As pop stars increasingly tap into queer aesthetics, our codes of recognition have been transmuted into accessories for capitalistic gain.
When Ariana Grande released the music video for “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored” in early 2019, and I first watched it in its entirety, I was excited beyond measure. Grande’s love interest was another woman, an Ariana facsimile replete with the iconic high ponytail and the recognizable sartorial choices (choker, black miniskirt). She had teased a trailer the night before that heavily featured the actor Charles Melton (a piece of millennial eye candy from the hit show Riverdale) as the ostensible object of her desire; the tension, it seemed, was that he had a girlfriend. The video in its entirety, though, reveals something different. The conceit of the song is implicitly flipped on its head, and in the final frame, explicitly so, when Grande glides up to the couple in a pool, ignores Charles, and leans in to kiss his girlfriend, and her aesthetic counterpart (the video cuts to black before their lips ever touch).
I first read this twist as galvanizing, bold, and a real thrill for me personally, as a queer person and lover of pop. Grande had recently split with Pete Davidson and seemed to be swearing off men altogether. Was this a public declaration to her fanbase (many of whom are queer) that she was exploring alternatives? It wasn’t until my partner gently suggested that I may be reading into things; that, like a huge swath of commercial popstars, Grande might be commodifying the seductive, ambiguous properties of queer desire. I returned to the video and read the comments, where her followers offered a different thesis: that the Grande lookalike wasn’t an effective emulation of a very real queer coupling habit (what my mother calls “merging”, where your style becomes one and the same) but a projection of herself, a gesture towards choosing self-love over a stupid boy. I had utterly taken the bait.
The etymological and conceptual origin of queerbaiting comes from fiction. In its earliest incarnations, film and television creators would lure queer audiences into a narrative by suggesting that characters—typically best friends who share a gender—will have a romantic relationship, but they never really go there, to ensure their biggest fanbase (the more populous but vastly inferior straights) isn’t alienated in the process. The examples are endless: Buffy and Faith (although the show would make up for this later with Willow’s coming out narrative); Xena and Gabrielle; Betty and Veronica from Riverdale; Eve and Villanelle from Killing Eve. Villanelle is explicitly queer, yes, but their relationship is egregiously teased. In the penultimate episode of season two, Eve has casual sex with a male colleague while Villanelle speaks to her via an earpiece. It should be conclusive evidence that they are sexually attracted to each other, but their warped intimacy serves a larger purpose of depicting Eve not as a woman understanding her queerness, but more broadly drifting into murky moral territory. Sandra Oh, who plays Eve, shut down any alternative: “You guys are tricky because you want to make it into something… but it just isn’t,” she said in an interview with Gay Times last June.
“I now see popstars commodifying queerness in two distinct ways: via aesthetics, as well as the more oblique method of co-opting language or ambiguous signaling, which creates room for interpretation.”
Today, it transcends fictional worlds and television screens, and seeps into our reality. More than anything, the “queer” of queerbaiting is particularly pertinent: as the mainstream has become less iconoclastic and more intrigued by the nuances of queer fluidity, our codes of recognition and understanding have been transmuted into a set of tokens and accessories for capitalistic gain. Now that pop music also doesn’t exist within a particular (top 40) vacuum, it seems fitting that popstars seem the most hellbent on wielding queer vagaries to their advantage.
Long gone are the days of salacious “I Kissed A Girl”-esque reductions. (Katy Perry even recently admitted that the lyrics to her breakout hit are problematic—“We’ve come a long way. Bisexuality wasn’t as talked about back then, or any type of fluidity”—though said nothing of her other inappropriate track, “Ur So Gay”.) I now see popstars commodifying queerness in two distinct ways: via aesthetics, as well as the more oblique method of co-opting language or ambiguous signaling, which creates room for interpretation. When it comes to aesthetics, Harry Styles is an obvious frontrunner. Elly Belle wrote extensively about the particulars of Styles’ relationship to the queer community in a Bitch Media piece last November, opining that “it’s unclear whether they’re trying to say they’re one of us or merely accepting queer fans while borrowing from the culture to fit in and create a brand.” Styles has consistently ensured that conversations around his own queerness are kept opaque, but in the lead-up to his sophomore album Fine Line (released last December), he was more flamboyant and androgynous than ever. As Styles embraced fluidity—he was also a Met Gala co-chair last year, when the theme was ‘Camp’—his scrupulous fanbase grew to include queer people. It seemed possible that one of the most commercially successful popstars was about to release a record that spoke to a more diverse group of people.
