By Harley Brown and Eve Barlow For Vulture
In many corners of entertainment and pop culture, LGBTQ representation is only just now moving away from lip service to actually providing queer creators the space to figure out what to do with that visibility on their own terms. Queerness in music, however, has long stood at the epicenter. It was embedded in the fabric of Bessie Smith’s and Ma Rainey’s blues, front and center in David Bowie’s, Elton John’s, Freddie Mercury’s, and George Michael’s ethos, and later championed iconically by Cher, Madonna, Céline Dion, Cyndi Lauper, Mariah Carey, and Whitney Houston.
But post-internet, what was once subversive has been reappraised as trendy, with otherness co-opted for everyone. The expectation is increasingly that pop stars be either a little gay or at least gay friendly (think Charli XCX, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Ariana Grande) to attract the gay dollar. Queerness has become a marketing tool. (Although pandering to the gays, particularly when the artists themselves aren’t queer, rarely goes smoothly. See: Nick Jonas’s flirtation with the community and Taylor Swift’s recent pivot to Extreme Queer Ally, each ploy tethered to promoting new music.)
This shift has left queer artists in the middle: trying to live their truth but also being asked to leverage it in this, the age of Gay, Inc., when those creators have to negotiate not just how to be gay but also how to sell gay.Vulture spoke with six such performers — Shura, Shamir, Hayley Kiyoko, Jamie Stewart (of Xiu Xiu), G Flip, and Madame Gandhi — about how they came out to their labels (or didn’t) during the signing process and how they’ve seen (or not) their queerness deliberately used to build an audience. Each has had different experiences, but all share the same sentiment: It’s complicated but getting better.
30, New York and Mumbai
“You would think I’d have needed to be more quiet about my queerness in order to get signed or in order to work with a big company, but the irony is, if anything, I had to ask people to not put my queerness at the forefront of my identity. Not overly booking me for events that felt pigeonholing or reductive, or [making sure] that I’m doing as many electronic music festivals and feminist and South Asian events as I am doing pride events, because these identities are really balanced for me. It wasn’t a source of oppression so much as it was a source of commodification. Folks in the mainstream are realizing how valuable it is to flex on diversity, whatever that means, so they’re signing artists just for being diverse, rather than for the whole picture of their art.
“My feminism has always been most salient to my identity, and being a musician or being a New Yorker, and my academia. But my queerness and my South Asian–ness have been more essential to my projects more recently, because I recognize the responsibility to own those parts of my identity in understanding how important it is to show nuanced descriptions of what it means to be queer and South Asian. I’ve brought that more forward in my projects in my social media. In my lyrics, I enjoy being able to talk about flirting with my now-girlfriend or talk about pleasure from a queer-femme perspective. That’s what makes pride interesting: It’s not just rainbows and glitter and gay men; it’s pleasure in the queer-femme community. It’s being brown as well as queer. It’s finding power and liberation in being a queer femme.
“If we don’t do the work to identify ourselves and decide what our genre is and what our identities are, then someone will decide for us, and they will get it wrong. And that’s why so many artists are so afraid to say, “I’m a rock musician, I’m an EDM musician, I’m this, I’m that,” because if you don’t do the work to know exactly who you are, other people will do it for you, and you’ll be noticeably frustrated.”