Mu­sic. LGBTQ. Ob­sta­cles.

Gay Times Magazine - - CONTENTS: - Words Nick Levine

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 su†ested 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.

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