Why are queer pop artists so obsessed with religion?
On the first line of his song The Thrill of It All, Sam Smith addresses God and religion.
“Holy Father,” Sam sings softly over a mournful piano, “we need to talk.”
The track, HIM, is one of his more arresting songs. It’s not so much a love song as it is a striking rebuttal against intolerance, religious conservativism and homophobia.
For an artist known for his lamenting ballads, HIM is defiant and subversive. Sam uses southern gospel traditions and religious imagery to make one point: queer love isn’t a sin and queers aren’t sinners. The double inflection of the lyrics in the chorus, “Don’t you try and tell me that God doesn’t care for us/ It is him I love, it is him I love”, play with devotion, equating same-sex love to the love of God. It’s a brave move for an artist often criticised by gay men and especially from one of the world’s biggest artists.
Yet Sam Smith’s religious interest hasn’t happened in isolation. Over the last few years, queer artists have overtly been using Christian religious imagery, music and spirituality in their work. Mainstream pop artists like Years & Years, Troye Sivan and MUNA have played with reverence on songs like Foundation, Worship, Heaven, My My My and I Know a Place.
All of these songs either elevate gay sex and desire in divine terms or use religious imagery to explore their queerness.
More recently, Years & Years took us to church (again) with their 2018 release, Sanctify.
It’s not just a pop phenomenon. More alternative artists like Perfume Genius, St. Vincent, Shae Diamond, Nakhane and serpentwithfeet are also playing with religion in terms of their own queerness.
Still, it seems odd for queer pop artists, arguably one of the most secular spheres in society, to be exploring Christian religion. It’s not exactly a secret that LGBTQ+ people haven’t necessarily been supported by mainstream religions.
Musicians exploring religion in their music is nothing new
Nadine Hubbs is a Professor of Women’s Studies and Music at University of Michigan College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. She says that actually this practice has deep roots. One artist she believes rummaged through religious music, specifically gospel, was Elton John.
“His songwriting, very often in the 70s and 80s really, was a translation of black gospel from the States,” Nadine says.
“In Elton I hear heavy influence of gospel in the chords, the syncopation, in the voicing of the chords. This is very distinctive in gospel.”
She calls to mind “Candle in the Wind” and how, when that song was written, John was still in the closet.
“Here he was doing 20th Century gay male genuflection toward a glamorous female icon. In this case one who was glamorous and tragic,” she explains.
“He was really showing her a lot of love and respect and identifying with her in a way that fit the moment. It wasn’t blatantly gay, but it was telegraphing meaningful queerness to those who had ears to hear it.”
While not specifically a gay artist, one music video that Hubbs and Doris Leibetseder, a researcher at Centre for Gender Research of Uppsala University in Sweden, cite is Hozier’s Take Me To Church.
Straight artists are exploring LGBTQ+ sexuality and religion in their work too
The video matches the song’s lyrics, which are filled with kink and religious imagery (a queering in its own right). But it also adds a tragic story of gay love and homophobia. It’s a strong and devastating piece of work that both argue exemplifies not only queer coding but also a response, in part, to continuing queer oppression.
“Religious imagery makes the persecution of queers so much more poignant and dramatic in the Hozier video,” Hubbs says.
“The thing that might also make it interesting in the current moment is that there’s an eroticisation of secrecy that past queers knew very well.
“We think now of secrecy as only bad and something that we must cast off. And yet these pop songs take us back to that, not just secrecy but eroticising secrecy, finding sexiness in the coding of queer meanings. That’s what combining the queer with religiosity gets us.”
The loss of queer specific spaces is pandemic and, as Leibetseder puts it: “There’s a feeling of real threat and of LGBTQ people being attacked. Just look at what’s going on in Russia”.
Pop music is the new religion
Leibetseder is not wrong. Over the last year in the US, the murder of gay and bisexual identifying men has increased 400%. Violence against transgender people, especially trans people of colour, is occurring at a record pace. Spirituality and religious imagery in pop music can be binding, creating a community among LGBTQ people when the community appears fractured.
In fact, Leibetseder argues that queer pop is the new religion.
“Being a queer pop star or musician you are also speaking to your own queer community,” she opines.
“You have a connection to the queer audience and you have to find your own queer audience and speak to them.
“The scholar Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick talked about queer recognition, or queer sympathy. This is what happens when you read a queer author and you recognise yourself in it.
“I think the same is happening with queer songs — people are recognising their own lives and therefore building a community around the pop artist.”
The internet’s ability to connect has helped create communities. ‘Gay Twitter’, as it’s known, and pop music Twitter allow fans to dissect, discuss and stan their favourite artists in relative safety.
‘Gay Twitter’ is one of the places LGBTQ people go to worship
Hubbs compares the gay celebration on Twitter to what happened in discos in the 70s and 80s. She says they were a site of “gay ritual and consecration.”
“What was worshipped at the disco was gay beauty, pleasure involving drugs, dancing, sex and bodies,” she explains.
“It was also where the hierarchies of earthly life, the humiliations and absence of freedom, are reversed in a heavenly way.
“Those who are powerful out in the straight world may be beggars here. If you think of rich old men in the disco, they may worship the young, perhaps poor, beautiful dancers. Disco is a place with huge deep, long and continuing persistent resonances with queer spirituality.”
Certainly, songs that celebrate gay sexuality and exalt queerness to the spiritual help with this shift of an otherwise seemingly heteronormative arena.
A song like Shea Diamond’s I Am Her take this further, equating the trans and queer narrative to that of Jesus as she defiantly declares a top a southern gospel tinged track: “There’s an outcast in everybody’s life/ And I am her.”
How queer artists have responded to religion
These subversions are important, not only in the queer use of religious symbolism and music, but in how queer artists respond to religion.
For South African artist Nakhane, his music isn’t just a subversion of religious music but a mimicry of its divinity. Nakhane, now 30 years old, spent much of his 20s as a poster boy for conservative Christianity in South Africa.
He formerly spoke about how religion had helped cure him of his queerness.
On his latest album, You Will Not Die, he addresses breaking away from the church with music that’s steeped, musically at least, with religiosity.
“[The hymn] Abide with Me was written by a guy who was about to die. It’s a devotional and it’s written during his last hour,” Nakane says.
“There’s something quite urgent about it and there’s no fucking around. I remember thinking about why people particularly find that music lifesaving. It’s because the people who wrote it really meant it. So when it came to making this particular album, which is very steeped in that music — I said as a joke that it was gospel music for the fallen — I wanted to jump off that feeling of ‘this is all I have’.”
Nakhane is keen, however, to point out that on a song such as Presbyteria there’s a deliberate subversion of the conservativism in Christian religion.
“It was a queering of, in the academic sense, gospel music,” he explains. “And maybe not even gospel music, but sacred Christian music in all it’s different genres. It was me inserting myself in there.”
Queer pop is a religion we can finally believe in
Clearly, the utilisation of Christianity and religion is nothing new in terms of queer artistic practice. But queer spaces become smaller and LGBTQ lives continue to be threatened. Queer identity is increasingly mainstreamed. So our rush to create our own communities and subvert societal expectations is still strong. As Hubbs says, queer pop music is helping us create our own religion. And it’s one we can finally believe in.
Hubbs also argues it’s great to be accepted by the straight mainstream world. But there’s no reason that queer people can’t explore that and put their own spin on it. That has been our tradition for centuries. Christo-centric stories, imagery and music are as much ours as they are straight.
Like Sam Smith puts it on “HIM”, queer loves and lives aren’t a sin.