As a teenager and young adult the soundtrack to your life is built on a mountain of “firsts:”
💿 First CD: TLC’s “Creep”
🤵🏻 First prom: Usher’s “Yeah!”
💔 First heartbreak: Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight”
And for me...
👭 First time hearing a woman openly singing about being with another woman: Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl”
The first radio station to play the problematically-presented song was Nashville’s 107.5 “The River,” or stereo preset No. 6 in my very inconspicuous first car: a lime green Pontiac Sunfire. When I heard it, I was floored. This? In the “Buckle of the Bible Belt” in a state that, to this day, has some of the most vile anti- queer and transgender laws? I immediately downloaded it.
At 3 minutes long, I could listen to it about 16 times on the 50-minute drive it took to get to the “second-closest” Best Buy two towns over. Driving those extra minutes and that extra town ensured that I could snag the equally inconspicuous flaming pink-boxed first season of The L Word without waving a giant rainbow flag and raising any questions about my sexuality. I wasn’t ready. At least not yet.
But it turned out that “I Kissed a Girl” wasn’t just something I was belting out with my car windows rolled up — it was something everyone was scream-singing at the top of their lungs. It was a certified top-of-the-charts bop. I wasn’t fully convinced of mainstream acceptance, but it at least seemed like mainstream permission.
For as groundbreaking as it felt to hear a woman explicitly singing about being with another woman then, it would take another 13 years for a man explicitly singing about being with another man to appear on the charts — enter Lil Nas X’s “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name).”
This time there’s no drunken permission: 🎵“I got so brave, drink in hand”🎵. No hint at a phase or a fling: 🎵“You're my experimental game”🎵. No fetishisation of the male gaze: 🎵“I hope my boyfriend don't mind it”🎵.
Just a Black queer artist unapologetically owning it: 🎵“I want that jet lag from fuckin' and flyin', Shoot a child in your mouth while I'm ridin'”🎵
It’s going to be a “first” for so many people. And it made me wonder: how many other “firsts” might be out there? How many songs about same-gender relationships have made it to the mainstream?
So, I enlisted the help of Kelsey Campbell and we combed through lyrics from songs that appeared on the year-end Billboard Hot 100 between 2008–2020. (It’s an admittedly imperfect and highly manual method, so reach out if you think we missed anything.)
That’s 0.7% — 8 songs, not even one a year, out of 1,170 unique hits. Now, not all songs mention relationships, but a lot of them do: if we look at the Top 10 songs from the last 2 years, 19/20 include lyrics about relationships and 9/20 of those were about opposite-gender relationships. It’s pretty safe to say there’s room for improvement, especially since all 8 of the songs we identified feature a woman explicitly singing about another woman using words like “she”, “her”, and “girl.”
That’s what makes it so special to hear a song like “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name).” Of course, I’m making some assumptions to say that it will appear on the 2021 year-end Billboard Hot 100 charts, but it’s well within reach. Lil Nas X’s queer anthem has already spent 12 weeks on the charts. The No. 1 songs from the last 3 years average about 20 weeks in the Hot 100.
Out queer artists like Janelle Monáe, Frank Ocean, Kelani, Hayley Kiyoko, Troye Sivan, Kim Petras, Big Freedia, and JoJo Siwa (I could go on) haven’t cracked the year-end Billboard Hot 100 with solo songs yet, but even when queer artists do reach the pinnacle of pop mainstream they rarely sing about same-gender relationships.
Of course, queer lyrics aren’t limited to same-gender references, but they’re often the most sanitized and direct version that a mainstream audience recognizes and is exposed to.
Between 2008–2020, we identified 130 songs featuring an openly queer artist in the year-end Billboard Top 100. (Lyrics were evaluated at the song level, so although it’s Taboo who technically uses the pronoun “girl” in The Black Eyed Peas’ song “Boom Boom Pow,” the song counted as an overall opposite-gender reference for Fergie.)
Here’s how openly queer artists with more than 5 chart appearances sing about relationships:
Artists like Lady Gaga, Halsey, and Cardi B are openly bisexual so singing about relationships with BOTH men and women is queer. And artists like Demi Lovato, Miley Cyrus, and Sam Smith are non-binary or genderfluid, so when they do sing about relationships it’s queer. And there are plenty of other queer lyrics that don’t explicitly reference gender at all.
As someone firmly planted in my queer identity now (I have a wife, we have a rainbow flag in front of our home, and I recently bought these WNBA coveralls) it’s easy for me to catch innuendos, nods, and winks like Lovato’s 🎵“Got a taste for the cherry, I just need to take a bite”🎵 or Lil Nas X’s 🎵“I might bottom on the low, but I top shit,”🎵 but thinking back to who I was when I first heard “I Kissed a Girl,” I might not have recognized myself in this type of song unless someone pointed a giant flashing neon rainbow arrow at it.
It reminds me of a line from a Dave Holmes’ piece about Taylor Swift’s “vague call for tolerance” that was “You Need to Calm Down:” “...in a bedroom somewhere in the world, some young person is getting a desperately-needed window into a life that suits them, and I am legitimately thrilled for that kid.”
And that’s what music can do. It can be someone’s “hundredth” or “thousandth” or “not-far-enough,” AND it can be someone’s “first.”
Methods & Notes
We collected year-end Hot 100 songs between 2008–2020 from Billboard. Then we researched each artist’s sexual orientation and gender identity with a mixed programmatic/manual approach that looked at Wikipedia pages, news articles, and social media profiles. We built 3 dictionaries: one to flag feminine gendered lyrics like “women”, “girl”, “her”, and “she”; one to flag masculine gendered lyrics like “man”, “boy”, “his”, and “he”; and one to flag relationship lyrics like “love”, “heart”, “kiss”, “sex”.
We used lyrics from an existing corpus and filled in gaps from Genius. Each song was tagged by whether it contained feminine gendered lyrics, masculine gendered lyrics, and relationship lyrics. Then those tags were compared to the artist’s sexual orientation and gender identity. This gave us a set of songs to manually check. From there we listened to A LOT of music to identify the 8 songs with explicit same-gender relationship lyrics. Since this was an imperfect manual effort, we might have missed something. Got a song we should add? Email Jan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I began to poke around at this story in 2019. Anecdotally, I felt like I was hearing more explicit same-gender references in mainstream songs than I did when I was younger, but after looking at the initial data, my music tastes might have just gotten a little more queer.
I held onto this story because it still felt like it was worth telling, even if I didn’t think the data could be the main driver. I was taunted with songs like Sam Smith’s and Demi Lovato's “I’m Ready” and Miley Cyrus’ “Midnight Sky” until Lil Nas X released “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” and I realized it wasn’t the absolute number of obviously queer songs that made the top charts, it was that there was a single song where I felt represented at all.
This story is about my unique queer journey and the music that shaped it (some more songs included in the playlist below). It is not meant to be representative of the full queer community. I’ve chosen to use the word “queer” throughout this piece because it’s how I personally identify and because I feel like it best captures and respects the intersections of the LGBTQIA+ community.