“I had been manipulated, again, into believing that queer identity was something to be nurtured and embraced, rather than exploited by people in positions of privilege.”
This might be why, when I first listened to Fine Line, it felt so severely alienating. The album is unimaginatively straight, each subsequent track another pining for Styles’ ex, the model Camille Rowe. This didn’t come as a surprise, but rather a disappointment: I had been manipulated, again, into believing that queer identity was something to be nurtured and embraced, rather than exploited by people in positions of privilege. As Belle points out, Styles exists within a muddled grey area: “it’s queer fans who get to decide if Styles’ kind of allyship and solidarity with the queer community is enough.” But when someone like Justin Bieber—an evangelical Christian, a group that raises major red flags for me—wears a pearl necklace and earrings with dyed-pink hair in the “Yummy” music video, it is clean-cut commodification.
When unmoored from the explicit performance of aesthetics, popstars channel the more intimate facets of queerness implicitly. Like the “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored” music video, messages of self-discovery and personal revelation are conveyed with easy-to-misinterpret semantics. Grande, a repeat offender, set a precedent on the track “thank u, next” that would spark a trend: “Plus I met someone else/We havin’ better discussions/I know they say I move on too fast/But this one gon’ last/’Cause her name is Ari/And I’m so good with that”, she croons. Ari is, of course, one of Grande’s nicknames, but the lyric was infamously misheard by loyal fans who thought she was dating a girl called Aubrey (Grande then alludes to the misinterpreted lyric in the “thank u, next” music video, when the actually gay popstar Troye Sivan says, “Apparently she’s dating a girl called Aubrey.”) My excitement to listen to the Billie Eilish track “wish you were gay” came to a halt when I realized the song was about an unrequited crush on a boy, and that she hoped he was gay so the rejection hurt less. Eilish is only 18, so, while I find her various appropriations of cultures that don’t belong to her discomforting, I have hope that time and experience will allow her to understand, and compensate for, this tendency. Her status as a super young but incomprehensibly famous commercial artist only highlights the pervasion of queerbaiting in the pop industry: choosing a song title that invites a queer reading is now a logical step towards reaching the top of the food chain.
“Rather than resorting to self-denigration, I’ve deduced that if queerbaiting hadn’t steadily manipulated me in the first place, I wouldn’t be so susceptible to each and every nebulous symbol and outfit and lyric.”
Dua Lipa, a steadily rising pop sensation, has always seemed aggressively queer to me, but that’s just been my own wishful thinking; it was inflamed, though, by a performance with St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark, queer icon) at the 2019 Grammys that was unapologetically erotic. “What if we sing R-E-S-P-E-C-T as a sort of fucked up dom-sub thing, like sex,” Clark said in a Rolling Stone interview about their mash-up. “The whole performance was about the six feet to six inches between us and our eyes.” I wasn’t to be blamed, then, when I interpreted one of Dua Lipa’s recent singles “Don’t Start Now”—a searing break-up banger—as an unapologetic coming out anthem. I erroneously heard the lyric, “I’m better on the other side” as “I met her on the other side”, which led me to conflating a disavowal of a straight relationship as an embracing of queerness. When I learned that she was dating Anwar Hadid (Gigi and Bella’s brother) I was not so much disappointed in her as I was in myself. Even when there was no explicit queerbaiting at play, I doggedly pursued the potential for ambiguities, and would inevitably feel disheartened in the process.
I’ve tried to own my feelings since. Rather than resorting to self-denigration, I’ve deduced that if queerbaiting hadn’t steadily manipulated me in the first place, I wouldn’t be so susceptible to each and every nebulous symbol and outfit and lyric. Coding, as a universal queer principle, is a significant and profound part of our communities. Most crucially, it is ours.