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?

Perhaps the most dubious case is that of Kim Petras, a German-born pop singer who rose to prominence following the success of her debut single “I Don’t Want It At All“, an undeniable piece of bratty synthpop. The song is produced by Dr. Luke – the man behind many of the most beloved pop hits of the 2010s – and the video features an altar to Paris Hilton (who eventually appears), a cult reality TV icon whose status among gay men has grown exponentially with the years as an avatar of a past cultural peak. Petras’ early performances were almost exclusively at gay clubs, and her subsequent tours were absolute seas of gay men. (I went to both. I promise you.) 

Surely these factors aren’t bad in of themselves – her music is in a style that’s adored by gay men, why wouldn’t they show out for her? – but by the release of 2019’s Turn Off the Light full-length, Petras had released three albums worth of material without ever charting a single and just barely expanding her market to being the most Shazammable song playing at Planet Fitness. Things seemed particularly doomed when her single “Malibu” was performed on Jimmy Kimmel Live with notable gay guy Billy Eichner as the stand-in host and had its music video premiere exclusively on – wait for it – Grindr

“Pack your bags, girls and gays!” she posted on Twitter, “The once icy queen @kimpetras is about to heat things up with a sexy trip to Malibu. Wanna come with? Hop on Grindr TONIGHT for the exclusive premiere of the Malibu music video.” 200 gay retweets followed for a woman three years into her career and a recording contract with one of the most reliable hitmakers of the last two decades. Suddenly, despite the exuberance of her music, her situation seemed grim.

More recently, she’s successfully capitalized on the cartoon sexuality of viral TikTok hits with viral tracks like “Coconuts” (“You can put them in your mouth”) but its follow-up Slut Pop EP doesn’t have a chance in hell at any meaningful mainstream crossover. But guess which clubs are most excited to hear a song with the chorus “Little dirty bitch / I like to fuck / treat me like a slut”?

In a 2019 interview with Pitchfork, Charli XCX seemed cognizant of similar pigeonholing. “Sometimes I don’t understand why I’m not bigger than I am,” she pondered, a question that’s loomed large over her nearly decade-long mainstream career. Though practically all of her projects have been showered with critical accolades for their boundary-pushing sound, her only songs to ever chart in the States are generally agreed upon as her most generic. Her only solo Top 10 hit is 2014’s “Boom Clap”, which peaked at number eight, boosted by its placement on the Fault in Our Stars soundtrack. Her only other solo Hot 100 entry at all is “Break the Rules”, a song capable of triggering H&M employees five years on.

And yet, perusing the vast bulk of her catalog reveals a major-label pop star operating on a practically unparalleled level of innovation. She’s by far the most accessible and capable vocalist associated with the PC Music collective. Her Vroom Vroom EP, as well as the vast bulk of her third LP, Charli, blows every other comparable singer out of the water. Through social media, tracks like “Click” and “Track 10” (which never charted) have achieved notable cult popularity, serving as long-lasting reference points for the caustic, noisy pop sounds that Charli XCX helped pioneer. The “cult” keeping these otherwise undocumented moments popular is online gay men.

A quick scan of the comments section on any of Charli XCX’s live performances on YouTube yields about a million variants of “gay screaming intensifies”. On footage of her 2019 Pitchfork Music Festival performance, “Imagine logging into Grindr at this concert” received 4.5K likes – and Charli herself makes at least five very specific gay cultural references throughout her set. In the buildup to “Vroom Vroom”, she shouts into the crowd: “This one’s for the gays and the Angels… if you like getting a little fucked up, if you like poppers, this is for you.” Her most beloved project Pop 2 eventually beget a mocking Poppers 2 moniker – so many gay guys liked Charli XCX that she became For The Gays.

Her most recent full-length effort How I’m Feeling Now failed to chart even in the relatively uncontested streaming market of the early months of Covid-19 in America, but its biggest single, “Claws“, maintained long-winded online notoriety due to its easily meme-able green-screen music video. A quick survey of the most popular renditions betrays its purveyors.

The trend has become so powerful as pop music has fallen from grace that some of the biggest female pop stars of the last decade have been reduced to similarly isolated business models. Katy Perry’s sixth LP Smile (2020) moved 50,000 copies its first week – her first to miss the #1 slot on Billboard in 12 years – and saw nearly a 90% sales drop in its second week. Her limited pool of gay “stans” had already gotten their copy and interest ran dry elsewhere. 

Lady Gaga’s Chromatica (2020) seemed poised to capitalize on the extreme public goodwill toward her following her A Star Is Born (2018) performance and stellar Super Bowl halftime show (2017). Instead, Chromatica’s return to the flashy music videos and clubby sound of her Born This Way days (inarguably her gayest) moved her away from public interest. After “Rain on Me” left the charts (which, importantly, featured Ariana Grande), the follow-up solo single “911” boasted a high-concept “classic Gaga” video and a high-energy Video Music Award performance, but it failed to crack the Hot 100. But gay fans loved it: the Chromatica-branded jockstrap underwear Gaga peddled on her webstore in the meantime helped the album – and Gaga herself – maintain a formidable enough online presence, the impact of the album effectively overstated by her dutiful vocal minority.

