The music scene as we know it would not be the same without the influence of the LGBTQ + community. We probably all know and love songs by Queer artists.
The work of iconic LGBTQ + musicians has helped reaffirm the identities of millions of people in the community over time. We’d be lost without these artists, and it’s impossible to imagine our community as strong as it currently is. Today, I’m going to tell you part of this story, the one that has bolstered our sense of pride about identity and sexual and gender orientation. We will look at some of the key figures who completely changed not only the music industry but also the way we see the world, artists who, over the course of the last 100 years, have helped us express ourselves freely on this versatile planet we call Earth.
Same-sex love has always been around, so when music started being recorded, this concept was present in it. The first Queer record is considered the “Prove It on Me Blues” by Ma Rainey (1927) which contains the lyric, “It must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men.” Rainey is known as the Mother of the Blues, and she was a mentor to Bessie Smith, a big influence on Billie Holiday, and one of the first people to sing accompanied by a jazz band. Following this track was Lucille Bogan’s “B.D. Woman’s Blues, ”(B.D. being the slang for lesbian women), and artists like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mamie Smith, and Sippie Wallace, all of whom challenged traditional ideas of femininity, race, identity, and gender. As time went on, jazz and blues continued to provide a safe place for Queer expression.
An early-morning raid on June 28, 1969 (now International LGBTQ+ Pride Day) on the Stonewall Inn pub in the New York neighborhood of Greenwich Village, unleashed demonstrations and violent protests from the LGBTQ + community. This event is considered the catalyst for the modern movement. The pub raided was home to some of the most marginalized people in the community; every night patrons danced along to songs on the jukebox by Barbra Streisand and Diana Ross. Other popular tracks were “Everybody’s Talkin’” by Harry Nilsson from the movie Midnight Cowboy and “You Don’t Own Me” by Lesley Gore, who would later come out of the closet.
During the 70’s and 80’s, Freddie Mercury, Boy George, Grace Jones, George Michael, Prince, and David Bowie made their own, authentic way in the world, bringing nuance to this freedom of expression due in part to the ambiguity of their sexualities and the quality of their productions. There is explicit Queer content in videos like Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax,” the Village People’s “YMCA,” and Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy,” and these songs continue to be anthems around the world for people of all identities.
Then, there was the rise of ballroom subculture in the 80’s. This subculture was embraced by the drag community and created safe spaces for voguing competitions, which were judged on attitude, dress, and dance skills. Trophies were awarded to different “houses” of performers. One of the most representative songs of the time was obviously “Vogue” by Madonna. Now, artists like Lady Gaga, FKA Twigs, and Ariana Grande incorporate elements of voguing into their own musical narratives, making these artists important icons for the community. Back in the 80’s, Elton John and Cindy Lauper, who were openly gay, also reached the peak of their careers, on two different continents and with two distinct vibes.
The 1993 version of the Pet Shop Boys’ song “Go West” (originally by the Village People) shot to the top of the charts around the world. The lyrics go: “Where the air is free, we will be what we want to be. Now, if we get going, we will find our promised land. ” These types of messages were increasingly common; however, few songs reached the mainstream in such a way.
These are not the only artists to have contributed their music and messages of freedom of expression; many others have also helped carve the path to greater acceptance. In this new era, the road has been a bit easier (and more profitable) because many artists open about their non-heterosexual orientations. There are so many examples, from Janis Joplin to Peaches to Katy Perry, whose song “I Kissed A Girl” addressed bisexuality. Then, there is Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” which promotes acceptance and self-esteem; Frank Ocean, who is one of the few rappers to have ever come out of the closet; Janelle Monáe, who talks about being pansexual; and Sophie, who is trans and working on avant-garde pop sound with Charli XCX; Kim Petras, and Madonna.
We’ve made a playlist of songs that forever changed the LGBTQ + world. These tracks made a mark on certain eras, shattered stereotypes, and became anthems for the community, and we continue to dance to them today. We hope you enjoy this selection, and remember, love is love.
By Sussy Oh