As soon as I discovered the queer punk duo PWR BTTM, I was immediately drawn to their artistry – both in terms of how they sounded and looked. I had fun listening to their debut album Ugly Cherries, which deals with the messiness of being queer with humour and vulnerability. I also adored their personal style, the reckless make up and thrifty outfits signifying a cheap sort of queer glamour. Their very presence in the music industry was something to celebrate – until a sexual abuse scandal put an end to their promising career. The allegations against Hopkins stung for many reasons. For their fans, it was hard to see these indiscretions in isolation because they also amounted to a betrayal; the behind-the-scenes revelations about PWR BTTM contradicted all that they appeared to offer on stage: solidarity, safety and inclusion. As a Pitchfork headline read, “queer kids deserve better.”
What kind of music do queer kids deserve, then? As much as I love listening to 90s Madonna and Janet Jackson, I have issues with how central the figure of a cishet pop diva is in discussions about LGBTQ music. Just because we have learned to do the labour of translating dominant experiences to our own doesn’t mean it should be demanded of us. What we crave is overt, deliberate and authentic queerness, which, as is the case with all art, is underrepresented in music. So every so often when a queer artist gets a record deal, we understandably get attached, which is why I had a hard time letting go of PWR BTTM – it’s not like openly queer musicians are a dime a dozen. However, consuming queer art is a deliberately political act, and so in the process we must be careful not to champion anything that reproduces existing structures of oppression. After all, queerness is much more than individualistic self-expression; it is a kind of social restructuring. Ideally, queer art should offer new avenues of existence for everyone. So, fellow queer kids, here is a recommended list of recent queer albums that are not only imaginative and bold, but also diverse and politically charged.
Transangelic Exodus, Ezra Furman
Furman’s lyrical storytelling shines through this alt-pop record. Conceptually, it follows the narrator as she rescues a hospitalised angel from an authoritarian state and flees with him. The policing of the angel’s body is Furman’s evocative allegory of the trans experience: “To them you know we’ll always be freaks”, she declares. The album also shows Furman coming to grips with the trauma of growing up closeted (“I’ll always be negotiating with the truth / And I can trace the habit / To when I was eleven”), gender nonconforming (“Maraschino Red Dress $8.99 at Goodwill”), and non-heterosexual (“I lost my innocence / To a boy named Vincent”). Besides, there also are many moments where Furman affirms how her Jewishness aligns with her queerness, as evident in the song “God Lifts up the Lowly”. Furman’s vocal performance is both plaintive and abrasive and the album’s sonic landscape appropriately dystopian. Thematically, Transangelic Exodus is a brilliantly cohesive work.
Lucid, Raveena Aurora
Raveena Aurora’s debut R&B LP is a musical document of the interstices of her various identities. Aurora’s parents immigrated to America from India following the anti-Sikh pogroms of 1984. While this history is not an overt subject of her music, songs such as “Mama” and “Nani’s Interlude” are certainly informed by her cultural and generational past. The trauma of sexual and emotional abuse too is explored in songs such as “Stronger” (“I know you love to see me broken / You live to see me confused at my knees”), “Salt Water” (“I think my body’s had enough / Going through this”) and “Bloom” (“Baby, don’t touch me / You don’t know how”). She also sings about the joys and heartache of love in songs such as “Floating”, “Still Dreaming” and “Stone”. Here, Aurora only explicitly mentions her queerness in the amorous “Nectar”, where she coos, “Girl, don’t trip / I could surely provide / Mother earth in my thighs”. While her bisexuality is much more central to her latest EP, the entrancing Moonstone, I would still say Lucid is the best introduction to Aurora’s soothing, beautiful sound.
No Shape, Perfume Genius
Darkness permeates many queer experiences, but it is through optimism that we survive. Perfume Genius (also known as Mike Hadreas) infuses this baroque pop record with a hopefulness that is absent from much of his earlier work, and much of queer art in general. The main concern of this album is escapism, be it escaping from an oppressive society (“Baby, let all them voices slip away / Don’t look back, I want to break free”) or one’s own body (“Burn off every trace / I wanna hover with no shape”). The album also celebrates queerness as something divinely blessed (“Even in hiding / Find it knows you / Rocking you to sleep / From the Otherside”) and full of grace (“You are cultivating grace … For child, you walk / Just like love”). It also speaks of the joys of sex and the complexities of long-term partnership. While Hadreas acknowledges the oppressive forces that try to bring him down, he is defiant and unperturbed: “Baby, I’m already / Walking in the light / Go ahead / Go ahead and try”. The orchestral arrangement is lush and gorgeous, with Hadreas going for a sweeping, cinematic sound. If I were to use only one word to describe No Shape, it would be “exquisite”.
