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What makes a queer anthem?
That’s the question MTV News recently posed to four musicians: rapper and activist Mykki Blanco; Mxmtoon, the ukulele-playing bedroom-pop artist; Southern-born singer-songwriter Katie Pruitt; and gospel-influenced pop star Vincint. The quartet met on a recent Zoom call to talk about what they believed to be the 10 greatest LGBTQ+ anthems of the 21st century so far, and prior to the conversation, the artists were asked to prepare their picks for what they considered the most club-immaculate or culturally impactful songs of the last two decades. These tracks could be by any artist and only needed to be released after the year 2000 with the intention of using them to craft a comprehensive playlist showcasing the music that defines the community and soundtracks its spaces today.
Inevitably, the prompt’s open-endedness gave way to more questions: What exactly is a “queer anthem”? Should the track be made by a person who identifies as such to qualify, and how has that definition changed as more people openly make music about their own experiences and identities?
The ensuing conversation lasted nearly two hours. It was extensive but, like the catalog it yielded, by no means comprehensive. Any attempt to compile an exhaustive list of this kind is fraught, subject to personal opinions and unique experiences — and so, rather than a ranked arrangement, we ordered it according to the natural course of the discussion. As the musicians candidly shared their own associations with each song, often a track’s significance was inextricably entangled with the context of its release, such as the shockwave sent when Frank Ocean came out in 2012, or the rabidly homophobic controversy that emerged in response to Lil Nas X’s “Montero (Call Me By Your Name).” And other times, rather than identifying a song’s particular meaning through its lyrics or visuals, it was selected firstly for its sound, how it had the singular ability to momentarily suspend time and reality, to guide friends and chosen family to each other in the seething darkness of a club.
Kicking off MTV News’s Queer Music Week, a Pride celebration of the LGBTQ+ artists and allies making the music that matters, the list below demonstrates how elusive and broad the concept of a queer anthem is, in part because the community itself is so vibrant and diverse. No, this list is not definitive, but it is a gesture towards definition, by and for ourselves. In that sense, certain themes did emerge in the course of our conversation: a desire to create sounds that liberate and connect, a need to tell one’s own story through art, and perhaps most of all, an honest appreciation for the power of a good bop. This music has transformed and evolved even within the relatively small scope of the last two decades, just like queerness itself.
Frank Ocean: “Chanel”
When Frank Ocean dropped “Chanel” in early 2017, fans immediately hailed it as a bisexual anthem. The song arrived shortly after Blonde, the R&B futurist’s most outwardly queer project yet, and five years after he first came out via a Tumblr note. Yet “Chanel”’s opening felt especially bold. “My guy pretty like a girl,” Ocean sings over a muddy piano sample, “and he got fight stories to tell.” He describes a romantic partner who exists in both feminine and masculine realms as well as his attraction to both, a duality he epitomizes on the song’s repeated hook: “I see both sides like Chanel.” As he recounts his own cash-filled pockets and thousands in Delta credit, Ocean toasts to having it all — a banner moment for bisexual visibility wrapped in a massive flex.
Mxmtoon: “I grew up with a lot of toxic representations of bisexuality in media and a lot of fetishization around what I eventually identified to be my sexual orientation. … For him and his expression of his identity to be accepted by the people around me made me feel less weird and less strange in my skin as I was trying to navigate what I wanted to identify as. That’s also part of queer anthems: helping people understand the queer experience and bringing that to the forefront of what people pay attention to.”
Mykki Blanco: “To have lived through the entire world just wrapping their arms around him and coming together to say, ‘You’re one of the baddest bitches out; we got you no matter what,’ and then to see that flowering of him publicly expressing queer love, it was an awesome moment.”
Lil Nas X: “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”
Stan Twitter gave Lil Nas X a platform. “Old Town Road” made him a star. But only “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” let him give Satan a lap dance. The pop provocateur’s fiery vision of queer desire quickly became the most talked-about music video of 2021, amplified by a hot, heavy, crotch-grabby performance on Saturday Night Live. At one point, a backup dancer licks his neck before he admits, “I wanna fuck the ones I envy.” Spectacle is the point — gay sexuality is rarely centered this prominently on network television — and the artist’s lyrics provide the foundation. On the song he named after himself, Montero pines for someone with masculine pronouns. He admitted that he would not have been brave enough to do that as a teenager. But now? “This will open doors for other queer people to simply exist,” he tweeted.
