PoP-Gay MTV: Make Pop Music Gay Again

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By Shawn Westcott | Advocate

Advertisement: Download the PNN + Mobile App today and checkout Our Brand New Pop Channels: PoP-Gay MTV and Musica 2020.

As a gay person who came of age in the early years of nineties and 2000s, I considered pop music a friend, an ally, and an escape. It allowed me to hear uplifting, albeit clichéd, lyrics that sounded like the soundtrack to parties and clubs I wasn’t invited to quite yet. With tracks like Gaga’s “Born This Way,” Katy Perry’s “Firework,” and Kesha’s “We R Who We R,” pop music felt like a safe cultural space tailored for young queer people. However, the progression of pop music from 2010 to 2018 has been anything but progressive. Pop’s unfortunate trajectory this decade has been one of appropriating and then discarding queer themes, with a blatant disregard for the people who most fervently support the genre.

According to Google trends, interest in gay rights was at an all-time high in the early 2010s, peaking in March of 2013. In an attempt to take advantage of this trend, songs with uplifting queer themes, performed by straight artists, became ubiquitous in the pop culture landscape. Fueled by the intense momentum surrounding the gay rights movement, this sound became the resounding trend in pop music, with tracks like P!nk’s “Perfect” and “Raise Your Glass,” and Macklemore’s “Same Love,” rising to the top of the charts. 

However, in 2018, three years past same-sex marriage being legalized nationwide, interest in the search term “gay rights” has plummeted — 87 percent since its peak in 2013. Queer themes are no longer seen as trendy, exciting, or particularly profitable, so these straight artists and producers have largely moved on. Some of the artists who made their careers championing gay fans have seen their sounds gravitate toward country music in an attempt to court more middle American fans (cough, cough …  Lady Gaga, Kesha, and Miley Cyrus). These trends in culture have left queer music largely pushed to the fringes of pop culture, furthering the idea that queer themes do not have a permanent place within the mainstream.  On the bright side of the rainbow, 2018 has seen a renewed energy surrounding up-and-coming artists who identify as queer, which was not super present earlier in the decade. However, the mostly lukewarm mainstream response to these artists makes the “you can do anything” pop themes of earlier years feel all the more hollow. Gay artists and producers have arrived within the mainstream pop landscape yet are not being largely embraced by the mainstream.  There is currently an influx of queer artists making music that is unabashedly mainstream but being overlooked by the top 40. Some of these artists are Troye Sivan, Hayley Kiyoko, Kim Petras, and Sakima. Of them, Sivan is the most visible within the mainstream. However, his highest-charting single, “Youth,” peaked at a modest number 23 on the Billboard Hot 100, not exactly granting it smash status. While these artists exist within the major label ecosystem, they do not seem to be receiving the large pushes or embraces that up-and-coming straight artists such as Post Malone and Camila Cabello are receiving. When queer artists signed to major labels don’t succeed because they weren’t properly invested in, it makes labels less likely to sign or invest in other similar artists. It’s a vicious cycle that results in queer artists being unfairly left on the sidelines.  This exclusion is clearly seen in the case of trans pop star Kim Petras. Despite releasing stellar pop singles like “Heart to Break” and “I Don’t Want It at All” to significant online fanfare and media attention, she has not received a major label contract. It’s difficult to imagine a cisgender artist with Petras’s songwriting chops and notoriety remaining unsigned this far into her development process.  The production side of popular music is notorious for it lack of sexual diversity, with a staggering 98 percent of songs being produced by men. For queer producers attempting to break through, this creates yet another hurdle. One of the most prominent voices in queer-pop production is trans producer Sophie of the London-based PC Music collective. Despite attaining critical acclaim and working with upper-echelon stars like Madonna, Sophie has failed to see any of her productions attain significant attention outside of the blogosphere. Illuminating this is the trajectory of pop renegade Charli XCX. Coming off the heels of hit singles like 2014’s “Boom Clap” and “Fancy, ” she was once heralded as the next big thing in pop. However, after joining up with Sophie and the PC Music collective to produce her most recent music, she has seen her current efforts largely banished from Top 40 radio and public consciousness. This issue goes beyond the tired narrative of queer people being bitter that we are not getting carefree bops from our favorite artists anymore. Essentially, queer people and subjects carried pop music in the early years of this decade, only to be mostly shut out in the tail end. With a less obvious narrative of progress to present, the music industry has generally disregarded queer themes while doing little in truly welcoming queer artist and producers.  However, perhaps even more so than in the idyllic Obama era, queer artists deserve to be heard. When queer kids grow up feeling like the content that resonates with them does not have a place in the mainstream consciousness, it extends to feeling like they don’t truly belong in mainstream society. In 2010, listening to those cheesy, faux-inspiring pop songs made me feel like, even as a queer person, I could achieve the world. Eight years later, that sentiment feels increasingly distant.

Advertisement: Download the PNN + Mobile App today and checkout Our Brand New Channels: PoP-Gay MTV and Musica 2020.

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