We Need To Talk About Pop Stars And Queer-Baiting

When female pop singers play coy, it's damaging to queer identity.

Last year, “Buzzfeed questioned singer-songwriter Halsey’s bisexuality in a piece called “What Does A Queer Pop Star Look Like In 2016?

LGBT editor Shannon Keating argued that the singer was bowing to pressure to “straighten up her act” by performing on stage with Justin Bieber, the Chainsmokers, and other male musicians.

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Halsey, whose 2015 video for “Ghost” saw her in an erotic encounter with out model Courtney McCullough, clapped back in a series of tweets that have since been deleted.

“Sorry I’m not gay enough for you,” she wrote, calling the piece a “tiresome analysis of my one year in the public eye and the ignorance of 8+ years of sexual discovery to determine if I’m truly queer.”

The performer lamented the article was “part of a mentality so engrained [sic] in the erasure of bisexual ’credibility’ even within the LGBT community.”

Pop songs have hinted at the queer experience for decades, but it’s only recently that they’ve begun to address same-sex attraction directly—often in tracks tied to the artist’s personal sexual identity.

This summer, Halsey and Fifth Harmony’s Lauren Jauregui came out with “Strangers,” a love song they performed together on Good Morning America.
 

Jauregui came out as bi after the November election, and has been outspoken about homophobia, racism, immigration reform, and other issues.

“Strangers” is unequivocal—”She doesn’t kiss me on the mouth anymore,” it begins, “’Cause it’s more intimate than she thinks we should get”—and has been praised by fans who appreciated not having to change pronouns or shift from the straight perspective of typical Top 40.

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“The response we’re getting from fans makes my fucking life,” Halsey told Paper. “The amount of kids who just have just messaged me saying ’Thank you for this’… And I get it. I’m a young, bisexual woman and finding that kind of representation in music is really complicated. You don’t want to be limited from listening to music that is relatable to you because you’re a pop music fan.”

She admits pop can be alienating if you don’t fit the mold, and songs that present bisexuality as a naughty taboo are part of the problem. “’Don’t tell your mom’ or ’We shouldn’t do this’ or ’This feels so wrong but it’s so right’… That narrative is so fucking damaging to bisexuality and its place in society.”

The 22-year-old says she’s fought bi stigma her whole life.

“I still see people on the internet saying, ’Of course Halsey says she’s bisexual. It’ll help her sell albums.’ I never came out as a musician because I was already out when I started making music. I was in high school with people walking past me in the hallway calling me ’dyke.'”

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She didn’t name names, but it’s pretty apparent Halsey was dragging radio hits like Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” and Demi Lovato’s “Cool for the Summer.” Both were catchy ditties about being naughty with another lady—and neither video showed the singer actually kissing another woman. (After Halsey’s comments, Lovato tweeted, “You know a song is a hit when people are still talking about the lyrics two years later.”)

Perry has made various comments about whether “Kissed a Girl” was inspired by a real-life woman (her story has changed over the years), but Lovato won’t “confirm or deny” if “Cool For The Summer” is fictitious.

’[It’s] just fun and bi-curiosity,” she told PrideSource’s Chris Azzopardi. “I think people look at song lyrics—they look too into it. I wish I could tell [them] to ’chill the fuck out’ and ’take a break,’ because it’s just a song.”

Tongue-in-cheek, fleeting bi-curiousity was stale when Madonna, Britney and Christina kissed at the VMAs in 2003—In 2017 it’s practically mummified. If a song isn’t for or about queer people, then it’s basically just girl-on-girl porn—a titillating, voyeuristic performance for straight guys that’s riding on the coattails of a community just starting to see itself represented.

Queer women have few mainstream songs that mirror our existence, so when the only narrative we hear is about lesbianism as secret experimentation, it doesn’t feel like an affirmation.

For most of her career, Lovato has identified as an LGBT ally, serving as grand marshal of L.A. Pride and an ambassador for HRC’s Americans for Marriage Equality campaign, and was presumed straight. (Her relationship with Wilmer Valderrama was the subject of tabloid fodder for years.) In her Billboard letter for Pride Month, she wrote about the LGBT community as if she was adjacent to, rather than a part of it.

