Are You A Friend Of Dorothy? Professor Nadine Hubbs On Really Listening To Girl In Red

Girl In Red
Jonathan Kise
– Girl In Red
graces the cover of Pollstar’s May 31, 2021, issue.

Nadine Hubbs is a professor of women’s and gender studies and music, as well as a faculty associate of the department of American culture at the University of Michigan. She is also the director of the Lesbian-Gay-Queer Research Initiative (LGQRI). Her research focuses on gender and queer studies, 20th- and 21st-century U.S. culture, and social class in popular and classical music. Hubbs is the author of 2004’s “The Queer Composition of America’s Sound” and 2014’s “Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music.” Pollstar reached out to Hubbs to get her scholarly take on queer icon and singer/songwriter extraordinaire Girl In Red. (See Girl In Red cover story here.)

Pollstar: Girl in Red has been praised as a queer icon because of the honesty of her songwriting. She’s mentioned in past interviews that she’s simply discussing love and her relationships just like a straight person would. How commonplace is it to be so direct in one’s lyrics? 
Professor Nadine Hubbs: The first time I heard Girl In Red I thought she had been heavily influenced by Taylor Swift … that kind of emotional honesty, but in a heterosexual context, is very characteristic of Taylor Swift songs. 
Taylor Swift doesn’t get as much into the dark side – which she does in terms of anger and vengeance, right? She doesn’t speak of mental illness, she doesn’t speak of depression the way the Girl In Red does. But she’s very, very candid in ways that were not traditional before Taylor Swift. She’s spoken openly about her feelings about her relationships and particularly about her exes, so I see that influence being strong. 
Taylor Swift is now a pop icon, but started out as a country artist. She therefore came up in a genre where talking about your everyday life is the norm. And so even if you don’t think of country songs as a place where Girl In Red came from, I think actually there is an interesting lineage to be drawn there because she is very much a product of Taylor Swift influence.   
You don’t think of necessarily super queer or honest songs about your mental illness, although there have always been songs about depression in honky-tonk and country music. They just don’t use those clinical terms. It’s a more middle-class style to actually use clinical terms and call it depression. You call it the blues or you call it lonesome in a country song.     
As far as the power of words goes, that makes me think about how fans on TikTok turned the question “Do you listen to Girl In Red?” into a discreet way to ask if a girl is gay. And then there was the controversy last year after Marie gave an interview that included a quote where she said lesbian was her “least favorite word.” She later released a statement saying she prefers identifying as queer or gay.
She speaks incredibly openly about sex with other women in detail, about love for women, it’s incredibly candid. And yet the meme is a queer code and that couldn’t be more old school. As a queer historian, I think of code phrases from maybe 80 years ago or 70 years ago. Eighty-two years ago is when “The Wizard of Oz” came out. Judy Garland was a queer icon … When gay people had to code their identities to hide their truth from the straight world, you would say, “Are you a friend of Dorothy?” And the straight people would have no clue whatsoever.
Do you think the popularity of “Do you listen to Girl In Red?” is an example of meme culture? Or is it more about not being as open with one’s sexuality? 
I think that is one possibility that fans and listeners may not feel the same freedom to be open. … At the same time, I think that kind of a code phrase may serve listeners in a way similar to give them kind of freedom of self-definition, comparable to the freedom of self-definition she has claimed to need in that controversial moment where she didn’t want a particular label. 
And here’s another thing, how many of those listeners are not actually cis women? People of whatever configuration can call themselves Girl In Red fans but not all of them can call themselves lesbians.
There’s also the allure of the mystique of a phrase like that. I know that the research in LGBTQ studies as early as 2002-2003 was showing that young people, like kids who were age 12, so millennial tweens, were not coming out to their parents and were disidentifying with the labels that were given to them. They didn’t want to declare as straight but they didn’t want to declare as gay or queer or lesbian either. … And now those kids might be 30-ish and might call themselves pansexual or nonbinary. We had a historical period where the labels were really helpful for forging a movement because you had to call yourself something in order to fight the power. … And now you see young people saying, “I don’t want this label.” 
There are a number of LGBTQ+ artists in popular music these days who are up front talking about their sexuality in their lyrics, like Hayley Kiyoko or Janelle Monáe. Who are some examples of artists who came before?
So Morrissey came before her. The Smiths were around from ’82 to ’87, that’s how short their life was. And yet they’re so well-known even today. In that time, you had the rise of the outing phenomenon and celebrities were outed. There were other pop stars, British pop stars in particular, like Jimmy Somerville, who were really pissed that Morrissey wouldn’t come out.
Morrisey, as the master of ambiguity with his songs with The Smiths, and his solo songs too, constantly proclaim a girlfriend, but then like in “Girlfriend In A Coma,” you can tell that he gives two fucks about the girl. He makes it so obvious. And then he has songs about men like “This Charming Man.” He never says, “that’s my boyfriend,” but everything is so dramatic and so erotically charged. So that’s why fellow artists were saying you need to come out. And probably they knew something about who he was sleeping with.
Besides tracing Girl In Red to country music through Taylor, I would also say that there’s an ambiguity here for a refusal of contemporary labels and binaries that has taken a lot of pages out of the Morrissey playbook.  
I don’t think she’s playing both sides of the line. She’s not ever claiming to have boyfriends. There are lyrics like, “I want a girl, not a boy” specifically. But she’s also very clear about not wanting a label [of lesbian].
Another way to think of this is if gay men in the 20th century said, “Are you “a friend of Dorothy?” seeking clarity, present day fans of Girl In Red use the phrase “Do you listen to Girl In Red?” seeking ambiguity.