Rina Sawayama
Photo: Cover of Rina Sawayama's LP 'Sawayama'

Does Gay Fandom Help Pop Divas?

Looking at Rina Sawayama, Azealia Banks, Charli XCX, and Kim Petras’ rise and fall in the charts one wonders – does gay fandom help pop divas’ careers?

These fucking trash ass cokehead white bitches sniffing fucking poppers and doing whatever the fucking gays say: sucking gay dick; riding gay dick — just riding gay dick. For fucking what, ho? For what, ho? These annoying ass, thirsty ass gays. Why y’all so annoying and thirsty all the time? Can you just do my hair, girl? Do my hair and do my makeup and pick all my clothes and stop trying to get on my nerves all the time!

– Azealia Banks

So goes a lesser-known proverb by the pop culture shaman Azealia Banks, who eight years ago built her early-career momentum on the strength of bouncy hip-house music indebted to the ballroom vogue scene of New York City. Once canonized by the earnestly cool and funny documentary about the New York drag scene, Paris Is Burning (Jennie Livingston, 1999) later scrapped for parts across the more 9questionable RuPaul’s Drag Race franchise, the playful and insistent sound of vogue music once seemed viable for mainstream success. At one time, the hype swirling around Banks’ 1991 EP and subsequent Fantasea mixtape – both centered on vogue-inflected hip-hop – made her a legitimate contender for the throne Nicki Minaj occupied with ease for years; or, with the context of our current female rap landscape, might’ve cleared an equally lucrative lane of her own à la Megan Thee Stallion.

Things panned out differently. After spending the peak of her mainstream exposure scrapping with other up-and-comers and potential producers alike, she surprise-released her debut album Broke With Expensive Taste in 2014 to acclaim from fans and critics, but the charts were lukewarm. The album peaked at #30 on the Billboard 200 and failed to chart a single. 

And yet, despite the cruel fates that Banks’ peers at the time were doomed to meet (Angel Haze’s debut Dirty Gold failed to move even 1,000 copies upon its release), we’re still talking about Azealia. Of course, it’s not always about her music. Her most recent peak of attention revolved around a truly bizarre stay at Elon Musk’s house that culminated in Banks telling Grimes that she smelled “like a roll of nickels“. But it’s not not about the music either. You’d be hard-pressed to find gossip blog coverage of one of her infamous Instagram-story rants that didn’t have a “she still slaps though” response in the replies. And though Broke With Expensive Taste moved only 31,000 copies by April 2015, it’s managed to achieve some major longevity, clocking in over 100 million streams on Spotify alone. 

In subsequent years, a thesis emerged about Azealia’s continued success despite practically zero radio play and no major-label backing. In 2018, as Azealia promoted her non-album singles “Anna Wintour” and “Treasure Island” she made an appearance on The Breakfast Club wherein Charlemagne charged her with the crime of “making music for gays”. 

Without missing a beat, she replied, “I do. What’s wrong with that?”

A heavy silence filled the room as Charlemagne squirmed. “There’s nothing wrong with it.” 

More silence. Then Azealia delivers one of those patented lines: “So… what now?” As the hosts frantically try to dispel the awkwardness with fumbling apologia, Azealia cuts through the noise: “Well, I make music for me.

The “making music for gays” allegation has haunted Azealia’s career. Ultimately, there is something undeniably gay about pretty much any Azealia Banks song – her flows on “Van Vogue” and “Miss Amor” share long strands of DNA with a vogue emcee’s chant and her lyrics emphasize a type of flirty female sexuality that has always drawn gay male crowds. As an online personality, she’s paid lip service to gay male audiences in a major way, going so far as to sell a line of lightening-and-tightening bar soap designed for the male asshole called Bussy Boy. It’s undeniable that gay male fandom has kept her career operations afloat to some extent, but ironically, Banks is also labeled homophobic regularly for routine comments in the vein of the Riding Gay Dick Monologues. In that instance, the “trash ass cokehead white bitches” in question were PC Music pioneer Charli XCX and controversial pop starlet Kim Petras but the phenomenon she was referring to reaches far beyond these women. 

Female pop stars catering directly to a gay male audience, a rather has always existed in some capacity – think Madonna’s “Vogue” or Kylie Minogue’s gay icon status in the UK – but its role in the contemporary pop landscape has mutated. Gone are the days of women with high-powered record deals who happened to share a taste for the feminine and decadent with gay men. Instead, several feasible pop careers hinge on the continued interest of practically only gay men. These are little cottage industries where women deliberately appeal to a certain gay sensibility to build hype (as gay men are particularly dutiful fans) and attempt (so far fruitlessly) to break free from pigeonholing and cross over into the not-particularly-gay mainstream. 

Part of this shift can be credited to the ever-decreasing mainstream interest in conventional pop music. With radio shifting almost entirely to rap, or at least rap and R&B-inspired cuts (in the vein of Ariana Grande and Billie Eilish), true pop records have compellingly become more indie operations. Glitzy disco, R&B, or clubby dance tracks that would’ve dominated the radio only a few years ago are now being churned out by singers without major label deals at all to little (if any) chart success while maintaining massive social media presence due to extremely vocal and vigilant (almost uniformly gay) “stans”.

That’s the other part: the creation of an extremely overestimated “gay market” – an audience appealed to by invoking the look, sound, and attitude of pop music’s last heyday – the early 2010’s moment when freewheeling female sexuality and gonzo club music dominated radio and the charts. This was a time when Post Malone would create mild Soundcloud waves in the shadow of Rihanna’s “S&M” or Britney Spears’ “Womanizer”. Now that the tables have turned, and most of the pop music of the aughts and ’10s still dominate gay clubs despite nearly a decade of newer offerings, these styles of music have been labeled by the culture as the niche interest of gay men– or in some cases, “queer” people in whatever capacity. 

Azealia’s rant holds a dystopian view of the gay market – that women and their art, regardless of their sexuality, are being defined by their relationship to gay men to the point that they might never be able to break out of it. Their music will forever be labeled as Music For Gays in a cultural climate that doesn’t reward it. Though it seems fairly obvious that her words were motivated by her frustrations about the trajectory of her career, is there a kernel of truth to the idea that in 2020, a female artist whose music is associated with queers can rot her career from the inside?