This article originally appeared on i-D UK.
2019 was expected to be the year for gay anthems. While as-yet-unfulfilled promises were made by Rihanna and Gaga for new music and a hotly anticipated collaboration between Ariana, Lana and Miley divided opinions, what was not expected was for the UK charts to be invaded by three drag queens, iconically known as The Frock Destroyers, sitting in the iTunes chart above pop icons like Selena Gomez and Lizzo.
Three weeks later and their single “Break Up (Bye Bye)” is still thriving -- last week it hit Number 35 on the Official UK Singles Chart. As The Frock Destroyers busy themselves with a UK club tour, a petition calling for them to represent the UK in Eurovision is making waves, as though the annual event could get any camper. Critically speaking, their nonsensical lyrics don’t hold a flame to Selena Gomez’s emotionally-charged ballad and, musically, even Divina DeCampo’s whistle tones pale in comparison to a collaboration between Ariana and Lizzo. But this doesn’t seem to have mattered.
The surprise success of a novelty or musically "bad" song is not revolutionary. Take Bob the Builder bagging Christmas Number 1 with “Can We Fix It?” back in 2000; the longevity of Aqua's “Barbie Girl” since 1997 or the incredibly annoying “Crazy Frog” that dads everywhere had as their ringtone throughout the early 00s. Yet what has changed is the audience, with many of 2019’s novelty songs finding success because of the LGBTQ communities backing them.
In August, Peppa Pig released My First Album, a musical ensemble produced for five-year-olds that was quickly lauded by stan twitter, who claimed it for themselves and crowned Peppa a gay icon. Thus grew the Peppanation, with account names like PEPPACRAVE and peppapig_isa_boss_bitchhh posting intricately curated content dedicated to her music and even a Peppa themed Met Gala (not a bad shout -- Anna Wintour make it happen). “I honestly can’t think of a reason NOT to stan her!” says the fan behind @i_heart_peppa_pig. “From her TV show to her beautiful music -- she’s done it all”.
Just a few months prior to Peppa gracing us with her glockenspiel skills, one of the biggest queer anthems of the year came from Miley Cyrus’s Black Mirror character Ashley O, a female pop sensation not unlike Hannah Montana who wishes she was a punk rocker but is instead forced to churn out catchy yet meaningless songs, all as fake as the highlighter pink bob wig she is made to wear.
Ashley O’s “On a Roll” was written to be the epitome of a basic bop. “I’m not the best lyricist in the world -- like the verse where she says I’m stoked on ambition and verve!” joked showrunner Charlie Brooker, who re-wrote the lyrics of Nine Inch Nails “Head Like a Hole” in “a chirpy way” to create Ashley’s hit. Yet despite the obnoxious and superficial lyrics, the song became an instant hit in the queer community, played everywhere throughout Pride and spawning an impressive number of Ashley O Halloween costumes.
“That Black Mirror episode is written with the P.O.V. that pop music is disposable and inferior,” says Nick Levine, a music, pop culture and LGBTQ writer. He points out that Ashley O is only considered a credible artist once she starts making rock music. “Charlie Brooker is a genius, but you can tell that the episode is written by a middle-aged, straight man who loves Morrissey and grew up listening to indie in the 80s.”
Breaking things down in her book, Playing It Queer, musicologist Dr Jodie Taylor argues that “disenfranchised youth opposed the mainstream sensibilities of dominant culture, which they branded ‘straight’ or ‘square’. In its place, they configured new ’authentic’ minority cultural identities… appropriating, reorganising and re-contextualising a range of stylistic artefacts”. The bubblegum pop that artists like Ashley O produce has always been underestimated and overlooked by critics and the mainstream. That same mainstream has historically ignored, and even outright excluded LGBTQ+ communities. It isn’t that far a stretch, then, for the queer community to adopt it as their own, finding the enjoyment and fun in it that others couldn’t.
It was similar in late 2018. Little Monsters the world over were obsessing over A Star is Born and Lady Gaga’s character in it, aptly named Ally. The entire soundtrack was a huge success, with number ones in 15 countries, platinum certifications, four Grammy nominations for lead single “Shallow” in 2019, and -- somehow, don’t ask us how -- two further Grammy nominations for another two ballads from the OST for 2020.
However, it’s interesting to note that the A Star Is Born songs that didn’t make the cut at the Grammys -- the ones written to show the decline in Ally’s musical credibility -- are actually some of the most popular in the LGBTQ community. “Hair, Body, Face” and “Why Do You Do That?”, in which she sings about sex, tight jeans and asses, come about as Ally gains commercial success at the expense of her truth. Even Gaga herself has been coy about the songs, calling them "shallow" and "the antithesis of where we started" with the character of Ally.
Maybe it’s the song’s critical snubs? Maybe it’s that they mirror Mother Monster’s earlier music that us fans hold so dear (even if she herself doesn’t remember it -- you break our hearts Gaga)? Or maybe we just love a song about tight jeans and asses because, well, why not?
“Given the relentless barrage of bullshit we go through day-to-day for merely existing, maybe as LGBTQ people we’re just inherently better at seeing the value within the easily dismissed or ignored?" argues writer, DJ and Eurovision correspondent Rob Holley. "All art has heart.”
His words echo the sentiments of the art movement "camp" -- hello Met Gala 2019 -- that originated in the 60s, as queer people rebelled against the rigid structures of gender and heteronormativity that were defining art at the time. While critics condemned camp as trivial and low culture, the queer community turned it into something beautiful that was to be celebrated. Art for art's sake.
However, as queer people living in 2019, we hold a lot more power. With streaming services and the meme culture of TikTok and Twitter, anything can be a viral hit. No longer having to create our own counterculture, the mainstream can be hijacked, “appropriating, re-organising and re-contextualising” it to fit our demands. As parents across the UK spent their summers protesting and debating an LGBTQ-inclusive education, we took their children’s favourite anthropomorphic pig and turned her into a 7’11 queer icon. As Black Mirror made an episode deriding a pop song as superficial, we blasted it from Pride floats while waving rainbow flags. “It’s a sub-conscious flex, but queer people have always liked to claim deliberately disposable and trashy pop music as a 'fuck you' to boring traditional, guitar-centric, hetero views of what music should be. This is just a very 2019 manifestation of that,” argues Nick.
He’s right. What's more of a massive queer middle finger to the predominantly straight, white male music industry than three drag queens wearing BDSM gear and singing “Baga Chipz is sexy, Baga Chipz is class, Baga Chipz is stunning, she takes it up the shhhhhh-”? Why can’t music be ridiculous, superficial and campy? As Rob Holley points out, “You don’t get that kind of buzz from Radio X's so-called ‘Best British Song of All Time’, Wonderwall.”