There are lesbian singers, and then there are songs about lesbians. Lesbian singers are often trailblazing pioneers who have battled overt and covert discrimination in the male-dominated music industry to perform and release their music. While they span all genres, historically they have tended to be most commonly found in the indie, folk and rock genres, with a growing presence on the rap scene. For a variety of reasons, most have not heard their songs played commercially on the radio.
Except for that statistically anomalous trend since the mid-2000s in which almost every female American pop singer under or near the age of 30 has come out as some form of sexually fluid, including Christina Aguilera, Kesha, Fergie , Lady Gaga, Demi Lovato and Miley Cyrus. Not to mention a few singers who haven’t officially come out but seem to be somewhere along the Kinsey scale, like Rihanna and Britney Spears. Based on this list, if you listen to pop music, the radio is filled with queer female singers.
Then there are songs sung by women about being in love with or attracted to other women. These songs may or may not be sung by lesbian or bi women, although they normally are. While these songs exist in many genres, even if only in small numbers, the odds of hearing one on the radio is almost nil, even when the singer is an A-Lister (though you’ll probably have better luck in Australia hearing Missy Higgins on the radio). In the last 15 years, the only singles released in the US in which the singer overtly references an attraction to another woman have been in pop songs, and there were few of those at that: t.A.T.u’s “All the Things She Said,” Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl,” Lady Gaga’s “Pokerface,” and Demi Lovato’s “Cool for the Summer.”
These four songs aren’t exactly paragons of gay, since two treat bisexuality as a clandestine yet frivolous tangent, one was sung by a duo faking lesbianism for money, and in the fourth the singer is fantasizing about a woman while having sex with a man. (Some songs like Rihanna’s “Te Amo” or Miley’s “Bang me Box” were not released as singles and so didn’t make it to the radio but do reference same-sex attraction.) There’s also Little Big Town’s “Girlcrush,” which is totally NOT about a same-sex attraction at all, but is the closest country has come of late. How is it that with so many openly gay A-List pop singers, so few lesbian-themed songs have made it onto the radio?
Radio stations are still skeptical of songs with LGBT themes even though songs like Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Same Love” have shown there is an audience for diversity. The song was nominated for Song of the Year at the 2014 Grammys and reached #1 in Australia and New Zealand, and Billboard listed it as the fourth best song of 2013.
So how do we get more songs about women on the radio? Get singers to sing lesbian songs and put those songs on the radio, obviously. In July 2015, the male duo A Great Big World released “Hold Each Other” as the lead single off its latest album. Half the song is about a heterosexual couple and half is about a gay couple, reflecting the fact that one member is straight and the other gay. This mirrored approach—which gives equal weight and legitimacy to the two relationships—may be the first of its kind for the genre and provides an example how of lesbian and gay themes can be woven into songs.
We’d love for lesbian artists in all genres to get more airtime, but even if the singer isn’t gay it doesn’t preclude her from singing a lesbian-themed song. While many songs are based on the singer/songwriter’s personal experiences, others are not. No one thinks Reba McEntire became a prostitute at age 18 because she covered Bobbie Gentry’s song “Fancy,” for example. Why shouldn’t Adele, Beyonce, or Carrie Underwood sing from the point of view of a gay woman? Is it that different from “If I Were a Boy”?
For an example of what it would look like for a famous female singer to sing about another woman, check out this video of Taylor Swift covering Nelly’s “Just a Dream” during a concert. By not changing the gender pronouns in the lyrics, the song instantly becomes queer when Swift sings it. Also, check out Kina Grannis’s cover of Magic’s “Rude,” in which the singer delightfully re-purposes lyrics originally intended for a male singer for a lesbian audience instead.
Many singers have expressed support for the LGBT community, so let’s see them put their money where their mouth is and sing lesbian songs. It’s not enough to have more LGBT representation on the small screen if we’re not also represented on the radio and in print. Pop culture phenomena like tv shows and songs are bellwethers for society’s treatment of minorities. When we hear diversity reflected in songs, we will know that society is becoming more inclusive. So let’s do it. Come on, Adele, give us a song!