Before we had Hayley Kiyoko serenading pretty girls in a rotating wardrobe of cage bras and oversized shirts or Kehlani and Demi Lovato climbing on top of each other on stage, God bless them, the landscape of gay music looked a little different. The first musician or song that you felt in your heart and brain was gay was a big moment for many of us — here are the gay songs we first knew and loved.
Heather Hogan, Senior Editor
My favorite gay song is the Indigo Girls’ cover of Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet” from their iconic 1992 Rites of Passage album. Obviously the Dire Straits version is amazing; the song’s been covered a zillion times. But there is something breathtaking about Amy Ray singing it to another woman with a heart full of rage and heartache. And I dreamed your dream for you and now your dream is real — so tell me, honey: how can you look at me as if I was JUST ANOTHER ONE OF YOUR DEALS? I knew it was gay because I knew the Indigo Girls were gay. I was too scared to buy their music, of course, but my sister loooved them so I would borrow her CDs sometimes and drive around listening to them because, like Amy Ray here, I was in love with a lot of straight girls who gave me all their time and attention until Romeo came a-callin’ and they were reminded they used to have a scene with him. I listened to this song just now, 39 years old in my New York City home I share with my partner of eight years, and it was as much of a soul-stabber as it was when I was 16, Georgia backroads, windows down, scream-singing about my best friend.
Rachel Kincaid, Managing Editor
I grew up with a lot of gay women’s folk music being played, a lot of Lilith Fair vibes — my mom was a recently divorced white woman in the early 2000s, there was a lot of Indigo Girls, Melissa Etheridge, Annie Lennox and Sarah McLachlan. The crown, I think, has to go to Tracy Chapman, who is maybe the only one of that era of artists I return to now and still get something as powerful (or maybe even more so) as I did when I first heard it, rather than just nostalgia and the reminiscence of what they first meant to me (doesn’t mean I won’t still crank out a solid cry to Rites of Passage!). I don’t know that I knew in a literal sense that Chapman was gay, but I definitely stored her in that special locker in my brain for things that were intriguing in a way I couldn’t describe and would later realize was queerness. One of my first gay friends (before we knew what that meant) was an effeminate boy I had grown up with and as part of a kind of effort to normalize himself, he was on a mission to find male musical artists he liked rather than just female vocalists. At first he assumed Chapman was male based on, I guess, her voice, and when we later realized she wasn’t she held an alluring kind of gender deviance for me as a little tomboy.
Anyways the point is, “Fast Car” can and does still absolutely devastate me every time. I think I heard it first in my mother’s car — a lot of my first music memories are from the radio in my mom’s car — and I remember connecting the dots between the literal narrative of the song (I have to get out of this city, you have a car, we could make this work) to the implied one — (I’ve never had any options and this is my one shot at happiness, when I was with you was the only time I felt like I could be someone, please say yes). The vulnerability in the repression, the aching fixation on the small gesture — your arm felt nice wrapped ’round my shoulder — feels so specifically gay! She has an entire (sad! flawed!) life planned out based on your arm felt nice wrapped around my shoulder! That’s fucking gay (and like, attachment issues, which, also gay)! And something about the structure of the song makes the conclusion so tragically foregone — don’t you know as soon as you hear her ask in the first verse that it’s futile? Have any of us ever said “you gotta make a decision” to someone without knowing already, with a sinking feeling in our hearts, what their decision would be?
[Runner up is “Give Me One Reason”; honorable mention also for “Baby Can I Hold You.” Actually everything — “The Promise” is fucking me UP if we’re being honest.]
Carrie Wade, Staff Writer
“You Don’t Own Me” by Lesley Gore, which combines two of my central interests: the Brill Building sound and telling men to step off. I had no idea Lesley Gore was a lesbian when I first heard this song, but that fact only makes it better as far as I’m concerned. She literally tells the guy not to parade her around when they’re out together — a feeling very familiar to closeted teenage me, who sat through many uncomfortable dates I didn’t actually want to be on. “It’s My Party” is fine and everything, but without “You Don’t Own Me,” you’re missing the essentials.
Erin Sullivan, Staff Writer
I don’t remember the first time I heard “Closer to Fine” by the Indigo Girls, but my guess is when I was a freshman in college back in 2004 (yikes) as that is the year where I found myself surrounded by the kind of older lesbians who have fire pits on their decks. That means this song and its band were played non-ironically at parties and in cars, which was great, because everyone knows this song bangs. If you watch the video for this song, you can see Amy and Emily absolutely wailing on their guitars from the moment you press play until the moment you press replay. I mean, they are really going to town on the strumming, to a point where I don’t even think they know what song they’re supposed to be playing. Rock on, girls!