I Am a Bird Now, Antony and the Johnsons
While this baroque pop album was released when Anohni was a part of Antony and the Johnsons, it is clear from its confessional nature that it is a very personal project for her. Anohni’s expression of her transness dominates this record, and what makes this self-expression even more special is her disarming openness about not having it all figured out just yet, as evident from songs such as “My Lady Story” (“I’m so broken babe / But I want to see / Some shining eye / Some of my beauty / Lostest beauty”) and “For Today I Am a Boy” (“One day I’ll grow up, I’ll be a beautiful girl / But for today I am a child, for today I am a boy”). She also sings about misinterpreting abuse for love in the standout track “Fistful of Love”. However, the real centrepiece of this record is the breathtaking “Hope There’s Someone”, a song that captures something all too human: the fear of dying without someone by your side. When she begins singing with the words “Hope there’s someone / Who’ll take care of me / When I die, will I go”, the emotion in her voice is reminiscent of Nina Simone’s incomparable interpretive powers. I Am a Bird Now is an achingly vulnerable record that constantly struggles with darkness, but the listening experience is as much a warm hug as a gut punch.
Channel Orange, Frank Ocean
Frank Ocean is notable for being one of the few openly bisexual black men in American music. Days before debuting with his game-changing alt-R&B/soul record, Ocean wrote an open letter to his first love, a man he fell for as a teenager. This letter provides the context for songs such as “Forrest Gump”, Ocean’s cheeky but heartfelt ode to the young man who continues to run on his mind, and “Bad Religion”, where he mournfully confesses to a taxi driver (a stand-in for a priest and a therapist) about his unrequited love. However, aside from these tracks, heteropatriarchal themes dominate this album. This is what makes Ocean an unusual queer icon, who also inhabits and so can sing about the world of unplanned pregnancies (“Sierra Leone”) and patriarchal relationships (“Lost”). Ocean is also critical of material wealth (“You’ve had a landscaper and a house keeper since you were born … So why see the world, when you got the beach?”) and substance abuse (“You hit them stones and broke your home”). Besides, Ocean does not hesitate to offer his commentary on womanhood through songs such as “Pyramids”, an epic about the degradation of black women, and “Pink Matter”, a meditation on the female anatomy. Although Channel Orange is full of double entendres and oblique lyricism, Ocean’s soulful vocal performance and the smooth production make it a really enjoyable listen.
About U, MUNA
This synth-pop record by queer girl band MUNA deals with the collapse of romantic ideals and its aftermath, with frontwoman Katie Gavin singing about false idealisation (“End of Desire”), disillusionment (“So Special”), grief (“Around U”) and trauma bonding (“Winterbreak” and “Crying on the Bathroom Floor”). Furthermore, the theme of psychological distress and how it burdens romantic relationships is also explored in songs such as “Promise” and “If U Love Me Now”, the latter of which includes brief verses on suicidality that are all the more gut-wrenching for their incisiveness: “It’s just a hypothesis I test / That I should not exist”. However, all this should not give the impression that this albumis all gloom; beyond the deeply personal songs, MUNA also offer anthemic tracks with political significance: “Loudspeaker” is a spirited affirmation of sexual abuse survivors who have chosen to speak out, while “I Know a Place” is a celebration of queer-inclusive spaces set to a danceable beat. What makes About U a good pop record is how it combines dark themes with upbeat rhythms in a way that is both exhilarating and cathartic.
Dirty Computer, Janelle Monáe
Janelle Monáe’s third LP, with its soul, R&B, funk and hip-hop influences, is the perfect closer to a list that can do with a bit of levity and cheerfulness. In Monáe’s dystopian world, a “dirty computer” is a person whose humanity has been stripped and whose special attributes have been denounced as “dirty” viruses by an authoritarian state. This album is Monáe’s journey towards reclaiming her identity as a pansexual African American woman. She does so in style through a series of impeccable jams such as “Take a Byte”, “Django Jane”, “Screwed”, “Make Me Feel”, “I Like That” and “Pynk”, all of which unabashedly celebrate the strength, beauty and worth inherent in those who are at the intersection of various kinds of marginalisation. She also shows her vulnerable side in tracks such as “Don’t Judge Me” and “So Afraid”. Her admission in the latter, “I’m fine in my shell / I’m afraid of it all, afraid of loving you”, reveals that at times oppressive forces can get to even the most self-possessed of us. Overall, Dirty Computer is a ridiculously listenable piece of pop excellence.