About a month ago, Buzzfeed’s Shannon Keating wrote an article criticising Halsey (of Closer by Chainsmokers fame) for “toning down” her bisexuality as she forged her career in mainstream pop. “Pop, historically, has not been a place where many queer women have thrived” says Keating, and claims that as Halsey has risen to prominence her sexuality has become less and less visible. What Keating was trying to do was to confront the heteronormativity (the perceived “normality” of being straight) which mainstream pop reinforces. Halsey, however, was not happy with the article and tweeted to ironically apologise to Buzzfeed for “not being gay enough” for them. What are we to make of this row? Do LGBTQ artists have a responsibility to battle heteronormativity in the music industry? Can pop be made to embrace anything that doesn’t conform to the “norm”? Let’s untangle this sexual snafu.
As discussed in the first instalment of this column, pop music reflects and corrects the lives of most of its consumers. Two overwhelming themes appear within pop and these are romance and money. These themes reflect the desires of a large portion of its listeners, to have a steady supply of affection, sex, and cash. But these themes always have to be packaged in new and different ways. The music industry must find a whole range of different personalities to convey the stock messages of pop in order to stop all that talk of money and sex becoming stale. This is why the music industry will occasionally produce an artist who is refreshingly very different. Artists who are openly gay or androgynous like Boy George, Joan Jett, and Prince, have been enjoying success since the at least the 1980s because their difference gives them a unique selling point, something which the music industry can use to market a new and exciting artist.
So pop will represent any identity it feels is marketable. When I say this I am not just trying to reduce this entire issue to a critique of capitalism, it is of course enormously important that queer artists are very visible in all mainstream media to help break down some of society’s more absurd notions about gender and sexuality. But it is also important to recognise that pop, by its very nature, will not offer an authentic representation of any real identity, and this is one of the issues with Shannon Keating’s idea that Halsey has begun to “tone down” her sexuality: there was never a time in her mainstream career when it was “toned up”. One of Keating’s examples that Halsey is falling into line with a heteronormative industry is that after her video for Ghost which featured a same-sex love affair, “none have [since] featured a same-sex pairing.” Take a moment now and watch that music video. On the one hand it is good that non-heterosexual sex is made visible here, as this is so rare in visual media generally, but let’s think about how this lesbian scene is presented.
The video begins with a whispered Japanese voice – seeing as vevo, the channel carrying the video, is largely marketed to European and North American audiences, this seems less like an attempt to de-centre western culture and more like a gimmick the make the video feel exotic and alien. The video then features the two girls kissing and caressing in a sort of nowhere zone where sirens and neon lights flicker around them. Finally, much of the video hinges on the emotional poignancy of the girls repeatedly meeting up and parting again, and ends with Halsey looking sad and alone. Everything about the video is supposed to be alienating and strange, and the same-sex pairing is thus staged as something exotic, ephemeral and far too fragile for the real world. For Keating to say that Halsey toned down her sexuality after this is misleading; the music industry has only ever presented Halsey’s sexuality on its own terms: as a niche performance, a quirky counterpoint to the almost ubiquitous conformity elsewhere in mainstream pop.
Perhaps Buzzfeed made a false idol of Halsey on the assumption that by being famous and bisexual she has a responsibility to use her sexuality to an ideological end. If she ever did that (which I have argued above that she hasn’t) it seems excessive to criticise her when she fails to perform her sexuality whenever the spotlight falls upon her. We all have a responsibility to tackle heteronormativity wherever we see it, but is it fair to expect queer artists to take on the heteronormativity of an entire industry whilst at the same time that industry is packaging and selling a problematic representation of their sexuality? So what do we do here? How do we get out of this mess?
In the 1960s and 70s in San Francisco Harvey Milk and his group of gay rights activists would boycott business on the Castro which were not openly welcome to the LGBTQ community. Such was the LGBTQ presence on the Castro that eventually the non-gay-friendly shops went out of business. We as a society need to make the music industry realise that it is dependent upon its millions of queer contributors and consumers. Pop stages, on its own terms, a spectral simulacrum of queerness. If we want to change that, we need to say “fuck you” to an industry that doesn’t offer accurate representations anyway. Why do we who want change keep consuming something that doesn’t speak to us? So this isn’t a call to try to convince the music industry to change its heteronormativity, this is a call to convince ourselves that we need to radically change the music industry altogether, even if that means bringing it the point of collapse.