Was #20GAYTEEN a Victory For Queer Representation?

· Updated on December 14, 2020

When Hayley Kiyoko nicknamed this year “#20GAYTEEN” last New Year’s Eve, she truly captured a mood. Social media hashtags can be as temporary as the trends they represent, but nearly 12 months later, #20GAYTEEN is definitely still a thing – Kiyoko even has it in her Twitter bio. At the same time, #20GAYTEEN has been embraced by the media as a snappy way of aggregating the new generation of LGBTQ artists putting out great music this year. Kiyoko, Janelle Monáe, Troye Sivan, MNEK, SOPHIE, Christine and the Queens, Anne-Marie, Years & Years, and Brockhampton are among the queer or queer-fronted acts to have released acclaimed albums in 2018.

But when I interviewed Years & Years’ Olly Alexander for UK music magazine NME in late-November, the frontman said he had somewhat mixed feelings about #20GAYTEEN. “Part of me is really thrilled and wants to shout #20GAYTEEN from the rooftops,” he explained. “There’s a lot behind it, because it feels like there’s quite a groundbreaking wave of new queer artists enjoying more success now.”

“But at the same time,” Alexander continued, “something that gains traction on the internet doesn’t necessarily reflect what’s happening in real life. In that sense I think there’s been a bit of disparity between #20GAYTEEN being a moment online and… you know, I still want to see more queer artists starring in their own big-budget music videos, selling loads of albums, making it into the charts. Not every artist wants those things, of course, but I think mainstream music is still pretty heterosexual despite there being so many queer artists out there making amazing music.”

Certainly, social media excitement around #20GAYTEEN hasn’t always translated to the sort of sales figures many of us feel these artists deserve. Monáe is enough of a live draw to be headlining a 12,500-capacity venue in London next summer, but her only mainstream hit remains “We Are Young,” a 2011 collaboration with rock band fun. “Make Me Feel,” the incendiary lead single from this year’s Dirty Computer album, stalled at #99 on the Billboard Hot 100. Just one track from Sivan’s Bloom album, “My My My!”, has cracked the Hot 100, peaking at #80. And in a string of tweets that he later deleted, MNEK admitted he was disappointed by the performance of debut album Language in his native UK. “It hurts but it’s the truth of my career and being black and gay in this game,” he wrote.

Meanwhile, general enthusiasm for everything #20GAYTEEN also produced a conspicuous mis-step in the form of Rita Ora’s would-be bisexual bop “Girls,” whose chorus hook goes: “Red wine, I just wanna kiss girls, girls, girls.” Soon after it dropped in May, Ora’s song (which features Charli XCX, Bebe Rexha, and Cardi B) was denounced by several prominent queer female artists. “A song like this just fuels the male gaze while marginalizing the idea of women loving women,” Kiyoko wrote on Twitter. Kehlani said “Girls” has “many awkward slurs, quotes, and moments.” DJ-producer Kittens tweeted: “This song is literally about wanting to hehe kiss girls when you’re drinking and smoking weed. That’s all we got. It’s harmful when LGBT women are fetishized and no relationships are ever taken seriously.”

Ora was so shaken by the blowback that she quickly apologized and essentially came out at the same time. “[The song] was written to represent my truth and is an accurate account of a very real and honest experience in my life. I have had romantic relationships with women and men throughout my life and this is my personal journey,” she wrote on Twitter. “I am sorry how I expressed myself in my song has hurt anyone. I would never intentionally cause harm to other LBGTQ+ people or anyone.” Perhaps well-intentioned but definitely tone-deaf, “Girls” showed us that #20GAYTEEN was an ongoing process, not a flawless victory lap. The same can arguably be said of unsavory speculation around Shawn Mendes’s sexuality: when there are so many queer artists to celebrate, why are portions of the community trying to out one who’s repeatedly told us he’s straight?

But at the same time, it’s arguable that pop culture has never looked more queer – check out actor-singer Ezra Miller’s gender norm-eschewing shoot for Playboy magazine. Equally, there’s no denying that artists generally mentioned under the #20GAYTEEN umbrella are telling stories we’ve rarely (or sometimes never) heard in pop songs before. Sivan’s cleverly suggestive “Bloom” is widely presumed to be about bottoming. Monáe’s “Pynk” is a glorious celebration of queer female sexuality whose video features an array of vagina-centric imagery. Kiyoko’s “He’ll Never Love You” has the artist hailed by fans as “Lesbian Jesus” telling a girl who can’t decide between her and a guy: “He’ll never love you like me.” For young, queer pop fans, it’s a super-exciting time.

So, disappointing sales figures for some LGBTQ artists notwithstanding, our enthusiasm for #20GAYTEEN shouldn’t be dampened. Queer artists have made so much authentically queer music this year that when a wannabe queer song struck a false note, its chart momentum was halted by the furor: in the UK, Rita Ora’s biggest market, “Girls” never climbed higher than its opening chart position of #22.

And earlier this month, Kiyoko told Billboard that one of her 2018 highlights has been “seeing different artists stand up for LGBTQ [rights].” She also said that “#20GAYTEEN never ends. It’s the spirit within.” Perhaps that’s the main takeaway from the mood she captured at the start of the year – that everything achieved by queer artists this year could have a potentially huge snowball effect. The more queer artists share their authentically queer stories, the more other queer folks, from all walks of life, will be inspired to do the same.

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