Despite the fact that my father refers to them as “chewing-gum for the eyes,” I admit I love watching music videos. A good video can make me like a song I wasn’t that keen on when I heard it on the radio; a really bad one can put me off a song I thought I liked. But they have to be bad indeed in order to get me to switch off altogether.
Despite all that, I’m aware of a pervasive lack in the majority of music videos. Where — amidst all the heterosexual bumping and grinding and declarations of love — are the lesbians? It’s not like there is a lack of successful out lesbian singers. Melissa and k.d. and Tegan and Sara — they’re all out there. But when it comes to being “out there” in their videos — not so much. Possibly under pressure from their record companies, these singers tend to compensate for their openly gay status in life by keeping their songs and videos carefully gender neutral. In the video for their song “Speak Slow,” Tegan and Sara even appear in bed with men — although to be fair, it’s made pretty clear that they are friends rather than love interests.
So where does that leave lesbian visibility in music videos? Every so often, a lesbian couple or two will appear briefly in the video of a (presumably) straight singer who wants to demonstrate his or her gay-friendliness. Vanessa Carlton has them in her video for “Hands on Me.” Katie Melua has them in her video for “Call Off the Search.” Ex-Spice Girl Emma Bunton has one in her video for “I’ll Be There.” British singer Tom Baxter has one in his video for “Better.” If you’ve ever seen the video for the Nicole Kidman/Robbie Williams duet “Somethin’ Stupid,” you’ll know that Nicole has a split-second moment where she looks like she might switch teams. But by and large, that’s what these appearances are: split-second.
Of course, you can always find the occasional straight male singer who uses “lesbian” imagery or suggestiveness in his videos in a clearly voyeuristic way. Fifty Cent’s video for “Candy Shop” springs to mind. As does Robbie Williams’ threesome in “Come Undone.” The video for U.K. dance band Ultrabeat’s “Pretty Green Eyes” basically consists of three exotic dancers “performing” lesbianism for the benefit of the fat, ugly male singer who sits and watches them. Justin Timberlake’s video for “What Goes Around … Comes Around” has guest star Scarlett Johansson exclaiming — with boring predictability as well as without much conviction — “I like girls.”
In the past 25 years, though, there have been a few music videos that not only feature lesbianish relationships prominently, but also do so in a way that makes it feel like they’re not designed (exclusively) for the benefit of straight male viewers. Here are six of my favorites:
1. Prince, “1999” (1983)
What saves the two ambiguously gay women in this video from being just the usual straight male window-dressing is that a) the camera cuts to them repeatedly, b) they are actually involved in the song, with the brunette apparently playing the keyboard and both women singing, and c) neither of them gets involved with men at any point in the video. The fact that Prince is such a sexually ambiguous creature himself helps — I’m willing to believe that he put them in the video as a nod to sexual diversity, and not just to build up his own reputation as a stud. And I’ll admit it — I can’t resist a blonde in a military cap.
2. Prince, “Diamonds and Pearls” (1991)
Not only is the song itself a bit of a bisexual anthem (“If I gave you diamonds and pearls/would you be a happy boy or girl?”), but once again, Prince prominently features a lesbian couple without trying to get involved with them himself. At one point, in fact, the camera cuts from Prince with his own female love interest, to a shot of the two women — suggesting an equality between heterosexual and homosexual pairings, and indicating that the love described in the song could refer to either of them.
3. Jill Sobule, ‘”I Kissed A Girl” (1995)
I’ll admit that this song is a bit on the cutesy side for me — but with its unambiguous lyrics and lesbotastic video, it definitely deserves a mention. All the same, it’s a bit striking that although we repeatedly hear Sobule claim that she kissed a girl, someone involved with the video’s production evidently decided that it would be too much for us to actually see her doing so. Overall, the video is a bit like Kissing Jessica Stein, without the kissing.
4. t.A.T.u., “All The Things She Said” (2002)
Ironically, it took a couple of straight girls to break the kissing taboo. Yes, the teenage Russian “lesbians” are fake (as I realized the first time I saw them on the cover of Maxim magazine, shortly after they released this video), and yes, that’s annoying. But besides providing a welcome — and extremely popular — break in the endless stream of heterosexually themed videos, “All the Things She Said” still seems an amazingly powerful song to me for anyone who’s ever been a teenage queer. The lyrics, with their combination of anguish and defiance, ring true — and the video’s ending, with the two girls striding off together hand-in-hand in the rain, is instantly iconic. Now if only more lesbian movies would end that way.
5. Britney Spears featuring Madonna, “Me Against the Music” (2003)
In the wake of the success of “All the Things She Said,” Madonna evidently decided she was going to get in on all the lesbian action — kissing both Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera during a performance at the 2003 VMAs, and then releasing this lesbian-inflected duet where the kiss is almost repeated. Yes, it’s essentially more straight girls exploiting “lesbianism” for shock value and chart success. But with gay icon (and rumored Sandra Bernhard ex) Madonna as one of the duo, the video does have a smidge more lesbian credibility than it might otherwise have — plus, the energy between these two powerful women is crackling, and Britney looks hot in a suit.
6. The Ditty Bops, “Wishful Thinking” (2004)
They’re not anywhere near as well-known as t.A.T.u. or Britney and Madonna, which unfortunately limits their mainstream impact. But with this video, you get to see a bona fide lesbian couple — Abby DeWald and Amanda Barrett, who make up The Ditty Bops — singing a love song in which they are unambiguously addressing each other. To which I can only, wistfully say: More of the same please, music industry.
Finally, there’s a video I love that doesn’t quite fit in with the others I’ve mentioned. The music is dull, the male singer is sleazy, and there’s no actual lesbian relationship featured, so why am I recommending Roxy Music’s 1982 release “Avalon” to you?
Well, because the tall, slender, unapproachable blonde pirouetting around in the video is none other than the now-out British lesbian actress Sophie Ward. And there are worse ways to spend four minutes than in wondering whether she may be the most beautiful out lesbian ever to have existed.
Are there any important videos I’ve missed? Do you love or hate my choices? Let me know in the comments.