Vincint: “Never before have you seen a Black gay man as celebrated as Lil Nas X has been just for being so openly gay. What a beautiful story. The gay storyline always ends with one us dying or one of us getting sick or one of us going off to war. It’s like, no, bitch. We’re happy! And we have really great lives.”
Troye Sivan: “Bloom”
Before Troye Sivan became a stadium-filling international pop star, his candid vlogs about life as a teen gained him a fan base. Along with that community, Sivan represents a new generation of LGBTQ+ youth whose experiences and understanding are being shaped in part by its representation online: He came out publicly in a video posted to YouTube in 2013 (though he had told his family in private three years prior), an act that has inspired many young fans to do the same. The music and acting careers he’s developed since have openly championed queer identity. His music videos often depict gay relationships while his lyrics regularly employ masculine pronouns and bravely speak to same-gender love, but perhaps none more explicitly or to as much fanfare than those in the flowery track “Bloom.” The song was praised as a “bottoming anthem” for its lyrics that alluded to a fantasy played out between two men (“Put gas into the motor / And, boy, I’ll meet you right there / We’ll ride the rollercoaster”). The song’s subject matter was seemingly confirmed by Sivan himself with a since-deleted tweet that read #BopsAboutBottoming, which is a big deal, given that the sex act is still stigmatized even within the gay community.
Mxmtoon: “I watched his coming-out video. That was one of the first experiences that I vividly remember seeing somebody talking about coming out. I was like, ‘Oh, wow, this person that I really look up to is also gay. Maybe I’m gay?’”
Vincint: “I didn’t know what ‘blooming’ meant at the time, and then someone told me, and it all came full circle. I loved the music video because it was just a bunch of flowers opening up, which was very, very cute and it made sense as a metaphor.”
Lady Gaga: “Born This Way”
“My momma told me when I was young, we are all born superstars.” So begins the title track of Lady Gaga’s 2011 album Born This Way, her dance-pop devotional to the LGBTQ+ community. Riding the high of her newfound stardom after two hit pop records, Mother Monster channeled the nickname bestowed upon her by fans and crafted a dance album that would comfort marginalized Little Monsters around the world. Today, it’s easy to scoff at the track’s direct call-outs to its target audience (“No matter gay, straight, or bi / Lesbian, transgender life / I’m on the right track, baby, I was born to survive”). But in 2011, the song was a resonant rally cry — and the exact sort of soundtrack LGBTQ+ Americans needed on the precipice of the repeal of the homophobic law Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the legalization of marriage equality nationwide. It also proved that pop music can sound good and inspire social good. Gaga herself took her activism to the next level by establishing the Born This Way Foundation, which supports the mental health of young people around the world. The ways in which we talk about queer identities have evolved since “Born This Way,” but no matter what, Gaga reassures us we’re “on the right track.”
Mykki Blanco: “It just feels so good. It’s so inclusive, it’s so warm, it’s so fuzzy. You hear that track, and it doesn’t matter where you’re at. The parade is going, the flags are flying, and you’re just like, ‘Yes, I’m on the right track! Yes, Gaga!’
Katie Pruitt: “Any big mainstream song about sexual identity moves the needle. This song did that in a big way, because people would argue the fact that sexual identity is a choice — it’s not a choice. I was born this way.”
Mxmtoon: “The speaking up is definitely something that as a young queer person I appreciated from the people I looked up to because I didn’t grow up around a lot of people in my immediate community that were talking about their sexual identity or their gender identity.”
Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mýa, P!nk: “Lady Marmalade”
All-star diva team-ups don’t always become queer anthems, but the 2001 “Lady Marmalade” update seemed preordained for success. It was anchored to the Moulin Rouge! soundtrack; it featured four divas performing at the top of their respective games; and crucially, its video found them glammed up in their burlesque best and chewing scenery. The past 20 years have made the tune, originally made famous by Labelle in 1974, a karaoke essential, a drag-show staple, and a career highlight for Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mýa, and P!nk (as well as co-producer Missy Elliott). The combined vocal electricity could light a cabaret, and the song’s playful approach to sexuality remains its second-best hook — only topped by that iconic, immortal French refrain. (It means, of course, “Do you want to sleep with me?”)
