What If Boy Bands and Girl Groups Stopped Gendering Pop Songs?

“Onstage, I felt like I was just playing a character, but offstage, unfortunately, I didn’t get to have my real life,” Lance Bass told HuffPost about his time as a closeted teen in *NSYNC. “It was torture.”

Ahead of *NSYNC’s Walk of Fame ceremony in April, the former boy-bander opened up about what it was really like to perform heterosexuality for a living, while secretly burying his truth. From 1998 to 2001, *NSYNC was one of the hottest and most sought-after boy bands in pop music, alongside the Backstreet Boys. Their frosted tips and sculpted faces graced every teenage girl’s bedroom walls and every promo for TRL. For a while, the men of *NSYNC were the biggest heartthrobs in the world. In 2002, the group went on hiatus, but it wasn’t until 2006 that one of its members, Lance Bass, came out as gay. Since then, the vocalist has made significant efforts to advocate on behalf of his community, but it’s taken him awhile to truly open up about his experiences as a closeted teen.

Today, Bass’s story is more timely than ever. Over the past seven years, boy bands and girl groups have had a renaissance, and for the first time since the early 2000s, pop music has been revivified by the arrival of singing groups like One Direction and Fifth Harmony. Since Bass’s romp in *NSYNC, the times have certainly changed: Same-sex marriage is now the law of the land, and LGBTQ people have more visibility in film, TV, and pop music than ever before. In fact, many of today’s most beloved pop stars have come out as queer, from women like Demi Lovato, Miley Cyrus, and Halsey, to male vocalists like Troye Sivan and Sam Smith. Queerness and pop music have always gone hand in hand, but now, the blend is finally finding peace on a more mainstream level. So, why haven’t boy bands and girl groups caught up?

In 2016, Fifth Harmony’s Lauren Jauregui bravely came out as bisexual in an open letter. The Miami native has since made efforts to center queerness in her music; in her collaboration with fellow bisexual singer Halsey, called “Strangers,” the two women use female pronouns to serenade each other. However, her group’s music didn’t reflect this change, and wasn’t inclusive lyrically. Fifth Harmony has since split, and no other current girl groups or boy bands, like Little Mix, Prettymuch, Why Don’t We, or K-Pop’s BTS, have out queer members. So while pop music continues to progress in its social messaging, boy bands and girl groups are still seemingly stuck in the mud.

In *NSYNC’s heyday, Bass didn’t come out  because he was afraid it would affect his and his band member’s careers. “I didn’t want to jeopardize the careers of these guys up here, much less the hundreds of amazing people who worked tirelessly to bring *NSYNC to the world,” he said in a moving speech at the Walk of Fame ceremony. “I thought I’d come out, *NSYNC would be over, so out of fear, I kept my secret.”

He told HuffPost, “The ’90s were a different time. If you came out, if anyone knew you were gay, it was a disaster and people really flipped out.” Bass added, “I felt like if anyone found out that I was gay, the record label would immediately drop us and the fans would hate us ― these were all the crazy things that went through my head as a teenager.”

Nowadays, we’ve made progress. It’s incredible to see artists like Troye Sivan, who is not only out, but actively performs femininity and gender-queerness on-stage, thriving in pop music. Of course, the fight is not over — Sam Smith told ABC News earlier this year that he still faces discrimination in his career, admitting, “I feel like I’ve had more struggles with my sexuality in my job than my personal life.” But with solo pop artists like Sivan, or out lesbian singer Hayley Kiyoko, whose girl-on-girl music videos have amassed more than 100 million views on YouTube, it’s clear there’s a demand for overtly gay pop music.

The fans are there, but the industry is lagging behind at an embarrassingly sloth-like pace. Kiyoko, too, has faced discrimination from label executives. The singer told Refinery29 that music execs asked her, “You’re doing another music video about girls?” Kiyoko aptly replied, “Taylor Swift sings about men in every single song and video, and no one complains that she’s unoriginal.”

Meanwhile, the singer-songwriter has a voracious fan base who dubbed her “Lesbian Jesus.” She’s accrued over 1 million Instagram followers, and her most popular songs, like “What I Need,” featuring out bisexual R&B star Kehlani, the summer bop “Curious,” and her early single “Girls Like Girls” have accumulated anywhere from 19 million to 38 million plays on Spotify each. Sivan has earned even more, with hundreds of millions of Spotify streams and over 8 million Instagram followers.

I can see the hesitation that a label executive or fellow group member might have in making inclusive pop songs for singing groups. If one vocalist is queer and wants to gender-swap the pronouns in a song, that means all of the band members will sound gay. To that, I say: Who fucking cares? It’s extremely homophobic to be afraid of getting associated with queerness. I think it’d be an incredible show of support for the LGBTQ community, and also the band’s queer member (or members), to show such unity. The lack of visibility in these spaces hurts the community, but can also be extremely detrimental to the mental health of the group members—or at least, it was for Lance Bass.

“It was definitely a depression,” Bass told HuffPost. “Ironically a depression: to be in one of the biggest bands in the world and have the best time of my life.” Though he says he’s happy and grateful now—the singer has been happily married since 2014—the experience of living a lie on a world stage was deeply traumatic for him. “When I was home, I felt really horrible about myself. So yeah, it was sad.”

It’s common for ’90s and 2000s LGBTQ kids to name the likes of *NSYNC, the Spice Girls, and the Backstreet Boys as their “roots,” because there’s obviously something inherently queer about a group of girls or boys dancing up on each other—I know I liked it. Singing groups have always wanted to sell sex and sexuality—both in their image and in their lyrics, which are typically either sappy power ballads or upbeat, flirtatious bops. But if an artist like Troye Sivan can find such massive success, and still be admired and ogled by both male and female fans alike, I can say with complete certainty that an out queer boy band member wouldn’t hinder the group’s success. In fact, it’d probably expand their fan base.

The queering of pop music has been the most galvanizing and heartwarming movement to watch and experience, as a fan of pop music and as a queer woman. In the past six months, a deluge of out queer artists have released music that centers LGBTQ people—Sivan, Kiyoko, Kehlani, Tove Lo, Rita Ora, Cardi B, King Princess, Alyson Stoner—the list goes on.

My hope for the future of pop music is to see my gay adolescent fantasies about boy bands and girl groups played out in the singing groups of tomorrow—but not for selfish reasons. Representation matters, and it’d send a strong message of love and community to LGBTQ people if these bands were more inclusive and open in their messaging surrounding sexuality. I’d love to see a boy band or girl group show queer fans that they, too, are loved unconditionally—no strings attached.

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