By Deborah Sprague
While LGBTQ+ performers – and gay culture – are an inextricable part of pop music’s DNA since before Little Richard whooped his first “wop bop a loo bop,” the dawning of Pride Month 2022 indicates that this could very well be the Summer of Queer.
After two years of virtual events and streamed celebrations, participants seem particularly eager to make this Pride Month the loudest and proudest in years. Acts like Halsey, who’s been vocal about their queer identity – while retaining the right to shift pronouns to her/hers – and H.E.R. have waved the rainbow flag high on the road.
The most visible, most important exponent of this new reality may be Lil Nas X, who’s managed to rack up two Grammys, three No. 1 singles and a debut album that hit the Top 5 without benefit of a tour, or many headlining shows at all.
The Georgia-bred rapper, who introduced himself with the charmingly novel hick-hop trifle “Old Town Road,” has emerged as one of the most envelope-pushing forces pop music has produced in ages.
The 21-year-old didn’t just come out after his first taste of success, he changed the zeitgeist with televised performances that delivered raw sexuality with a wink – undeniably raunchy, but so joyful that only an unreconstructed Puritan could take serious offense.
David Zedeck, Lil Nas’ agent and co-head of global music at United Talent Agency, has high hopes for the young artist’s first road venture, which kicks off this fall and seems an underplay with primarily theater bookings. “We are really excited about Lil Nas X’s first ever tour,” he says. “He brings so much creativity and inspiration to all his performances, so we can’t wait for the fans to experience the amazing show he has planned for the tour.”
Adam Leber, who manages Nas under his Rebel Management shingle, says he’s not surprised by the degree to which the rapper has been embraced by an audience with a wider reach than both the LGBTQ+ and hip-hop communities. “Putting aside his raw talent as a songwriter and performer,” he says, “a big part of Lil Nas X’s mainstream success is due to the fact that he is, and always has been, unapologetically himself. The audience can feel the authenticity and that authenticity is a big part of the reason he’s been embraced universally.”
Leber insists that Nas X’s tour, which is set to kick off in Detroit on Sept. 6 and hit such prestigious venues as Radio City Music Hall and Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom, won’t be toned down for more conservative enclaves. He says, “We haven’t experienced any push back so far. Quite the opposite. There’s been a ton of demand from promoters all over the country and around the world to have Lil Nas X come perform live and we don’t intend on holding anything back. Live Nation has been incredibly supportive of that vision and an amazing partner.”
Lil Nas X’s success has spawned a trickle-down effect for lesser known artists like Marzz, who’s currently on the road opening for H.E.R., a slot that’s exposed them to exponentially more people than the club shows they might otherwise be doing. Marzz, a Louisville native who uses they/their pronouns, says that they’ve felt surprisingly warm responses from audience members both queer and straight while on the trek. They say, “I did my first headline show three days before my birthday in 2019, and even since then, I can see a big difference. I was a little bit nervous, coming out of a church music setting and out of choirs, but once I got onstage, I was vibin’ – and I never saw any hate. People don’t seem to have time for that.”
As ever, Pride Month is also ground zero for plenty of queer-specific musical events – and this year’s NYC Pride Celebration will feature the biggest musical component in the event’s history, which promoters have dubbed Pride Island. The two-day event, which will take place on Governor’s Island, rather than its customary home at Manhattan’s Pier 97, is set to culminate with a performance by Kim Petras, the first transgender headliner in Pride Island history. Lil Kim will headline day one on June 25. Both evenings sold out soon after tickets went on sale in early April, with prices tiered from $80 to $200.
In a nod to the origins of the Pride Movement, spawned at the so-called 1969 Stonewall Riot in NYC that started when an early trans activist of color tossed a brick through a bar window to protest police harassment of patrons, organizers are asking “no bags bigger than a brick” be brought onsite. NYC Pride is always a guaranteed draw, given the setting, content and audience, but what about cultivating a similar atmosphere in a more heterogenous environment, like the summer festival scene? That’s something that Bonnaroo talent buyer and campground experiences producer Sophie Lobl of C3 Presents has been tending to for several years.
Lobl, who worked with Brooklyn-based dance music collective House of Yes toward making Bonnaroo the most Pride-forward of the major festivals, points with pride (no pun intended) to the fest’s inaugural parade in 2019 as something of a paradigm shift. While the programming has long included LGBTQ+ artists, the parade acted as something of a catalyst tying together different parts of the farm. In New Orleans’ second line fashion, the parade wound its way from the campgrounds to a stage where Kacey Musgraves was playing, a route that will be repeated this year.
“We’re very fortunate to have a community like Bonnaroo,” says Lobl. “The motto is ‘radiate positivity,’ and every effort is made to do that. We’ve extended the efforts this year in that there will be more programming in the campgrounds themselves.” She notes that the festival has a dedicated campground called Beyond, which was initially dedicated as a safe space for women and now extends to members of the non-binary community, a sizeable percentage of the 100,000 campers, offering yoga and other add-ons in addition to a safe space to stay.
That safe space concept also plays into a new initiative started by Laura Jane Grace, the frontwoman of Against Me! and the Devouring Mothers. The punk veteran, who came out as transgender nearly a decade ago, is putting together a complex in her part-time hometown of St. Louis, one that sprang from a recently-purchased recording studio once owned by Son Volt’s Jay Farrar.
Grace says, “I’ve been refurbishing it and trying to turn it into a trans-friendly space with living quarters that artists on the road can use to crash, and that locals can use as an artist-in-residency space to create. Just quirky, Bohemian stuff.” That “stuff” includes a recent recording session with members of Lavender Country, the recently rediscovered act that crafted what was likely country’s first out-gay album back in 1973 (and are currently playing spot dates around North America).
Grace, who has an 11-date Canadian run in September, says she sees some progress in “the optics” of touring as an out trans person, but finds some of the behind-the-scenes elements “frustrating.” She explains, “You find representation among performers, but hiring options can be limited if you want to hire a trans bus driver or crew person because those areas are still dominated by cis males, usually straight ones.”
As far as an upbeat outlook for the LGBTQ+ touring artist? She sees a mixed bag. “As far as what we can do as artists? We can go in and say we want gender-neutral bathrooms, which might just mean a promoter putting up a sheet of paper. I appreciate that, though, especially in a state like North Carolina where they’re literally breaking the law by doing that. I’m thankful that there are enough supportive people along the way, though the current cultural backlash, in the bigger picture, is something to be worried about.”