What is 'Queer Music'?: Reflections From Cyberspace & The DJ Booth
by Juniper McBurnie (AKA JUNIPR)
In this article, the author, a 29 year old DJ, music producer and bisexual transgender woman working in Brighton, reflects on the debated term 'queer music' and how its various meanings have manifested in her own musical and personal experiences. Her discussion is accompanied by personal definitions from various members of the local queer community, and a recorded DJ set.
Popular music is incredibly diverse. The queer community is incredibly diverse. It is understandable, then, that definitions of 'queer music' vary as much as they do. Some use the term in broad reference to musics which are popular within the LGBTQ+ community. Some use it to refer to works specifically and exclusively by LGBTQ+ artists. Some use it to refer to works which communicate or encode queer experiences regardless of the artist's identity. Even the necessity of the term is debated; some queer artists and listeners see the term as a useful tool to find each other in a digitised world of algorithmic discovery and Search Engine Optimization, while others see it as a self-imposed othering which detracts from the universality of music.
I first discovered the term in my early twenties, when I was deep into the cassette culture and lo-fi recordings I found through Bandcamp's 'queercore' search tag. Queercore itself is a diverse genre that encompasses queer works by punk, post-punk and folk artists, but it was specifically artists from the UK DIY scene which spoke to me most deeply. Artists like Jesus & His Judgemental Father, The Spook School, and Crywank expressed the angst and hopelessness of my then invisibly queer existence with a raw relevance and dry truth that few US bands had done for me.
That I found resonance with these bands as someone from the UK makes me wonder about the function of 'queer music' as an identifier based on cultural connotation rather than sound; there is no 'UKcore' or 'Brightoncore', but as a cross-genre term, there doesn't need to be. Spotify, Bandcamp, SoundCloud and social media sites all allow some variation of search by geographic location, so how would the use of a genre tag make accessing these artists' works easier? Conversely, if these platforms introduced the data protection nightmare of including the status of artists' queer identities as searchable metadata, would there be any need for 'queer music' as an identifier? Maybe not, but they don't, so there is.
Meanwhile across town, away from the live instrumentation and eternal discourse of Brighton's queer punk scene, lie the glittered, sweaty, amyl nitrite soaked dancefloors of the city's LGBTQ+ club nights and venues that I've come to love so dearly. I've only been working as a DJ professionally since nightclubs reopened post-lockdown, but in that short time I have witnessed firsthand a number of ways in which music is valued in these queer spaces. In my residency at Brighton's biggest (and frankly best) LGBTQ+ nightclub Club Revenge, I've noticed a loose correlation in how music preferences shift with the variation in identities of partygoers. For example, the requests I receive on Saturday nights typically consist of songs which are currently popular in the mainstream; gay anthems; and commercial dance-pop hits from the 2000s and 2010s. Naturally, Saturday night crowds are a wide demographic, including those aged 25+ who tend work a nine-to-five in the week (what a way to make a living!) and those who are visiting Brighton from other parts of the country for the weekend. Conversely, student nights on Thursdays naturally draw a younger crowd who tend to request 'slutty' R&B anthems; less well-known pop; meme-famous TikTok sounds; and abrasive glitchy dance bangers. Thursday crowds might respond rapturously to songs like 'Daddy AF' by Slayyyter (2019); 'Material Girl' by Saucy Santana (2020); or 'Immaterial' by SOPHIE (2018), while the same audio played on a Saturday might largely be met with confusion or alienation. Saturday crowds might go wild for 'Love At First Sight' by Kylie Minogue (2002); 'Fight For This Love' by Cheryl (2009); or 'Saturday Night' by Whigfield (1994), while some members of a younger crowd might cringe deeply at the thought of being seen enjoying these tracks.
So, if we take the definition of 'queer music' to mean "music that is enjoyed by the queer community" then the works included become so broad, and opinions of them so contradictory, that the term becomes redundant. This leaves us with musics that express queer sentiment and those created by LGBTQ+ artists. It would be criminal to write an article on queer music and not mention house music, itself mythically named for LGBTQ+ friendly Chicago nightclub The Warehouse where Frankie Knuckles and others pioneered its sound. Before, while, and after the more commercial sounds of house came to accompany Love Island, boohooMAN adverts and other tools of cisgender heterosexual hegemony, it was, is, and ever shall be a deeply queer genre, not only in its heritage but in the spaces of queer social expression it is used to create.
In recent years, as both a music listener and in my own artistic production practice, I have found deep satisfaction and queer connection in the loosely defined microgenres of experimental pop collectively described as hyperpop. The online nature of the communities which create it has led to an explosion in its popularity as people stayed indoors in 2020 and 2021, to the point that in some circles 'queer pop' and 'hyperpop' have become synonymous.
