A wise man once said that with great power comes great responsibility. Of course, in that instance, he was talking to someone who was about to start climbing up walls and shooting sticky white stuff out of his hands. Regardless, the lesson that Uncle Ben passed down to Peter Parker remains as relevant as ever in the queer music scene this year. Switch out web-slinging superheroes for a queer punk group called PWR BTTM who were on the precipice of becoming LGBTQ icons with their second album Pageant, and you have one of the most shocking downfalls of the year.
When the news of Ben Hopkins’s sexual assault allegations broke on May 11, I was absolutely floored. I’d found courage and strength in Ben and Liv Bruce’s gender expression and spent countless hours singing my little gay heart out to their music. I sat for hours on my couch watching the two sport thrift store dresses and makeup as they tore up the stage and had been counting down the days until their tour came to New York. I was ready to cover myself in glitter and sway to the music that had inspired me to embrace my femininity in ways I’d never dreamed of.
Overnight, that all changed. What began as a slow trickle of allegations soon turned into a downpour of receipts for Ben’s penchant for sexual assault that drowned out the bizarre and half-assed responses they’d drafted up to try and save face. Within days, my ticket for their Terminal 5 show was refunded and my music library was scrubbed of any trace of their music. Like thousands of other devoted fans, I’ve spent the past week grappling with the shock of seeing a band I idolized fall from grace.
As painful as it may have been to feel a PWR BTTM-sized hole rip open in my heart, it’s also led to a profound appreciation for the LGBTQ artists who truly deserve to be celebrated. From the haunting and ethereal sounds of Arca to serpentwithfeet and Mykki Blanco’s fierce takes on black queer identity, these are the musicians you need on repeat.
It’s rare that a third album from an artist manages to shock and surprise even the most ardent fans, but then Arca’s self-titled ode to queer rebellion came along. Born Alejandro Ghersi, the 24-year-old Venezuelan DJ spent his childhood deeply in the closet before moving to New York to discover himself and start his career. “It just became clear to me that if I wanted to make honest music, I had to be honest with myself,” he explained about his early days in the city. Eventually, this search for honesty led to a revelatory gay experience with a stranger he met on a subway platform and, from that moment, helped him to blossom into one of the most sought-after artists in the industry.
From Kanye West and FKA twigs to Björk and Kelela, he’s amassed an impressive catalogue of songs and production credits. It’s within his own music, though, that his talents are most evident. Using otherworldly, visceral sounds to lay bare his soul on tracks like “Faggot” and “Sad Bitch,” Arca’s early work arrived with one major caveat—he didn’t sing a single note. It wasn’t until this year’s self-titled album and subsequent music videos that the elusive producer finally sings about love, loss, and penetration. Come for the lyric, “Love me, bind me, and slit my throat/ Search for me, penetrate me, and devour me.” Stay for the “Reverie” video’s anal bleeding and bovine horn erection.
“The same dew that falls from my mouth and cause the hairs on my chin to trill could nourish you, could sustain you. Kiss me, or go,” croons Josiah Wise with a passionate plea on “Bloom.” Wise, known by his unassuming and anatomically-influenced stage name serpentwithfeet, burst onto the queer music scene last year with blisters, a five track ode to a lover he wasn’t quite ready to forget but whose name, he sings, is impossible to know.
On his debut EP, the classically trained vocalist shimmers and signs over production that sways viciously from funk and R&B to drums and harps that thunder and crack under the weight of his searing vocals. Weaved into the grandiose production, Wise has effectively woven black queer identity into the fabric of his music and has no plans to change course anytime soon. “I am always ready to pierce things with my black-queer cutlery,” he said. “I am constantly looking for ways to make my music extra gay and extra black. It really gets me off when I do that.”
It’s not easy to make Katy Perry’s train wreck of a track “Bon Appétit” sound edible enough for consumption, but leave it to three queer ladies to rise to the challenge. They even scrapped the verse by the homophobic rap group Migos for good measure. MUNA bring a carefree sound (and inspired Katy Perry experiments) fit for a ride down the Pacific Coast Highway with an unmistakably queer—not gay—twist. It’s this distinction between “gay” and “queer” that the twenty-something trio aren’t afraid to correct. That’s because for Katie Gavin, Naomi McPherson, and Josette Maskin, their identity as queer women is just as important as their music.
“Being queer and female-identified only shapes our songwriting process in the way that we write based on experiences, and we share the experience of being queer females, Katie explained. With this embrace of their shared experiences, the group has crafted a groundbreaking debut album and arresting music videos that draws on everything from the GHE20G0TH1K community to LGBTQ protest movements and show no signs of slowing down.
As entertaining (and hot) as it was to see a gay military school adaptation of Romeo & Juliet with Private Romeo, the true queen of gay Shakespearian knockoffs comes courtesy of one of rap’s most promising artists. Set against her heartbreaking ballad “High School Never Ends,” Mykki Blanco teamed with prolific gay filmmaker Matt Lambert to create an eight-minute epic that tackled race, sexuality, and gender with ease.
Then again, this is Mykki Blanco we’re talking about. In the seven years since Michael Quattlebaum created the Mykki person to embody her femininity, she’s torn down notions of gender (she self-describes as transgender and multi-gender), came out as HIV positive, dabbled in investigative journalism, and clapped back at a transphobia-enabling airliner. With all that under her glamorous belt, it’s not a surprise that the multi-hyphenate poet, rapper, actor and author has become one of the most intriguing artists in the music industry.
“No family is safe when I sashay.” With those seven words on his breakout 2014 single “Queen,” Perfume Genius’s third album Too Bright solidified his place as one of music’s most exciting queer artists. If “Queen” was the spark, Perfume Genius’s explosive new album No Shape is the explosive proof that the persona Mike Hadreas created in 2008 has finally found its flair. Punctuated with a rebellious queerness that blooms over grandiose production, No Shape has become an instant classic and a testament to Hadreas’s tumultuous journey.
Before sitting down in his bedroom to record two albums worth of emotionally raw songs about suicide, love, and abuse, the Seattle-born singer navigated everything from homophobic bullying and addiction to domestic violence and Crohn’s disease. It was through his music that he found himself and fell in love with Alan Wyffels—a persistent presence in his lyrics and music as the only other original member of Perfume Genius. Now, with painted nails, gender-defying outfits, and one of the funniest Twitter accounts of all time, Hadreas is creating a new narrative for queer artists one sashay at a time.
For more of our features, take a look at our analysis of the current Katy Perry identity-crisis right here.
- Text: Chris Thomas
- Cover Image: The Wild Magazine