The idea of the “gay icon” has been present in mainstream culture ever since Judy Garland slid into those ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz. Since then, many have taken up the baton: Garland’s daughter, Liza (with a Z!); Barbra Streisand; Madonna; Cher; Elton John; Bette Middler; Lady Gaga — the list goes on, and on, and on. The tradition of the gay icon is a fun one — and certainly a glamorous one — but it’s disconcerting when you realize that the traditional idea of a gay icon centers on non-queer pop stars making a living off of the subset of the gay community that frequents piano bars and dance halls.
This isn’t problematic in and of itself: Everybody deserves to be entertained. But the collective identity of “gay” people has since outgrown the glitzy aesthetic that, in the ’70s and ’80s, had come to be associated with the word “gay.” For that reason, we’re looking at musicians who could be considered “queer” icons rather than “gay” icons: People who not only live a certain lifestyle, but create art that reflects and highlights that lifestyle.
Part of the difficulty in putting together a list like this — and it’s a happy difficulty — is that, in 2014, it’s not difficult to find musicians who identify as queer. (Who would’ve thought that an overabundance of publicly queer musicians would ever be a problem?) What’s more difficult (and again, happily so), is that the queer community is so vast and diverse that one queer person’s icon is not going to appeal to every other queer person. (This is also the problem with any entertainment that markets itself to a “gay” audience — thanks to the Internet, and the general acceptance of queer lifestyles, it’s basically as effective as marketing to a “straight” audience.)
So, here are five very different queer musicians who are worthy of becoming somebody’s queer icon. The list is not all-encompassing, and contemporary acts that have already peaked as icons (Rufus Wainright, Antony Hegarty) aren’t included. A year from now, this list may well be irrelevant. Such are the times we live in. With that in mind, here are our picks for 2014, in no particular order.
(photo by Luke Gilford)
Mike Hadreas started making music as Perfume Genius on YouTube, and from there he was snatched up by Matador records to create his first solo album, 2010’s Learning. Full of allusions to student/teacher relationships, prostitution, and addiction — all set to mostly minimalistic piano tracks — Learning was a record of an unseen life of self-observation.
2012 saw the release of Put Your Back N 2 It, which featured more of the same introspective, self-critical balladry, only this time with slightly more pomp and — with the controversial release of the video for “Hood” — attracted a lot more attention. (A short advertisement for the album, composed of audio and visuals taken from the “Hood” video, was deemed inappropriate by YouTube and removed from the site.)
Even with the success of “Hood,” Perfume Genius wasn’t a huge name in the music world until the 2014 release of his video for “Queen.” Hadreas has said in a statement that accompanied the video that it’s intended to mock “gay panic” and take advantage of the fact that, as a gay man, families on Midwestern streets are frightened by him. And with that, people were hooked.
Popularity: The video for “Hood” has well over a million views, but people were paying a whole new level of attention once “Queen” was released. Think-pieces and profiles appeared everywhere in the weeks leading up to the release of his third album, Too Bright. (Our own Jillian Mapes’ take on the matter was one of the impetuses for this list.)
Potential Anthem: Without a doubt, “Queen” is the closest thing Perfume Genius has ever written that could be considered an anthem. And while it’s probably never going to appeal to a mainstream gay audience, that doesn’t matter: Anyone who appreciates RuPaul’s Drag Race is basically in love with the line, “No family is safe when I sashay.”
Iconic Importance: Since Hadreas’ first album, it’s been clear that he has important things to say. He’s made it a point to write songs about things that could be considered taboo, regardless of how difficult they are to swallow. With Too Bright, he managed to elevate his music to a new level of artfulness and, with it, he’ll hopefully enlighten more people to the fucked-up reality of everyday life as someone who could be considered “other.”
(photo by Zak Krevitt)
Khalif Diouf, better known as Le1f, went the Kanye route to rap stardom. He started his career as a producer while still an undergraduate at Wesleyan University, first gaining attention for his work with weirdo hip hop troupe Das Racist. It wasn’t until 2012, when he released his first mixtape, Dark York, that Le1f found success as a rapper, particularly with the song “Wut.”
Popularity: Outside of the Internet’s deceptively insular music circles, Le1f first gained notoriety for criticizing Macklemore and Ryan Lewis after their 2013 Grammy win and mass-marriage stunt, slamming the two for exploiting gay culture for their own gain in “Same Love” — and also, possibly, for ripping off the beat from “Wut.”
It was following the Macklemore beef that Le1f began to get major exposure. He appeared on a March 2014 episode of Letterman, making history as the first openly gay rapper to perform on network American television — and he did it with a squad of male backup dancers, every one of them decked out in head-to-high-top Hood by Air.
Potential Anthem: Definitely “Wut.” The song itself is not a major call to arms for gay rights — and Le1f has said that he is not concerned with making “gay rap” — but it’s pretty damn danceable, which is arguably just as important when it comes to crafting a queer anthem.
Iconic Importance: The hip hop world, full of masculine posturing and rampant misogyny, is notoriously homophobic, so any voice that breaks the heteronormative mold is an important one. The thing about Le1f is that he not only claims his homosexuality — he flaunts it in a stylish way that could benefit any kid who is having problems owning his or her sexuality.
Angel Haze performing at the Villain during CMJ 2012.
Perhaps more than any other queer artist, Angel Haze (born Raeen Roes Wilson) is gunning for the big time. Like every other rapper living in the digital age, Haze spent her first few working years releasing a string of well-received mixtapes. It was on 2012’s Classick, her sixth mixtape, that Haze revealed herself as a truly daring artist. That mixtape’s haunting lyrical reworking of Eminem’s “Cleaning Out My Closet” delved into Haze’s own experiences with sexual abuse, and it was her ability to dexterously approach such intense subject matter that made critics stop and pay attention.
