The evolution of “lesbian music”

In this 2016 article in the New York Times, Tegan and Sara were asked about the hardships faced by gay women in music. Sara responded:

“I think that the second people find out a woman is gay, it sort of makes their voice, or their value, very specific and very other.”

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Tegan’s response was more personal:

“There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s probably taken us this many records and this long to get where we’ve gotten because people have written us off because we’re queer.”

Anxieties over being stereotyped simply as a gay musician have been expressed by a number of artists, recently including the Indigo Girls. In January of last year, Amy Ray described the reception of lesbians working in the singer-songwriter genre:

“It’s not like somebody says, ‘Alright! It’s a lesbian singer-songwriter. I love them!’ It’s more like, ‘It’s another lesbian singer-songwriter…’ And it implies mediocrity.”

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While many of us do get excited about discovering new gay women singer-songwriters, Ray’s point echoes the accusations so often leveled against women in many fields. Their work isn’t really worthy. They’re only here to fill a quota. (Raise your hand if you’ve heard something to that effect said about LGBT women and/or women of color in the past year/month/24 hours.)

But outside of the “mediocre” stereotype, what do we really think about when we think about lesbian or queer music? The first images I ever had of lesbian musicians were k.d. lang and Melissa Etheridge, one crooning to Leisha Hailey and the other rocking out and proclaiming she’s the only one. Not far from the singer-songwriter stereotype. Indeed, that stereotype does have some basis in reality, as the singer-songwriter genre of that era has offered fans a number of lesbian performers, including Ani DiFranco, Garrison Starr, and Melissa Ferrick. Though her debut album didn’t come out until 2005, Brandi Carlile fits right in with this ’90s image. Back when I was confused about why I felt drawn to Etheridge’s music, I just thought of “queer music” as music from Lilith Fair, even though many Lilith Fair performers weren’t gay at all.

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