Ashleigh Brink // Columnist
With the surge of visibility and acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community in the entertainment industry in the past 10-15 years, there has come with it a wave of openly gay new artists. Following in the footsteps of those like Elton John and David Bowie, the next generation has truly come into their own while making lasting impressions on the music world. Just one example is the success of Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road, which will probably be remembered as one of the most iconic songs of 2019. With Lil Nas X coming out publicly on Twitter this past June, he’s made history as the first openly gay, black artist to be nominated for a Country Music Award, and currently holds the title of the longest-running number one in Hot 100 History with his 17-week reign. Since coming out, he has publicly been a force for LGBTQ+ rights in the media and on social platforms like Twitter, where he has cultivated a significant following. While quantifiable success may be the most obvious way of moving the needle forward, there is another type of representation with an equally strong impact.
Perhaps some of the most beautiful music coming from the LGBTQ+ community currently is found in the new cluster of indie music. Artists like Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and the supergroup they formed with Lucy Dacus (known as boygenius) are all prominent examples. Instead of recycling some of the same old tropes often found in the genre, boygenius is a group of women singing about women. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: representation is extremely important. Hearing people like you singing songs about their own lives is vastly powerful. Even more so when it is layered onto hauntingly beautiful music like that of Julien Baker.
Baker’s music is sonically astounding (seriously, my hands hurt after learning to play Sour Breath). It is imbued with an aching sense of sorrow and longing. Her large sound, layered with reverb pedal upon reverb pedal, cries out, almost as if the instrument itself is in pain. Her vocals are much the same. They have an unmistakable sense of raw, powerful honesty as if she bares her soul with each and every line. Also not to be forgotten is her lyrical prowess. The words themselves are dripping with melancholy, and contain that same feeling of honesty and exposure. She sings about her life, her relationships, her struggles with substance abuse and mental illness, and making peace with her religious beliefs. And she does it with a sense of candour rarely heard. Honesty is powerful, and that’s what drives much of the emotional impact behind her music.
Some artists are extremely vocal in their queerness, such as King Princess, an artist most recently, and appropriately, referred to as “Brooklyn queer pop royalty” in a feature by Vulture. Although her debut album is yet to be released, with just an EP and a handful of singles, the artist has firmly claimed the title of queer icon. (If you need further reference, see Pussy is God, an unabashed wlw anthem.) Other artists, however, take a much more understated approach. With her rainbow guitar strap, and the same candour she shows in her music, there is no doubt Baker is open about her sexuality. But for Baker, being out and proud doesn’t mean her sexuality is always going to be at the forefront, it’s just a part of who she is. Phoebe Bridgers is similar. Her bisexuality is not a secret, but she’s not going to smack you in the face with a rainbow either. Frankly, it is extremely encouraging to see this kind of representation these days. You don’t have to be loud to be visible or counted. You can just be you—whoever that may be. Queer people just existing is what normalizes us.
Don’t get me wrong, the louder forms of representation are extremely important too. Without trailblazers like Bowie and Elton John, as well as many others, we would not be where we are today. And those holding up that torch, like King Princess, are unequivocally creating positive change in the world. But what is important is that these artists no longer have to. The role of activist is no longer thrust upon each and every LGBTQ+ individual by default. Rather, they have the power to just be, and for that in itself to be powerful.
At the end of the day, all levels of representation create a positive effect on the world around us. The loud trailblazers are at the forefront, carving out the path. They drag society forward whether it wants to come along or not, and the quiet representatives bring up the rear. There, they also take the spotlight. But in it, they’re just themselves, showing those that try to other us just how human we really are.