Pop Is Not A Dirty Word: Why are we sleeping on pop’s queer women?

In this week's edition of Pop Is Not A Dirty Word, columnist Douglas Greenwood ponders the careers of queer musicians who make straight-up pop instead of grandiose art-pop. Why do we expect queer women to be 'alternative'?

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of watching two women-led acts play a sell out show at Village Underground, channelling the kind of kinetic, queer pop energy that’s so glaringly absent from mainstream music. Sure, we have the brilliant alternative likes of St. Vincent, Janelle Monae and the newly reinvented Chris(tine), but when it comes to a pure pop entity – who do we have that’s truly cracking the mainstream?

The aforementioned ‘women-led’ acts (which is the kind of gross and unnecessary prefix I tend to avoid unless we’re forced to make a point of it) have been doing what they do for some time, and stand out from those ‘alt’ musicians who exist in a world where their work is discussed as art first and entertainment second. First, there’s Rebecca Lucy Taylor. A musician who absconded the indie life she led with Slow Club to start her own project Self Esteem, she calls herself “the people’s pop star”, and that’s exactly what she delivers: scathing odes to ex-lovers and women who treat lesbian flings like ‘holidays’, as well as big equal dollops of empowerment and self loathing through song. She pairs these hookish tracks with Little Mix style dance routines on stage, and is comfortable enough with her own artistic abilities to take the piss; for her London show, she rocked up wearing a dress made of Boots Advantage Cards.

Before her as support came Nimmo, a duo comprised of best mates Sarah Nimmo and Reva Gauntlett, who left their label and went it alone instead, thrown off by the unnecessary back and forths of being signed to a major. What they make should be massive: euphoric, ‘I Turn To You’ by Mel C-style bangers that pair lyrics of longing and heartbreak with dancefloor sounds. They’re immensely talented and deserve their own, bigger platforms to showcase their stuff – preferably at a gay rave where everyone is gurning so hard they’re chipping teeth.

Alongside them, we have young Hayley Kiyoko, whose status as ‘Lesbian Jesus’ has earned her a legion of online followers that are still struggling to make their impact on the charts.

In a perfect world, the gay male community who shriek so much over Troye and Olly that they help them sell out thousand-capacity venues would come out with as much ferocious support for the women, but we have a habit of focussing on the femme and flamboyant. Powerful women are fetishised, but they have to look a certain way to get the wider public fully on board. As a result, being ‘slept on’ is a sad reality for many.

That being said, Self Esteem and Nimmo’s show was a sell-out, but we need to see more of that: queer women being able to step forward as the kind of pop stars they want to be and be embraced for it, rather than shrouding themselves in a tiring and grandiose artistry to be taken seriously by the patriarchy. Thankfully, it seems the ones who are in that limbo period – like Rebecca, like Nimmo – are sort of happy there, belting out trance tracks and shimmying like Cilla in dresses made of chemist loyalty cards.