When non-heteronormative genders and sexualities became criminal and then medical diagnoses (a flaw to be corrected), those who didn’t fit neatly into heteronormativity were forced into a closet. Even from that closet, though, LGBT+ folks have found ways to embrace and celebrate who they are — from using subversive coded language to carving out safe spaces in the margins and underground.
As early as the 1920s, there were fearless souls like Ma Rainey, whose bluesy lyrics spoke frankly about queer themes. “I want the whole world to know,” she croons in “Prove It On Me Blues,” a song about her same-sex attraction and preference for androgynous clothing.
Throughout the 20th century, vaudeville, nightclubs, and various independent record labels continued to provide a space for queer music to grow and thrive in the United States — though aspirations of going mainstream typically meant hiding your sexuality and recoding your love in heterosexual terms in your love songs.
It wouldn’t be until 1973, when Bruce Wayne Campbell debuted as Jobriath, that the United States would see its first openly gay rock star signed to a major label. His career was cut short, however, because, even though David Bowie and other glam rockers of the day were heavy-handed in their hinting at queerness, Jobriath’s decision to be open and proud of being gay was met with derision from straight audiences who seemed intent on pretending that glam rock was not, at its core, about challenging gender and sexual norms.
Since then, the story of LGBT+ artists in the music industry has been a slow and (mostly) steady push toward increased tolerance and acceptance. Today, we have a vibrant and diverse scene of LGBT+ artists across all genres who are singing about love and no longer coding it in heteronormative terms. This mixtape is a journey through the joy, the pain, the work, and the reward of love.
The Kansas-based alt-R&B artist is only 17 years old but has already put out two albums full of tracks that alternate between soulful and danceable. That youthfulness does come through in the lyrics that are often about growth and figuring out your identity.
Their love songs are usually sung from a distance, like “Yours” which describes a fantasized relationship with a crush.
Similarly, “Do U Mind?” is a song of worship for the one they love.
The Minnesota-based singer debuted with their EP Nūr in 2019 but had been writing poetry since childhood, using it as a way to navigate the challenges of being a Sudanese refugee in Minnesota. That poetic sensibility comes through heavily in their lyrics, which are sung over pop, R&B, or hip hop beats.
With a lot of explicit (and hot) lyrics about queer desire, Saleh’s music reaches out to closeted LGBT+ kids with songs that represent the lived and embodied experience of queerness, rather than the politics or intellectual theory of gender and sexuality.
In other words, Dua Saleh’s syrupy voice and sensual themes are ideal for setting the mood when things are about to get hot and heavy.
In “Umbrellar,” it’s an otherworldly, transcendent kind of sensuality with lyrics like “Last pint from that last night/ I don’t know if that was real/ And I swear I’m superstitious/ Bout her sex appeal.”
In “Pretty Kitten,” they take you from explicit lyrics like “What you want yourself a licking/ Baby you gon’ be my kitten” to more ambiguous poetic lines like “Let me roll this solemn sin/ Winter rolls into the wind/ Bitter broken once again.”
Alongside the sensuality, there’s also a satirical thread that calls attention to the way queer desire is erased or suppressed in culture and history. In “Hellbound,” they adopt a persona named Lucifer Labelle, who is shamelessly seductive and challenges the fanatical religious idea that queerness is a sin and that LGBT+ folks are all condemned to hell.
Austin-based Quentin Arispe blends folk, R&B, and hip hop into albums that are musically diverse enough to capture all your feelings. Their lyrics are emotional, spiritual, and empowered in turns ranging from soft, intimate love songs like “I Wanna Get Married,”
To more poppy songs about crushes and the first sparks of love like “No You Hang Up,”
To melodic, acoustic tracks like “Call It on,” where the lyrics refuse to accept the end of a relationship, even though the other person has moved on.
For a more acoustic, cozy sound, turn to Dodie. The English singer-songwriter got her start uploading original songs and covers to her YouTube channel at the age of 12. But her debut album didn’t come out until 2017.
With a sound that lives somewhere between folk and bedroom pop, Dodie whispers melodies into your ear that are sometimes sad, sometimes warm and happy, but always vulnerable and honest.
In “She,” Dodie navigates a desire that is both unwelcome and not tolerated by the society she lives in and the complexity that brings, when desire and shame get wrapped up into one messy feeling. The chorus captures that well when she sings, “I’d never tell/ No, I’d never say a word/ And oh, it aches/ But it feels oddly good to hurt.”
Meanwhile, “Arms Unfolding” describes the messiness of a breakup that isn’t quite a clean break and the way love can wax and wane in the course of a relationship. “But here I am with arms unfolding/ I guess it isn’t quite the end,” she sings.
Finally, for a happier, cozier love, the Christmas cover she released last year with Laufey, “Love to Keep Me Warm,” has all the vibes of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with none of the rape culture undertones:
Joy Oladokun digs up all the complexities, challenges, and pleasures of relationships in her heavily country-tinged rock and R&B tracks. The distinctive blend gives her music enough texture to match the layers of nuance in her lyrics.
“Brick by Brick,” for example, is a tender and honest song about the (worthwhile) work of maintaining a long-term relationship, featuring this impeccable chorus:
“Brick by brick
Sing praise to the ghosts of our past
Who let us slip
Through sandcastle hands
Brick by brick
We’ll do everything we know how
To make sure that this love is the last”
Similarly, in “Fight for It,” Oladokun talks about the difficulties and low points in relationships and the fact that love often involves making the conscious choice to push through, even when it’s not easy.
Then she gives us gorgeous and powerful tracks like “Jordan,” which has all the spiritual force of a religious hymnal as she talks about the way love can make you stronger and give you the courage to be yourself in a society that is regularly trying to keep you down:
“They told me he’s a good Lord
As they tied shackles to my feet
They drowned me in the Jordan
And then they walked away from me
That is where you found me
Grace and whisky on your breath
You pulled me back on my feet
And taught me how to dance again”
Blending electropop and synth-pop into ethereal soundscapes that will swallow you whole. The Russian-English singer-songwriter’s 2019 album, Forevher, is basically a love letter to her girlfriend, featuring lusty songs like “Religion (u can lay your hands on me),”
As well as romantic songs like “Control,” that talk about the vulnerability and trust that go into a relationship with lyrics like “You’ll be the pilot, I’ll let you fly it.”
And then there are songs like “skyline, be mine” that are mix of both with lyrics like “See your body in the skyline/ Took so long for you to be mine.”
After getting her start as the lead singer and guitarist of Ezra Furman and the Harpoons, Furman went solo with the 2012 album, The Year of No Returning. Her songs often deal with unrequited love, or the dangerous side of love, but some of the more positive songs emphasize the sense of acceptance and affirmation that it can provide.
Take for example “Lay in the Sun,” in which two lovers are alone in the world, providing the acceptance and safety for each other that they aren’t getting from the world around them.
“Out on the desert when the stars come out
All the cars fly by like rain
I’ll let you show me what you’re all about
And you won’t have to explain.”
Meanwhile, songs like “I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend,” capture the feeling of acceptance being impossible in love. Though she only came out publicly as a transwoman last year, the 2019 song touches on the anxiety that can come with being trans and in love with lyrics like, “I know that I don’t have the body you want in a girlfriend / What I’m working with is less than ideal / But maybe, baby, it’s not all about what you thought that you wanted / It’s about the way I can make you feel.”
Then, “Driving Down to LA,” describes the trust and letting go that borders on recklessness that can come with falling in love when she sings, “No, I don’t mind/ If I lose my legs or die/ I’ve built a home inside his eyes/ And I ain’t leavin’”