Music. LGBTQ. Obstacles.
Do openly LGBTQ musicians have the same opportunities to success as their heterosexual counterparts? Or, are we still victims of our own success due to who we love? Nick Levine examines queer music censorship in 2018.
At first glance, 2018 looks like a pretty good year for LGBTQ musicians. Hayley Kiyoko, Janelle Monáe, Jake Shears, Troye Sivan, MNEK, SOPHIE, Years & Years, Ezra Furman, Anne-Marie and Rae Morris have all dropped excellent albums that make #20GayTeen – a hashtag Kiyoko tweeted on New Year’s Day – feel like a movement, not just a mantra. But this doesn’t mean that censorship of LGBTQ musicians is a problem that’s gone away. Both in the UK and abroad, it’s an obstacle that queer artists are constantly fighting to overcome.
Queer singer-songwriter MNEK releases debut album Language this month after six years in the industry working with artists including Madonna and Beyoncé. The 23-year-old Londoner has admitted that in the past he “self-censored” by changing pronouns in his songs to make them sound more straight. Dominant forces in the music business impressed on him that he’d have greater mainstream appeal if he sang to a genderless “you” instead of a gay-signposting “him”.
“When I started recording my music I made the decision that I would be out,” MNEK told the audience at Expression Uncensored, a recent panel event hosted by Sonos, Index on Censorship and Gay Times. “But at the same time, I was so conscious of using [heteronormative] pronouns and not coming across as too gay.”
MNEK no longer self-censors in his songwriting. He wants to speak his own truth, and knows he can help others – young queer music fans especially – embrace theirs. But it’s a sad fact that the music industry still regards LGBTQ artists as somehow trickier to market than their straight counterparts. If like MNEK you’re a queer artist of colour, the system can feel even more resistant. “I can’t speak for everybody’s experience, but I do think it’s a lot easier if you’re just ‘one thing’,” gay British-Pakistani musician Leo Kalyan told Gay Times recently. “It gets hard in this industry if you are queer and of colour.”
Shockingly, the old myth that coming out is bad for your career still persists 20 years after George Michael was caught “engaging in a lewd act” in a LA public toilet. The once-closeted star refused to be shamed for what happened and used the media scandal to embrace his gayness playfully and proudly. On his next single Outside, he sent up the incident and his subsequent punishment by singing with a wink: “I’d service the community, but I already have you see.” Being gay made Michael a tabloid target for the rest of his life, but it didn’t stop 1.3 million fans turning out for his 2006-8 comeback tour.
Since his band broke through in 2015, Years & Years frontman Olly Alexander has become a vocal advocate for LGBTQ issues. Being queer and outspoken doesn’t make him any less of a pop star to his young female fans. But he recently revealed that he was urged by a record label media trainer not to speak openly about being gay – advice he defied. “When a journalist did ask me about my sexuality, I said ‘Yes, I’m gay and this song is about a man’,” Alexander recalled at a recent Stonewall event. “I needed to say that for my 15-year old self. I needed to say to him ‘Look, we are not hiding any more.’”
The extent to which the music industry remains dominated by straight white guys is perhaps exemplified by Rita Ora’s misguided summer single Girls. The song was supposed to celebrate the fact that Ora has enjoyed relationships with both men and women, but ended up implying that kissing another girl is something she only does after necking a load of red wine. Kiyoko, an artist whose fans call her Lesbian Jesus, tweeted: “A song like this just fuels the male gaze while marginalising the idea of women loving women.” Another queer female artist, Kehlani, said that Girls contains “many awkward slurs, quotes and moments”.
If the spirit of #20GayTeen had really permeated the music industry, wouldn’t someone – even one of the song’s seven male co-writers – have realised that Girls was tone-deaf? Surely someone could have halted its release before it came out and caused offence.
But of course, queer artists in the UK and US enjoy huge privileges compared to LGBTQ
musicians living in the 72 countries where it’s still illegal to be gay – or the many other nations where a hostile attitude still prevails. In May the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) blocked a Chinese broadcaster from airing this year’s Eurovision Song Contest final after it edited out Ireland’s performance from the semi-final. The sight of two male dancers performing in a way that suested they were romantically involved was evidently deemed unacceptable for broadcast. The EBU said the Chinese broadcaster’s censorship was not in line with its “values of universality and inclusivity and our proud tradition of celebrating diversity through music”.
Queer Russian band Sado Opera have experienced state-led censorship first-hand. When they began performing in their native St Petersburg, their message of “unrestrained, gender-ambivalent love” was suppressed by laws making it illegal to publicise any kind of gay, bi or trans act. “We had to face censorship even from the club promoters,” band member Colonel told the BBC in July. “They didn’t want to put our posters up. Some of [the posters] were political, it’s true, but they were about love.”
The government’s anti-LGBTQ agenda also hindered Sado Opera’s progress in other ways, so it’s no surprise the band are now based in Berlin. “Other [Russian] artists might want to express support, but they can’t. The atmosphere makes you double-think what you say,” Colonel explained at the Expression Uncensored panel event.
So while we should definitely celebrate the great queer artists making music in #20GayTeen, we shouldn’t forget the progress that still needs to be made. Of the acts mentioned at the start of the article, only two (Years & Years and Anne-Marie) have scored a UK top ten single this year. For better or worse, many of this year’s Pride events are being headlined by straight allies like Britney Spears. And despite the growing global profile of RuPaul’s Drag Race, none of its musically-talented alumni – Adore Delano or Courtney Act, to name just two – seems likely to become a mainstream chart star. Queer musicians may be more prominent now, but they’re not yet operating on a level playing field with their heterosexual peers.