Queer women like Janelle Monáe and Hayley Kiyoko are giving us all the feelings in #20GayTeen, but they’re not the only ones changing the face of music right now. Just like their female counterparts, queer male pop stars are also taking control of their sexuality on record, something which even openly gay musicians have been reluctant to do in the past.
Before now, queer men often aligned themselves with the music of female pop stars instead, particularly those who championed the “other.” After all, there’s nothing more liberating for the LGBTQ community than letting go to the rhythm of a perfect song that also offers something to identify with. However, as allies like Miley Cyrus and even Lady Gaga turned towards country music to try and attract fans in Middle America, queer pop stars thankfully picked up the rainbow-colored baton and ran with it in their lyrics instead.
Songs like P!nk’s “Perfect” and Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” are undoubtedly empowering for the LGBTQ community, but there’s something particularly special about hearing songs that directly speak to your experience, especially when they’re sung by people just like you. Queer singers have performed for years on the fringes, but in our hallowed year of #20GayTeen, mainstream acts like Troye Sivan are finally ready to bloom on the charts and provide queer guys with heartthrobs of our very own.
It’s been over thirty years since George Michael uttered Careless Whispers to an adoring female fanbase and almost twenty since Ricky Martin lived “La Vida Loca” with nameless women in his videos, yet only now have gay pop stars finally begun to use male pronouns in their love songs. It’s easy to see how singers once feared the impact coming out would have on their careers, but even out men like Will Young and Sam Smith remained lyrically ambiguous for large spans of their careers.
Just like it can be hard for some queer men to express themselves physically in public, so too have male celebrities struggled to reconcile their sexuality with their music. Fortunately, there’s light on the other side of the rainbow. Just earlier this year, a new compilation album called Universal Love was released that reimagined love songs for same-sex weddings. Artists such as Kesha, Bob Dylan, and St. Vincent all came together to switch round the pronouns in classic wedding songs so that queer couples could celebrate their special day with these beloved anthems too.
Current pop stars have begun to make this shift in their own music too, directly addressing the boys that they love in their lyrics. Most notably, Frank Ocean made waves in 2012 when he came out on Tumblr, and the R crooner has since recorded tracks like “Good Guy” which use the male pronoun in regards to both love and sex. In his wake, the lead singer of Years & Years made a push to address queer sexuality on the band’s debut album, telling Out magazine that he “couldn’t be any prouder” of the male pronouns used in his lyrics. If the hedonistic promo for “Sanctify” is anything to go by, then it looks like upcoming music from Olly Alexander and Co. will continue to push these boundaries even further in 2018.
Meanwhile, the Grammy-winning artist Sam Smith recently came to terms with his sexuality more explicitly by singing about a boy coming out to his father, something which is particularly important given that Smith was previously criticized for avoiding gender-specific pronouns on his debut. Meanwhile, another Sam who goes by the name of Sam Vance-Law has just released an album called “Homotopia” that openly shares his queer thoughts and desires with rare insight and humor. When he’s not yearning for his very own “Gayby” or “Pretty Boy,” Vance-Law plays around with “glitter and muscles” on the “Isle of Man” or challenges religious conventions on the song simply known as “Faggot.”
Sam Vance-Law provides listeners with a more rounded, authentic window into queer songwriting than mainstream performers do for the most part, but even that seems to be changing. Echoing the sentiment of Vance-Law’s song “I Think We Should Take It Fast,” Australian singer Troye Sivan is one of the only other singers out there right now who goes beyond even using same-sex pronouns and actually explores the sexual experiences of gay men in his lyrics.
Following the story of tragic love depicted in his “Blue Neighborhood” video series, Sivan has returned in 2018 with gloriously gay videos for “My My My!” and “Bloom,” the latter of which also just happens to be a beautiful ode to bottoming. Hearing singers address their desires through same-sex pronouns opens up whole new worlds for generations keen to explore their identity. By contextualizing this within sexual experiences, artists like Sivan help to normalize such acts while also reassuring fans who usually hear just heteronormative love stories in their music.
The self-proclaimed “pop twink” told The Guardian recently that “there’s power in living openly and truthfully, while also being gay,” and this is a message that Sivan embodies for his fan base, too. While heterosexual stars like Justin Timberlake are asking women “What you gonna do with all that beast?”, Sivan and peers like Olly Alexander are celebrating all facets of sex without dehumanizing the objects of their desire, playing around with notions of lust in ways that feel far more genuine and relatable. You need look no further than Keiynan Lonsdale’s adorable love song “Kiss The Boy” to see that queer music in 2018 has never been more direct in its intent.
The Good Side
In the past, male gay pop stars have been forced to package their sexuality in very specific ways so that they can retain mainstream appeal, but members of today’s vanguard don’t share these same qualms, and music is all the better for it. In a world where drag queens like Trixie Mattel and Adore Delano can tackle country, punk rock, and everything else between, things are better than ever for queer male musicians, although we still have a long way to go.
While there are more out and proud queer men releasing music than ever before, few have achieved the chart success needed to rival their straight counterparts. Sure, not all gay men are tops, but it would be great if at least one could top the charts with a gay-themed anthem. Sivan and Smith are the most visible gay pop stars out right now, yet not even they have managed this feat thus far, despite being backed by a major label. Whether this is due to a lack of wide scale promotion or whether there’s an ingrained resistance to queer content that still persists in the mainstream, queer artists still face more obstacles than their heterosexual peers.
In the age of Trump, it’s important to remember thatmusic is a form of protest, one that queer people often find refuge and solidarity in. Even the use of same-sex pronouns is a vital act of defiance that resonates with kids striving to see themselves mirrored in the pop stars they love.
If #20GayTeen continues to push queer pop music to the forefront, then perhaps other genres such as hip hop will soon follow gay pop stars’ lead until eventually, LGBTQ fans of all genres will finally reach The Good Side of things and no longer feel like they exist on the outside of the music industry, looking in.