Almost one year ago, a picture of Years & Years album Communion placed in a ‘gay’ section in a music store in Germany rocked Twitter. Although Olly Alexander, the band’s leader, is openly gay and frequently takes inspirations from his personal experiences, this classification surprised him: “Can you really label a style of music ‘gay’?” he asked on Twitter. Indeed, the label itself seems ridicolus at best, however, representation of the LGBT+ community in music, not only in songs but also on stage, goes back a long way.
If it hadn’t been for David Bowie, Madonna or George Michael, bands like Years & Years might not exist now. Bowie came out as gay only five years after homosexuality was decriminalised by the British Parliament in 1967. Although later on he admitted that his true orientation was bisexual, it doesn’t really matter in the light of his achievements for the community. Not only did he write songs such as ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’, which has been interpreted as a same-sex flirtation, a pansexual manifesto, or a feisty response to John Lennon’s comment on Bowie’s fashion style, and ‘Queen Bitch’ which, written in gay slang, talks about gay community. Moreover, his alter ego on the album Ziggy Stardust is an androgonyus, bisexual rock star, challenging prevailing conceptions about sexualties and gender. George Michael, even before his official coming out in 1998, performed songs that were relatable for teenagers who struggle with their sexual identities like Michael did himself, for example ‘A Different Corner’ or ‘Careless Whisper’.
Madonna went one step further and openly embraced same-sex love, French-kissing Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera during her performance at the MTV VMAs in 2003. This moment, although undoubtedly steamy and scadalous (remember Justin Timberlake’s face?), challenged the perception of femininity and lesbianism, untill then associated mainly with pornography and sexual fantasies of straight men. At the beginning of the 2000s, Madonna threw down a challenge to heterosexism: two female brides, androgynous outfit, female tenderness and eroticism. Although lesbian love keeps recurring as a motif in music, it is usually depicted as a forbbiden fruit (Demi Lovato’s ‘Cool For the Summer,’ Rihanna’s ‘Te Amo’), or a temporary and innocent sexcapade (Katy Perry’s ‘I Kissed A Girl,’ Shakira & Rihanna’s ‘Can’t Remember to Forget You’ music video). A sad conclusion is that young vocalists still can’t leave their heteronormative safety net and handle a more ambitious, less pornographic depiction of female lovers.
Fortunately, on the other hand, in the age of progressing legalisation of same-sex marriages, more artists are opening up about sexuality, which has a great significance for thousands of young people who still haven’t accepted their own identities. That’s why Sam Smith portrays gay marriage in the video to ‘Lay Me Down’, Troye Sivan isn’t afraid of showing male eroticism in ‘My!My!My!’, and Olly Alexander openly sings about love for another man. A further breakthrough took place in 2012 when Frank Ocean, a hip-hop artist, declared that his first love was a man: homosexuality still remains a taboo in his environment.
The LGBT+ community has many allies in the industry: Lady Gaga wrote one of the biggest equality anthems, ‘Born This Way’, and created a complex lesbian relationship in the video to ‘Telephone’, with Beyonce. Hozier’s ‘Take Me To Church’ was inspired by his relationship with a woman, but the clip puts forward homophobia and violence against homosexuals.
Many artists, including Florence Welch and Harry Styles, call for respect, love and tolerance by waving rainbow flags during their shows, especially after tragic events such as the Orlando massacre. It is also worth remembering that LGBT+ doesn’t stand for homosexuality only, and it is important that the music industry starts to comprehend it too. The likes of Conchita Wurst, winner of Eurovision 2014, are challenging perceptions of gender and transgender and symbolise a wind of change. While lesbian love deserves a full-dimensional representation, the hip-hop environment is full of homophobia, and stereotypes are still alive.
George Michael, Madonna and Bowie paved the way for a new generation of artists who proudly represent LGBT+ in music. Speaking of Bowie, his friend Romy Haag, a transgender singer said: “If we don’t kiss each other now, the world will stay the same.” Indeed, we need these non-heteronormative kisses in music too – literally, on stage and metaphorically, in songs. Let love live.
Image: Drew de F Fawkes via. Wikimedia