“In the last quarter of the twentieth century,” writes Bonnie Morris in The Disappearing L: Erasure of Lesbian Spaces and Culture, “the surest way to meet other lesbians — outside of bars and softball tournaments — was to attend a women’s music concert.” Music recorded by lesbians for lesbians was an integral force for lesbian community-building in the 1970s and ’80s as women’s record labels like Olivia as well as festivals and concerts became a way for women all over the country to find each other. The music was political, undeniably sapphic, and pro-female — the kind of stuff the male-dominated record industry wouldn’t touch. Morris writes:
“In the same way that rock and roll changed the American landscape forever and launched a youth revolution with a recognizable set of values, fashions and products, radical feminist culture created an art form— a central and commodified pro-lesbian experience that newly out women could plan, schedule, attend, purchase, savor, and bring home to replay over and over.”
Women’s music, Morris recalls, created a culture of “accessible celebrities at a time when almost no other performers or politicians were out” —women like Cris Williamson, Mary Watkins and Meg Christian. Although not central to the zeitgeist as they once were, women’s music festivals featuring artists from the movement’s heyday continue throughout the country, and many of Olivia’s former recording artists now perform on its vacations.
Over the past two decades, more and more lesbian musicians have managed to attract mainstream attention, too. Not very many! But some. It was musicians k.d Lang and Melissa Etheridge, after all, who became some of the first-ever well-known lesbian celebrities.
Indie acoustic and folk-rock has been a consistent source of lesbian voices since the Women’s Music Era, but out lesbian artists are thriving in other genres these days, too. For my generation, Tegan and Sara have long been a flashpoint of connection and their concerts a guaranteed way to run into at least one of your exes. Melissa Etheridge achieved mainstream success within rock music despite being an out lesbian, and Tegan & Sara eventually did the same with music now often described as “pop.” (And now they’re using their increased platform to advocate for LGBT Women and Girls.) Mary Lambert became a household name after she developed the hook for Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s “Same Love,” which went triple-platinum and earned two Grammy nominations. After her single “Secrets” debuted at No.1 on the Billboard Dance Charts, Lambert left Capitol Records and crowdfunded through kickstarter to release her latest EP.
Now, Hayley Kiyoko, a 27-year-old actress/musician, has been breaking records as the first-ever out lesbian pop star signed to a major record label who produces multiple music videos in which she herself appears in sexual or romantic situations with other women. Her 2015 video “Girls Like Girls” has nearly 90 million views on YouTube and her 2018 album ‘Expectations” debuted at #12 on the US Billboard 200. She’s changing the g-ddamn game. In hip-hop, Syd was “already an out lesbian when her career launched” (although she didn’t always like that word specifically) and her tracks often address relationships with women. Rapper Young MA officially came out as a lesbian to Fader in early 2017, talks about her sexuality in her music, and this year applied her talents to directing lesbian porn.
Anyhow, lesbians in music is obviously an expansive topic I could write five books on, so let’s get to the playlist! It’s primarily contemporary artists, along with some noted classics. It’s a real journey with no cohesion besides sexual orientation so you know, it’s kind of like going to a lesbian bar in that way.