Phoebe Bridgers, Troye Sivan, Lil Nas X: How LGBTQ pop stars are thriving like never before

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LGBTQ pop stars are thriving like never before.

Indie pop darling Phoebe Bridgers, who has been vocal about her bisexuality, was commended for her fierce individuality when she was honored with the Trailblazer Award at the Billboard Women in Music Awards Wednesday.

"I feel very lucky to be surrounded by people who allow me to do whatever I want," Bridgers said on the red carpet.

The Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter is also taking that unapologetic artistry on the road with her "Reunion" tour, which is set to kick off in Phoenix in April.

Sawyer Fredericks, who stole the hearts of millions when he won the eighth season of "The Voice" in 2015, scored a personal victory when he unapologetically came out as bisexual to fans on social media early last month. "I’ll probably lose some fans over this post, but that’s fine with me," Fredericks captioned the Feb. 1 Instagram post.

Bridgers and Fredericks are not alone in embracing their queerness as public figures. Rapper and singer Lil Nas X scored a No. 1 single with a song whose music video features him giving Satan a lap dance; Troye Sivan donned a dress at last year's Met Gala; and major pop stars like Sam Smith and Demi Lovato have both come out as nonbinary in recent years.

However, while such bold visibility may seem like the norm in 2022, it's a far cry from pop music's recent history.

Boy George in 1986, left, and Lil Nas X performing at the 2021 BET Awards.
Boy George in 1986, left, and Lil Nas X performing at the 2021 BET Awards.

Boy George, lead singer of the '80s pop group Culture Club, playfully dodged questions about his sexuality in interviews or conceded he was bisexual, although he would later come out as gay; an arrest for committing a “lewd act” in a public park would prompt singer George Michael to declare his sexuality in 1998; former NSYNC member Lance Bass refrained from coming out as gay during the pop group's early aughts run for fear of jeopardizing the band’s career; and “American Idol” alum Adam Lambert was dropped from a major morning talk show in 2009 after an awards show performance drew backlash over his same-sex kiss.

So, what’s changed between then and now? The advent of social media, the visibility of LGBTQ trailblazers, and cultural change are some of the factors accounting for this vibrant wave of queer pop stardom.

More: 'It was hot': Adam Lambert praises Lil Nas X kiss, compares moment to his 2009 performance

Social media created two-way conversations

Before he was a platinum-selling pop star, Sivan found notoriety as a YouTuber, posting quirky comedy skits and musical covers online to millions of viewers. Sivan also used the platform to open up about his sexuality. In August 2013, Sivan uploaded a video titled “Coming Out,” in which he came out to his fans — a full two years before he released his debut album “Blue Neighborhood.”

“I feel like a lot of you guys are real, genuine friends of mine,” Sivan said to his audience at the time. “I share every aspect of my life with the internet, and whether or not that’s a good thing, I don’t know, but this is not something that I’m ashamed of and it’s not something that anyone should have to be ashamed of.”

Myles McNutt, associate professor of communication and theatre arts at Old Dominion University, says the open-ended nature of social media has given LGBTQ artists the ability to organically develop fanbases centered on the expression of their authentic selves.

“We’re seeing more artists being more comfortable expressing that part of themselves because they have access to platforms where (their identity) is more valued and less marginalized than the traditional industry standards that are there, opening up a new form of representation in the process,” McNutt tells USA TODAY.

Electropop singer Hayley Kiyoko, affectionately referred to by fans as Lesbian Jesus, came out with the release of her single “Girls Like Girls” in 2015. The song’s music video, which tells the coming-of-age story of two girls realizing their romantic feelings for one another, went viral and marked a turning point in Kiyoko’s self-perception as a burgeoning public figure.

“People told me how much they related to it,” Kiyoko told Paper Magazine in 2018. “I was shocked at how people weren't judging me. I was ready to be judged, and I was ready to be labeled.

“That was a moment for me where I was like, I can be myself and people are OK with that.”

More: Troye Sivan, Hayley Kiyoko are the unabashedly gay pop stars we need right now

Jeremy Blacklow, director of entertainment media at GLAAD, says the sense of connection facilitated by technology has expanded LGBTQ representation, which helps bring “the queer world together" and creates "more opportunities for queer people to see themselves and to find community.”

