Playing it safe or making progress? LGBTQ+ Icons in Music

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Undoubtedly, the presence of LGBTQ+ artists in the music industry has grown rapidly over recent years – more and more artists are releasing music which explicitly challenges heteronormativity in a way that previously may not have been accepted so readily. Though incredible to see, it is inarguable that the way in which this representation has grown has come at the detriment of any sense of radicalism – the LGBTQ+ icons saturating our media are inescapably safe.

For a contemporary society, the likes of Bowie, Freddie Mercury and Elton John were revolutionary, and remain so to this day – in such an intrinsically homophobic time (homosexuality having only been decriminalised in 1967, just six years before the release of Queen’s debut album), the androgyny and movement away from the norms of the time were shocking. At the time, this representation was practically non-existent, so their very presence shook the music industry up entirely and their legacy has had a long-lasting impact upon LGBTQ+ presence in music. However, flash forward four decades and that ground-breaking quality in artists like Mercury and Bowie is somewhat amiss – it has become normalised and to an extent, accepted. Thus, with an abundance of these figures now pioneering the music industry, it is perhaps time we push for towards a movement which is more radical.

Considering the current figureheads of LGBTQ+ presence in music, the ways in which they can be deemed ‘safe’ are palpable. For example, over the past year with a world-wide tour and the premiere of ‘Medicine’, Harry Styles has been heralded as an icon for the LGBTQ+ community. Indeed, ‘Medicine’ has been rightly regarded as a bisexual anthem, as Styles sings ‘the boys and the girls are here/I mess around with him’ – it is fundamental to acknowledge the weight of this representation for a part of the LGBTQ+ community that is often invalidated and how crucial using this immense influence to advocate for this community is. Nevertheless, it is equally important to acknowledge that Harry Styles is an unavoidably safe choice of LGBTQ+ icon. As a widely popular, attractive white man, though still just as valid and progressive, he is not all that radical in a modern age. Styles himself has expressed how musically and in style he has taken inspiration from classic icons of the past, like Bowie and Mercury, and this is wonderful, but raises the question of how long can we rehash the same ideas and icons before they become regressive?

They all have remarkable similarities too – they’re attractive, young, and not too revolutionary, rooted in previous success and therefore more marketable.

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Image via Rolling Stone

There is undeniably room for more progressive icons – Halsey, Troye Sivan, Hayley Kiyoko and Sam Smith, along with Styles, have all been awarded the status of LGBTQ+ icons. They all have remarkable similarities too – they’re attractive, young, and not too revolutionary, rooted in previous success and therefore more marketable. That isn’t to say they are not completely valid – their sexuality and representation of such is imperative and definitely has had a significant impact on the existence of the LGBTQ+ community within music. Yet, in 2019, it is not too much to suggest that there is room to push the boundaries and allow for queer artists of colour, or trans musicians – a multitude of more diverse figures – to have their platform as well as this wealth of similar, safe artists. There are still so many members of the LGBTQ+ community who are perilously underrepresented and as heteronormativity grows less rampant there is opportunity to break through this safety net and provide representation to those who need it most.

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Image via W Magazine

Kevin Abstract, of hip hop collective BROCKHAMPTON, discussed in an interview with ShortList last year how he doesn’t want to be a queer icon, but simply an icon. Hip-hop is a genre riddled with homophobia even now, with Eminem releasing a song which directed homophobic slurs at Tyler, The Creator just last year. This makes Abstract’s openness about his sexuality even more poignant – and his point is deeply intertwined with ideas around how safe current queer icons are. For ‘queer icons’ to transcend to just icons, there is a fervent need to give platform to a wider range of LGBTQ+ artists in music in order to normalise this presence and make what will initially be incredibly radical, accepted and plainly iconic. Abstract’s ideas are crucial – though a gradual process for acceptance, it is a crucial one, and one we need to catalyse. Giving artists who don’t fit the conventional, commercialised and often diminishing standards of an LGBTQ+ icon is vital in doing so.

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In a modern, progressive age, the music industry can afford to stop playing it safe; the consequences of the risk are no longer as drastic. The presence of LGBTQ+ artists in the music industry used to be so radical, and as it becomes more and more the norm to identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community, it is time we return to that radicalism to allow widespread representation that doesn’t discriminate against a specific group, instead pushing the music industry to be more inclusive and welcoming. There are so many LGBTQ+ artists straying from the norm and making waves – Rina Sawayama, King Princess, Shea Diamond and Kodie Shane to name just a few. Everyone deserves to have access to an artist who is representative of them, and if we can accommodate for this, why should we play it safe when we can make progress?

Neive McCarthy

Header image via Sam Smith