How has increasing queer visibility in music videos positively shifted cultural movements?

Photo by REX WAY

In recent years, artists have started to improve their portrayal and inclusion of queerness in their music, instead of using it as a shock value to amass views and attention. Artists such as Hayley Kiyoko and Halsey have helped increase bisexual representation in the music industry through their portrayal of same-sex relationships in their lyrics and music videos, with songs like ‘Curious’ and ‘Strangers’ being prime examples. 

Since the early 2000s, music videos often capitalise off the sexualisation of women, with suggestive poses, outfits and dances. In these instances, few interpret these women as empowered because they are being used as sexual objects for the male gaze. If we question the portrayal of women in music videos, we should also question the portrayal of relationships in the same medium. It is rare to see the use of same-sex pronouns throughout a song and we rarely see the portrayal of same-sex relationships in music videos, with most songs usually being dedicated to the opposite sex. The focus on heterosexual relations within the music industry has therefore helped perpetuate the notion of heterosexuality as the norm.   

Unfortunately, in the past, bisexuality has often been portrayed by artists as an experimental and as a short-term exotic occurrence while drunk. In an interview with Paper Magazine, Halsey criticized the portrayal of bisexuality in the music industry: ‘Bisexuality [is seen] as a taboo. [You hear things like] “Don’t tell your mom” or “We shouldn’t do this” or “This feels so wrong but it’s so right.”’ We can see this in popular hits such as Demi Lovato’s ‘Too Cool For the Summer’ and Katy Perry’s popular 2008 song ‘I Kissed a Girl’ – with both songs emphasising bisexuality as a short-term experimental phase at a party or a summer-fuelled curiosity. Recently, the track ‘Girls’ by Rita Ora came under fire for its lyrics; ‘Red wine, I just wanna kiss girls, girls, girls.’ Singer Hayley Kiyoko, openly lesbian, came to Twitter to claim the lyrics were doing more harm than good for the LGBTQ+ community… I don’t need to drink wine to kiss girls.’  

Some artists also release suggestive music videos with ambiguous lyrics about their sexual orientation without ever explicitly confirming, it thus creating a sense of ambiguity around their sexuality. The lack of labels around an artists’ sexual orientation is an important reminder that people should not feel pressured to label their sexuality: it is not a requirement, and it is within their right to choose not to do so. However, it is disheartening that some choose queerbaiting as a way of garnering attention – this is when artists create a sense of ambiguity around their sexual orientation for publicity rather than to support the LGBTQ+ community, essentially exploiting the community for their own personal gain. 

The struggles around bisexual representation is not only limited to the music industry but also extends into the television and film. Queerbaiting is also used when writers or celebrities hint at a LGBTQ+ relationship to attract an LGBTQ+ audience while never actually confirming the relationship – JK Rowling and Dumbledore being the age-old example. Queerbaiting has also been employed to booster a show’s LGBTQ+ representation, which has assisted in perpetuating the trope of ‘Bury Your Gayswhere LGBTQ+ characters are only introduced to die early on in a manner which is deemed as stereotypical such as committing suicide for reasons linked to being gay, killed by homophobic violence, killed after coming out or killed by AIDS/HIV.  

Even with the progress made towards embracing different sexualities and improving the portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters, many shows have failed to support the progress. The TV show Supernatural recently aired its 15th and final season, but it was criticised by many fans to have been queerbaiting a relationship between two of its main characters, Castiel and Dean, for the entirety of its run. Although the show finally confirmed the relationship after years of fan speculation, this only happened as Castiel died. Another example was the death of Justin Foley in 13 Reasons Why Season 4, who admitted to having past relationships with men and contracted HIV. Instead of the show writers using this opportunity to combat the stigma around the diagnosis of HIV, they instead opted to write that Justin’s HIV had already developed into late stages of AIDS which led to his death. 

Queerbaiting, alongside the stereotypical representation of same-sex relationships and LGBTQ+ people in popular media, is extremely harmful and damaging to the LGBTQ+ community. By hinting at a relationship that is never acknowledged by writers or celebrities, we are setting back the discourse on issues surrounding LGBTQ+ representation in popular media by perpetuating stereotypes and portraying bisexuality as something that people should be hesitant to admit. 

With such a large platform, it is important that artists and celebrities use these platforms to advocate for causes which are of importance. We have seen artists being vocal about issues on social media and even during award ceremonies, as seen with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Oscar acceptance speech in which he brought attention to climate change. With the size and reach of the platform artists have at their disposal, they are able to encourage and drive change, whether through social media, visually through music videos or through their lyrics. Take Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s ‘Same Love’ or Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’ – both songs positively advocate for equality and gay rights while promoting people to embrace who they are. Not only are artists making change through their music but also through their own personal lives. Lil Nas X and Frank Ocean are important examples of artists in genres in which misogyny is prominent who have come out, thus challenging conventional norms in rap and hip-hop respectively. By having these prominent figures in public eye tell the world such personal stories and struggles regardless of the medium with so much candor, it inspires others who may be in the same situation to follow in their footsteps.  

Music resonates with us because it lets us escape from reality, hear a story different from our own but because it can also connect with what we are going through, our feelings or past experiences. Music has the ability to influence our emotions: making us feel inspired, in love and at home. Even in a small way, many of us have different playlists on Spotify for our different moods or different occasions, which goes to show the strong influence music can have over us and our emotions. With the increased LGBTQ+ representation in music, musicians are able to reach a wider audience with their music, reaching a group which is now able to connect to songs more than ever before, and not only because it is reflective of their own reality and experiences. Troye Sivan’s ‘Heaven’ is a song that specifically deals with his struggle to come out as gay and his inner conflict with religion, a prevalent struggle for many in traditional faith backgrounds. Bisexual and queer musicians, alongside the positive and normalized portrayal of same-sex relationships, act as a form of inspiration, comfort and support to people who share similar experiences to these artists. 

It has been very refreshing to see such a positive change in representation in music videos and artists’ acceptance and embracing of their sexual identity in their art. As we move forward, more and more artists are writing about their personal experiences more than ever before. By writing and displaying their own experiences and reality in their music, artists such as Halsey, Hayley Kiyoko, Frank Ocean and Troye Sivan are driving inclusivity by showing that same-sex relationships are not a deviant that should be rejected by society. If we fail to portray these relationships in the music and film industry, we are failing to portray the reality of the world we live in – a reality in which non-straight relationships exist and are as normal, and should be just as accepted, as heterosexual relationships. 

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