Katie Pruitt: “I recently saw a drag show where this drag queen performed ‘Lady Marmalade,’ and it was the most joyous experience. You see these drag queens completely embracing femininity, and it’s so beautiful to watch.”
Vincint: “If anyone is with their friends and hears this song, my favorite part about that is everyone picks a person. Either you’re P!nk, or you’re Christina, and you all find your spots and you get in your places, and you go for it.”
Mykki Blanco: “I think to be a true diva, you also have to have transformed the culture a bit in your time.”
Big Freedia: “Y’all Get Back Now”
The queen diva, you best-uh believe-uh — Big Freedia is inarguably a legend within the New Orleans bounce scene. Bounce is quintessentially NOLA, in part for its call-and-response vocals influenced by Mardi Gras chants but also for its welcoming attitude towards visibly queer performers in its culture, of which the Louisiana city has a rich history. Freedia began performing in the ’90s, and in the decades since, she has helped bring the genre from the club underground into the mainstream. She came to slay when she lent her spoken-word stylings to Beyoncé’s song “Formation” and has also contributed vocals to tracks by Drake, Kesha, and even Rebecca Black. But this transition from marginal art form to music’s everyday largely began with the release of “Y’all Get Back Now,” the slamming breakout single off her 2010 debut album Big Freedia Hitz Vol. 1. The lead track encapsulated her musicality with its repetitive shout-sung vocals and music video that featured Godzilla-sized dancers dominating a cityscape with their wiggly, gyrating butts. The word “twerk” itself was popularized thanks to Freedia’s ambassadorship, and she holds the Guinness World Record for the most people twerking simultaneously — 406 in total.
Vincint: “If we’re talking about icons, Big Freedia should be at the top of the list.”
Mykki Blanco: “Freedia’s star has really been on the rise the last few years, and she definitely paved the way for a lot of us. She’s always really inspirational.”
Katie Pruitt: “I’m not a very feminine-presenting lesbian, but if anybody could make me twerk, it’d be Big Freedia.”
King Princess: “1950”
“Anthemic” probably isn’t the first descriptor that comes to mind when you think of King Princess’s “1950,” but it is apt. Backed by swaying instrumentals and lilting layered vocals, the singer-songwriter’s debut single announced her as an indie-pop artist to watch after it scored Harry Styles’s coveted seal of approval. King Princess, née Mikaela Straus, was 19 years old when “1950” dropped, but the song artfully alludes to a time when being queer meant covert affairs and coded language (“I like it when we play 1950 / So bold, make ‘em know that you’re with me”). It also laid a solid foundation for more overtly sexually empowered tracks to come, often incorporating feminine pronouns. Whether she’s worshipping at the altar of pussy or making grown men cry while fucking with gender, King Princess typifies the unapologetically unsubtle references to queer sex and culture we’ve come to expect from younger LGBTQ+ artists like Clairo, Girl in Red, and Troye Sivan. What sets her apart is how refined her entire discography sounds, from her kinkiest cuts to the lush lesbian psalm that put her on the map.
Mxmtoom: “I would play her songs in the car with my friends who are totally straight, and we’d listen to it and be like, ‘This is really gay, and that’s really awesome.’ King Princess has really brought women-loving-women relationships to this whole other sense of people realizing, ‘This is something that’s gonna happen, and I’m not gonna hide that anymore.’
Katie Pruitt: “We’re seeing this new, future generation of Gen Zers come up and just change shit. I love this song so much because to me, it feels like a gay girl guiding another girl, possibly in the closet, into acceptance. That’s something that all of us queer people can identify with.”
Muna: “I Know a Place”
Electronic pop band Muna wrote the resilient, relentlessly positive “I Know a Place” specifically to be a queer anthem — and it actually became one. The Los Angeles trio began work on the vaporous tune, built around the power of gay clubs as sanctums, in celebration after the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in 2015. But the following year, the horrific Pulse nightclub massacre, at the time the deadliest mass shooting in American history, turned the song’s symbolic pleas to “lay down your weapon” into frightening realities. Reeling LGBTQ+ listeners sought shelter in its vivid and welcoming embrace. “Don’t you be afraid of love and affection,” vocalist Katie Gavin sings; she sounds like she’s floating just under the disco ball, above a patchwork of outstretched arms.
