However, it’s no secret that many queer artists are still finding their footing in mainstream pop music. As audiences grow progressively more tolerant, these artists are starting to find a way to step forward. This growing camp of musicians share a use of electric, synthpop sounds, and introspective lyrics that reflect the way they see the world through their multifaceted identities.
Below are the artists you can either add to your Spotify and thank me now, or sheepishly admit you know nothing about them at a summer party.
The names you’ve heard before:
With her breakout video for “Girls like Girls” in 2015, Kiyoko shed her closeted Disney girl image and became one of the first pop princesses to use lesbian representation without blatantly exploiting it. Gay herself, Kiyoko is a breath of fresh air in a popscape still prioritizing the male gaze through both men and women. She’s only grown in popularity with perfectly crafted, danceable songs like “Feelings” and “Curious.” Her debut album, Expectations, is due out March 30 and the queers are shaking in anticipation.
After years of small releases and features on work by Solange and Gorillaz, Kelela released her debut album, Take Me Apart, in October of 2017. When Kelela was ramping up for the album’s release, she told DAZED she “had to learn how oppression works in the music industry, specific to my experience as a queer black woman.” The singer puts in careful consideration of her identity within the world and you can feel it in every track. While foremost an R&B singer, Kelela’s avant-garde take on the genre, blending hushed vocals with a smooth, electro sound, made Take Me Apart one of the most critically acclaimed albums of 2017.
With the drop of not one but two songs last weekend, Janelle Monáe set the internet on fire with “Django Jane” and “Make Me Feel.” While she’s been a critical darling since 2010 with her first album, The ArchAndroid, Monáe hasn’t yet achieved lasting acknowledgment of her talent. But from the reaction to her latest work, she’s sure to get it this year. After starring in both Hidden Figures and Moonlight, Monáe is more in the public eye than ever before. The now confirmed involvement of Prince on Monáe’s forthcoming album, Dirty Computer, has fans and critics alike anticipating the afro-futurist synths and gender-obscuring visuals Monáe is known for.
When Jack Antonoff, the producer behind every major pop record of our time, first heard St. Vincent’s newest album he called it “ambitious,” which accurately sums up all of St. Vincent’s repertoire. Rife with genderfluid New Wave bangers, Masseduction highlights Annie’s queer approach to gender and sexuality at its most prominent. It’s an album to soundtrack the absurd mundanity of our world and explicitly invokes St. Vincent’s own sexuality, a topic she often keeps mum on.
The Brazilian drag queen turned singer-songwriter reached the top of Brazil’s pop charts in 2017 twice with “K.O.”and “Corpo Sensual.” Vittar’s success reminds us that the drag resurgence brought to the States by RuPauls Drag Race is also happening in countries like Brazil and Thailand. Vittar has since been featured on Charli XCX’s latest album and teamed up with Diplo twice, all to a strong positive reception. Her latest single with the American DJ, “Então Vai,” feels ready-made for summer and its early success ensures this won’t be Vittar’s last hit.
Sophie is known for making head-pounding bangers with artists like Charli XCX, Vince Staples, Madonna, and the PC Music collective that drop the beat again and again until it feels like your head might explode in the best way possible. After few years of working on other projects, Sophie made her solo comeback in October 2017 with “It’s OK to Cry.” The producer-turned-singer shocked longtime fans by appearing in the video herself and revealing that she is trans. Previously, Sophie has taken early disco and house music and pushed it forward in a rave of electronic synths. The most thrilling elements of her new music might be the binaries they’re breaking down: gender and fluidity, emotion and machine.
Leland is a special case. He’s been writing for several years now, penning songs for pop artists like Allie X, Troye Sivan, Selena Gomez, and Betty Who. In 2017, he released one of the best melancholic bangers of the year, “Mattress.” With an extensive list of credits, it’s clear Leland knows how to write songs that hit so close to home it’s as if your own heart is ad-libbing to an electric pulse. Here’s hoping he makes like Sia and starts hoarding songs to record himself.
This club queen has been all over the place in an attempt to find her image. She first gained notoriety through videos for her early singles like “Das Me” and “Everybody Does” becoming meme fodder on Tumblr. Her club kid style and uncensored pop-rap lyrics connected instantly with queer youth searching for unbridled self-expression online. And her posse is one for the ages, from Grimes and Charli XCX to Sia and pretty much every drag queen alive. The pansexual sex work advocate recently toured with both Lizzo and Charli XCX and performed at LA Pride. After parting ways with record label RCA in late 2017, her album Daddy Issues seems unlikely to ever be released, but when she puts out new music her horde of fans, affectionately labelled #FagMob, will no doubt devour it.
London-residing artist Arca started producing music as a closeted teen in Venezuela, mainly consisting of Aphex Twin-inspired beat compositions that got him signed to Mexican indie label Soundsister. Since then, Arca has produced multiple studio albums and contributed heavily to momentous projects including Kanye West’s Yeezus, FKA Twigs EP2, Bjork’s Vulnicura and Utopia, and the previously mentioned Kelela’s Take Me Apart. Arca’s own sound is a dissonant, psychedelic take on electronic music that draws comparison as a Latinx Bjork. His latest self-titled album dropped in April 2017 is his most well received work to date. While the chilling synth isn’t for everyone, Arca has long been making your favs’ music better.
The girls we’re watching… carefully:
First known for being one of the youngest people to undergo gender reassignment surgery, the German-born pop princess could have come straight from a K-pop training camp. Her ’80s reminiscent blonde hair and synthpop sound feels made for the current nostalgia revival. Petras got her start with four hit singles and a feature on Charli’s Pop 2 in 2017 and made headlines in 2018 with a Valentine’s Day single, “Heart to Break.” However, Petras is signed to Dr. Luke, the embattled producer responsible for the four-year legal battle Kesha had with Sony. Critics accused Petras of being dismissive about Dr Luke, after she told The Daily Beast “my personal experience has been great. I’ve been learning a lot from him, and I’ve always been a fan of his.”
Azealia Banks has long been heralded as one of the best rappers of our generation. Say what you will (and you will), she has a virtuosic ability to lay down complex raps over smooth electro-house beats. Yet her career has always been stifled by transphobic, racists, and homophobic comments on social media. With her follow up mixtape Fantasy II expected to arrive in June, many are arguing that the rapper deserves a second chance. Some critics and fans of the artist have stressed the importance of separating the art from the artist. Others have defended the connection but pointed to men like Dr. Luke and Woody Allen, don’t lose their careers over controversy while women of color and queer people disproportionately do.
Either way, there’s so much on this list worth feeling corny about, and plenty we haven’t included. Queer people might be losing the gains they made in the legislative sphere, but at least they’re letting their joy and anguish be known on the platform teens value the most — YouTube.
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