There are a disproportionately large number of trans and non-binary artists within the hyperpop movement when compared to other genres, and it shows in the sonics of the music. I don't know how else to put this, but the raw abrasion of the sound design in SOPHIE's 'Faceshopping' (2018) sounds like how it feels to have facial dysphoria. The soothing reverberation of Arca's 'Estrogen' (2021) sounds like the deep seated relief of feeling your body change over time under the effects of hormone replacement therapy. The music itself is transgender. It is other; abrasive, jarring, sometimes uncomfortable and sometimes strangely attractive to those unfamiliar with it in a way that echoes deeply in my own experiences of how I am perceived by the world.
Ultimately, I'm of the opinion that 'queer music' is best used as a means of queer audiences identifying music that they might relate to, but if any music is queer by nature, this is it:
(Article continues below)
[00:00 - 01:31] SOPHIE - Faceshopping
[01:31 - 03:39] Petal Supply / Umru / Himera / trndytrndy - 1
[03:39 - 04:37] Vascha - Mother Xen
[04:37 - 07:34] Danny L Harle - Broken Flowers
[07:34 - 09:54] SOPHIE - BIPP (JUNIPR’s Kick Edit)
[09:54 - 12:00] Lulu Be. - Gimme Dat
[12:00 - 14:57] Doss - Look
[14:57 - 17:17] Moksi / Lil Debbie - So Fly (Green Ketchup Remix)
[17:17 - 18:43] Cobrah - GOOEY FLUID GIRLS
[18:43 - 21:50] Zebra Katz / Herve - Tear Up The House
[21:50 - 24:11] JUNIPR - HEAD EMPTY NO THOUGHTS (Unreleased)
[24:11 - 25:28] diana starshine / galen tipton / saturnvalley / Estle - You Right
[25:28 - 27:27] Oh Boy / Ninjarirachi - viBrAtE
[27:27 - 29:35] Arca - Electra Rex
[29:35 - 31:22] TNGHT - Brick Figures
[31:22 - 33:00] Alice Longyu Gao - Rich Bitch Juice
[33:00 - 34:46] Charli XCX - pink diamond
[34:46 - 36:40] 100 Gecs - hand crushed by mallet
[36:40 - 39:26] A. G. Cook / Cecile Believe - Show Me What
[39:26 - 40:46] Dorian Electra / ElyOtto - Barbie Boy (ElyOtto Remix)
[40:46 - 43:38] Slayyyter - Throatzillaaa
[43:38 - 45:09] Dreeks - Blue Icarus
[45:09 - 48:43] Iglooghost - New Vectors
...but mine is just one opinion. To widen this conversation, I reached out to a number of partygoers, DJs, producers and drag artists from within the Brighton queer scene to ask for their thoughts on the term. Their answers follow below.
Thanks to everyone who responded, and thanks to you for reading.
What does the term ‘queer music’ mean to you?
Fi, 35, bisexual:
"Queer music means freedom; Freedom from genre or assigned roles in society-this could be in regards to musicality, uncensored lyrics or a blurring of gender. Throughout history queer people have been the initiators of cutting edge, boundary breaking pop music and hopefully, retrospectively and going forward we will get the respect we deserve."
Billy, 19, transgender lesbian:
"As a queer musician myself, I think queer music, in its simplest form, is music that the queer/LGBTQIA+ community can relate to in some way whether it’s through queer-themed lyrics, queer band members, et cetera."
Anubis, age unspecified, bisexual/non-binary.
"Queer Music to me is about liberation. It’s about expression. And it’s about making a connection with the artist/listener."
Alex, 36, cis male shirt lifter:
"To me, Queer music means tracks that are either created by members of the LGBTQIA+ plus community or that have a certain resonance with these people. Also, in the way that superhero films are often seen as an allegory for life as a queer person, despite often being very heteronormative, because they tell the story of life as a repressed outsider, there are certain lyrical or thematic features that the 'alphabet mafia' feel a connection to in music. So Adele, on the surface of it is a working class white girl who appeals to middle England's housewives and culturally conservative media brands... but because she writes about heartache and rejection in her lyrical mainstay, there is a queer connection present. This, in my opinion makes her 'queer' in the moment that she releases or performs 'Set Fire To The Rain', for example.”
Eddie, 25, gay non binary person:
"Queer music to me is hard to describe as I use music to get through my life and it easier. So for me to like songs they would inherently have a queer undertone"
Pasha, 18, non-binary lesbian:
"Queer music to me is more than just something you listen to in a gay bar or dance to at a club. It’s been there for me when I didn’t understand my sexuality and gender identity, when I wasn’t surrounded by fellow queer people, and when I had no one to turn to who understood the journey I was going on. Queer music is important as it offers comfort to those who need it most and I’m so grateful to artists who tell their story, and create with others in mind, as I would not be who I am today without them."