But in 2016 she told People that she didn’t identify with any particular orientation: “As humans, it’s just about a connection with someone.”

It was in 2015, when Ruby Rose tweeted that she’d hooked up with Lovato, that the “Sorry Not Sorry” singer first addressed her sexual orientation: “Rumors are rumors, and people are going to spread them. You can believe what you want, but no, I was not in a relationship with her, she told Complex. “By the way, love is fluid.”

When Lovato was photographed Disneyland earlier this month getting frisky with DJ Lauren Abedini, tongues started wagging again. But she remained adamant about not discussing her sexuality.

“I feel like it’s irrelevant to what my music is all about,” she said in the PrideSource interview. “I stand up for the things that I believe in and the things that I’m passionate about, but I like to keep my personal life as private as possible when it comes to dating and sexuality and all that stuff… because it has nothing to do with my music.”

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Policing someone’s sexual identity is never okay, but musicians who mine their own experiences are always going to feel more authentic. They’re the ones not catering to our community with one “gay” song, or teasing just enough to be considered part of the team.

It’s telling that when Azzopardi presses Lovato about her sexuality, she tells him to watch her upcoming YouTube documentary, Demi Lovato: Simply Complicated, streaming October 17. “I answer a lot of questions in my documentary.”

Whether Demi Lovato is queer or just a well-intentioned ally, she should recognize that “Cool for the Summer” isn’t all that cool for actual queer women.

Tell me what you want

What you like

It’s okay

I’m a little curious, too

Tell me if it’s wrong

If it’s right

I don’t care

I can keep a secret, can you?

It reads like a letter to Penthouse.

Really, the criticism levied at Lovato is less about forcing her out of any closet and more about holding her accountable for selling sexuality as titillation.

The same year as “Cool for the Summer,” Miley Cyrus dropped “Bang Me Box,” an explicit track about her lusty intentions for another woman. Cyrus identifies as pansexual, so her lyrics about cunnilingus and making one lucky lady’s “fantasies come true” feel less like a put-on. (It also wasn’t a single, rather a track on her free album, Miley Cyrus and the Dead Petz.)

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Some doubt Cyrus’ pansexuality and say she leaked a video of her kissing model Stella Maxwell to garner attention. The only person who knows what’s really going on with Miley is Miley. But she, like Halsey, has more than just one song teasing a same-sex fling under her belt.

On Younger Now’s “She’s Not Him,” Cyrus laments that another person can’t replace the lover she lost. That one is a woman and the other a man is her reality, and one that’s true to many queer women’s experience, but it’s not the point of the song.

More importantly, like Halsey and Jauregui, Cyrus isn’t ashamed of saying that sexuality isn’t just fluid in the abstract, but for her specifically.

That’s an important distinction: Lovato will declare “love is love,” “love is fluid,” and she “loves who she loves.” but she won’t say if she loves—or has loved—another woman. If she’s making those statements to imply a fluid sexuality that she herself doesn’t possess, it’s just dishonest.

When Jauregui wrote an open letter told Donald Trump she self-identified as a “bisexual Cuban-American woman.” There was no coyness, no avoidance, no instructions to watch a documentary.

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If an artist shares a song and then asks that we not “look too into it,” they fail to understand how impactful their music can be, and the importance of the platform they’re privileged to have.

“Just because I refuse to label myself for the sake of a headline doesn’t mean I’m not going to stand up for what I believe in,” Lovato tweeted this week. “If you’re that curious about my sexuality, watch my documentary. But I don’t owe anybody anything.”

Perhaps her doc will clue fans into something about her sexuality, perhaps not. But using it as a promotional tool—and to a community desperate for authentic representations—furthers the idea that it’s a big secret to be revealed. It’s unbecoming someone who’s actually done a lot of good.

Lovato’s new album, Tell Me You Love Me, drops today. And while it delves into loneliness, turning friendship into love, and even “Daddy Issues,” there’s no discernable references to queer love or the LGBT community.

Demi Lovato might not label herself, and she should be respected for that choice. But being an ally to LGBT people means not playing tourist or trafficking in damaging stereotypes. Sorry not sorry.

Trish Bendix is a Los Angeles-based writer.
@trishbendix