Wes Miles

Sing Out: How Queer Artists Are Reclaiming Pop Language

By singing directly about their experience of sexuality, artists strike a blow for freedom

“This is my own internalized shame, probably, but I still feel a little uncomfortable holding hands with my partner in public,” Olly Alexander, the 25-year-old lead singer of U.K. pop trio Years & Years, said in an interview earlier this month. “Homophobia is less overt, sure, but it’s still with us in insidious, institutionalized forms. Gays are still the ‘Other,’ they’re apparently less likely to fix your car or play football. And do we want them as teachers?” He was joking, but the implication remained: In spaces both public and private, “these questions are still around.”

That feeling — being afraid to express yourself in public, even in a society whose views on homosexuality continue to evolve as rapidly as ours has — is a common one. Singer-songwriter Mike Hadreas, a.k.a. Perfume Genius, memorably addressed it on his 2012 song “All Waters”: “When all waters still / And flowers cover the earth / When I can take your hand / On any crowded street / And hold you close to me / With no hesitating.” The song is musically spare, with a lowing synth line that swells behind Hadreas’s mournful voice. His take on the same sensation Alexander described is stark and unforgiving: It’s a fear so ingrained in queer people that it won’t go away until humanity itself ceases to exist.

Hadreas addresses explicitly gay themes like this in all of his music: isolation, suicide, sex, trauma, empowerment. He has critics who deem his music "too gay," an appraisal he zeroed in on in an interview with Metro Weekly last year while supporting his latest album, 2014’s Too Bright. “People constantly tell me that if I stop singing so specifically about gay themes, I would have a broader appeal, that I could make it in the mainstream if I changed my pronouns or didn’t use pronouns or talked about different things,” Hadreas said. “And even some other gay people have told me that, you know? ‘We get that you’re gay, but why do you have to talk about it?’ … It’s all incredibly frustrating and backward bullshit to me.”

Queer artists of all milieus have to navigate this question whenever they make art that reflects their personal experience, even in a more accepting cultural zeitgeist: How much of yourself can you reveal in your music and still expect that music to find an audience, mainstream or otherwise? But musicians like Hadreas and Alexander, who explicitly mine their queer experiences and make choices as simple as using pronouns in lyrics that reflect their actual desires, are doing something vital. By making art that expresses lived queer experiences and identities, these artists are making room for new perspectives both now and in the future, subverting music just enough to reshape its default hetero point of view and offering listeners entryways that didn’t previously exist.

Rostam Batmanglij, ex–Vampire Weekend member and current solo artist, is another musician coming forward as part of this lineage. Although Batmanglij has long been out in the public sphere, he's injected Vampire Weekend’s music with an overtly queer point of view only once. On his own, he seems more liberated. “Gravity Don’t Pull Me,” the single he released earlier this month, is a jittery electro song about gay heartbreak. It’s a sort-of spiritual sequel to “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend,” a Ramones-riffing song on Discovery, Batmanglij’s 2009 collaborative album with Ra Ra Riot’s Wesley Miles.

“With that song I was having fun, but at the same time it was honest,” Batmanglij explained to Out back in 2010. “Those lyrics are meaningful to me, they come from my heart. I was disappointed when it didn’t become a gay anthem, but, you know, it’s not too late.” Let “Gravity,” then, serve as something of a corrective: a bittersweet, catchy breakup song that depicts an underrepresented story in pop music.

Natasha Kmeto, an electronic musician based in Portland, Oregon, is looking to do something similar. “I want to stand as a representation of a different narrative,” she said last year about her latest album, Inevitable. “I find myself constantly in search of art in all forms that I can relate to without having to switch the pronouns in my mind.” Inevitable acted as a contrast to Kmeto’s solo debut, 2013's Crisis; where that album was a moody, nighttime study on desire inspired by Kmeto’s first relationship with another woman, Inevitable ground those concepts down into a streamlined, R&B-inspired electronic album that doubled as a brash expression of self.

Songs like “I Thought You Had a Boyfriend” put Kmeto’s relationships with women front and center, often in plain terms that don’t leave room for sly interpretation or suggestion. The album came from “a place of strength, as opposed to desperation,” she said – the kind of progression many men and women can chart when coming to terms with their own sexuality. “I don't think my music will become political, but I do think through a story you can channel very political views,” she said. “By me even standing — being a woman and doing what I'm doing, being a queer woman doing what I'm doing, being a person of color and doing what I'm doing — I'm standing for a lot, politically, just by doing that."

Years & Years released their debut album, Communion, last summer, just a few months before Kmeto's Inevitable. Filled with earnest electro-pop elevated by Alexander’s rafters-reaching voice, Communion garnered the group an avid fan base and four Brit Award nominations, all in less than a year. Alexander has been open about his sexuality (and how it’s rightly just one facet of Years & Years’s music) from the start: He publicly dated Clean Bandit violinist Neil Milan, peppered Communion’s lovesick lyrics with male pronouns, and, as exemplified in a recent video for the song “Desire,” has made a concerted effort to display a wide spectrum of sexuality in the band’s visuals.

“I’ve been wanting to make a video with some of my queer family for a long time,” Alexander said in an open letter regarding the steamy clip, in which he sports a white leather harness and indiscriminately makes out with men and women alike. “Everyone has a different definition of what they find sexy, so why do we so often get given one version of what sexy is time and time again? … For me, whoever it is, two women, two men, a group of genderqueer people, it’s all cute. It can all be a positive and a joyful expression of sexiness and sexuality, you don’t have to be a specific gender to enjoy it.”

When a pop star speaks that directly about sexuality, queer people – particularly queer kids – who are eager to see themselves reflected back in music and popular culture can take heart. While using pronouns that reflect your actual desires seems like a simple enough coup to pull off in lyrics, it’s still a pretty rare occurrence. Not even a success story like Sam Smith has ever written lyrics with clear gay signifiers in his songs, opting instead for the more agreeable, all-encompassing — and, yes, still heteronormative — “you.” (“I want my music to be sung by absolutely everyone, just like I listen to straight people every day of my life, and I'm not straight,” Smith weakly explained to Rolling Stone.) Most often in music history, the change has occurred in either singular, badass displays of queerness (see: Lavender Country) or gender-swapped cover songs (like Joan Jett’s version of Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Crimson and Clover,” "she" pronouns left intact). Queer subject matter, the past seems to say, is best expressed through brevity, suggestion, and subversion.

In the last few decades, however, it’s been encouraging to see an abundance of artists both old and new finding ways to be honest to themselves through lyrics, bolstering the queer history of many disparate genres in the process: Brandi Carlisle, Ani DiFranco, and k.d. lang in folk and alt rock; Le1f, Angel Haze, and Cakes Da Killa in rap; Against Me!, G.L.O.S.S., and Limp Wrist in punk; Kaia Wilson, Pansy Division, and PWR BTTM in pop-punk; Scissor Sisters and John Grant in eccentric electro-pop; Frank Ocean in R&B; Chely Wright and Ty Herndon in country.

In their own ways, Rostam, Perfume Genius, Years & Years, and Kmeto are all part of that same fight. Through their lyrical choices, they show that they realize how badly we still need to pivot all genres of music away from the status quo of straight, white, cisgender identity. Listening to their music, it's possible to imagine a future where queer, nonwhite, and non-binary music fans won’t have to feel as though their favorite songs place them on the outside looking in.