Girl Power.

  • Sat, 29, Jun, 2019 - 5:00:AM

What makes an artist a queer icon?

Lady Gaga / Wikimedia Commons | Taylor Swift / Wikimedia Commons

I was 16 when Lady Gaga unearthed me. I was out (to myself and my friends) as bisexual, and I was somewhere in the tumble of my first queer relationship. My girlfriend at the time proclaimed to have a crush on Gaga, which saw me flirt with despising the songstress. Needless to say, it didn’t take, and Stefani and I have enjoyed an undying one-way love affair ever since. You might say I’m a Stan… I prefer Little Monster.

I’m also certain I’d harbour the same spiritual connection to Madonna, had I been born a decade earlier. Ditto Cher, Liza, Diana Ross, and Bette Davis. Of course I love those heroines, but Gaga is the woman I exalt above all others. To use deeply-felt internet vernacular, she’s my mom.

I loved (and love) Gaga because she was queer. It wasn’t so much that she named an album Born This Way, authored a modern-day gay anthem, and was openly bisexual – though those were certainly parts of it. I just mean – Gaga was QUEER. It’s an anecdote confirmed repeatedly and separately: Gaga spoke to (and speaks to) something within (some) queer people, often before they knew what that something was. Says Brian O’Flynn for The Guardian: “Her otherness made my own otherness feel more aspirational than painful. In a world of utter darkness, her presence was my only light, a wordless pathway to myself before I even knew what the word queer meant.”

Gaga was odd. Gaga was a freak. Gaga was too much, and the more people raised their eyebrows towards her antics – while simultaneously sending her dance music up the charts – the more deeply mine she felt. She was a talisman I could put in my pocket and squeeze when in need. In an era when Nelly Furtado ran the charts (in jeans and a nice top), and Taylor Swift was a sweet Southern belle (we’ll get to her), Gaga embodied a different type of womanhood. She was hard, uncompromising, funny, but not joking. In one famous epithet she mused, “people take me both way too seriously and not seriously enough.”

It’s also telling that Gaga’s queer manifesto doesn’t invoke that overused word ‘equality’, but instead appeals to bravery (I was born to be brave), survival (I was born to survive), and, above all else; individuality (I was bo-orn this way). Of course, it’s right to use the word equality when speaking of the rainbow community; we deserve equal rights, opportunities, and protections under the law. But these are the basics, they don’t speak to our brilliance. Yes, we are equal, but we are certainly not the same.

While Born This Way speaks directly to the rainbow community (you were born this way, baby) Taylor Swift’s new single, You Need to Calm Down, speaks directly to homophobes (like, can you just not step on our gowns?). And, despite awkwardly correlating homophobia with her Twitter trolls, there’s certainly a place for that.

Taylor Swift is an artist with a large gay following – par for the course for a woman who writes love songs – but she doesn’t come to mind when one thinks of queer icons. Says Trevor Martin for HuffPost, “Women who have been iconized by [queers] are often hysterically funny […] The tragic element alongside high-camp humour are common denominators: the heightened or exaggerated characters they play, or the personae they choose to project, [they] portray a life at high frequency, top volume.” This bolsters my theory that the queerest Swift song and video is not YNTCD, but Blank Space. It also goes some way to explain why Blank Space is my favourite single.

There’s no question in anyone’s mind that Swift is a queer ally. Using her considerable platform to draw attention to The Equality Act, and donating $113,000 to the Tennessee Equality Project, are demonstrably good acts. But there are entirely valid reasons the song has been met with backlash.

Swift is known for her business sense – and releasing a gay song during American Pride month is remarkably good business, never mind the perplexing misuse of the word shade. Her new album Lover has been relentlessly marketed as a colourful departure from the dark Reputation era – and what’s more colourful than a Pride flag?

I want to remind fans of Swift that analysis is a vital part of art-making, and the fact she receives so much detailed examination only underscores how important she is in pop. There’s a difference between hateful trolling and considered critique, and the queer community has every right to respond to an art piece that invokes them. And the truth is I like Taylor Swift. Her mastery of detail is almost unmatched in mainstream pop (DJ! Play Begin Again!). It’s just, there are artists who have ridden with the queer community since day one, and there are artists who use the queer community as a career pivot.

There’s a place for songs like YNTCD. With her global reach, there’s no doubt this song will become some version of a talisman for someone out there who needs it. Just don’t mind me for not calling her a hero.   

TAGGED IN

  • Queer /
  • LGBT /
  • Pop Culture /
  • Lady Gaga /
  • Taylor Swift /
  • Culture /
  • Music /
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Abigail
Johnson

Regular Contributor All Articles