Meditations on… queercore
When we talk about lesbian and bi visibility in music, we often refer to pop music. Which makes sense: pop music’s relationship to the queer gaze has evolved exponentially in the past decade or two. Back in the 1990s and 2000s, for instance, it would have been almost unimaginable to have an openly queer pop star like King Princess in Playboy, hair greased up, basketball slung under one arm like some kind of sapphic pin-up for Gen Z. For a long time, and with a few exceptions (Tracy Chapman, k.d. lang, Melissa Etheridge), lesbian and bi artists simply weren’t very visible in the mainstream.
But lesbian and bi people have always made music, obviously. And, like other LGBTQ+ artists, many carved spaces for themselves outside of the mainstream, creating their own scenes and subcultures, either because they had to or they wanted to. In the 80s and 90s, the rise of queercore, for example, offered a community for young lesbian and bi people, a space in which they could recognise themselves. These were young queers being openly dykey, loud and unapologetic in their expression of sexuality. That was arguably not something which had been done before.
The 80s and 90s saw punk and riot grrrl explode. Queercore sounded similar, with a wildly different vibe. These were artists who were sick of the punk scene and sick of the gay mainstream in equal measure. Bands like Fifth Column, Tribe 8, Team Dresch, The Third Sex, The Need and Sister George – who sprung out of towns around America, Canada and the UK – had all the scuzzy riffs and pummelling drums and middle finger lyrics of their punk and riot grrrl peers, but with a queer edge or through a dykey lens. “We were looking for alternative expressions of our queerness,” queercore founder Bruce LaBruce told Dazed in 2016. “We were anti-corporate, anti-capitalist and against assimilation, so we gravitated towards punk.”
I didn’t grow up obsessed with queercore as a teen – that came later. But when I listen to some of these bands’ lyrics now, they sound years ahead. “I never met a man quite like you before, girl,” screams Sister George singer Ellyott on their 1994 track Sister George. “I never met a girl quite like you before, man.” Team Dresch, one of the more famous queercore bands from Portland, never shy away from overt expressions of sexuality: “Hey that girl’s looking at my butt! Wait, is that a girl or a boy or what? You’re just a subject of our test. A new form of intimidation called lesbians are best!”
I love queercore as a genre because there’s nothing twee or subtle about it. These weren’t bands who avoided using same-sex pronouns to appeal to straight audiences – it didn’t even cross their minds. This might not sound particularly wild in 2021, but these artists emerged when Section 28 was still in effect across the UK and when same-sex marriage was illegal across the globe. With song names like Fagetarian and Dyke (Team Dresch) and Rim Me Isabella (The Need), and live shows depicting strap-on blow jobs and bondage (Tribe 8), many actively stood against heteronormative language and structures, the images being fed from all angles.
We hear a lot about the history of punk today, and a lot about riot grrrl. But queercore is a genre most of us had to go looking for. We had to do our own research. And some of the conversations taking place in the 90s surrounding lesbian and bi representation in music sound really similar to the conversations happening today.
“Historically, whenever homosexuality gets talked about, it’s gay men that are being talked about. Lesbians have been completely invisibilised and are considered non-sexual creatures; like basically you’re a lesbian because you’re asexual, you’re impotent, you can’t fuck . . .” says Tammy Rae Carland, a prominent riot grrrl photographer and lesbian record label owner in Lucy Thane’s 1997 documentary She’s Real (Worse than Queer).
“It’s like people saying, ‘We don’t need any more love songs.’ Well, maybe you don’t. But I do. I don’t have enough love songs for my experience. I don’t have enough girl heroes in my face.”
All the Things She Said is out now via Hodder & Stoughton