Chromatica and the Forgotten Queerness of Dance Music
Being a gay icon is nothing new to Lady Gaga, but her latest album Chromatica has struck a particular chord with queer people. Influences like disco and electro are certainly not unfamiliar in Gaga’s discography; they are crucial to defining her style. However, this time around, she takes them even further. Chromaticais strong, unabashed dance-pop from beginning to end and it takes particular influences from the classic house music of the 90s. These styles hold significant meaning for queer people as their origins are tied up in the history of their community.
Club culture has long played a significant role in the development of the modern queer community. As far back as the 17th century, bars and clubs have served as safe spaces, allowing gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people space to explore and present their authentic selves, away from the disapproving eyes of the heteronormative public. These spaces became particularly important for queer black and Latinx people, whose alienation from society occurred on two fronts. By the 60s, gay bars were so significant to the community that they became the staging grounds for protests, with the riot at The Stonewall Inn in 1969 being the impetus of the (then-called) gay rights movement.
With nightlife playing such a large part in the blossoming of queer identities, it is logical that the dance music these establishments played would also become an intrinsic part of this identity. The power of these clubs wasn’t just that they were spaces where queer people were free from judgement - on the dancefloor, the music set them free and gave the chance to feel joy.
It was amongst this joy, this elation of expression, that queer creativity thrived. Drag performers interrogated gender with high drama, high camp and even high fashion; club kids pushed against the norms with their outrageous costumes, and the LA gay clubs and New York trans balls revolutionised dance with waacking and voguing respectively. Also, with black and Latinx people at the forefront of club culture, their cultural influences coalesced to form new genres of dance music. Thus, in the 1970s, disco was born out of underground queer communities.
Disco was one of the earliest forms of electronic dance music, and black artists like Donna Summer and Sylvester (a rare, openly gay artist) pioneered the use of synthesised backing tracks. Disco soon swept to mainstream popularity and was adopted by straight, white artists and fans alike. Clubbing culture also became increasingly popular outside of the queer community and, by the late 70s, institutions like Studio 54 made what had begun in the underground queer scene central to traditional pop culture.
As the 80s came around, a new wave of conservatism used disco’s association with gay men to tarnish its popularity. However, underground clubbing communities continued to experiment with existing dance music styles; they used the now increasingly popular electronic instruments (like the 808 drum machine) to combine and remix tracks and create newer electronic dance genres. But this music wasn’t monolithic - different communities focused on reinventing different styles and therefore created a diverse range of approaches to electronic dance. One of the most significant forms of dance music that developed at this time began with the underground queer community. In a club called The Warehouse, which was patronised mainly by black and Latinx gay men, DJ Frankie Knuckles edited classic disco tracks and newer electrofunk and electropop songs. He added aggressive drum machine bass lines and synthesised riffs to create a new form of dance music that was perfect for the wild hedonism of the underground club scene. Others in Chicago and New York also pioneered this revolutionary style, but the Warehouse became an epicentre for it, even giving part of its name to the genre - house music.
Much like disco, house music’s popularity also flourished beyond its underground roots and expanded exponentially, spawning a mass of subgenres. From Garage house to Eurodance or from Detroit Techno to Tropical house, the style went international and held massive influence over modern pop sounds. But throughout house music’s dissemination, queer communities continued to be the vanguard of its proliferation. It first spread to Europe through queer communities and iconic London gay club Heaven was one of the first venues to host acid house events, leading to the emergence of the rave scene of the 90s.
Yet this popularity came at a cost. While queer communities continued to use clubbing as a means of expression and security into the new millennium, the increased interest of heteronormative society in this scene forced queer people out. Today, house music is everywhere but is more typically associated with straight, white men from Scandinavia. Pop music in the 2010s is overflowing with heavy house influences and DJs Calvin Harris and David Guetta have been able to establish extremely lucrative careers. This success is out of reach for the black/Latinx queer people who pioneered the style, and many are unaware of the real history.
Queer nightlife is also dying, with gentrification sadly leading to rapid closure of many gay bars and clubs. In July 2017, a research project led by Dr Ben Campkin and Lo Marshall for UCL found that “the number of LGBTQI venues in London [had] fallen by 58% from 125 to 53 since 2006”. The study revealed that the most common reason for the closure of these spaces was large-scale developments that priced these establishments out of their neighbourhoods. Similar stories have also emerged from other major cities that were once home to famous queer scenes like New York and Berlin. As white cishet people make millions from dance music, the progenitors of the movement have nowhere to go.
It is unlike the queer community to give up in the face of adversity though. There are numerous endeavours to revitalise the queer clubbing culture; from the new club kid scene at Kindergarten in Paris to Chicago, where drag events like Queen! and queer collectives like Party Noire and Futurehood are working to stimulate the underground scene that first spawned house music. These events also work to recentre black and Latinx experiences in the club culture which, through mainstreaming, have become white-dominated.
But the community isn’t just going underground, they also starting to take centre stage. Decades have been spent making ‘gay icons’ out of cishet female artists that produce music that appeals to the queer taste (not to throw shade on these icons, their work is still essential to the community). But, we are finally beginning to see more queer figures step to the forefront of the music industry. Artists like Kim Petras, King Princess, MNEK, Hayley Kiyoko and Frank Ocean are demonstrating that their voices should not be marginalised as niche interests.
Lady Gaga is a key figure in this group, being a bisexual who been outspoken in her defence of LGBTQIA+ rights and having a background in NYC's club scene. So when queer people hear dance records from artists that are a part of their community or served as icons for that community - like Gaga’s Chromatica - it matters. It is a reminder of the joy of self-expression, of the freedom that the club scenes provide and stands as a testament to the work of the queer POCs that paved the way for this artistry.
By Jonny McKinnell
- Lady Gaga's Chromatica Cover Shoot - Norbert Schoerner
- Shot from the protests after Stonewall - Public Domain
- From Jennie Livingston's Paris is Burning (Off White Productions) - Everett Collection
- Club goers at The Warehouse - I Was There When House Took Over the World (Channel 4)
- Calvin Harris at Wireless Festival - Derek Bremner