When the safe space is a song and the confidante, an artist
Before there were stans on Twitter or fandoms elsewhere on the internet, music, with its somewhat primal power and appeal, had long already been bringing tribes of people together.
Music is the medium. But sometimes, it in itself is also the message. And when it comes to what resonates with members of the queer community, this message is crisp, loud and clear. They are attuned. They listen.
It might come in the form of Whitney Houston, for example, Elton John or even Regine Velasquez. Perhaps the moment happens when Robyn is on blast. It could be prompted by a Carly Rae Jepsen song, too, or Gaga or Kylie Minogue. Regardless, there’s a reason this space is only occupied by a select few: not everyone can touch, uplift or tug at the heartstrings of the LGBTQ+. But if there are, top-of-mind, eight that can do just that, it’s the artists rounded up ahead. Here, a tribute to the gay icons in music who have changed pop culture and steered the queer narrative in the right direction.
Tracks to start with: I’m Coming Out, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, The Boss
There would be no greater irony than to have the singer of a smash hit entitled “I’m Coming Out” not be considered a gay icon. Fortunately, the multi-award-winning queen of disco and soul Diana “The Boss” Ross is just that.
The co-writer of the song Nile Rodgers once told The Mail on Sunday: “We had written [‘I’m Coming Out’] because of her gay following, but I said she should use it as her ‘coming-out’ song––to start her gigs––and she has ever since.”
For reasons that are obvious, the track has resonated with the LGBTQ+ community, generation after generation. In 2016, it even topped Billboard Magazine’s list of LGBTQ+ anthems and in the process only further solidified Ross’ place in the industry as one of the great gay music icons.
Tracks to start with: If I Could Turn Back Time, Believe, Heart of Stone
“They either love you or don’t even know you’re on the planet!”
This was living legend and “Goddess of Pop” Cher’s reaction to being called a gay music icon. The title isn’t something she merely wears like a badge of honor either. Through the years, she has proudly stood as an ally of the LGBTQ+ and has been a vocal and staunch supporter of their rights.
Her sound and her songs, while they may tackle universal themes touching on love, hope and hardship, have created a unique space for her in the industry. It’s one she shares openly with the LGBTQ+ (gay men, in particular).
Tracks to start with: Bohemian Rhapsody, Under Pressure, Somebody To Love
One of the more controversial figures of the ‘80s and one gone too soon: Freddie Mercury, the British singer-songwriter, became well-known for the energy he brought with him to the stage as the lead singer of the rock band, Queen. Flamboyance was one other descriptor. Insanely talented was another.
“He was a ‘scene-queen,’” wrote John Marshall for Gay Times in 1992. “Not afraid to publicly express his gayness, but unwilling to analyze or justify his ‘lifestyle’… It was as if Freddie Mercury was saying to the world, ‘I am what I am. So, what?’ And that in itself for some was a statement.”
Mercury was, at the time, one of the very few openly gay men in music. His death, due to HIV/AIDS-related complications in November of 1991, shocked the world and provoked the much-needed dialogue on the epidemic.
Tracks to start with: Emotions, Fantasy, Honey
A further discussion on the soft spot the community has for the quintessential diva is unavoidable. And who better to pull up for the category than the Elusive Chanteuse herself Mariah Carey?
A sultry siren, she is strong, independent but unafraid to get sentimental. Mariah Carey’s brand of music exhibits the full breadth of a real, raw and very emotional range likely as vast as her vocal range, too. Consider this the starting point of her connection with the queer community. She, overall, is an aspirational character and her music, an outlet and release. Not to mention, they’re a whole lot of fun to sing to.
Tracks to start with: Stronger, Toxic, Work B**ch
It’s a trend-turned-tradition at her live shows: No introduction to her song “Gimme More” is now ever complete without a gay man in the audience screaming, “Who is it?!”
Cue track: “It’s Britney, bitch.”
Through the teeny-bopping early years, the wayward moments in her career and the celebrated comeback post-2007 breakdown, Britney Spears was always just one of those artists people could not help but cheer on (some of her most loyal supporters being the LGBTQ+).
The level of support comes not only because she is a seasoned entertainer or an incredible performer well-deserving of it. It can be alluded to her story offstage that seems to resonate with this subset of fans: struggles made public, details of her private life spun into hot topics, personal relationships being picked apart and analyzed. Spears is no stranger to struggle and neither is the community who has fallen in love with her… even more so after her courageous, dignified act of getting back up after a very public fall.
Tracks to start with: Hung Up, Music, Like A Virgin
“People forget the role Madonna played in opening up gay culture to the mainstream,” writes The Madonna of Bolton author Matt Cain. “She wasn’t gay herself, but from the beginning she talked about how gay people were part of her life: her gay mentor, her dance teacher, Christopher Flynn; the artists and photographers she hung around with like Keith Haring and Herb Ritts; the gay dancers she paraded around so proudly in the film In Bed With Madonna.”
Here’s a woman who saw herself as a vehicle of a movement much larger, more radical than herself. It was a responsibility Madonna Ciccone made a point to uphold from her “Like A Virgin” beginnings to her reign as “queen of all queens” today. Campaigns for the LGBTQ+, of course, pepper this very colorful résumé.
Tracks to start with: Be Alright, no tears left to cry, The Way
Hot on the heels of the pop divas from the 2000’s era is pint-sized, powerhouse vocalist Ariana Grande. While previously compared to Mariah Carey (because of said vocals), the 25-year-old singer has evidently done well for herself, paving her own path and forging her own identity. A part of that is incidentally becoming a gay music icon herself.
If lyrics like: “they point out the colors in you, I see ‘em too/And, boy, I like ‘em” don’t give her away, her life behind-the-scenes and her advocacies certainly will.
Tracks to start with: Bloom, WILD, Fools, My My My!
It’s a video that has garnered over 8,125,888 views on YouTube. No, it isn’t singer-songwriter Troye Sivan’s latest musical release, but his coming out video from 2013. “For people, it's really, really, really shit in the beginning. But don't worry; it gets better,” he shares in the clip. “I’m here to say that that’s true because it will get better for everyone. But I’m also here to say that it can be good right from the start.”
Flash-forward to 2018: Sivan now has two studio albums chock-full of pride anthems and positive narratives for the youth going through the same things he did when he was coming to terms with his sexual identity.
As one of the few actually gay artists being dubbed a modern gay music icon, Sivan still has his reservations. “With people like Hayley Kiyoko and Brockhampton, we’re starting to get, finally, a diverse group of different LGBTQ perspectives,” he tells Billboard. “That’s why I politely don’t want to take on that ‘gay icon’ thing. I’m one voice of so many that are missing, and so I’m just trying to tell my story.”
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The next wave of icons will bring with them a more enriched dialogue for the LGBTQ+. Sivan did say it: It’s time for the other stories to be told. And they will be: in time and through songs that will surely create ripples in society much like the anthems that came before them.
Art Alexandra Lara