Teddy, 21, nonbinary lesbian:
"To me, queer music is a very esoteric thing. Cis-het people tend to find the distortion and chaos of my favourite music very abrasive, but that’s the point of it, in a way. Queer music communicates to LGBT+ audiences and straight audiences, not used to things not being catered directly to them, are often turned off by overtly queer lyrics, in my opinion. Queer music conveys a social rebellion that makes straight audiences uncomfortable unless their allyship is dedicated”
Ludlow, 24, gay:
"Queer music to me is something that us as LGBT people should feel happy and relaxed enjoying what they like! Feeling free of discrimination in the music you like as well as supporting our fellow queer artists. Queer music isn’t one thing but a whole movement and something that connects with queer people in many ways as well. Also something that brings us all together.”
Rosa, 24, bisexual non-binary trans woman:
"To me, queer music is music that has been made by a queer person or queer people to express, either explicitly or abstractly, some aspect of the queer experience."
Otis, 27, gay man:
"Queer music to me has become such a broad term now that you need to compartmentalise and talk about sub-genres and mini-movements etc now. I think queer music can range from Queen and Elton to hardcore hyperpop and everything in between. Queer music to me is about expression, coming to terms with yourself and sharing that experience with an audience who might grow with you through listening. I remember seeing an Insta story the other day saying how it’s interesting what the queer community ends up adopting as our club anthems. Sometimes they’re literally nothing to do with being queer but we all just go crazy for them. In short, queer music can be kind, compassionate, explorative, difficult, abrasive, confusing but most importantly, accepting. I think it’s also very important to allow us to tap into that feeling of an ever widening queer community. A big musical hug to all of us who’ve been outcast, bullied or not accepted."
Alik, 25, non-binary drifting to non-Binary femme:
"Queer music to me means any genre of music that is created by queer people or centred around queer life or queer centric problems or experiences. A lot of the time I associate it with electronic music as my first experiences with queer music started with SOPHIE, however now having lived in the queer scene in Brighton I have been exposed to many other genres of queer music and many different types of queer people. To be honest I say you can’t really define queer music into genres or categories just like most queer people we want to exist outside stereotypes and categories. And queer music defiantly breaks those walls down and makes you question what you think music is, just like how queer life makes you question what you were told about gender and sexuality!"
Emily, age unspecified, pansexual:
"The words 'queer music' mean community to me. It opens doors to queer nightlife spaces and lets you connect with other people with the same interests. Queer music can also provide a soundtrack to the lives of queer people. Certain queer songs and artists represent a lot to me, they remind of finding myself and shared beautiful memories with friends in spaces where we’ve felt safe and connected to those around us."
Georgie, 21, gay/non binary:
"Queer music doesn’t necessarily have a specific sound to me but more of a culture surrounding it. It’s the people who make it and the fans who collectively listen to it. A community in my opinion such as the queer community are always going to be supportive of queer artists and because of this no matter what genre the music lies within you find yourself enjoying it as it’s relatable to you in some way."
Szymon, 20, non-binary asexual:
"When I hear the phrase 'queer music' in 2022 I think of innovative and conceptual genre-less music. Bold, vibrant visuals tend to go hand in hand with that as well. Artists like Dorian Electra, Ashnikko and Lil Nas X are perfect examples of this."
Bertie, 25, queer:
"The label ‘queer’, to me, is a paradox; it means a rejection of conventional labels of sexuality and gender expression, whilst itself being a label. I think this contradiction carries itself into the queer music genre, for me queer music often rejects traditional genre brackets and standard ‘rules’ in music production and performance, instead artists who fall under this very vague and hazy category tend to rebel and push boundaries with their art. I think this non-standard approach is exciting and a fresh perspective in comparison to the ‘copy and paste’ style production of current commercial music."
Sofia, 19, nonbinary lesbian:
"As a songwriter, queer music[s] for me are the songs I make for a younger version of myself. It’s all the music I wish was there, wish I’d been exposed to in my formative years. It tells the full scope of the queer experience. Yes, the hard parts but also all the queer joy we share through our music."
Cat, 20, pansexual woman:
"Queer music to me is an amalgamation of all types of genres of music! Although, when someone asks me what queer music means, my mind does instantly go to hyper pop! Although, in the wlw [women who love women] communities, I know Girl in Red, Taylor Swift, Lana del Ray, Clairo are all very popular and don’t necessarily come under that category. To me, queer music is made popular or written by queer icons who have done good for the LGBT+ community, for example Queen and Freddie Mercury’s contribution to AIDS awareness."