Creatrix Tiara, Staff Writer
It’s hard to narrow down anything from Savage Garden but if I had to pick one I’d say To The Moon & Back. I didn’t know Darren Hayes was gay when I first heard it (especially since he didn’t come out till like 2006) but looking back IT ALL MAKES SENSE NOW. I’ve loved this band since I was 12 and every damn song fits so well into the soundtrack of my life. To The Moon & Back in particular fit well with my lonely, not-really-connecting-to-family heart, the one that just needed somebody to really love her for who she was (especially after an extremely torturous primary school experience).
Alexis Smithers, Staff Writer
It very well could be common knowledge that Lesley Gore was a lesbian but I didn’t know for sure til I checked for this roundtable and IN MY SPIRIT I KNEW !!! I KNEW SHE HAD TO BE GAY!!!! NO ONE CAN SING A SONG LIKE THIS AND NOT BE GAY. I can’t remember when first I heard it but it reminds me of one of my favorite Rizzles fics set in the 1950s that I’m 99% sure is unfinished and that hurts but I’m holding out for a hero to come back within thirty years and wrap things up and this song constantly plays in my head when I read it. Not to mention It’s My Party? I Don’t Wanna Be A Loser? Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows?? My girl is giving all kinds of lesbian heartbreaking hits!
Sarah Sarwar, Design Director
I would play the song “Slide” by Ani DiFranco on a loop my senior year of high school and think about my straight best friend and feel SO MANY GAY FEELINGS! It’s all about those long, drawn out unrequited crushes that linger and take up space in your mind — crushes that are ultimately fucked up but you’re like “Let’s do this some more!”
She laid down in her party dress and never got up
Needless to say she missed the party
She just got sad
Then she got stuck
She was wincing like something brittle
Trying hard to bend
She was numb with the terror
Of losing her best friend
Aside from the lyrical bangers and the perfect pacing, “Slide” was just SO relatable! I really was scared of being honest about my feelings and losing my best friend! The entire song is how riding a bicycle in the rain will make you slide out of control. That’s how my unrequited crush felt. Wet… and out of control. lol. I remember I used to meaningfully belt out the lyric “And my pussy is a tractor / And this is a tractor pull” while developing photos in the darkroom! It’s how I felt!
“Slide” named my lust in a way that I could bellow in the darkness.
Alaina Monts, Staff Writer
Every time I hear “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman I flash forward to a utopic future where I and my hard-working partner have four foster kids and are hanging out on our back porch watching them play with the dogs. My only real memory attached to the song is hearing it around 12:25 and 3:25 during the lunch shifts at this restaurant where I hosted.
Valerie Anne, Staff Writer
This is extremely rude because I have a whole Songs of Sappho playlist for songs just like this and there are too many to list, so instead of going with ‘pure favorite,’ I’m going to go with one of my faves that is lesser known. Because I could tell you my favorite Hayley Kiyoko or Halsey or Be Steadwell song or that Jenny Owen Youngs’ cover of Hot in Herre gives me life but instead I’m going to tell you about Fay Wolf. I discovered Fay Wolf’s cover of I Wanna Dance with Somebody after Glee had already gayed it up and no version (except the original obviously) would ever be good enough for me, but this song came on my Discover Weekly and it was soft and slow and I just let it ride. So then when it gets about 3/4 of the way through the song and she says, “I need a man who’ll take a chance…” and then there’s this sweet little, “or” that I love so much. You can almost hear her smile a shy smile like she knows she’s about to rattle your expectations, and then sings with confidence, “I need a woman.” And rattled I was! I think it was the first explicitly bisexual song I’d ever heard. Like I’d heard songs with the pronouns changed (or not changed!) to make it a lady-lovin-ladies song, and I’d heard totally gay songs, but I liked that this queer artist took this song and not only put her own musical twist on it but put her own personal stamp on it. It was a pleasant surprise the first time I heard it, and that little “or” makes my heart skip a beat every time.
Riese Bernard, CEO
Sometimes at the end of a concert that isn’t an Indigo Girls concert, when everybody’s clapping for an encore, I will yell PLAY CLOSER TO FINE and maybe one other person — usually zero, but sometimes one — will get the joke and smile in my direction. See, The Indigo Girls always play “Closer to Fine” as their encore song, and there is no concert I love like I love an Indigo Girls concert. The Indigo Girls have been around for a minute, so the part where they play “Closer to Fine” feels like a sacred lesbian ritual we’re all participating in together. The goddesses leave the stage, we cheer and roar, raining devotionals upon them from the depths of our sapphic souls, and we call out to them, come back to us, come back, and we know they will. We know what will happen when they do. They’ll play “Closer to Fine.” But we do it just the same, because ritual. Because there is power in the ritual. The topic of the song is how we mess up over and over again, not just within lifetimes but across them, and how we wanna figure out why we do what we do or what the point of all of it is, not because we think we’re gonna get better, but ’cause we hope we might one day become, you know, fine.