Queer Women Ruled Pop This Year
St. Vincent, Torres, MUNA, Syd, Kehlani, and loads of others gave me something to relate to in 2017.
Lead image by Esme Blegvad
Hi. This is a monthly column where I'll be writing about something I've been unhealthily obsessed with. It is basically a written accompaniment to this meme. But with more music. Thanks.
This time two years ago, I found myself at my Grandma’s house, eating custard creams on the sofa with some family friends and speaking about the film Carol. I had loved it, I said, making vague references to the pretty outfits and intense orchestral score. But what I truly loved about that film had more to do with the fact it was a realistic romance between two women. Not only that, but neither of them had been violently killed in a car crash (see: Another Dead Lesbian) or ‘decided’ to become straight at the end, and the way their relationship had unfolded on screen was more relatable than anything else I’d seen at the cinema.
One of my family friends said they’d also enjoyed the film for a variety of reasons. “I don’t mean this to be offensive...” they said, turning to me, in that way that preludes something probably offensive. “But before watching Carol, I just didn’t realize two women could really, really fancy each other like that, you know? I guess I just always thought queer women… secretly wanted to be straight.”
For the past two years, I have spent a lot of time thinking about this comment, mulling over the root of it and wondering if this was a misconception shared by anyone else—and if so, why?
Speaking about queerness when it comes to art can be tricky. Gender and sexuality are far too fluid, nuanced and subjective to definitively pin to anything in a way that feels totally comfortable. That said, as a queer woman who sometimes feels alienated/bored by mainstream pop culture (Where are all the lesbians on Love Island?! Why is 'San Junipero' the only good thing in this life? I don’t care about Prince Harry. Is anybody going to stop Ed Sheeran singing pregnancy ballads?) it can be way more fun and meaningful to consume art that isn’t completely heteronormative—and that’s me speaking as a white, cisgender woman at that. Additionally, so much of pop culture that does speak to the queer experience is often centred on all the negative shit. No wonder people from the outside can harbour such skewed views.
Which is why, for me, this year in pop music has been particularly significant. St. Vincent, MUNA, Torres, Kehlani, Palehound, and Syd among others have all released ridiculously good albums. And while none of these releases should be defined by their queer aspects or acclaimed as some of the first—that would be both inaccurate and absurd—I think it’s worth celebrating that they offer musically smart reflections of sex, dating and love lives entirely devoid of the male gaze or ‘otherness’ in a way that me and lots of others can properly relate to.
St Vincent’s MASSEDUCTION is an album that has everything to do with sex and nothing to do with dudes. “I can't turn off what turns me on, masseduction / I hold you like a weapon, mass destruction,” she sings on the title track in a way that calls to mind all the times you’ve had such good physical chemistry with a person it can momentarily black out all the other shit in your life. On “Sugarboy” she goes one step further by relishing in the gender-bending kink present in such a relationship, her voice slathered all over the intoxicating club beat like golden syrup. “Sugargirl, figurine / Pledge all your allegiance to me / Sugargirl, dissolve in me / Got a crush from kicked-in teeth.” For real, if that aforementioned family friend had heard MASSEDUCTION five years earlier, would she have stopped thinking queer women secretly wanted to be straight? Or would she still assume we all aspired to be more like Kevin and Susan from down the road?
If St Vincent’s MASSEDUCTION is all the melodrama that comes with intense attraction, MUNA’s debut album, About U, is more wrapped up in the softness, the regretful aftermath, the escapism and growing pains that follow. “There’s a few bad things I’ve done...” begins singer Katie Gavin over dark electronic drums in what I think is the best album opener I’ve heard all year. If you haven’t yet discovered MUNA, I implore you to rinse this record immediately. It’s everything good pop should be, sitting somewhere between Fleetwood Mac, Haim and the synthy soundtrack to a 1980s John Hughes teen movie. There’s also a deep emotiveness to their sound, an in-your-throat sensitivity that is hard to pinpoint, and even harder to articulate, but to me captures the specificity of queer loneliness and heartbreak in a very real way. “I wonder If I could ever ask for more / If I'm ever gonna ask for more from a lover,” she sings in “Crying on the Bathroom Floor,” reminding you of all the times you’ve had to police your emotions among people that lowkey don’t take them seriously, even when they’re threatening to bubble to the surface and explode.
Of course, these core concepts are entirely relevant to any relationship, regardless of gender or orientation, but as Sasha Geffen wrote in a brilliant dissection of MASSEDUCTION earlier this year, “Most of the sad songs that already exist are straight, and the loss of a queer relationship can feel doubly alienating—not only did you get dumped, you got dumped out of a coupling that’s minimally represented in popular culture. There’s a tendency, perhaps, among queer artists to be as forthright and openhearted as possible, to proclaim that their pain is real, that they are real, they exist. That bloodletting is often lifesaving, and the songs are often beautiful.” In other words, if you think emotionally navigating a queer relationship is exactly the same as a heterosexual one, you’ve probably never been in one.
And then there’s American musician Torres, who I hadn’t actually heard of until my mate sent me a link to one of her videos a few weeks ago. The video was for her track “Skim” and it shows her slowly treading through a carpeted house in a slick black suit while clutching a guitar, before a near-naked femme-looking body lays across her on the sofa. In another video, for “Three Futures,” she plays the part of two women, eventually going down on herself at the end, which is admittedly pretty weird.
What suddenly struck me the most while watching these videos, though, was how alien it was to see queer sexuality like this on screen, even though these images are so familiar to me in real life. I think that’s an important thing to note about the work many of these artists are putting into mainstream pop. They bridge that gap between real life and what is repeatedly presented to people as the 'norm.' Again, no wonder my family friend didn’t realize queer women actually fancy each other if she’d rarely encountered such a thing on screen or in music. It sounds so, so obvious, but if you never see or hear about queer sex or romance between women, and you exist outside that world, you’re obviously going to think it’s invisible—or even uncomfortable. And that’s really dangerous. It's like if I started assuming that all cishet couples do is bicker in Homebase and have potato dauphinoise followed by missionary position sex, which obviously isn't true (is it?).
I could go on about all the other queer women that have ruled pop this year, but honestly there are so many that I don’t have the energy to list them all. I think the fact that Halsey—currently one of the biggest stars on the planet – was able to sing “Strangers”, a track about the breakdown of a queer relationship from first person, to an endless crowd of teenagers screaming the words back to her at Glastonbury this year is a good indicator of where we’re at. There is also the basic fact that I think many of the aforementioned releases are just good as hell—that's mostly why I enjoyed them in the first place. And ultimately, it was just nice to listen to pop music that sounded like my life, rather than having to momentarily pretend it did.