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How Pop Divas Became the Arbiters of "Gay Music"

Problematic fave Azealia Banks recently appeared on the extremely popular Breakfast Club radio show to talk about the evolution of female rap and the release of her new single “Anna Wintour.” The bisexual emcee has described her tune as the “gay wedding anthem of summer 2018,” and I’m compelled to agree because it’s a bop, y’all.

Now despite the LGBT community’s feelings about Banks—gay men, in particular, don’t know whether to live for her or lose her altogether because of recurring homophobic statements—there’s no denying that her music is actually quite popular with queer folks, particular those of color, like myself. Her original banger, “212,” is a gay club staple, and her latest work practically transports you to the floor of New York City’s ballroom scene where her beats sound tailor-made for vogue-ing.

Maybe that’s why the Breakfast Club hosts (allegedly speaking on behalf of their intern) specifically asked Banks if she makes music for gays, to which she immediately responded, ‘yes.’ Then after an incredibly awkward pause, she wondered aloud if that was a problem, causing both straight men in the studio to say it wasn’t. When one of them subsequently asked if gay people were her intended audience, Banks simply said that she makes music for herself.

But it looks as though the music she creates for herself is exactly the kind that appeals to many of her queer siblings. It evokes a specific feeling that a good portion of LGBT people respond well to—especially at the place they feel most at home, the gay club. Music, quite simply, makes us all feel at ease. It has a wonderful tendency to wrap us up in its various notes and harmonies so as to keep us warm while we navigate the frigidity of an oftentimes unaccepting world. We seek out artists who we feel understand our own personal narratives or that share in our identity journey as expressed through the tracks we keep on loop.

This is because, like with most of our interests, one’s musicality is informed by elements of our background—sexuality, race and ethnicity, geographic location and age, among other characteristics. Therefore, my tastes as a 29-year-old from the Texas-Mexico border (mostly hip-hop, R&B and regional Tejano) are quite different from that of a 42-year-old lesbian from Nebraska, or a teenaged trans man from the South Bronx.
Is there a genre or sound that speaks to us as a collective? If they’re not singing of same-sex love or the struggles attached to queerness, is the music still “gay?”
Ultimately, is “gay music” (which will be used generally for the purpose of this dialogue) just the kind that LGBT people enjoy listening to, regardless of styling? Is it strictly based on queer-centric lyrics written to provide us with some four-count visibility? Or is there more nuance to it? Who decides what “gay music” is?

For instance, does Beyoncé make “gay music” purely because of the enormous queer fan base she's amassed over the years? Or does it help that she belted out a popular song called “If I Were a Boy” from a female perspective? Plus a lot of her songs do focus heavily on self-empowerment, and that theme oftentimes moves us as an LGBT community. But then what about Macklemore who sang of a “Same Love” and Kesha who proudly declared “We R Who We R?” Do they all fall under the same category?

Further discrepancies arise when we talk about what we each actually like. The music industry has clearly designed and curated a distinct sound for my queer demographic’s consumption whether we want it or not. And I think one can easily argue that sound is predominantly pop. It’s safe to say that not every LGBT person cares for the likes of a Carly Rae. (Yes, I realize me even saying that is somewhat sacrilegious since “Run Away With Me” is everything and more.)

Yet for every gay who loves Carly Rae, there’s another who’s obsessed with the Carries and Rebas of country, the Cardis and Young M.As of rap, or the Stones and Zeppelins of rock. Those unique connections are valid and life-affirming for queer fans and in no way insignificant just because they’re considered unorthodox.

Additionally, does being an LGBT musician automatically mean you make “gay music?” What does that type of labeling even mean? Is there a genre or sound that speaks to us as a collective? For Azealia, I’m wondering how much of her self-identification dictates the contents of her catalogue. The same could be said about your Sam Smiths, your Elton Johns, your Rob Halfords and your Frank Oceans. If they’re not singing of same-sex love or the struggles attached to queerness, is the music still “gay?” I’d certainly say so.

And where does Rita Ora lie in this conversation? Her latest single “Girls” is apparently a true declaration of her own bisexuality, even if many were quick to critique her and her collaborators of somehow queer-baiting by featuring lyrics that allude to needing wine to pursue women. Although Ora and colleague Charli XCX have both addressed the controversy—which some felt was entirely overblown—the song clearly has its supporters. Based off YouTube statistics alone, it’s been viewed nearly 20 million times with upwards of 331,000 likes, because, sensitivities aside, “Girls” exudes all of the elements of quintessential pop, which, again, has long been embraced by members of the LGBT community.

In the last twenty years, we’ve seen how artists like Madonna, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Whitney Houston, Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande, just to name a few divas, have influenced queer musical expression and seemingly usurped the “gay music” subgenre. If you ask me, it’s almost as if every entry in their discographies was designed to make gay people, namely men, both gasp and dance at the drop of a well-timed key change.

Maybe our queer ears are genetically drawn to the rhythms, melodie and vocals of strong personalities who remind us of our own identities. And I’d argue that Gloria Gaynor is definitely on everyone’s list. Because duh, we’re all surviving here.

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