Artists who had previously trodden coyly around their sexualities began to relish singing freely about fucking other women
In 2004, when webcomics briefly inhabited the role of alternative tastemaker alongside web publications like Pitchfork, the 98th Questionable Content strip insinuated gently that most if not all Xiu Xiu songs were about dicks. The band’s third album Fabulous Muscles had been released earlier that year to wide acclaim from the largely heterosexual male indie rock press, and while Jamie Stewart only sang the word “penis” once across its ten tracks, aesthetes of the time latched onto it as a provocative, if vaguely comical, rupture in a largely sexless genre. Tiny Mix Tapes’ review of the album noted Stewart’s “incredibly perverted and decadent lyrics”, presumably referring to both the aforementioned dick and the singer’s apparently unspeakable request for his lover to “come on my lips, honey boy.” To be fair, it was rare back then for a gay man to express desire so explicitly in indie rock, whose most championed artists tended to be so hetero that some were even straight-up married to each other.
More than a decade later, fewer critics seem quite so prone to fixate on a stray lyric about a deformed penis. Indie rock, as far as the term can be applied to loose aesthetic experimentation within classical pop structures, has gotten pretty gay. While bands with queer singers like Grizzly Bear and Deerhunter helped define indie as a genre in the mid-to-late-noughties, their lyrics rarely delved explicitly into the specifics of gay relationships or queer experience – listeners seeking that kind of reflection would have to work to put the pieces together themselves. But at the end of the decade, something broke open. Perfume Genius’s 2010 debut album Learning documented a taboo relationship between singer Mike Hadreas and his high school teacher, and earned the act a spot on Matador’s roster. In 2014, their third album Too Bright launched Hadreas into a broader spotlight thanks in large part to the glittering anti-shame anthem “Queen”. Baths’ three albums, which often describe gay relationships and sex in plain language (“Come and fuck me!”), have all enjoyed acclaim, as has the work of Sufjan Stevens, who, while staying quiet on his sexuality in public, has penned some of the prettiest gay love songs of the past decade.
Straight critics have gradually embraced the music of queer men, but until recently, it’s been harder for queer women to break through to the same kind of encomia. Before this year, if a queer woman received unqualified media praise, it was likely bestowed when critics didn’t know she was queer (St. Vincent) or didn’t know she was a woman (ANOHNI, SOPHIE). Openly queer women, like JD Samson of Le Tigre and MEN, struggled to achieve the same sort of critical standing, and reviews of their music tended to hedge praise in light of the artist’s queerness. “MEN’s debut is one of the best of the year,” Caroline Sullivan wrote for The Guardian in 2011, “or, at least, the best of the niche area where gender politics and dance music intersect.” Never mind that dance music was invented by artists forging new spaces for deviant sexualities and gender identities – if MEN’s music was good, it was only good for a lesbian band.
Like it did for queer men around the turn of the last decade, something seems to have opened up for queer women in 2017. In May of this year, pop singer Halsey (known for her feature on The Chainsmokers’ smash hit “Closer”) released “Strangers”, a duet with fellow bisexual Lauren Jauregui of Fifth Harmony about dating (and breaking up with) other women. “I just love that Lauren and I are two women who have a mainstream pop presence doing a love song for the LGBT community,” Halsey said in an interview on the Zach Sang Show. “It’s unheard of. It’s very rare to see it from a female perspective.”
What was unheard of in the first half of the year gained momentum in the second. Artists who had previously trodden coyly around their sexualities began to relish singing freely about dating, loving, and fucking other women. Karin Dreijer of electronic projects The Knife and Fever Ray had toyed with themes of queerness in her past work, but this year, she left no room for misinterpretation. Fever Ray’s comeback single “To The Moon And Back” boasted the gleeful line “I want to ram my fingers up your pussy”; its video depicted Dreijer being urinated on by women during a kinky tea party. “It’s about taking back what’s me,” Dreijer told The Guardian of Fever Ray’s second album Plunge, which trades her debut’s sly intimations of queerness in for a fervent celebration of lesbian sex.
Dreijer is not alone in her openness. Kelela’s debut album Take Me Apart explores nuances of desire and sexuality, especially on the simmering “Truth or Dare”, where a sleepover game becomes a flesh-and-blood fantasy: “It’s your turn to be daring… Could you lick it back? I need more.” Pop producer SOPHIE, who had largely stayed unseen for the first few years of her career, returned late this year with a pair of videos in which she appeared fully embodied and femme, correcting the misgendering that had followed her in the media since she released her first singles. In her most recent video for “Ponyboy”, SOPHIE dances onstage with the women of the performance duo FlucT, simulating fetish scenarios as demonic vocals and hard, heavy beats rumble behind them. While SOPHIE had indulged queer kink lyrics before on 2014’s “Hard”, her physical presence in the “Ponyboy” video draws a new dimension out from her music. There’s a certain vulnerability in being seen as a femme artist making queer work, though it leaves less room for misinterpretation.
Rock musicians St. Vincent, Palehound, and Torres similarly released songs in 2017 about relationships with women on the albums Masseduction, A Place I’ll Always Go, and Three Futures. While St. Vincent’s in-album narrative may have been augmented by her former high-profile relationship with model and actress Cara Delevingne, Palehound’s second record elaborates on both the thrill and the fear of dating in such a way that might expose you to violence. The track “Room” dares the listener to “call us sinners”; “Carnations” details a whopping crush on someone who uses they/them pronouns; and the wonderfully tender “If You Met Her” and “At Night I’m Alright With You” arrive at the comfort and stability of a healthy relationship.
Torres, meanwhile, who had previously sung about lesbian sex through poetic euphemisms and Biblical references, premiered Three Futures’ first single “Skim” by way of a music video that depicted her having sex with multiple women (her following video for the title track shows her having sex with herself). In interviews, the songwriter born Mackenzie Scott described the album as a celebration of the body as a vehicle for pleasure. “Culturally, we are stifled by the idea of restraint, but in all of the wrong ways,” she told Pitchfork earlier this year. The album, then, and all its over-the-top accompanying imagery, lashes out at the idea that women should stay small and downplay their desires. It taps into a likely reason why it’s taken so long for lesbian narratives to arrive so fully in music: Women’s desires are sidelined and suffocated as it is, and for women to conceive of desire that doesn’t involve men presents a double threat to heteronormativity.
At some point, queer femmes stopped giving a fuck. Whatever taboos kept queer music implicit or repressed have melted down, in part due to the way queer people can communicate with each other online without the burden of geographic proximity, or perhaps they just pale in comparison to the general horrors haunting every day of 2017. A gate opened, and out of it poured much of the most exciting and radical music of the year.