk of committing too fully is not something which he’s prepared to bear the brunt of.

While Styles noncommittal name-drops the bisexual experience, Sivan sings about gay sex in not-so-subtle style on track ‘Bloom’. If lines like "It’s true, babe / I’ve been saving this for you…" and "Might tell you to take a second baby slow it down…" weren’t suggestive enough, the singer openly described the song, in a now deleted tweet, as a "bop about bottoming".

With this track, Sivan is on the edge of something groundbreaking. There’s something of an unspoken rule dictating that queer artists save hetero audiences from the dirty details of queer sex, something which shrouds LGBT+ sexual experiences under a veil of mystery.

However, through such heavy-handed hinting, Sivan is tampering with the boundaries which separate queer and heterosexual experience — forcing his hetero listeners, bit by bit, to accept the reality of his experiences as a gay man. While it’s worth acknowledging that Sivan is daring in ways which few queer artists have been before, we cannot underplay the immense privilege he enjoys as a white, cis man which allows him to be so.

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The approach which Sivan has taken is to attempt to broaden the selection of stock metaphors forming the basis of pop music into accommodating queer experience, and to nod to the LGBT+ experience beyond the perimeters of cishet understanding. Integrating the queer experience into mainstream pop music, however, is not all about representation.

If Sivan’s work is an exercise in playing with boundaries, seeing how far his white, male privilege will carry him, then Hayley Kiyoko’s work is engaged in a game of subversion. The 27-year-old musician broke onto the scene with 2015’s ‘Girls Like Girls’, the message of which ("Girls like girls like boys do/ Nothing new…") was a big middle finger to heteronormativity. Kiyoko has continued in this direction with her subsequent releases: singing openly about lesbian sexuality in her catchy hooks and choruses.

Kiyoko has consistently taken a more confrontational approach to artists like Sivan. A prime example of this is the cover art for debut album ‘Expectations’. Here, Kiyoko is depicted in an intimately sexual setting, looking at an undressed woman who, in turn, is looking back at her. The fact that the naked woman’s face and body is turned towards Kiyoko and away from the viewer establishes the tone of an album where female homosexuality is explored with sincerity and candour for a primarily queer fan base, rather than performed for the enjoyment of the male gaze.

In this regard, it would seem, Ora et al have a lot to learn from Kiyoko and her approach to queer pop. However, the figures say otherwise.‘Girls’ has, thus far, been something of a flop compared to the rest of Ora’s oeuvre, with only 40 million streams on Spotify compared to other tracks with hundreds of millions of streams. Despite being a bit of a tone-deaf mess, ‘Girls’ still outdoes Kiyoko’s most streamed song, by two million streams.

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What should we take away from this, then? The path for artists like Rita Ora and Harry Styles, whose stardom was established before they began to explore queerness in their own music, is fraught. The difficulties of keeping cishet fans faithful whilst diving into LGBT+ themes means that they don’t go far enough, or that they fall back on harmful tropes.

For the queer artists who have put their sexuality at the forefront of their music from the beginning there seems to be two options. To slot themselves into the pre-established pop mould, testing the boundaries as they go, in a similar way to Troye Sivan, or to actively challenge the heteronormative defaults of mainstream culture the way Kiyoko has.

At the end of the day, Hayley Kiyoko’s example goes to show that mainstream audiences might not be ready for the kind of music which challenges their preconceptions, no matter how catchy it is. Similarly, despite the wealth of talent coming from trans and non-binary individuals (SOPHIE, ANOHNI, The Cliks, Shawnee, Ah Mer Ah Su — to name just a very, very few) it seems that no such musicians are cracking the charts.

Whilst studies have found that some western countries are becoming progressively less straight and cis, we might still have a while to wait until queer musical talent receives the widespread recognition it deserves.

In the interim however, it’s worth taking heart in the brilliant diversity of queer artists who are enlivening alternative music. Be it Mykki Blanco’s experimental rap, Perfume Genius’s piano ballads, Kehlani’s contemporary R&B or Arca’s avant-garde electronic — queer musicians are changing the game in every genre.

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Words: Megan Wallace

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