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What is Gay Pop?

Queer musicians are slowly taking over the mainstream from Muna and Boygenius to the internet’s favourite lesbians Reneé Rapp and Chappell Roan.

Jojo Siwa smiling on red carpet
Shutterstock, mwood99

Gay pop has been a huge topic on social media the last couple of weeks. From Chappell Roan’s iconic Coachella performance to Jojo Siwa claiming she invented gay pop. This claim saw substantial backlash across TikTok and X/Twitter with many queer people suggesting Siwa does not know the rich history of gay pop. 

Although the claim was bold it has brought to light the importance of the genre and its history. Gay pop is more than just the music, it is a safe space for queer people where they can be themselves and learn more about the community.

Queer musicians are slowly taking over the mainstream from Muna and Boygenius to the internet’s favourite lesbians Reneé Rapp and Chappell Roan. However, these artists would not be where they are today if it weren’t for the creators of gay pop. 

But who started gay pop and where did it start?

How Did Gay Pop Start?

Elton John performing
Elton John performs onstage at Sport Palace on November 8, 2011 in Kiev, Ukraine (Shutterstock, anyamuse)

Most people assume that gay pop started in the ’70s with the rise of glam rock and flamboyant artist-personas. This would not be completely wrong as this is when gay pop became part of the mainstream and fully transformed into what we know it.

Yet, these artists would not have been able to reach this status without the queer blues singers of the 1920s. 

Why Is Blues Music Important?

Blues music started in the deep American South in states like Texas and Mississippi. This genre is a combination of jazz, rock-and-roll and rhythm-and-blues. It also takes inspiration from work songs and chants from African-American culture. 

The music is deeply personal and was an outlet for Black Americans to safely discuss political oppression, police cruelty, as well as heartbreak and personal woes. It makes sense that this would be the foundation of the gay-pop genre. 

Most notably was a group of female singers who openly sang about their queerness and love for other women. Among them were Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. 

Ma Rainey stamp
Blues singer Ma Rainey on american postage stamp (Shutterstock, spatuletail)

Ma Rainey, also known as the ‘Mother of Blues,’ was a trailblazer in every sense – but her queerness is something not many know about. Although never fully confirmed by Ma her lyrics spoke for her. 

Her song ‘Prove It on Me Blues,’ released in 1928, is all about her queerness. The lyrics go: 

Where she went, I don’t know
I mean to follow everywhere she goes;
Folks say I’m crooked. I didn’t know where she took it
I want the whole world to know.

I went out last night with a crowd of my friends,
It must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men.
Wear my clothes just like a fan,
Talk to the gals just like any old man.

It was rumoured that she was romantically linked to Bessie Smith. Smith was also a blues singer of the 1920s and was Ma’s protégé. 

These women did not only sing proudly about their queerness but challenged the roles of women in the performing arts. Without these women there would not have been a place for the queer artists we now know and love. 

Without queer Black spaces and artists, gay pop would not be what it is today or be as evolved. Most inspiration behind queer music is drawn back to Black artists and performers. 

Places such as the drag ballrooms and club scene in Los Angeles and New York were the birthplace of dance music and modern gay pop.

How Does A Singer Become A Queer Icon?

RuPaul with an award
RuPaul with the award for Outstanding Competition Program (Shutterstock, Silvia Elizabeth Pangaro)

The drag ballrooms and club scenes were not only inspirations for gay artists but also straight artists. 

The community have adopted and crowned these artists as gay icons. This status is saved for those artists who use their platform to uplift and support the community.

Gay icons tend to be straight female artists who are eccentric and unapologetically themselves. Something most of the community can relate to. This creates a deeper level of understanding between the artist and community as they have both faced similar struggles (to an extent). 

These artists are continuously uplifted by the community as they have created a safe space for them to be authentically themselves. 

The Original Gay Icons

Madonna is probably the first artist that comes to mind when you think of a queer icon. This is extremely fitting as she has been an advocate for gay rights since the start of her career in the 1980s. 

Over her 40-year career, she has constantly used gay dancers and given them a place to perform. In fact, she was one of the first mainstream artists to have gay dancers and themes in her videos and performances.

She has never shied away from sticking up for the queer community and has fought for them no matter what. Madonna learnt her craft from gay people and has always thanked them for what they have given her. 

Madonna performing on stage
Madonna (in the middle) during her performance in Prague (Shutterstock, yakub88)

Kylie Minogue is another artist who has been a long-time supporter of the LGBTQ+ community. Throughout her career, she has performed at different pride events and featured gay dancers and couples in her videos and performances. 

These two artists owe their careers to their queer fans. No matter the point in their career or popularity their fans have been there to return the love and support they have always given the community. 

Modern Gay Icons

In recent years, Charli XCX has become the newest artist to reach this status of gay icon. Charli’s music falls into a different genre from Madonna and Kylie’s.

Queer people started and influenced various genres, which coalesce in hyperpop. This genre is fun, energetic, and unapologetically queer music. 

Charli XCX on the red carpet in a yellow dress
 Charli XCX attends The Fashion Awards 2023 (Shutterstock, Fred Duval)

Charli XCX has not shied away from this and has fully embraced queer culture in her music. She continuously thanks and credits those gay artists who have either helped or inspired her. 

One big inspiration in Charli’s life is the late SOPHIE, a transgender producer and singer with whom she worked closely before her passing.

She has even collaborated with fellow gay star Troye Sivan on the song ‘1999,’ which is an ode to pop culture of the late ’90s and early 2000s. The pair will embark on a joint arena tour in America later this year.

The New Wave Of Gay Pop

In recent years there has been a rise of LGBTQ singers in the music industry creating a new wave of gay pop. 

Singers like Chappell Roan, Reneé Rapp, MUNA, and boygenius are leading the charge in representing the community in mainstream pop and rock. 

The representation of the LGBTQ+ community in the music industry has been minimal for years, with straight musicians largely dominating. Artists who were part of the community tended to be gay men. 

It is rare to see queer women in the industry, especially to be celebrated for their queerness. However, this has drastically changed in the last couple of years.

Who Started The New Wave?

The modern wave of gay pop would not be what it is without Hayley Kiyoko. Her hit ‘Girls Like Girls’ took the community by storm and helped thousands of queer girls accept their sexuality.

Singer on stage
Hayley Kiyoko, 30 October 2018. Melkweg, Amsterdam. (Shutterstock, Ben Houdijk)

The song has been adapted into a book and Hayley continues to create safe spaces for queer women and particularly lesbians. 

Hayley Kiyoko paved the way for the new queer singers and bands like MUNA and Girl in Red. 

Recently, gay pop has been making its way into the mainstream and one singer who has been forcing herself into the main pop scene is Chappell Roan. Her music perfectly shows the journey of self-discovery as a queer woman, this has made her become a community favourite. 

With her powerful voice and addicting lyrics, she breaks the mold of what is expected of a gay performer. Although her music focuses on the gay experience she has still bulldozed her way to becoming the internet’s new pop girl. 

Reneé Rapp has also been making headlines in the music industry. With a blend of pop and rock her lyrics speak to the struggles of being a young gay woman. It is not only relatable but also empowering.

She has also been open about her journey on accepting herself and encouraging everyone to take the time they need to find their true selves. 

Recently lesbian singers have been taking over the gay pop genre, which for years has been predominantly for gay men. This change has been refreshing and allows the world to see queer women in a different light. 

Written By

Freelance music journalist who has experience in a newsroom, radio studio and social media. I am currently finishing my Broadcast Journalism degree at the University of Winchester.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Sandra Stone

    May 17, 2024 at 12:12 pm

    Fab Sinead xx

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