Walking a blazed trail

But these advances in representation have been a long time coming.

Blacklow notes the level of visibility seen in today’s pop music landscape among LGBTQ artists is the result of “decades of hard work from queer forbearers in the music industry and the visibility of queer people in all forms of media over many decades.”

He says in previous eras of pop music, “queer coded-ness,” as seen in the gender-bending aesthetics of artists like David Bowie, Annie Lennox and Boy George provided a subtle form of queer representation to the genre.

“I think if you were queer and you saw Boy George in the early Culture Club videos, you would recognize that as a fellow queer person, even though he wasn’t saying, ‘I’m an out and proud gay man’ (in the media at the time),” says Blacklow.

Karen Tongson, professor of gender and sexuality studies at the University of Southern California, says the current generation of LGBTQ pop stars echoes a legacy of artists, including Bowie, Prince and rock pioneer Little Richard, who incorporated queer aesthetics into their work.

“Stylistically, these artists are evocative of artists who always played with gender binaries, who implied, intuited and maybe even projected queer sexuality,” she says.

A changing culture

What role has mainstream society played in this sea change of queer representation?

Tongson says there has been a broader cultural shift "where people are interested in exploring identities that are not ‘normal,’ mainstream, basic.”

Rapper Bad Bunny typifies this exploration. The Grammy-winning reggaeton star has incorporated androgyny into his presentation as an artist, sporting acrylic nails on the cover of Playboy magazine and even wearing full drag in his music video for “Yo Perrero Sola.”

“There’s nothing worse than being somewhere and feeling like you don’t belong,” the Latin trap emcee told Playboy in 2020. “I’ve been trying to make sure everybody feels part of the culture of reggaeton. I want to make sure they feel that they have someone there, that friend that can stand up for them.”

Pop singer Harry Styles is another famous face who's played around with norms of gender and sexuality. When Styles appeared on the cover of Vogue in November 2020 – the first man to ever be featured on the American fashion bible's cover – he wore a black blazer over a light blue dress.

“Clothes are there to have fun with and experiment with and play with” Styles told the fashion outlet at the time. “What’s really exciting is that all of these lines are just kind of crumbling away. When you take away, ‘There’s clothes for men and there’s clothes for women,’ once you remove any barriers, obviously you open up the arena in which you can play.”

Styles has taken his experimentation with gender nonconformity a step further with the launch of his beauty brand Pleasing, which features a nail polish line. He joins a growing number of male celebs embracing the cosmetics realm: Machine Gun Kelly, rapper Lil Yachty and Backstreet Boy AJ McLean have also launched nail polish lines.

“It’s less about a story of necessarily political progress but more a story about how we relate to different styles and different aesthetics over the course of time and when we feel more daring in that regard,” Tongson says.

Visibility doesn't equal equality

Still, media representation and record contracts are not a cure-all for achieving deeper societal progress for the LGBTQ community. Tongson says systemic issues, such as a lack of diversity, are still present within the infrastructure of the industries supporting LGBTQ artists.

“We can say all we want about ... acceptance from a broader culture, but the people who run the music industry still are often the same people who run every industry, and that’s cis(gender) white men,” Tongson says.

McNutt says increased representation only scratches the surface of remedying the inequalities that have excluded queer people from the mainstream.

“It’s chipping away as part of that broader social progression," McNutt says. "But ultimately, it doesn’t solve marginalization. It simply is a tool by which marginalized individuals can help to push back against that in a meaningful way.”

More: Lil Nas X, 'Yellowjackets,' 'Eternals,' and more receive 2022 GLAAD Media Award nominations

But on an individual level, the growing prominence of LGBTQ artists can give a sense of belonging to those who need it most.

“As more pop stars or musicians of any genre come out and are more visible, that’s going to lead to greater acceptance overall,” Blacklow says. “It’s going to let LGBTQ people who are figuring out their own identities feel more comfortable and like there’s a world that’s out there for them, waiting and welcoming them with open arms.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Phoebe Bridgers, Lil Nas X: LGBTQ pop stars are making a bold impact