Is Labelling Detrimental To Queer Artists? What Aus Acts Want For The Future Of Representation

15 June 2022 | 11:11 am | Twistie Chaney

As we continue paving towards a future of level playing fields, in the music industry and beyond, how do artists wish to see queer representation progress moving forward?

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Across the past decade, or even the last five years alone, the progression of queer visibility peeking through the mainstream has been nothing short of monumental. With an increasingly diverse range of stories emerging at the forefront, championed by the perseverance of the queer community, this gradual shift in the public consciousness has continued to echo waves of positive change and broadened acceptance. Yet with the rise of representation, we have also witnessed a heightened focus on categorisation and clean-cut binaries as a means to market marginalised voices. 

Is the way we talk about and label artists helping to connect their work with new fans? Or perhaps, is the degree to which we focus on labels blurring our view of the human being that lies behind them?

We spoke to Mo’Ju, Nick Ward and Montaigne to hear their perspectives on how labels like “queer artist” have impacted them personally, and to discuss the future of representation in Australian music.

Casting back to Australia 10 years ago, mentions of queerness in mainstream media were scarce at best, likely positioned as controversial clickbait. Not to mention, we were five years and a national debate-sized mountain of heartache away from marriage equality. It was also the point in time when Mo’Ju had just stepped out as a solo artist.

“My career started sort of prior to a time where [queer representation] was kind of so commonplace. It wasn't at the fore of every discussion and it wasn't so present in the media… I grew up in a time when there wasn't even a vocabulary around a lot of what we're talking about now,” says Mo’Ju. “I guess for me, as a queer artist, it’s interesting because I never really declared it. I never announced it. There was an assumption about who I was before I confirmed that in any way. I've never hidden it, but I never felt the need to kind of declare that to anyone. I was just being me.”

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When Mo’Ju released their debut album for their solo project in 2012, they were immediately labelled as a “queer artist” simply from the way they presented on the album’s cover, before ever vocalising their identity. “It's so funny because early in my career, when it came to race, no one ever asked me and no one really made outward assumptions, not publicly. I think I was too ethnically ambiguous and people were like, ‘I don't want to say the wrong thing’... they weren’t comfortable to address that because I had never addressed it.

“But with the queerness, there was this assumption. People felt perfectly entitled to assume I was queer, just by looking at me.”

Even today, we can still see recurring instances where artists are stamped with titles like “queer icon” before ever announcing their sexuality or gender identity. It seems that while striving for visibility, the ways in which the media have navigated showcasing queerness have at times spoken over artists and denied them the opportunity to tell their story how they intended. As Mo’Ju puts it, “I feel that with a great deal of artists, there is kind of almost this autonomy taken away.”

“Like yeah sure, I’d written love songs that were definitely addressed to a female. But no one asked me about how I identified. I don’t think anyone was necessarily reading that deep into the lyrics. They were just looking at me and kind of making an assumption about who I was. And it’s interesting to me that they felt very comfortable to label me as a ‘queer artist’ without asking me how I necessarily felt about that.”

Nick Ward, on the other hand, has overtly explored themes of queerness throughout his project, yet these similar discussions of categorisation still strike a chord. When reflecting on this idea of today’s culture and its magnetism to labels, Ward recalls a gag from Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby’s internationally-revered performance Nanette where Gadsby jokes, “I cook dinner way more than I ‘lesbian’. But nobody ever introduces me as ‘that chef comedian’, do they?”

Across the board, for all types of creators and entertainers, someone’s queer identity can quickly become an overarching signifier of someone’s brand, regardless if that is what they personally project. And while labels such as “lesbian comedian” and “queer artist” have helped provide visibility for communities that are still significantly underrepresented, it’s important to consider whether they come at the expense of narrowing an individual to a single adjective.

But a theme that conversations like this always circle back to is that these issues are definitely not black and white. For Montaigne, their personal relationship with labels is one that helps their music to reach audiences who might carry a similar story. 

“From my view, there are a lot of different perspectives and there are a lot of different people who are hurting in different ways because of the existence of labels. How they're being labelled and all that stuff. But for me personally, I'm happy to just be a ‘queer artist’.” 

While Montaigne wishes for a world in which art did not have to be marketed, they note that our current society does exert a pressure, especially online and through social media, for artists to package and sell themselves a certain way. “I feel like all categories or labels are marketing tools now. Not intrinsically, they just have become that because the people who run the streaming services or set up the charts and classify genre are trying to sell something quickly. Here's one key word that indicates whether or not you will like this.

“But also, I do like signalling myself as queer because I am, and that does mean something in society. And I want other queer people to be aware of my work because I think it will be valuable to them and I think we can connect over our shared experience.”

And it’s not only those ties that are significant for Montaigne, but also the way that labelling can sometimes direct artists away from bigoted groups: “I'm happy to be branded as queer and be inserted into mostly queer spaces and all that stuff, because I don't relish the idea of like being subject of some unhinged Twitter user who thinks my existence is demonic.”

