In many corners of entertainment and pop culture, LGBTQ representation is only just now moving away from lip service to actually providing queer creators the space to figure out what to do with that visibility on their own terms. Queerness in music, however, has long stood at the epicenter. It was embedded in the fabric of Bessie Smith’s and Ma Rainey’s blues, front and center in David Bowie’s, Elton John’s, Freddie Mercury’s, and George Michael’s ethos, and later championed iconically by Cher, Madonna, Céline Dion, Cyndi Lauper, Mariah Carey, and Whitney Houston.
But post-internet, what was once subversive has been reappraised as trendy, with otherness co-opted for everyone. The expectation is increasingly that pop stars be either a little gay or at least gay friendly (think Charli XCX, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Ariana Grande) to attract the gay dollar. Queerness has become a marketing tool. (Although pandering to the gays, particularly when the artists themselves aren’t queer, rarely goes smoothly. See: Nick Jonas’s flirtation with the community and Taylor Swift’s recent pivot to Extreme Queer Ally, each ploy tethered to promoting new music.)
This shift has left queer artists in the middle: trying to live their truth but also being asked to leverage it in this, the age of Gay, Inc., when those creators have to negotiate not just how to be gay but also how to sell gay. Vulture spoke with six such performers — Shura, Shamir, Hayley Kiyoko, Jamie Stewart (of Xiu Xiu), G Flip, and Madame Gandhi — about how they came out to their labels (or didn’t) during the signing process and how they’ve seen (or not) their queerness deliberately used to build an audience. Each has had different experiences, but all share the same sentiment: It’s complicated but getting better.
30, Hammersmith, England
“It’s really hard to remember exactly how I broached my queerness when I signed. My manager definitely knew. It wasn’t something I told him immediately. Six months or so into our working relationship, I told him. Funnily enough, we’d gone to see Blue Is the Warmest Color together, which is quite an awkward thing to do with your manager. I thought, Hmm, does he know I’m gay? Maybe it was after that, I went, ‘By the way, I’m one of those people.’ The label were aware. They placed me with a queer woman as my project manager, like, Here’s this cool lesbian. It was a smart business move. I wonder if that was a conscious choice. She was also a brilliant product manager and a brilliant human being, so I had no fear when I started that I’d have to soften the edges of my queerness. Not that I feel like I’m especially queer. I’m a quite boring level of queer. Averagely queer.
“But I was open. My first video was pretty gay. I think it would have been quite difficult to keep it secret. The first interviewer who asked me directly if I was gay took me by surprise. It’s a really weird question to ask someone you don’t know out of the blue. I think when you say you’re queer, it becomes about the sex that you have. Maybe the most on-the-nose conversation I might have had at the label would have been about where to put street advertising. We put posters in the gay village in Manchester, in cities where there is a queer scene. That would be as far as it went. With my new record, it’s slightly more explicit in the lyrics and mentions female pronouns, so I’ve had conversations about what songs probably can’t be taken to more conservative radio in America. That never happened on my first record because I didn’t use gender pronouns. Those conversations are up in the air, but that was the first time I thought, Oh yeah, of course. It makes me laugh, it’s hilarious. I don’t find it personally upsetting, but it also doesn’t directly affect me. If it did, yeah, I probably would find it upsetting, but I didn’t grow up in a conservative state. I grew up in Acton, Manchester, and Shepherd’s Bush.
“I am a bit conflicted on the commodification of queerness. My views change almost with the wind. I do think, in terms of queerness as a brand, if it comes from the artist and it’s queer because it’s from their perspective, I’m onboard with it. Sometimes there’s an obsession with otherness. It happens in PR: ‘Okay, what can we say about this person that makes them different from everyone else or makes them exciting or edgy? OKAY, THEY’RE GAY! Great! Let’s talk about how gay they are!’ When it feels like it’s coming from an angle other than the perspective of the artist, if it’s commodified by a label, then we start to get into uncomfortable territory. In TV or film, if we could get to a situation where you have a character who’s gay but it doesn’t have to be a story line … I crave that kind of incidental queerness. I crave it not being a talking point.”
28, Los Angeles, California
“When I was younger, in this girl group [the Stunners] and trying to be recognized as a solo artist, I felt like there was no chance in hell that I was ever going to get signed, because I didn’t attract men. My beauty wasn’t the stereotypical beauty. I felt like men treated me that way: They looked the other way and looked at other people because they had something to offer that I didn’t. Then when I was doing everything on my terms and I was writing my own music and I was really pursuing my career and I did the ‘Girls Like Girls’ music video, that’s when I started getting interest from record labels. I’m very fortunate because Atlantic, whom I’m signed with, was just like, ‘We love who you are, and we love what you’re doing.’ Still, to this day, there’s not really a conversation about my sexuality. It’s more like, ‘What song is next? What video is next?’ They treat me like an artist, like I’ve always wanted to be.”
