Queer Artists Who Shaped Music History

In celebration of Pride Month, this playlist pays tribute to the queer roots of genres ranging from classical to electronic dance music to hip-hop.

June 12, 2023

If this playlist seems like an abbreviated history of popular music from the last 200 years, that's because it is.

Looking closely at musical trends, it’s not hard to find a queer artist at the forefront, even if many of those artists had to hide vital aspects of their sexual and/or gender identities. While we live in a time in which queerness is far more present in the cultural consciousness (with still quite a long way to go), the queerness of numerous artists throughout history has often been harder to substantiate definitively. The artistic impact, however, is unmistakable.

Queerness by nature is not easy to define. In fact, that may be a feature, not a bug. As the poet Brandon Wint has described it, “Queer like, escaping definition…. Queer like the fearlessness to imagine what love can look like…and pursue it.” Given that fearlessness and imagination are essential attributes of any artist, it’s not surprising that queer artists, for whom fear and fearlessness are daily facts of existing, have given the world such gifts of imagination.

As we celebrate Pride Month, take a listen to the following playlist, and hear a small sampling of the wealth of musical contributions from the queer community.

Track List and Notes

1. Piotyr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893), The Nutracker Op. 71: Miniature Overture

Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, The 1812 Overture (that one with the cannons)—these are things that are widely known about Tchaikovsky, one of the foremost composers of the Romantic Period. What is lesser known, in part due to efforts to downplay or censor this aspect of his life, is that Tchaikovsky was gay—something historians and biographers have traced in the Russian composer’s own diaries and letters.

2. Ma Rainey (1886–1939), "Prove It on Me Blues"

Widely referred to as the “Mother of the Blues,” Ma Rainey was a radical and dynamic voice at the forefront of blues music as it moved through vaudeville and Southern traditions, and went on to influence musicians from Louis Armstrong to Janis Joplin, among countless others. With a bold voice came a bold lifestyle that found Rainey unafraid to sing about her same-sex attraction, as she did in the song “Prove It on Me Blues,” which contains lyrics such as, “Went out last night with a crowd of my friends. They must've been women, 'cause I don't like no men.”

3. Gary Burton (1943–present), "Blue Comedy (Live)"

Beyond being a jazz innovator for over seven decades, Gary Burton '62 is one of the most accomplished vibraphonists in the history of his instrument. A leading pioneer of fusion jazz, he also developed what is now called the Burton grip—a method for vibraphone that uses four mallets instead of the standard two. Burton came out publicly in a 1994 Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross, nearly three decades into a career in a genre historically dominated by straight men. A beloved educator, Burton attended Berklee as a student in the early ‘60s, and returned as a faculty member in 1974, teaching for over 30 years.

4. Pauline Oliveros (1932–2016), "Grains"

As one of the few women—let alone queer people—to gain notoriety in the post-WWII experimental composition world (think Phillip Glass, Terry Riley, and John Cage), Pauline Oliveros defied categories in order to make music that encouraged meditative awareness, or what she called "deep listening." Blending minimalism, improvisation, and electronics, her music created a space where meditation, physical movement, and social activism could intersect. As an example, “Grains,” from her 1988 album Roots of the Moment, uses accordion and subtle electronic elements to create a spontaneous composition that emerges from, and hopefully encourages in her audience, that state of deep listening.

5. Wendy Carlos (1939–present), "Main Title (The Shining)"

Serving as a sonic bridge between musical worlds, Wendy Carlos helped popularize the use of synthesizers with the release of Switched-On Bach, an album of Bach compositions played on a Moog. The album sold millions of copies, earned three Grammys (making her the first transgender person to receive the award), and led to a rich career that included film scores for The Shining and Tron. Italian composer Giorgio Moroder cited Carlos as a major influence—an achievement that can’t be overstated, given that Moroder’s synth work would give birth to disco, which set the groundwork for house music, techno, and EDM.

