Carly Rae Jepsen and the Queerification of Pop

We've come a long, long way since Katy Perry's accidental girl-kissing...

Feature by Hannah Williams | 26 Aug 2016

It’s 2008, and, writhing on a baby pink satin bedspread, a cat sitting on her lap – a cartoonish, heavy lidded wink to the audience – Katy Perry is introduced from the sole of her high heels, the camera panning up before settling on the gold ‘Katy’ pendant resting on her cleavage. The opening images of the video are typical late-noughties video fare; shots of legs in stockings, disembodied butts, all female, all white.

The video wasn’t particularly notable even when it was released, yet nevertheless it drew in millions of views. The content of Perry’s lyrics is the crux upon which the visuals rest. “This was never the way I planned / Not my intention” is the opening line of I Kissed a Girl, and the precedent is set. Nobody plans to kiss girls, Perry implies. Perish the thought.

The video and the song are a depressing masterclass in the heterosexual gaze, an outlook that dictates female sexuality should serve men’s sexual interests. The song even mentions a boyfriend, a quick aside hoping that he “don’t mind it”, as if it would be ridiculous if he did; as if kissing someone of the same sex could ever be a real threat. Rather than an account of female sexual exploration, or bisexuality, or queerness, the song focuses on how the act is shocking, deviant, but ultimately throwaway and without consequence. The song is the tenth best-selling single of the 21st century.

Eight years later, and while the mainstream pop scene is still largely hetero- and gender-normative, filled with tired stereotypes and outdated depictions, in many ways the landscape is radically different. The rise of social media is obviously a huge factor in this, and it’s hard to imagine I Kissed a Girl provoking as little ire today as it did back then. The increasing popularity of Twitter and Tumblr enable them to function as outlets for complaints about representation, platforms upon which the powerful can be, even in some small way, held to account. As LGBTQIA people become more visible, wider culture begins to sit up and take notice of them. And they have.

Gay people have always, of course, had a close and complex relationship with pop music, whether that’s demonstrated through fandoms and support, or the appropriation of gay subcultures (in particular, the subcultures belonging to gay PoC). But the sea change is evident in the way mainstream acts have moved from being content only to court a queer audience, to openly representing them in their lyrics and videos. A discourse has been started, one where queer female fans feel able to recognise themselves in liner notes, to scrutinise videos for nods towards same sex relationships.

Of all of today’s pop stars, it’s Carly Rae Jepsen who seems to elicit such excitement from queer fans. Around the release of Jepsen’s second album, E.MO.TION, Jia Tolentino wrote an article for Jezebel entitled Carly Rae Jepsen's 'Boy Problems' Is a Beautiful Gay Song of Discovery. Read straight (pun intentional) the song is a lament to losing your best friend, but it’s the privileging of another women over a heterosexual relationship that enables queer listeners to identify, to analyse the song as a narrative of sexual discovery. It’s the repeated chorus – “I think I broke up with my boyfriend today / And I don't really care” – that serves as a refusal to follow male-centred relationship narratives we constantly see espoused in popular media.  

This sense is only furthered by the accompanying video for the track, directed by Petra Collins, known for her pastel-hued, dreamy take on female adolescence, girl gangs, and queerness. It’s a clear sign; Jepsen’s target is a particular kind of teenage girl, one less concerned with seeing repeated motifs of heterosexuality, and more with depictions of female relationships. In a much gif-ed moment, Carly decides to stop moping over a boy in her room and go dancing with her friends, one of whom she locks eyes with and dances towards. It’s a small moment, but it’s an important one; intentional or not, this small gesture seems imbued with sexual tension, an invitation to interpret this video as a queer story.  

Jepsen’s vision of queerness is simultaneously nostalgia-tinged and firmly situated in 2016, a glimpse of female relationships filtered through stretched out pink bubble gum, but isn’t the only version of queerness that present-day pop has to offer us. Beyoncé’s Formation, in addition to being a depiction of blackness rarely seen in mainstream pop culture, presents us with an altogether different form of queerness from the biggest popstar in the world.

As Danielle Moodie-Mills details in her piece Bey's 'Lemonade' Celebrates Unapologetic Black Queer Love, even the visual aesthetic of the Formation video is informed by black, queer traditions, from the young black boy vogueing in the mirror to the influence of New Orleans bounce culture. Indeed, by sampling gay and genderqueer artists such as the Queen of Bounce, Big Freedia, and using the repeated refrain of "I slay..." (a usage coined by LGBTQ PoC) Beyoncé intertwines the voices of queer women of colour into the song’s narrative and into the national consciousness.

That Formation was performed at the Super Bowl Halftime Show demonstrates the interlinked nature of queer identities into mainstream pop culture. The rest of the short film for Lemonade also features a black lesbian couple, holding hands and softly twirling into each other; relaxed, smiling, intimate in that quiet way people in love have. The scene isn’t shown for a particularly long time, but it’s important. Not showy or sexualised, it’s just a sweet, honest depiction of a queer female couple.

If both Jepsen and Beyoncé’s inclusion of queer identities are achieved in subtle ways – gently inferring, nudging open spaces for queer voices and interpretations – Shura’s vision is more forthright. The 25-year old has created one of 2016’s most critically acclaimed albums, signed to a major label, and been long-listed for the BBC Sound of 2015. She’s also openly gay, and her self-directed video for Touch features a variety of queer couples making out, slowly and tenderly and lovingly, to the strains of her minimalist synth-pop. It’s been viewed 26 million times.

It’s a direct riposte to the heterosexual gaze; at the beginning Shura and a man briefly move towards each other, only for them to immediately pull apart, him then in an embrace with a man. There’s no othering, no centring on the straight experience; the song itself, she revealed in an interview with The Guardian, is about her feelings for an ex-girlfriend. There’s no queer subtext in Shura’s music; it is the text.

It’s not that the last eight years have suddenly made the mainstream pop landscape hospitable to queer people. Pop stars still sing using neutral or opposite-gendered pronouns, women kissing women is still used as shorthand for out-of-control sexuality, actual portrayals of queer women are still sorely lacking. But where lyrics and visuals once used female queerness as a tool to titillate straight men, we’re now slowly reclaiming our ground, being heard, being seen. We’re being represented, on our own terms.