From being called ‘A wild thing’, to a ‘laserquest’, and even ‘Jaadu and Nasha’, love has been a common theme for artists to work with, across time, language, cultures and genres. Popular music, especially, has seen numerous shifts in how it chooses to represent love and romance over the years. Changing societal ideals of the western world with respect to love and intimacy have been instrumental in diversifying its representation. A quick look at love songs in popular music will bring to the fore themes of ‘complicated’ relationships, risks of being vulnerable in love (All of me, by John Legend), looming ambiguity about the idea of love (Stay with me by Sam Smith), sex (Marvin Gaye, by Charlie Puth ft Meghan Trainor), along with ‘pure-forever’ love (Perfect, Ed Sheeran) or bitter and sad heartache (Rolling in the deep by Adele; Wrecking Ball by Miley Cyrus). Bethany Klein, a professor of media and communication at the University of Leeds, explored how popular love songs become symbols and ‘markers’ of the bond that couples share (often referred to as ‘our song’).
The content of popular music becomes a medium through which partners express their emotions and sentiments. Additionally, the representation of love and romance in popular love songs often become a standard for roles, expectations, feelings (or lack of thereof), and gender appropriation in romantic and sexual arrangements. While advocacy and representation for the LGBTQ+ community have been long present in the music industry through artists like Elton John, Miley Cyrus and through anthems like Lady Gaga’s Born this way or Country music star Kacey Musgraves’ Follow your arrow; romantic love songs, up until a few years ago, have largely described heterosexual relationships, and conventional gender roles and expressions. Stories behind these songs, often revealed by artists (and speculators) in the media too, are also largely about heterosexual relationships.
Queer artists and allies have found an interesting medium through popular music to tell their stories. For example, Hozier and Sam Smith express similar sentiments in their songs Take me to Church and HIM respectively about the non-acceptance of same-sex relationships in Christianity and the hypocritical nature therein especially when ‘God’ is claimed to be all-loving and accepting. The song Same Love, by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis through the story of two young men in love, talks about the layers of discrimination that queer people have to face. The song lyrics “If I was gay I would think hip-hop hates me/ ‘Man, that’s gay’ gets dropped on the daily” point not only to derogatory remarks and labels that are used to refer to people identifying as gay, but also to internalized ideas about what it means to be gay (Here, ‘hip hop’ is seen as a genre that does not accept people who are queer). The video also portrays the LGBTQ+ community’s fight for marriage equality and human rights, reiterating the idea that as much as conservatives and religious leaders claim that being queer is a ‘choice,’ love and attraction towards the same-sex is not something that can/should be ‘changed’ or ‘treated.’
Newer artists like Hayley Kiyoko, Kehlani, Troye Sivan, and King Princess have redefined and broadened the scope of these narratives in popular music. Moreover, their positions on Billboard charts and hits on streaming devices like Apple Music and Spotify is a testimony to why these narratives are the need of the hour in the music scene, that these artists’ are here to stay and that they should be heard.
Hayley Kiyoko who in their song ‘Girls like Girls’ (2015) says ‘Girls like girls like boys do, nothing new’ came out with a song called ‘What I need’ , as part of the album ‘Expectations’(2018). The video of the song casts Kehlani and Kiyoko as the main protagonists. It begins with an argument with a seemingly ‘homophobic guardian’ where she’s heard saying “You think I’m stupid to not know it’s more than just a best friend?//Why did you turn out this way?” Following that, the lyrics point to how the relationship between the protagonists might appear complicated but making the relationship work needs equal ‘participation’ and effort. They also point to the idea that relationships aren’t meant to ‘fix’ the other. The lyrics “When we’re all alone, girl, you wanna own it/ When we’re with your fam, you don’t wanna show it. Oh, you’re tryna keep us on the low” lay emphasis on being keeping friends and family ‘in the loop’ as a symbol of ‘owning one’s relationship’. However they also seem to be scratching the surface with the idea of ‘coming out of the closet’, and problematically equating it to ‘owning’ the said relationship. Overall, the general sentiment of the song is about the singer’s expectation that their lover ought to have better clarity about wanting to be together (What I need, what I need, what I need is for you to be sure, no no no), which is a reasonable expectation in any exclusive romantic relationship.
King Princess in their song ‘1950’ makes a reference to a time in (American) history where queer love in public spaces was completely unimaginable through the lyrics “So cold that your stare’s going to kill me, I’m surprised when you kiss me”. They push the limits of the song even further, uninhibitedly speaking of vulnerabilities and fears that are part and parcel of a romantic relationship. From the Pre-chorus that goes “Tell me why my Gods look like you?” where they speak about adoring one’s partner and putting them up on a pedestal; they begin to talk about the deepest darkest fears of being left ‘high and dry’ when the relationship comes to an end, in the Bridge that says “I hope that you’re happy with me in your life, I hope that you won’t slip away in the night”.
Along with their musical content, queer artists are also contributing to the discourse about gender identity and expression and the problem that lies in ‘representing’ a very diverse community. It would be foolish, however, to not recognize that these songs through their audio and visual content definitely draw on dominant notions of love and intimacy, sometimes even overplaying on erotic visuals to gain mass appeal. These narratives also fall short of recognizing and speaking about the experiences of queer people in other parts of the world and fail at an portraying an intersectional view of queer marginalization. However, these conversations on representations and diversifying the discourse of love, intimacy, and relationships have been the need of the hour in popular culture, and it was only crucial for the music industry to finally catch up to this. Moreover, a lot of these songs aren’t talking about issues exclusively pertinent to the LGBTQ+ community but they contribute to the discourse on how the ‘woke millennial’ views love (and its ‘Thank you, Next’ situations), assesses ‘risks’ and advocates for equal status in relationships.