6. Freddie Mercury (1946–1991), "Killer Queen"

Few icons of rock ’n’ roll loom larger than Queen’s front person and vocal powerhouse, Freddie Mercury. Like his four-octave vocal range, his whole persona felt out of this world, and his theatrical clothing style defied and expanded the tropes of the masculine rock star. Rightfully seen as a queer legend in the classic rock genre, Mercury’s life was cut tragically short in 1992 after a battle with HIV/AIDS.

7. Rob Halford (1951–present), "Raw Deal"

What Freddie Mercury did for classic rock, Judas Priest singer Rob Halford did for heavy metal (Halford even cites Mercury as a major influence). With his signature shaved head and biker leather outfits, Halford came to define the visual signifiers of the early metal scene. And while Halford did not come out as gay until 1994, there’s a wonderful irony in how his use of leather—which emerged primarily from gay clubs and the erotic art of Tom of Finland—became synonymous with a hard rock culture largely dominated by straight men performing a kind of self-conscious hypermasculinity.

8. Frankie Knuckles (1955–2014), "Your Love"

Despite being regarded as the “Godfather of House Music” by those who came out of the Chicago house music scene that began in gay dance clubs in the 1970s, mainstream awareness of DJ and remix artist Frankie Knuckles is often lacking. After the disco backlash, Knuckles was a key figure in revitalizing dance music for a wider audience for decades to come, with artists such as Whitney Houston, Kylie Minogue, and Lady Gaga making names for themselves within the aesthetic he helped create. The song “Your Love,” for example, could easily be mistaken for a song by Daft Punk, even though it came out over a decade before the French duo’s debut.

9. MikeQ (1986–present), "Ha Dub Rewerk’d"

To properly unpack the music and dance contributions of the ballroom scene, which originated in Black drag queen culture stretching as far back as the 1880s, we’d need a lot more than one playlist. For a quick primer, you needn’t look further than the sonic lineage of the song “Ha Dub Rewerk’d” by DJ MikeQ, founder of the label Qween Beat and fierce proponent of ballroom culture. The song updates “Allure Ha” by Vjuan Allure, which is itself a remix from 1999 of the original song “Ha Dance” by Masters at Work (and to make it more convoluted, “Ha Dance” is built off a sample from the problematic 1983 comedy Trading Places). The song’s evolution is an apt metaphor for ballroom’s legacy and continued evolution.

10. St. Vincent (1982–present), "Los Ageless"

In the past, Berklee alum Annie Clark ’04 (who performs as St. Vincent) has expressed discomfort with describing herself as “gay,” instead favoring gender and sexual fluidity, and seeing identity as a spectrum to be experimented with. Fluidity and experimentation are apt descriptors for the indie rock guitar virtuoso, who appears equally at home making dense experimental rock and as arena-thumping pop—the latter of which you can hear in “Los Ageless.” She’s also collaborated with a range of artists, whether providing harmonies for indie folk artist Sufjan Stevens, cowriting an album with Talking Heads singer David Byrne, or writing for Taylor Swift.

11. Big Freedia (1978–present), "Explode"

Similar to the story and impact of ballroom culture, bounce music and twerking, one of its signature dance moves, has a long history whose queer and Black roots have often been overlooked in mainstream culture. Bounce originated in New Orleans, combining elements of house music, hip-hop, and the call-and-response of Mardi Gras traditions, with queer and nonbinary artists such as Katey Red and Big Freedia at the genre’s forefront. While the scene had a cult following in the underground for years, its roots are now more widely understood thanks to Big Freedia's tireless advocacy for the genre’s contextualization, even as artists such as Beyoncé have interpolated elements of bounce into their music.

12. Ice Spice (2000–present), "Boys a Liar, pt. 2"

The youngest artist here, Bronx-based Ice Spice is a bold new voice in the drill style of hip-hop, with Billboard saying that “she falls somewhere between rising rap star and culture-shifting sensation.” In a stark contrast from where we started on this playlist, Ice Spice was not only able to come out publicly as queer, but has been free to be open about the process of figuring out her identity (in 2021, two years before coming out, she tweeted, “What’s it called when you’re attracted to masculinity in women and femininity in men”).

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