From YMCA to Bloom: charting the evolution of the gay anthem

As Pride celebrations kick off around the UK, we track how pop has reflected four decades of social change

Three iconic gay anthems turn 40 this year: Sylvester’s You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real), Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive and the Village People’s YMCA. Although these songs are ancient in pop terms, their tropes continue to play out in 2018. The 2009 book Queer by Simon Gage, Lisa Richards and Howard Wilmot lists 10 thematic criteria for gay anthems: “a big-voiced diva”, “overcoming hardship in love”, “you are not alone”, “throw your cares away”, “hard-won self-esteem”, “unashamed sexuality”, “search for acceptance”, “torch song for the world-weary”, “love conquers all” and “no apologies”. But as Pride parades in London, Brighton and beyond get ready to pump out the classics, and acceptance of LGBTQ+ people is higher than ever, is it time to think bigger?

Gay pop can now, like never before, be both mainstream and sexy: Troye Sivan’s Bloom is a thinly veiled description of losing his virginity, beginning with the playground chant of “Take a trip into my garden / I’ve got so much to show you” before the chorus has him repeat, intoning hard on every tough snare beat: “I bloom, I bloom, just for you”. Compare that with Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy, an 80s gay anthem all about having to escape oppression.

Janelle Monáe’s Make Me Feel, meanwhile, is a bisexual update of Prince’s Kiss, with a central refrain – “That’s just the way you make me feel / So real, so good, so fuckin’ real” – paying homage to Sylvester’s earlier gay anthem. And snarling the line “You don’t have to be straight with me / I know what’s under your mask”, Years & Years’ Sanctify is based on the tantalising push-pull of sex with a professed straight man. Using interviews to co-sign fans’ interpretations of the lyrics, all three acts have cemented these songs’ status as gay anthems.

Occupying more experimental territory, the cult queer artist Ssion’s album O goes darker. A spoken-word skit from Róisín Murphy – “And let’s just kill some time at the club / While we wait for the world to end” – may be a recognition of Trump-era politics. It leads into 1980-99, a Robyn-style alt-pop song in which Sky Ferreira moans: “Do you love me like I’m already dead?” It is reminiscent of gay icon Lana Del Rey’s morbid attitude, and post-Aids crisis gay anthems past that spoke about death: Janet Jackson’s Together Again, TLC’s Waterfalls, Pet Shop Boys’ Being Boring, George Michael’s Jesus to a Child.

Or could it just be the more playful use of the word death: when something is so good it makes you just “die”? Sivan certainly deploys this in his song My My My!, exclaiming “I die every night with you!” In an era in which HIV doesn’t have to be a death sentence, death can mean something new to the LGBTQ+ community.

But not always. No Tears Left to Cry, Ariana Grande’s first release since 2017, repeats “I’m lovin’, I’m livin’, I’m pickin’ it up”, as if narrating her return to bubblegum pop about overcoming emotional obstacles. This constant principle of her work, along with her vocal support for her gay brother Frankie, had established her as a gay favourite long before the Manchester Arena bombing. Yet with tragedy a relatable theme for LGBTQ+ people – who were among the hundreds affected in May 2017 – and Grande performing Judy Garland’s Somewhere Over the Rainbow at the subsequent One Love charity concert, she acquired gay icon status.

Ssion’s Heaven Is My Thing Again, recalling two gay icons in Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, suggests good gays can go to heaven – “Just take, take, take me away / I wanna go to heaven” (a line first delivered on their 2004 breakthrough Heaven) – while Years & Years’ Sanctify ascribes gay sex a holiness: “Sanctify the love that you crave / Oh and I won’t, and I won’t, and I won’t be ashamed.”

Back on Earth, Kesha’s similarly religious Praying strikes a more sombre tone, ticking Queer’s “hard-won self-esteem” and “torch song for the world-weary” boxes, a defiant riposte to the producer Dr Luke, who she alleged physically, verbally and sexually abused her (he denies all the allegations). Though it was released in 2017, Praying continues to tell a story in 2018, as Dr Luke’s new protege Kim Petras is heralded by the international gay press as “your new favourite popstar”, and supports Sivan on tour. Seemingly Petras’s trans identity – which she prefers not to mention, despite her trans fanbase – is enough of a story of hard-won self-esteem to forgive her involvement with the producer.

So with more permissiveness than ever around LGBTQ+ performers, are gay and straight pop cultures, like our clubbing scenes, blending into one? Rita Ora, who came out as bisexual in interviews promoting Girls, a peppy collaboration with Bebe Rexha, Charli XCX and Cardi B, was criticised by queer artists including Hayley Kiyoko and Kehlani for imbuing a song about sapphic intentions with the line “and yeah last night, well we got with a dude”. Was Ora straight-washing lesbian experience, or simply reflecting her experience of bisexuality? A more nuanced interpretation of this could come, the argument goes, from Monáe’s album Dirty Computer or Christine and the Queens’ Girlfriend, which looks at what happens when a woman adopts masculine bravado and sexual assertiveness: “I muscled in for I wanted to hold him.”

But who said gay anthems can’t still be daft, misleading fun? LGBTQ+ people withstand enough pain in their everyday lives. And if there is still space for the gloriously silly and catchy YMCA, or MNEK’s current gay anthem Tongue, a song about being dizzily in love containing the ludicrous middle eight “Tippy two, tippy tea, tippy ta-ta-tongue!”, then perhaps there should be space for Rita Ora yelling “sometimes I just wanna kiss girls” too.


Sophie Wilkinson

The GuardianTramp

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