“Reading between the lines is a life-long skill acquired by lesbians.” – Doreen Agassiz-Suddens
All over the world and across every possible genre, lesbian and queer women have created space for themselves in the mainstream music industry. Artists such as Arlo Parks, a young Londoner who has won a swathe of prestigious awards over the past two years, have found commercial success with songs that are unapologetically themselves, their own voices and experiences at the forefront of every lyric. Park’s 2021 hit Eugene, sung from the perspective of a woman in love with her best friend, who is also a woman, is her most-streamed single on Spotify. Kehlani, who, after coming out as queer in 2017, dropped a hugely successful single, Honey, written about her first lesbian relationship. Tegan and Sara, a Canadian twin duo who both identify as lesbian, have taken the indie-pop world by storm, and Janelle Monáe and King Princess, who are both stadium-selling, gender-defying, and genre-bending, have several Instagram fan pages dedicated in their honour. In New Zealand, we have Anika Moa, the Topp Twins, and countless more who are breaking into an ever-expanding industry in the age of streaming and digitisation. Lesbian music, whether that is defined by lesbian women singing about other women, music created by and for lesbians, or lesbians simply existing in the industry, has reached a point of mainstream representation. Thanks to the efforts made by artists of past movements, women can now openly and creatively share their experiences in sexuality and love, without needing to mask their work with a commercial guise of heterosexuality. Just as chart success for women no longer requires the cookie-cutter sounds of traditional pop, freedom of expression in lyrics has never been greater.
It hasn’t always been this way, however. Lesbians in music, particularly prior to the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s, often sang songs from heterosexual perspectives, to appease a market that reflected the heteronormative social and political landscape of the time. Lesley Gore, a musical artist, composer, television host, and, at the time, closeted lesbian, sang the 1963 chart-topping single It’s My Party. The song was written for her to perform, and the lyrics centred on a girl pining after a boy:
“Play all my records, keep dancing all night But leave me alone for awhile 'Til Johnny's dancing with me I've got no reason to smile.”
Gore was promoted by her label and producers as an all-American girl, wholesome, and, more importantly, straight. Although she later publicly came out as lesbian in an interview with Ellen DeGeneres and subsequently campaigned for LGBTQ+ rights in the early 2000s, Gore had spent much of her life hiding herself and her relationship in her work and public image. Similarly, England’s Dusty Springfield, who was one of the most successful female British performers of the 1960s, with a flamboyant “Queen of the Mods” public image, was closeted at the time of her career’s peak. Her biggest hit of this period, I Only Want to Be with You, entered American radio in a time before music videos or internet personas, and as a result many listeners believed her to be black, American, and straight. Her publicists, much like Lesley’s Gores’, began to ensure her album covers portrayed a marketable and wholesome white woman, dressing her down and discarding her “eccentricity”, or what we would refer to today as, her queerness.
In the post-liberation age, it is possible to revisit Lesbian music from this earlier era through a lens of feminist and queer critique, reading between the lines to find many hidden nods towards the artist’s true identity. Fans who were aware of Springfield’s sexuality at the time could do the same. From song lyrics, themes, and performances, her caricature of marketable heterosexuality appears to be a parody, running under the noses of her producers and radio listeners. There is empowerment in this, and looking at it now, appears to be an act of subversion against the conservative frameworks for female success enforced at the time. Equally, the juxtaposition between Lesley Gore’s early, princess of pop image, and the lesbian, feminist icon we view her as today, is clearly shown through the adaptation of her music by modern social movements. Her 1963 single, You Don’t Own Me, was written by men who envisaged it at the time simply as a “telling off” by a woman to her husband, but the song has taken on new and varied meanings over the years. It went on to become the anthem of the #MeToo movement, used in public service announcements urging women to vote, and has been picked up by the millennial zeitgeist to express gender, sexuality, and anti-capitalist freedom.
While lacking the obvious layers of subversion found in the lyrics of You Don’t Own Me, It's My Party has also recently encountered a transformation in its significance. The hit has been remixed and remade for a digital era, finding newfound fame amongst younger generations on the video-sharing platform Tik Tok. It’s the backing track to a trend in which users film themselves pondering existential realisations about their identities, life choices, and circumstances. The connection this trend has to the way Gore must have been feeling at the time of its release, in realising her own identity, but keeping it hidden, shows just how far we’ve come. The song finding new life as an anthem for people worldwide, to publicly air their hidden feelings and insights, would likely never have been expected by the team of managers and producers who worked so diligently to curate a false image of who Gore was. Authenticity has become a marketable asset, and with it, new paradigms of female and queer success prevail.
The Charlotte Museum holds an extensive collection of Lesbian Music, ranging from vinyl to festival posters, available to view in person.
Starr Ratapu is a student at the University of Auckland and is currently working at the Charlotte Museum as part of our internship programme through the Museum and Cultural Heritage course.