Put simply, it seems that as the language of hedonism has shifted from horny party girl pop to moody, drugged-out rap, the leaders of the old vanguard have been left behind and saddled with an audience that, however enduring, is the greatest liability for their public image. But what makes gay guys so bad anyway?

On one hand, gay men are the arbiters of popular culture. They hear about everything first and pride themselves on it, they can make somebody out of nobody practically overnight. (Another artist in Azealia’s crosshairs, Slayyyter, was almost instantly branded a pop girl du jour based on gay obsession with a 10-second clip of her song “Mine” in which she sings nothing more than “Oh me, oh my” over a house beat.) 

On the other, gay men can be the lowest of low-hanging fruit. Odd femininity – super-girly, freaky, depressive, manic, or otherwise – is almost guaranteed to immediately resonate with a significant camp of gay guys and their own funhouse mirror femininity. Of course, the problem is that a gay man’s femininity isn’t really femininity at all, but a bastardized caricature. The outlandishly sexual and the cartoonishly overemotional turns to campy sludge in the hands of a gay man. (That is to say, not particularly marketable.) As it follows, there’s a huge difference between building the foundation of one’s career on gay male fandom, versus letting them come to you on your terms and expanding your potential as a musician in the process.

Rina Sawayama is as effective a cautionary tale as any. A Japanese-born British singer, she amassed popularity for her sleek renditions on the Writing’s on the Wall-era Destiny’s Child sound – a sound much beloved by gays. But in the promotional lead-up to her debut album Sawayama, she did a bit of shameless “fag-haggian” PR. She discussed the inspiration behind one of the album’s deep cuts, “Chosen Family“, with Pitchfork:

It’s really about my queer family, just appreciating the journeys they’ve been on. I know people who have been kicked out of their house because they came out, and the song is all about accepting each other for who they are. I needed to write very authentically about that, because you can very much straight-wash the whole thing—interestingly, when I showed that song to people, they thought it was about marriage. Chosen family has been a queer concept for a long time, and it felt very special to be able to write that.

– Rina Sawayama

The song itself gives the routinely mocked “Born This Way” a run for its money in terms of female Drag Race watcher cornball lyrics: “Hand me a pen and I’ll rewrite the pain / When you’re ready, we’ll turn the page together / Open a bottle, it’s time we celebrate / Who you were, who you are / We’re one and the same, yeah, yeah”. At least “Born This Way” has some topical stakes – research has shown that it significantly primed public opinion on gay rights issues upon its release. The point of “Chosen Family” is questionable at best: coupled with production work from Danny L Harle, favorite of Charli XCX and Co., and relentless pushing of her music as “queer pop fantasy” in Gay Times, Attitude, and other famous barrel-scraping gay rags, her marketing MO becomes rather transparent.

When she finally booked a Jimmy Fallon performance of “XS“, a song anchored by glitzy ’00s pop guitars with a rawk-ish twist, the whole thing felt like a reach for something bigger than what gays fans could give her. I suppose 775,000 views in six months is nothing to sneeze at, but does it suggest the kind of gravitas that made the Beyonces and Gwen Stefanis that “XS” seeks to emulate? Or does it suggest a more modest exercise in nostalgia for a moment that, by and large, very few people are even nostalgic for?

What’s sad about the dynamic is that there essentially has never been another point at which pop music has been operating at such an insane level: weird, abrasive sounds; nasty and dark aesthetics; subversive takes on the “stupid” girl pop of yore. It’s hard to pin the blame solely on a distaste for conventional pop songwriting – the hooks at the center of a Lil Uzi song aren’t unlike those of a beloved Charli XCX cut. Many might also cry misogyny, but some of the biggest artists of the last 20 years – Lana Del Rey, Cardi B, Adele – achieved stratospheric success without pandering directly to the gay fans hype machine.

So is it possible that the failure of pop in 2021 is a failure of marketing vision? Is the quintessential female pop fan a gay man, or could they be anyone? Which image is more exciting for music and more deserving of the work a woman puts into a genre that’s only recently been freed from industry pressures and the contempt of the general public?

As long as there is interesting art or even just a fun song, gay fans will be in orbit and loving it. It stands to reason that by the Azealia Banks Theory of Riding Gay Dick, the only dignified way forward for a woman in pop is to accept the chariot of “yaas queen “s giving her lift, rather than constantly checking over her shoulder to make sure it’s there. Trust me; it is. And if she’s making music for herself – that is, for the gays – she can ride it all the way.