Over the past decade, LGBTQIA+ music has grown in mainstream popularity, especially as more artists openly identify as queer across genres and borders. Queer music, however, has been largely reduced to LGBTQIA+ playlists, without an acknowledgment of this music’s central role in our history or radical politics. In every queer space — from disco clubs to protests, queer bars, pride festivals and our own intimate spaces — music has long been central to queer self-expression and communal bonding. Through music, we build community, carve out visible space, take political action and make history; this cannot be contained to a single pride playlist.
While queerness did not have a visible or audible movement in the U.S. until mid-century, music by and for queer people about our experiences existed before the Stonewall Riots in 1969. In the midst of movements for civil rights, antiwar, queer liberation and many more during the 1960s, queer people congregated largely in bars and clubs where jukeboxes were the sole source of music. Anyone could choose the song, and these choices communicated personality, style, and social and cultural identities. In the 1970s and ‘80s, disco culture provided a safe haven for queer people facing the burden of the AIDS epidemic to have fun and make connections. Songs like “I Will Survive” were not written by or for LGBTQIA+ people, but in a time of mass death, they provided a source of communal hope and respite: a place of life.
Today, queer people more easily find ourselves represented in mainstream music and pride festivals across the globe. Inclusive language and imagery in music, videos and performances are more common, which is a relief to many who feel invisible, alone or rejected by the cisheteronormative messages of the mainstream industry. Toxic masculinity, objectification of women, homophobia and the domination of heterosexuality in every genre of music push queerness into the shadows. LGBTQIA+ activist and lawyer Urvashi Vaid once said that “culture is a strategy of resistance and survival,” and music has been a major part of queer culture for decades.
Music has immense cultural importance in shaping our identities and connections to each other through art. Cisheteronormativity and queerphobia, however, have long dominated mainstream music, while still commodifying queer imagery for profit (queerbaiting in Ariana Grande’s “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored” music video or performativity in Taylor Swift’s “You Need To Calm Down”). In the face of this erasure, queer musicians and listeners spent the last several decades carving out spaces to create and listen to music by and for our people. Queer people have been consistently kept off stages — both literally and metaphorically — so occupying musical space in bars, concerts, parades and the music industry is empowering. In the 1970s, disco served this purpose not only for the queer community but also for women and people of color to escape the cis, straight, male and white-dominated music scene. In spaces created by and for marginalized groups, there was no need to tone down their authentic selves to be accepted, especially in music. Queer, female and musicians of color could reject normative expectations in ways that would otherwise be refused by record labels, radio stations and the public. For many queer artists, making music also means taking up space within an industry that largely rejects their identity through employment discrimination, restriction of queer lyrics and allowance of explicitly queerphobic lyrics. Occupying space in otherwise oppressive settings means refusing to be erased, and promoting our right to exist. In this way, taking up space can be an explicitly political act: when your authenticity is politicized, open expression is resistance.
Queer political history has been made with music. Musical counterculture within the queer movement allowed listeners to imagine life otherwise through the simultaneously social and personal experience of communal listening; sharing a common marginality within rock, punk, disco and pop allowed a profoundly artistic politicization of queer life. Sound also played an integral role in AIDS activism in the 1980s, when ACT UP’s insistent loudness resisted the government’s silence on the crisis. This sound, however, was not simply untargeted rage. They made noise with the intention of reshaping public space with their sound. Today, queer music is highly commercialized, but artists still often make explicit political statements with their music and imagery.
In addition to building community, making space and taking political action, music also helps queer people remember our past and make our own history. Queer music helps us contextualize the broader sociopolitical conditions through which generations of queer people survived, from mob-owned club culture to disco to pop, these “sonic reverberations” reflect each era’s broader context of change. Recovering our queer past and imagining a queer future through music is vital, possible and already happening within queer studies, performance studies, historical and ethno-musicology and our everyday lives.
As LGBQIA+ representation increased over the last decade, other issues arise to hinder the queer politics formerly infused into queer music. Objectification, commodification, performativity, pink capitalism, queer-baiting and celebrity culture all push to assimilate and profit from queerness, without preserving the radical demands for sexual, gender, racial and class liberation rooted in our history. We do not have to let queer music be reduced to a so-called pride playlist. Having playlists is not in itself harmful or unempowering, but when decades of queer musical history are contained within a playlist or news article of “The Ultimate LGBTQ Pride Playlist That’ll Make You Want To Party,” we lose our connection to the vital role music played for those who came before us.
Each time we listen to queer music of the past, we join the communal practice of coming together and using our collective voice. As long as queer music survives with its radical messages intact, queer history survives too.
Jay Jones (22Ox, 24C) is from Tallahassee, Florida.
“Let’s Be Perfectly Queer” is a community column from the Wheel that seeks to examine what it means to be queer and queer culture in the current era.