Whether your local gay bar is a nightclub, low-key watering hole, or arts hub, it probably has the same soundtrack. Music at queer establishments usually consists of Top 40 hits by the sorts of non-threatening, “apolitical” artists who are affectionately called “divas.”
“It’s always a cis, straight woman who panders to gay people. That’s just what’s popular,” says Patrick Buckmaster, who throws some of Portland’s most infamous and outlandish LGBTQ parties.
Leaving aside a much larger discussion about the erasure of the POC and LGBTQ community from techno and what would eventually become EDM, why is bubblegum pop the defining sound of most gay bars? Why don’t we, the LGBTQ community, support and promote LGBTQ artists in our spaces?
Lady Simon, a Brooklyn club kid and DJ, thinks nostalgia is a factor. “I grew up with Britney and Christina; there was overt sexuality, there was feminism,” says Simon. “It’s catchy! It’s a team of producers that know how to write a beat that’s easy to dance to.”
And with gay people essentially forced underground for the majority of human history, women singing passionately about unrequited love became a proxy for unfulfilled gay desire. For generations of LGBTQ music fans turned clubgoers, pop music provided communal catharsis.
“There’s also this age-old thing of little young queer boys and their girl best friends — they understand each other,” Simon adds. “It just sticks with you. I feel safe with pretty blonde girls singing to me about boys, because I also like boys! That’s easier and safer than a radical queer singing, like, ‘Drone Bomb Me.’ That’s much scarier.”
Of course, queer and so-called mainstream cultures are constantly evolving. One of many contradictions in our current political climate is how there is now greater representation of sexual minorities in popular culture at the exact same time our civil liberties are being dismantled.
Unfortunately, streaming Lil Nas X all day doesn’t mean straight or LGBTQ music fans are any more accepting of sexual minorities. In my own experience as a DJ, bar owners and managers of nearly ever gay establishment I’ve worked at have asked me to play less music by queer artists. Instead, I’m told to stick to Top 40 or pop classics (and, more recently, ’90s throwbacks).
Distressingly, these requests are more emphatic when it comes to gay artists of color. Racial discrimination in nightlife has a long, terrible history, says DJ Tennessee, a New York City nightlife staple. “I got suspended at Limelight back in 1992 for playing ‘too much of that rap.’ I wish nightclubbers were more open-minded,” he says. “I could tell stories that will either curl your hair. So much has changed — and yet sometimes it seems so little has changed.”
“I have heard horror stories from DJ friends where the management said they were playing too much ‘black’ music, which is such a disgusting statement,” Coleslaw, a Boston-based drag queen and DJ, adds.
Because of this kind of pressure, I’ve personally found queer-friendly straight bars — usually goth and punk establishments — are more open to newer, diverse, and experimental sounds than many avowedly queer venues.
Lady Simon agrees, saying: “I have spooky and cool parties where I do them at straight bars. But when I play at [gay bars in Williamsburg, Brooklyn], people are not happy — ’cause I try to play queer people or queer-adjacent people. Or even just music by women of color. If it’s a basic white crowd they are not having it if it’s not Britney.”
Buckmaster barely plays Portland gay bars any more for this reason, noting that, at most gay bars, “people don’t want to be uncomfortable, they want to hear what they already know.”
And from a purely financial standpoint, it’s always much safer for any bar to play music that is going to fill dance floors and keep crowds spending.
“Our job as DJs is to make the bar money,” says GLAM-award winning DJ J Clef. On a typical night, J Clef says, “I would play as many queer artists as I can get away with, and I can get away with that way easier at a hip hop night. It’s hard to get anybody to respond to anything that they don’t know the words to … I usually get the Top 40 memo before I walk in the club.”
Sometimes, there’s assimilationist logic at work — as in, why can’t we just listen to what everyone else is listening to? “Gay people are so caught up in wanting to be just like everybody else,” says Buckmaster. “A lot of people just want to blend in and fly under the radar. A part of me can’t blame them.”
J Clef, agrees, noting that many gay clubbers grew up listening to pop music. “It’s just like Disney. This is what made them feel normal,” J Clef says. “Everyone knows who these artists are and a great deal of private money has been put into creating their significance.”
“It’s marketing! Actual gay people aren’t being marketed in the same way those pop stars are,” adds DJ Ten Yards, a Brooklyn-based DJ and clothing designer. Ten Yards, who typically books two or three events a month, believes he’d get more work if he just played generic chart-toppers.
Complicating things further is the recent surge of mostly-well-meaning straight women at gay bars — some of whom are simply searching for spaces in which they feel safe. The music at these facilities is then adjusted to appease this new clientele, who are sometimes jokingly referred to as “the bachelorette party crowd.” But “straight women these days are the most supportive,” says Buckmaster. “They’re the people that are tipping the most. It’s a double-edged sword.”
Will Sheridan, a Brooklyn-based rapper and DJ who has curated queer parties featuring live music for over a decade, believes the goal should always be entertainment and inclusion. “You have to remember that going to a bar is an escape,” he says. “We have to cater to our 9-to-5ers who don’t live in nightlife. They just want to relax; they don’t have an agenda to support queer artists.”
“We have been marginalized for so long, A lot of gays, because we’re so fierce, we feel we have to fight the world,” Sheridan adds. “Now that we are on a level where there’s a good group of performers in New York and around the world, we deserve that platform.”
Do queer DJs and queer businesses have a responsibility to play music by gay people?
Yes, says Paul V., a Los Angeles DJ who’s been spinning since 1981. “Though it’s much easier today for openly gay artists like Adam Lambert, Beth Ditto, or Troye Sivan to break through in a big way, they are still up against a different kind of resistance that a straight artist would never go through.”
DJ Fiona Trapple in Orlando, Fla., says he’s never faced pushback from bar owners for playing music by LGBTQ artists. Moreover, he believes that if you want to play a compelling set, there’s no way not to include gay people.
“A good DJ who understands the diverse spectrum of music is sure to include queer artists in [their] repertoire because queer artists have been on the cutting edge of art and culture since day one,” Fiona Trapple says. “You’d have to consciously go out of your way to exclude them. I can’t even think of a situation in which you could spin a straights-only set and have it be good. But my first concern as a DJ is to get bodies moving.”
Moving forward, that is. “I think we need to push the envelope a little harder than we have been,” J Clef says. “We can’t erase ourselves in our own spaces. That just doesn’t make any sense.”