24, Las Vegas, Nevada
“I don’t have that luxury of being able to be publicly closeted. It wouldn’t work. It’s basically like telling people you’re not black. How could I get away with that? I’m so aggressively queer. At the start, my youth was the topic of conversation, and then it was my sexuality. It was always secondary until it wasn’t. Then when it wasn’t, things started to be put under a microscope. It was never a conversation in the beginning. Once ‘On the Regular’ came out and I got crazy press, people used the term post-gender and started putting my sexuality to the forefront. It became a conversation mostly with management, not so much with labels. It was about managing how camp I could be. They never said I was ‘too gay,’ but they said it in more words. It wasn’t condescending or about me hurting the brand; it was more about ways to protect the brand. That’s not something I care about. I only care about my job as an artist, which is to be 100 percent honest and be as myself as possible. That’s the annoying thing about queer representation in mass media. It’s very one-dimensional. We’re not allowed to be multidimensional or exist like every other artist can. We can’t be something more than just a queer artist.
“In my experience, I didn’t feel commodified as a queer person until I stopped doing pop and house music. Those are historically very queer genres. Once I stepped outside of that, that’s when I started to get into a scary zone, because I was a queer artist daring to be multidimensional and show range — not to be put into this specific box. I didn’t realize that box would be put around me. I was young and unaware. Now I just want to be the well-rounded multidimensional queer artist that I continue to be. That’s so much bigger to me than commercial or monetary success. I know because I’ve been through it. My other queer counterparts are battling with that every day. Do what’s true to you. The thing about being a part of any marginalized group is that we’re fucking resourceful. We know how to do a lot with a little, so just trust in that and stop eating out of a straight white man’s hand.”
41, Los Angeles, California
Leader of the experimental band Xiu Xiu
“The first label we were on was Kill Rock Stars, which was the label every riot-grrrl band came from. That was one of the first labels where being queer was fine. It wasn’t a thing that needed to be explained. Polyvinyl has been an incredibly progressive label as well. We started in 2002, and even in bands I was in before then, I was out as being queer. But I don’t think I’ve ever talked about it to anyone I’ve ever worked with in a business capacity. Different publicists we’ve had have asked if we wanted to do stuff in queer publications, but it wasn’t as if they said, ‘Here’s some queer publications that we could put you in.’ It was never a strategic thing. They just said, ‘Is that something that you’re comfortable doing?’ and we would just go, ‘Duh, of course it is.’
“Being strategic about how we’re presented in the world is not something that we personally have ever done. It’s kind of anathema to what’s interesting or important to us, which is playing music. What’s not important to us is sitting down and having a long discussion about how we’re perceived in the world. We are who we are, and some of the people in the band are queer and some are not. The point of the band is to be open about who we are as people, but it’s certainly never ever been a calculated discussion with the labels we’ve been on. I’m not saying that doesn’t happen on earth, but it’s not something we’ve ever dealt with.”
24, Melbourne, Australia
“I’m just a musician who happens to be queer, and I was speaking to management and record labels because of my music, not the fact that I was queer and not because of my sexuality. But when I was speaking to these management and record labels and in that process, I’m sure they would have gotten an inclination as to my sexuality because that’s what my songs are about. The majority of my songs are about my girlfriend or my ex-girlfriend, and I use female pronouns. So if any of them in that process had asked what the songs are about, I’m going to be honest. When I was growing up, I wasn’t exposed to any music that had that, that I could identify with. I always found it hard to relate to musicians and pop artists when I was younger because I didn’t find too many that were like me: tomboyish. All the pop stars were almost sexualized, and that wasn’t my vibe. But when I meet someone, I don’t normally walk up to them and say, ‘Hey, I’m G, I’m gay,’ so it wasn’t something I felt like I needed to disclose straightaway or at all. And I don’t feel like I’m branded as ‘G Flip: queer artist.’ I do have quite a big queer following, but I’ve never seen it brought into my marketing.”
30, New York and Mumbai
“You would think I’d have needed to be more quiet about my queerness in order to get signed or in order to work with a big company, but the irony is, if anything, I had to ask people to not put my queerness at the forefront of my identity. Not overly booking me for events that felt pigeonholing or reductive, or [making sure] that I’m doing as many electronic music festivals and feminist and South Asian events as I am doing pride events, because these identities are really balanced for me. It wasn’t a source of oppression so much as it was a source of commodification. Folks in the mainstream are realizing how valuable it is to flex on diversity, whatever that means, so they’re signing artists just for being diverse, rather than for the whole picture of their art.
“My feminism has always been most salient to my identity, and being a musician or being a New Yorker, and my academia. But my queerness and my South Asian–ness have been more essential to my projects more recently, because I recognize the responsibility to own those parts of my identity in understanding how important it is to show nuanced descriptions of what it means to be queer and South Asian. I’ve brought that more forward in my projects in my social media. In my lyrics, I enjoy being able to talk about flirting with my now-girlfriend or talk about pleasure from a queer-femme perspective. That’s what makes pride interesting: It’s not just rainbows and glitter and gay men; it’s pleasure in the queer-femme community. It’s being brown as well as queer. It’s finding power and liberation in being a queer femme.
“If we don’t do the work to identify ourselves and decide what our genre is and what our identities are, then someone will decide for us, and they will get it wrong. And that’s why so many artists are so afraid to say, “I’m a rock musician, I’m an EDM musician, I’m this, I’m that,” because if you don’t do the work to know exactly who you are, other people will do it for you, and you’ll be noticeably frustrated.”