Reviving Fame: The Gay Community's Impact on Forgotten Icons

05/05/2024

Matthew Ennis (he/him) explores how the gay community continues to rehabilitate the careers of faded stars

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By Matthew Ennis

Picture the scene. It’s February 2023 and I’ve fought hard to secure my spot near the front of the O2 Apollo, after racing from Manchester Piccadilly station. That indescribable buzz of the crowd begins to grow and excitement builds as we anticipate witnessing a pop star in her prime. From the atmosphere in the room you might deduce that we were awaiting an appearance from one of music's most prominent artists. Except that's the thing: we weren’t.  The artist was Carly Rae Jepsen, and – far from being a leading force in music – she’s essentially a one hit wonder.

You’ll likely remember Jepsen from her 2012 smash ‘Call Me Maybe’. While she was able to grasp a few semi-hits after this success, her pop stardom was entirely eclipsed by the song. Jepsen’s next album fell flat commercially, followed by a subsequent inability to place a song in the hot 100 since 2015.

It’s probably important to mention, then, that this was also the most male-dominated concert I have ever attended. As you might imagine, the vast majority of these men were gay.

Here we have a central pillar of Jepsen’s career. See, that aforementioned commercially unsuccessful follow-up was not just any album: it was 2015’s Emotion. To a significant sector of the gay music community, this album is a modern classic, endlessly praised and lauded as a ‘pop Bible’, sitting proudly among the likes of Lorde’s Melodrama or Beyoncė's Renaissance. It gained Jepsen a cult following who adore the album’s synth-pop explosion and following spree of similarly pop-oriented albums.

Many would be surprised that Jepsen has had a sustained career post-‘Call Me Maybe’, nevermind five albums full of songs that were far more anticipated at the concert than her one hit wonder.  Towering above them all is Emotion’s opening track ‘Run Away With Me’, a cornerstone in modern pop music, existing on the same scale as any of the decade's biggest hits within the queer music community.

This is part of a wider trend in which ex-mainstream artists, who are now viewed as irrelevant by most, are able to exist as major dominating presences contained within specific groups. While the gay community has always formed a significant portion of female singers fanbases, this seems to be a new phenomena of the LGBTQ+ community – and in this specific case, particularly gay men – single-handedly rehabilitating and sustaining artists. There’s seemingly an attraction to reviving the careers of faded fleeting successes with Jepsen, Charli XCX, Robyn and Kylie Minogue (outside of Australia and the UK) all serving as examples. Even Dua Lipa seems to be courting a similar audience with her current Radical Optimism era, perhaps anticipating her career post-chart domination.

Similarly to Jepsen, Charli XCX also emerged onto the music scene in 2012 with her feature on (certified banger) ‘I Love It’ . After a few subsequent hits with ‘Fancy’ and ‘Boom Clap’, she largely faded from the public consciousness by the mid 2010’s. It’s at this point that her career was transformed. The release of her cult classic song ‘Vroom Vroom’ saw her become acclaimed by the queer community as a premier artist, pioneering the hyperpop genre. Like Emotion, her mixtape Pop 2 became heralded as a paragon of pop. Now, it's hard to understate her huge presence within the gay music community. Even her name has become synonymous with gay identity, despite remaining relatively niche in the mainstream.

But why does this keep happening?

For a start, generally speaking, gay men love pop music, particularly when it's made by women. The intrinsic relationship between gay men and female pop stars has an extensive history and greater multitude of explanations than can be discussed here, but the connection is undeniable.

For a period of time in the 2010’s the currency of chart success lay in

maximalist, glossy pop music, with stars like Rihanna, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga dominating the charts. As the centre of music has relocated itself around rap, hip hop and more restrained pop, those who once enjoyed the pinnacle of success are pushed to the margins. It makes sense that as newer stars, like Billie Eilish or SZA, are less likely to make this type of all-out pop, gay men will follow those holdovers from the 2010’s in their niche form.

This coincides with a more niche culture surrounding music generally. With self-selected streaming and TikTok algorithms that reinforce our taste, hits are more likely to be contained within subgroups and thus people within the LGBTQ+ community are more likely to be exposed to these artists' new work. Charli XCX’s current ‘Von Dutch’ may not be known universally by the general public, but for a group of (usually gay) pop fans, it’s an inescapable smash. It’s within this niche where these artists can comfortably exist and redefine their careers.

Underdog narratives surely also perpetuate this, with those who may feel pushed aside or rejected gravitating to pop stars in a similar position who they can both relate to and protect. When a gay man defends Carly Rae Jepsen, they’re also identifying with a sense of belonging within a community aware of her career and pride in that community being the type that uplifts those who have been tossed aside by others.

These artists take on a role beyond their job as singers, existing as cultural identifiers for a socialised gay community. These cult classic albums and songs become a shared language of those in the know (something that the accessibility of music through streaming has helped).

See last summer when Kylie Minouge’s ‘Padam Padam’ took over, with the song taking on new meanings as a verb, question or greeting (“Padam?” “Padam!”).

These artists are finding renewed success within the gay community not only because this group are more likely to authentically enjoy their music, but because they enjoy belonging to the community liking this music brings.