Later, in the build-up to the release of her major label debut, Dirty Gold, Haze released a month’s worth of tracks to Soundcloud. Most notable was her take on Macklemore’s “Same Love.” In it, Haze recounts her own coming-out story, outing herself publicly while letting the world know that her mom told her she would go to hell for being queer. She pulled the closing lines from Andrea Gibson and, as Flavorwire’s Tom Hawking asked upon its release, what other rapper is quoting genderqueer poets?
Popularity: Haze made waves with Classick, but a mixtape can only go so far. In 2013, while crafting Dirty Gold — her debut for Universal — Haze found her name in the headlines as she feuded with fellow rapper Azealia Banks, though she quickly apologized to her fans for having been involved in such petty beef.
Eventually, Haze was so antsy for its release that Dirty Gold was dropped ahead of schedule, and when it arrived, we found Haze successfully straddling the line between her roots and mainstream pop stardom. The album was not a huge hit — it didn’t chart beyond the Heatseekers — but thanks to the single “Battle Cry,” a collaboration with Ellie Goulding, and an uncanny ability to stay in the media, Haze has certainly cemented her spot in the mainstream.
Potential Anthem: It’s not one of Haze’s most important songs — and it’s certainly not one of her most lyrically incisive — but “Battle Cry,” with its soaring chorus from Sia, is about as universal an anthem as one could hope for.
Iconic Importance: Regardless of whether Haze is ready to fly her queer flag, she’s managed to remain lyrically punchy while infiltrating the mainstream. She actively avoids labels — though she has called herself pansexual — but is pretty publicly dating Ireland Baldwin, daughter of Alec. If she could manage a bigger crossover hit than “Battle Cry” while maintaining the biting personal insight that made her a mixtape star, Haze could prove extremely influential as a queer icon.
At 45, John Grant is by far the oldest artist on this list, but he’s really only come into his own in the past four years. Most of his life as a musician was spent in the now-defunct indie band The Czars. It wasn’t until Grant released 2010’s The Queen of Denmark, with its thickly sardonic take on gay relationships, that he revealed himself as an important, oftentimes hilarious queer voice. (See: “Sigourney Weaver.”) His subsequent release, 2013’s Pale Green Ghosts, found Grant solidifying his status as an important gay voice, offering up two of his most important songs: the closest thing he has to a hit, “GMF”; and “Ernest Borgnine,” a song that focuses on Grant’s own life with HIV.
Popularity: Grant is no Rufus Wainright — hell, he’s not even Perfume Genius — but he’s getting there. He’s been on Letterman, and Pale Green Ghosts was chosen as Rough Trade’s album of the year in 2013. His version of “Sweet Painted Lady” was featured on the 2014 reissue of Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and the two are said to be friends — which has only ever helped anyone become a queer icon.
Potential Anthem: For sure, “GMF.” It’s maybe better suited for a pub crowd than a dance hall, but you can’t help but sing along with Grant as he croons, “I am the greatest motherfucker that you’re ever gonna meet/ From the top of my head, down to the tips of the toes on my feet,” even if he is being sarcastic.
Iconic Importance: The magic of Grant’s music is that he speaks about old things in new ways. His songs about gay relationships are at once biting and heartbreaking, and his self-lacerating commentary is pretty singular. Perhaps the most important aspect of Grant — socially, at least — is his willingness to look at his HIV-positive status as a minor aspect of his life, while at the same time managing to acknowledge its devastating history in the gay community.
(photo by Terry Richardson)
Michael Quattlebaum Jr., the man who birthed the female stage persona that is Mykki Blanco, is perhaps, of everyone on this list, the most concerned with making capital-A Art. (He has, in one way or another, been an artist since he was a teenager.) He was catapulted into the cult spotlight after giving dramatic poetry readings from his own book, From the Silence of Duchamp to the Noise of Boys. But it wasn’t until he created the Mykki Blanco persona for a video piece that a star was born. When Quattlebaum stepped out in drag, guys started hitting on him, and he felt pretty. And in his own words, “When you start to feel pretty: oh boy, look out.”
That’s an apt statement coming from the man behind Blanco, who is an irrepressibly aggressive force in the queer scene. Since that first public moment as Blanco — which has been endlessly referred to as his “golden ticket” day — the persona of Mykki Blanco has only grown in popularity and influence thanks to well-made, high-concept music videos and bombastic stage shows.
Popularity: The video for his track “Wavvy” has more than a million views, but Blanco’s biggest successes are his live shows, a fact that reduces his potential for achieving icon status outside of the art crowd.
Potential Anthem: “Wavvy” is certainly his biggest song to date, and it’s undeniably catchy. But the whole thrust of the song is getting “wavy” on medication, so, it’s not exactly the most universal of jams, and it’s also maybe not the most positive, message-wise. Maybe Blanco’s true anthem will emerge on his upcoming album, which he says will contain “gay gay” songs.
Iconic Importance: In the same vein as Le1f — with whom Blanco has collaborated — the more successful gay hip hop artists we have, the better. And Blanco’s lyrical fearlessness, which teeters just on the edge of shock-rap, certainly sets him apart from his contemporaries, queer or otherwise. Match that with the fact that Blanco is (perhaps unintentionally) broadening the acceptance of drag in black communities, along with bringing shame to the undeniably real racism and homophobia in the world, and he’s definitely a damn good role model to have around.