However, Nick Ward has felt the presence of pigeonholing steer him in a different direction that found him questioning his artistry. After releasing his debut EP Everything I Wish I Told You in 2021, Ward quickly discovered the profound impact that his songs had in resonating with his fans. “I realised the power that I guess words have,” he admits, “and if you're really specific to your own experience, that's just going to cut so much deeper for other people who have had the same experience. As nuanced and as complex as everyone's story and background is, I feel like there are so many threads that tie together this big, grand, kind of universal queer experience.” 

But when it came to the broader reception of the project, Ward noticed a common pattern of praise: “I feel like I had like a little bit of imposter syndrome coming off my first EP, because it was directly referencing coming out and queerness and stuff like that, and it was kind of the main theme of the project. And I felt at a certain point I was like, ‘Do people like the music or do they like the story?’, and I couldn't tell whether I was getting opportunities because it was ticking a box or if it was because they liked the music.”

While we are still quite green in terms of diverse and accurate representation, across a wide array of marginalised identities, artists and their work can often be thrust forward and framed as the voice speaking on behalf of an entire minority group. Although community and conversation are core values for Mo’Ju, they have never sought out a role of leadership: “I'm representing myself. And if people identify with that, then that's beautiful and I'm so here for it, but I'm not a spokesperson… Particularly in recent years, I was just writing about my personal experience and my family. And if that is inherently political to you, then that's more of a conversation about what is going on in the world.”

From a history of severely restricted visibility, queer artists have been expected to fit into a slim set of moulds. When Ward was navigating his own identity, he confesses, “I felt like there was no middle ground. And I feel like a big part of my journey is always wanting to explore the grey area of things because I think growing up, I was always really torn between these two worlds of like the ‘queer world’ and the ‘straight world’.

“A lot of what I want to do is trying to show kids younger than me and my age that you don't have to fit into these binaries and you can literally be your own type of person.”

As our scope of representation continues to broaden, we hope to shift closer towards a space where all artists can feel free to communicate their identity in a way that is most authentic to them, without outward societal pressure or fear of being exploited. Dissecting our current landscape, Mo’Ju highlights that: “Where we're at right now, there is visibility. There is representation. But it doesn't always feel like inclusion. It still can feel sometimes as though you are being tokenised a little in certain situations. Therefore, I think we still have a way to go. And you know, we're not on a level playing field. There's still much discrimination, particularly against the trans community.”

Touching on the recent election, Montaigne also raises this problem of culturally ingrained transphobia. “There was so much anti-trans discourse in the media and amongst politicians… I just think that we're still grappling with those issues. It’s a conversation that’s had a lot online and amongst academic circles but white gayness specifically has been the first thing to be more accepted than others I suppose.” Mo’Ju iterates a similar idea with regards to intersecting identities, such as race and queerness, in that for the mainstream palate, “to be all of these different things at the same time is too complicated. Too confronting.” 

But even for facets of queerness that are becoming more widely celebrated, Montaigne points out that this doesn’t always translate to easier pathways for success amongst queer artists. “Culturally, [queerness] is accepted and has almost like, this fetishised ‘cool status’ because brands and corporations and labels know that they can sell it now, even though they cared. But I'm hard-pressed to find many very commercially successful queer people in Australia.” 

For artists with a primarily queer fanbase, the financial ripple effects of oppression can also feed into this cycle. “Queer people are more likely to have socioeconomic disadvantage, partly because employment is difficult when you are different. And also, people get kicked out of family homes and they are forced to be homeless and they deal with all these kinds of issues. Because of that, they don't have consumer power since they don't have the money. And it’s just like a domino effect to like all of these other issues. Culturally, it feels like we're making progress, but economically, there's still a lot of work to do. And that does contribute to culture, I think,” Montaigne explains.

On a different note, Nick Ward brings forth a poignant question to ponder: “I wonder if we suddenly took the photos and faces and labels off music, I wonder if worldwide, if we’d be listening to much more music or much more diverse music? I wonder how much of an effect it has on listeners? Do people not listen to music because it's a queer artist? Do people only listen to music because it’s a queer artist?”

So within this incredibly complex web of intersecting issues and developments and perspectives, where do we hope to continue heading from here? What does a dream future look like for queer artists?

“My ideal is just that it becomes a slim minority that believes that queer people are like, defective or sinful or whatever,” Montaigne answers. “And then we don't have to worry about how we present ourselves and how we represent ourselves. Because I'm sure there are people out there who would be much more flamboyant and/or direct about the way that they represent themselves if they did not feel like they’d be persecuted for it.”

“To be recognised for the merit of our work,” says Mo’Ju. “There's always been queer artists, you know what I mean? And the conversation doesn't have to be about… it shouldn't have to be about queerness. It shouldn’t have to be about anything that you don't specifically make it about.”

Looking to the future, Mo’Ju hopes that we will arrive at a time where queerness is so normalised that someone’s sexuality or gender identity does not always feel the need to be mentioned, and that our discussions focus more along the lines of: “‘This artist is really talented.’ ‘This artist is saying really interesting things.’ That’s the end goal, right?”

And for Nick Ward, this same sentiment resonates: “I feel like I just want to be an artist with a capital ‘A’, rather than a queer artist with a capital ‘Q’.”