The LGBT community has always had a talent for embracing things that are so awful they could almost be good. But even we couldn’t save Katy Perry’s 2008 smash hit I Kissed a Girl, which was released 10 years ago this week. The song was undeniably catchy and camp, but the lyrics were plain offensive. The problem was all those justifications for why a woman might – God forbid! – kiss a girl: drunkenness, a male audience, that beguiling cherry lip balm. For queer audiences, Perry might as well have sung a more succinct phrase: “No Homo!”
Thankfully, there are many better examples of queer female representation in pop today. If in 2008 the joke still stood that all lesbians listened to was Tegan and Sara, today the joke is probably “why are there so many gay female pop stars?” We have US stars such as Halsey and Miley Cyrus improving bisexual and pansexual representation, queer artists Fever Ray, St Vincent and Shura making critically acclaimed music about female desire and pop stars including Janelle Monáe and Princess Nokia signalling their queerness while avoiding definition. Then, of course, there is acclaimed, pansexual French synth-pop act Christine and the Queens, who has legions of young, gay fans. But just what has changed?
As a queer woman, I noticed the tide starting to turn in 2013, around the time LGBT rights such as same-sex marriage were up for mainstream debate in the UK and US. Rappers such as Young MA, Brooke Candy, Angel Haze and Azealia Banksprofessed, in a very anti-sensational way, to being gay, bi or pansexual. “If we were in a sexual situation you would know exactly who I am sexually,” Haze told me in an interview in 2014 (quite flirtily, I liked to think). “But if we’re just having a conversation, you don’t need to know what I do in private. Sexuality is not the most interesting detail about a person.”
The British folk-pop singer Marika Hackman argues that this “no big deal” attitude about sexuality from pop stars is what made her feel safe to come out as gay. “It was that classic thing of not feeling like you’re a lone mouthpiece, it’s almost like a support network,” she tells me over the phone. “Women feel strength in numbers, and the more it’s spoken about, the less it is ‘your thing’ or something you are defined by.” She adds that it was seeing the generation after her coming out in school to their peers, or refusing to define as straight or gay that also compelled her to follow suit.
While Hackman has never lied about being gay, she says she shrouded her earlier songs in metaphors to conceal who she was talking about. Then she released her 2017 album I’m Not Your Man, which uses female pronouns to address its subjects and has a track called My Lover Cindy, a gag for avid viewers of lesbian TV series The L Word. The single Boyfriend, meanwhile, is about the idea of queer female sexuality being co-opted by the straight male gaze, and contains lyrics such as: “I hope your boyfriend doesn’t mind.” So, in essence, it is the same idea peddled in I Kissed a Girl. “I definitely didn’t write it as a response to Katy Perry,” Hackman laughs. “But I have had men approaching me as I’m kissing a girl saying: ‘Can I join in?’”
Hackman’s not the only pop star discussing the nuanced experience of being a queer woman in her music. Halsey’s 2017 duet Strangers with Lauren Jauregui from Fifth Harmony could be a lifeline. Both singers are bi, and it is the first ever chart-hit love song to be sung by two women using female pronouns. As such, it feels radical to hear the song open with Halsey singing the words: “She doesn’t kiss me on the mouth any more.”
Also from the US are three-piece Muna, who make political pop and have produced a song called I Know a Place, which is about the importance of queer spaces, inspired by the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. Princess Nokia’s Tomboy is an anthem for more masculine presenting girls everywhere, and Hayley Kiyoko’s song Girls Like Girls is an unapologetic ode to female love. On the UK front, The xx put out 2017 single Say Something Loving about gay frontwoman Romy Madley Croft’s experiences, and on recent single Too Late, London female duo Nimmo sing about longing for an ex-girlfriend.
The appetite for all this queer-representation pop music is made clear by how much fans obsess over the sexuality of female stars or the content of their lyrics. Demi Lovato has faced endless speculation about her orientation, and when St Vincent released the song New York last year, fans immediately took to social media to speculate whether it was about singer Annie Clark’s relationship with model Cara Delevingne.
For Hackman, the importance of her own visibility hit home when her fans reached out directly. They sent messages saying their mental health had been suffering because they didn’t realise something about themselves until they listened to her record, and she had 16-year-olds coming up to her after shows to say that she had helped them come out to their parents. It was easy to understand where they were coming from, she tells me: “Growing up, I didn’t have anyone to look up to, or music and lyrics I could relate to.” Ultimately, she says, things would have been easier if she had seen her life reflected back at her in popular culture.
Whether or not the proliferation of all these queer women in music is a result of broader equality for LGBTQ people, or a factor in it, is impossible to tell. But the likely answer is that it is a feedback loop – the more LGBT visibility there is in everyday life, the more we see LGBT people and relationships depicted in our music, the more same-sex relationships become “normalised”. With all the leaps we have made in pop, could we now look back on Katy Perry’s 2008 hit as the swan song of a bygone era that fetishised and trivialised female sexuality? “I think we’ve probably still got a long way to go in terms of representation,” says Hackman. “But I haven’t become defined by my sexuality, and I hope that’s a sign of progress.”