The Weekend Desk: Queerness in Pop Music, Sam Smith And How Far Have We Really Come
  • FRIDAY, JULY 31, 2015

  • Posted by: Joseph Farago

It's mid-2015, two weeks after the SCOTUS decision declaring same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states. The general public has been waiting for this victory for months, but is this the end of LGBTQ issues in America? Certainly not. With violence increasing for transgender people and a consistent and unbelievably large percentage of homeless queer youth existing in the U.S., this success is a minuscule portion of an indefatigable deconstruction that has been going on for decades.

In this new millennium, especially in the last five years, queer visibility has been more prominent in popular media than ever before. With musicians with widespread acclaim like Sam Smith and Frank Ocean populating the radio waves, it's hard to get away from queer art in American society. But, with these artists releasing successful music and garnering accolades for their artistic prowess, visibility is still a major issue. From cryptic lyrics to music videos depicting paradoxical messages, queer musicians in mainstream media still don't have the liberty to express themselves. I mean, we don't even have a pop artists using correct pronouns to describe their queer relationship! The message of heterosexism in music still persists, with lyrics specifically designed to attract, comfort, and align with straight people while simultaneously relegating its message onto those who are not. With so many queer people making music in this world, why is pop music still so straight-oriented?



One of the biggest, most notorious things that happens in popular music is something called straight-washing, which happens in the music video for Sam Smith's big single "I'm Not the Only One". While Sam Smith has had open dialogue about his sexuality on various news platforms, the music video for his single prominently displays a straight couple dealing with infidelity. Some might say that it is merely a video, a narrative that has nothing to do with straightness but with romantic complications. But it is too normal in our society for a queer person's story to be contorted to a straight person's archetype. This is a concept known as straight-washing, where heterosexism is enforced and uplifted at the expense of the visibility of queer people. Where a gay man's art has finally reached mainstream audience, a display of visual acts of straightness in the music video has replaced the message. Queer people not being able to exist in their own music videos proves that their are great strides left for the LGBTQ community. Though Sam Smith has become a recognizable name among modern pop icons, with his identity out and proud, a favoritism of straightness and the disproportional accessibility to straight music vs queer music is still prominent in American society today.

With Sam Smith the newest emblem of queerness in pop music, an even fresher face, as of a couple weeks ago, released video material that is interestingly controversial. Hayley Kiyoko, an emerging pop artist from Los Angeles, released a video for her song "Girls Like Girls," a soliloquy of simplicity singing girls like girls like boys do. While it is not the most nuanced approach to explaining the commonality of queer intimacy, the video embarks on a tale of two young women connecting and showcasing their romantic affection. It's a relentless display of youthful queer love, which is really cool to see when so much of the media we ingest is based around straight people being in love, finding love, searching for love, etc. To my disappointment, Hayley Kiyoko is not queer and many aspects of the video reveal that, especially the tired tropes about female queerness that are represented in the boyfriend figure in the music video. But I think that the video and the song as pieces of art, working to decimate a Westernized supremacy based on sexual identity, do a fine job in showcasing this romance in an uninhibited manner.

The power of pop music is that it's undeniably accessible; it's on the radio, on TV, blasting from convenient stores, and basically everywhere else. While there are countless musicians deconstructing homophobia and transphobia through their art like Angel Haze, Cakes Da Killa, and Perfume Genius, their message isn't always reaching a wide audience because they aren't part of the pop world. This is incredibly disheartening especially when those distancing themselves from a corporate industry like American pop music are the ones that need to be heard the most. But, as our society keeps expanding on a general cognizance and tolerance of queer people, more and more pop artists are making their way into mainstream idolatry. Though we definitely don't know what victories queer people will have in the music business following the legalization of same-sex matrimony, seldom do we see queer women, gender non-conforming, or trans people in the realm of popular music culture. I'm grateful for the strides America has made and the countless queer musicians that have inspired me and the few queer pop stars reconstructing popular media, but I'm still praying for the day straight-washing becomes as archaic as the printing press.

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