Music is a powerful way for fans to express themselves by feeling represented in the artist and in the lyrics. While music has the potential to be a force for positive change, it is currently stuck in a rut of heteronormativity and traditionalism. With these boundaries, it can be hard for queer women to feel represented in the music they listen to. Looking at the music scene today, there has been a recent explosion in queer female artists who resonate with a generation of young LGBTQ+ music fans. But going back even five years, these artists were not nearly as recognized as they are today because there has always been a struggle for WLW (women-loving-women) music to be recognized in mainstream culture.
Before the recent boom in queer artists, there were very few female pop artists open about their sexuality. One example is Lady Gaga. Since her entrance into the music industry, she has been an extremely vocal activist for the LGBTQ+ community. While her activism is widely known, she also identifies as bisexual, since coming out publicly in 2009. While these are both parts of her public identity, the majority of her music and all of her hit songs are heteronormative. Two notable exceptions to this trend have gay subjects: “Poker Face” and “Sexxx Dreams.” “Poker Face” is a song about wanting to be with a woman while in a relationship with a man. While this song achieved commercial success, very few people understood the subtext of the lyrics. Sexxx Dreams is much more obvious with its lyricism that discusses having erotic dreams about a woman. But this song failed to achieve the same level of popularity as any of her hit songs. It never charted in the United States and the 9-year-old lyric video currently only holds 1.6 million views on YouTube. To compare, her single, “Applause,” from the same album is currently at 400 million views.
Another example of an openly queer artist is Miley Cyrus. For many years, she has been a vocal activist and member of the LGBTQ+ community, but even with her candid pansexuality, it is hard to find that same representation in her music. Cyrus does not have a song in her discography that explicitly discusses a relationship with any gender identity besides male. Many of her hits do not use anything to gender identify their subject or rely on the traditional he/him pronouns. For example, her hit song, “Prisoner,” only uses the pronouns “you” and “I” in the entire song. And many others follow the same pattern: “Plastic Hearts,” “Malibu,” “I Would Die For You,” etc. With her role in the LGBTQ+ community being so intrinsic to her public persona, it is an interesting choice for Cyrus to not acknowledge it in her music. Her music could be used to represent WLW relationships, but she instead opts for gender neutrality, leaving those women unrecognized in mainstream music. While Cyrus is undeniably an extremely successful artist, it begs the question: would her success would be as massive if she were to discuss her relationships with women in her music?
Demi Lovato has recently come out as non-binary, but they have been a queer figure for almost a decade. In the past few years, they have made songs clearly discussing WLW relationships, but none of these achieved the same commercial success as their older and heteronormative music. For example, “The Kind of Lover I Am,” a song about their fluid sexuality, despite being almost 2 years old, has only 719k views on YouTube. The only outlier is “Cool for the Summer,” which subtly alludes to queer activities. Like Gaga’s “Poker Face,” the meaning was lost on many of its listeners because of its vagueness. Lyrics include, “Got a taste for the cherry, I just need to take a bite. Don’t tell your mother.” This ambiguous songwriting can easily pass over a listener’s head if they aren’t paying attention. This helped the song become one of their most successful with over 400 million views on YouTube and being listed as their most popular on Spotify.
These are just some examples of mainstream queer artists, but many others follow this same pattern of not achieving the same level of success when writing about WLW relationships. Many more artists like Doja Cat, Halsey, and Kehlani are finding themselves dealing with this same struggle of becoming mainstream pop artists while trying to remain true to themselves.
However, times have since changed. There is a new slew of queer female artists populating the music industry. Social media has helped young queer women find lesser-known artists that represent their identity, and it has skyrocketed these musicians’ fame. It has introduced a new genre of “indie pop” artists like Lucy Dacus, Julian Baker, King Princess, Snail Mail, and so many more. These women have found explosive numbers of fans in the past few years. For example, Phoebe Bridgers, an openly gay female artist, gained 1.3 million followers on her Instagram account between January 2020 and January 2022, bringing her from only 210,000 to 1.8 million. Any other artist that fits into this category will follow the same trend. These booms in popularity demonstrate the need for representation in the music industry. But even with this growing fame, these queer artists still find themselves forced into the “indie pop” category rather than simply “pop” because their music fails to reach the same level of mainstream stardom as their straight and cisgender counterparts. Clairo, the poster child for this new wave of music, is arguably the most well-established queer female artist, but on Spotify achieves only 10 million monthly listeners. While this isn’t a very large audience, compared to other more mainstream artists, many other “indie pop” women achieve somewhere between 1 to 3 million listeners.
The suddenly popular indie pop women are also all white, showing how it is even more of a challenge for queer women of color to find success in their music careers. Queer women of color are already barely represented in popular culture today and are even more rare in the music industry. Without being a part of the newfound success that white queer women are experiencing, they are stuck with an inability to receive any form of large success in the music industry.
It is becoming easier to find representation as a queer woman looking at the state of music today and queer women are finding it easier to achieve success as a musician, there is still a struggle for these artists to enter into the world of mainstream popular culture. And without them, there fails to be a proper representation of queer women in music. There has always been and continues to be a struggle for queer women to rise to large levels of fame and there needs to be a space made for them in both the music industry and society itself.
Authored by NOW Chapters and Membership Intern, Natalie Bavos-Chen