Vincint: “I found that song at a time in my life where I really needed to hear, ‘This isn’t it. This isn’t where it all ends. This isn’t life, and this is not how it has to be.’ These songs find the people they need to, and I was that person at the time.”
Myyki Blanco: “Protest music really begins to help people begin to break down through song the different intersections of our society. A song is simple; a song can be complex. But it’s that transgressive nature of what’s being said or communicated that can really help us in a simple way understand complex ideas.”
Kacey Musgraves: “Follow Your Arrow”
What makes “Follow Your Arrow” so monumental is how casually it treats queerness. “Kiss lots of boys,” country-pop troubadour Kacey Musgraves instructs, “or kiss lots of girls, if that’s something you’re into.” Then she simply moves on to the next line, ultimately arriving at the title message of self-acceptance. They were reassuring words to hear from a country star in 2013, well before the yeehaw agenda recontextualized what the genre could be, and for whom. They also cost her some country-radio airplay, detraction Musgraves shrugged off. “It’s gonna have its own life regardless, so I don’t really want to ask their permission,” she said then. She was right. Musgraves has since become a gay icon, leaning into disco and full-on perseverance anthems. It all started with “Follow Your Arrow,” her evergreen invitation to live how you live and love who you love.
Katie Pruitt: “It’s broad enough that anyone can understand it: ‘Follow your arrow wherever it points.’ But there’s one moment in the song — that was the first moment in a mainstream country song that I had heard that topic being addressed at all. I was struggling to come out to my parents at the time. Hearing a song be such a big country hit mention that you should celebrate who you love — it was just a nod from a straight ally that I really appreciated.”
Mxmtoon: “I actually didn’t like country music for a really long time, honestly, because it didn’t feel like a space where a woman of color who identified as queer could actually fit in. When I heard that line, I was caught off guard. It was the first time that I heard some sort of queer allyship inside of a song that was in the country genre. That changed my perspective on what it means to be a songwriter.”
Robyn: “Dancing On My Own”
Robyn is a dance-floor phoenix. The Swedish singer began her career in the ‘90s, releasing her debut album Robyn Is Here in 1995 at the age of 16. After dropping her Grammy-nominated fourth LP, the eponymous Robyn, she left the scene for five years, only to shake the world of pop to its core when she returned. Body Talk, a trilogy of mini-albums out in 2010, featured what would become some of Robyn’s most iconic stateside singles: “Hang With Me,” “Indestructible,” and of course, her lonesome opus “Dancing On My Own.” The space between the song’s trembling bassline and sparse melody echoes its lyrics about utter isolation. Loneliness is a universal experience, but for many queer people, trauma is collective: Some are shunned by friends and family simply for being who they are and forced to seek connection elsewhere. Nightlife has historically been a gathering place for LGBTQ+ people — before we could be open in our daily lives, we found each other in the musty, anonymous haze of the bar. “Dancing On My Own” captures this perfectly, albeit perhaps unintentionally — that experience of being alone, but together — and has since been ingrained in the memories of a generation of LGBTQ+ people. It even inspired a popular club night at a London gay bar.
Vincint: “Robyn is everything. She’s the beginning and the end. She’s the middle. She’s everything. ‘Dancing On My Own’ will wreck you, pull you back together. It will get you through a heartbreak. It will get you through your taxes, bitch. It will get you through the moment. Robyn is everything.”
Mykki Blanco: “How many of us have just been walking down the street and someone gawks at us for what we have on or questions why? ‘Why are you wearing those jeans?’ or ‘Why are you wearing that shirt?’ or ‘Why are you wearing that top?’ In a club, you’re able to fully express yourself in a way where you can present how you want to present with like-minded people. The community is there and the music is going. I think there’s something spiritual that happens in the club.”
This year, express your self-care and celebrate Pride mindfully. Visit www.MentalHealthIsHealth.us/PRIDE.
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