Love, and feelings of any kind really, have always existed very close to the surface for me. They tend to be the main force in my life, something I find reflected in music. Piercing emotions are what drive a tune — what music was created as an outlet for. This is why, one night recently, something about girl in red’s music struck me, and began to bother me. It felt synthetic, made like a puzzle piece to fit a waiting niche of consumers. And then I looked around and realized, it wasn’t just her. There was a whole movement.
As a pansexual woman, it’s really great to see more representation for women-loving-women (wlw) in mainstream media, especially in danceable songs. But I must admit, I have a love-hate relationship with what I’ve started to refer to as “plastic lesbian pop.” This is pretty much what it sounds like: indie pop female artists who often sing romantically about other women in a way that feels monetized — and, as such, inauthentic — such as Clairo, King Princess, girl in red and Hayley Kiyoko.
On the one hand, I’ve always been a huge fan of natural LGBQ+ representation such as the songs of these artists where the love itself is the focus, not as much the struggle of being gay (although, of course, that’s vital to see represented too), as this normalizes the LGBQ+ experience. These songs don’t scream “I’m gay,” but say it slowly and steadily, without any sort of nervous rush, telling us that the song is about a woman in the same casual tone that they would use were it about a man. This simple teenage pop tells an easy, gay love story — maybe just a highly-edited version of one.
However, a lot of the time it feels like the record executives said to themselves: “Oh, the kids think it’s cool to be gay? Ok, let’s give them that and make lots of money off of them.” As such, a lot of this wlw music feels disingenuous, like it was made to capitalize off of peoples’ love, hypocritically monetizing that which, not too many years ago, a lot of people struggled to accept. So, while I am really pleased to see parts of the LGBTQ+ community be accepted and normalized by being put into the mainstream, I hold a place for anger against this music and its rote, churned-out feeling.
Overall, I struggle with the fact that capitalism turns representation into a much more formulaic thing. When listening to this music, it makes me question if there is a way for the gay experience to exist widely and successfully in media without feeling like a tool being used for profit — like a box to be checked off or like there are defined pathways for how to be gay.
Boiling it down to just one way of existing as a queer person, as this plastic lesbian pop does, spoonfeeds this gayness to the rest of a world in a way that does not break its boundaries, and thus does not allow for full expression and representation. This pop lesbian aesthetic is a clearly marked path on how to be a cool wlw that still fits into straight people’s comfort zones. This is accentuated by the fact that this aesthetic is very present on TikTok, where the app and its users assign it a designated place in the gayness of things. Artists such as Clairo have also been taken over by “straight” TikTok, with not a lot of care being paid to the sapphic lyrics.
The emotional vulnerability seems manufactured, the gay experience exploited; not by these artists, necessarily, but by the capitalist culture that consumes their work. It is important to note that the creators of the music themselves are gay, and are sharing their experiences and profiting from this as well. However, part of this trend of boppy, formulaically representative music is that straight people easily absorb this pop media without paying attention to the struggle it took for these gay artists to get here, and will move on to the next trend when this one is over.
Trends are the essence of pop culture, so it is inevitable that anything that is part of it will eventually pass. The lesbian/bisexual woman identity, bursting onto the scene in this particular manner, seems to follow these hallmarks of a social media event, enshrined on TikTok, that will eventually fade into the next craze. However, the straight relationship has existed as a trusty constant through pop culture. Why can’t the LGBTQ+ identity exist in the same way?
What it comes down to is that this music is widespread enough to almost be a genre. It is one of the few gay experiences widely accepted — one sung in somewhat generic chords, by attractive, mostly white young women — and does not capture the full wonder of the LGBTQ+ community. The beauty of the community lies in the fact that there is no one way to define “queer” — queer arises as a blanket term because there are so many different sexualities and gender identities that each individual interacts with in their own way and on their own terms. For some, it is a central part of their identity, something they feel compelled to discuss, or else they feel they are not being true to themselves. For some, it is a casual, factual part of life that they will only bring up if asked. For some, it is a hidden, denied portion of themselves.
It is difficult to give an exact answer to my aforementioned question of how to properly represent the gay identity in the mainstream in a way that doesn’t feel boxed in. This is because an opinion coming from just one person could never have a hope of answering for all members of the LGBTQ+ community. Sometimes, it is more important that these questions are asked than answered, so that more people may consider them. The beauty of the LGBTQ+ community is that there are so many different voices and experiences to be celebrated and felt. This plastic lesbian pop reduces the community down to a single kind of voice, one seraphic and sapphic, sure, but one kind all the same. This allows straight people to comfortably feel as though this makes for enough representation, and proceed to wash their hands of the matter. If a gay person complains, this music becomes just another example they can point to, giving the LGBTQ+ community another token.
While writing this, my thought process ran into many different walls, making me turn back around and reconsider constantly. I think this attitude of consistently considering and asking questions is important in matters of representation; new voices emerge all the time from all different kinds of identities, and to give one answer to all of these would never work. This plastic lesbian pop is a gift in that it makes me celebrate how far representation has come because this is popular at all, yet also makes me think about how much further it has to go. After all, there is time, when thinking critically about music such as this, to smile at the joy and inclusion it does inspire with its documentation of lesbian relationships, and dance a little.
Daily Arts Writer Rosa Sofia Kaminski can be reached at email@example.com.