Last month, Taylor Swift released “You Need To Calm Down,” a single she’s marketing as a queer anthem. Though Swift may have good intentions with this song, she’s been criticized for taking up space in a conversation in which she doesn’t quite belong. It’s bold of Swift, a straight, white cisgender woman, to claim to have the last word in a fight for justice that’s historically been fought by primarily queer and trans women of color. The song’s simple lyrics have also been scrutinized for a lack of depth and nuance, leading some to call “You Need To Calm Down” a cop-out.
Though Swift has lately been straying from her country-western roots, the release of “You Need To Calm Down” has sparked a question for me about the place of queerness in country music. The genre hasn’t historically been associated with queerness or allyship, but that’s not to say that the crossover doesn’t exist. The following artists show proof that queerness has been beautifully represented in country music before and still is.
Made up of Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, the Indigo Girls have been writing country music about their experiences as women, as Atlantans and as lesbians since 1985. In “It’s Alright,” a song from their 1997 album Shaming of the Sun, they sing, “It’s alright if you hate that way / Hate me cause I’m different, hate me cause I’m gay / Truth of the matter’ll come around one day / It’s alright.” Still active today, the Indigo Girls have become icons for many queer people for their honest and eloquent songwriting. At a concert at the Mountain Winery last month, the duo played an unreleased single about feeling left out of the country music narrative as lesbians, with the chorus: “I want to be that boy / I want to be that girl / I want to know what it’s like to fall in love like the rest of the world.” To many, the Indigo Girls’ music is filling that gap of queer representation in country music.
Kacey Musgraves rose to worldwide fame last year with her Grammy Award-winning album Golden Hour, but it’s her 2013 song “Follow Your Arrow” that put her on the map for many LGBTQ+ folks. The song’s lyrics are quite progressive for such a country-to-the-core album. It’s about ignoring conservative norms and living life fully and freely, with standout lyrics such as, “Make lots of noise / Kiss lots of boys / Or kiss lots of girls / If that’s something you’re into.” What’s nice about Musgraves’ allyship is that it doesn’t pretend to be more than it is. She makes simple and sweet music for simply everybody.
Brandi Carlile is a folk/country artist and lesbian whose success is inspiring to many LGBTQ+ fans. Her most recent album, By the Way, I Forgive You, is a stunning letter to the religious community in which she was raised, which shunned her for being gay from a young age. The album features several songs that resonate with queer people for their beautiful and honest lyrics. “The Mother,” a love song written for her daughter, details the hardships of building a family as a same-sex couple. “The Joke,” which was nominated for four Grammy Awards in 2019, encourages young people in the LGBTQ+ community to stay strong amid oppression: “Let them laugh while they can … I have been to the movies / I have seen how it ends / and the joke’s on them.” Carlile wrote “I Belong to You” — one of the most loving and romantic songs I’ve ever heard — about her wife, Catherine Shepherd.
Lil Nas X
Though Lil Nas X’s song “Old Town Road” is somewhat of a meme for its almost satirical lyrics and the Billy Ray Cyrus feature on its remix, it boldly breaks stereotypes and pushes the envelope on inclusivity in the music industry. For a lot of people, country music symbolizes white conservatism, but Lil Nas X, who came out as gay on Twitter last week, is disrupting that norm. He’s a gay Black man with a country song that’s been sitting at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart for a staggering 14 weeks. While its lyrics aren’t particularly powerful, “Old Town Road” is nevertheless important. It’s is helping change the face of country music to a much more inclusive one.
A drag queen country music star was unheard of before Trixie Mattel took the stage. Having released two albums, Two Birds and One Stone, Mattel stays true to the folk music roots she established while growing up in Wisconsin. Drag isn’t exactly the type of style that’s generally associated with country music. Mattel represents a costumed version of what country music used to stand for in America: blond, light-skinned and adhering to traditional beauty standards. She breaks down these so-called requirements and makes some great music in the process.
Taylor Swift’s newest single may have disappointed many, but the success of these artists is reassuring. Ray, Saliers, Musgraves, Carlile, Lil Nas X and Mattel are inherently activists: With their music, they’re creating space for queer people in a genre that previously excluded them. With each song, these artists are breaking barriers and contributing to the growing inclusivity of country music.
Contact Margo Salah at [email protected].