You’re sitting in a café, or, let’s be honest, you’re probably sitting in your local carbon copy of a chain of coffee-selling superstores, and you decide to be a cheeky little sneak and people watch to pass the time until your latte isn’t too hot. Out the window you see a ton of interesting people. A soccer mom is parallel parking with her knees because the kids are fighting in the backseat; an exhausted-looking dad is pushing a stroller with twins inside; a cute couple is laughing over a text message the boy just showed his girlfriend, and he pecks her on the cheek.
But wait. Can you be sure of what you saw? Yes, you did see a mother. You did see a father. But what about that straight couple? You didn’t see one of those. You actually defied science and saw the invisible.
Um. What? “Katie, that’s stupid,” you say. No, really. You saw the invisible. Because that “straight” couple was actually a bisexual girl dating a bisexual boy, but their orientations are made invisible by the sexual binary, which enforces that either you’re gay, you’re straight, or you’re wrong about yourself. More often than not, this monosexual assumption can leave bisexual people feeling like they’re not allowed in the conversation. When a bisexual person enters into a relationship with someone of one sex, they are assumed to be attracted only to that sex; a bi girl with another girl is “actually a lesbian”; a bi girl dating a guy is “really straight.” But that’s not how the orientation works. If the couple she’s in breaks up, she’s just as likely to have a next boyfriend as she is to have a next girlfriend. Like other orientations, it’s not going away.
Unfortunately, what does seem to be going away is bisexual pride in popular music. Back in the 1990s, there were a handful of “women’s music” artists who started to branch off of the Olivia Records folksy track and create their own sounds. If we’re being perfectly honest, the majority of them were lesbians: Melissa Etheridge, k.d. lang, Tracy Chapman. But among these trailblazers was Meshell Ndegeocello, who came out both with her bisexuality and a hit single, “If That’s Your Boyfriend.” A few years later, she collaborated with fellow queer artist Queen Pen on a modified cover of that song, this time called “Girlfriend.” In the badass fuck-you-and-by-the-way-say-hi-to-your-mom-for-me chorus of each of the songs, the lyrics suggest that Ndegeocello is in fact so sexy she can steal your boyfriend and your girlfriend from you: “If that’s your boy/girlfriend, if that’s your boy/girlfriend, if that’s your boy/girlfriend, (s)he wasn’t last night.” SNAP. CRACKLE. AND A BIG BISEXUAL POP. The fact that Ndegeocello can sing the exact same song twice, but change the gender of the significant other she gets with, shows a comfort and pride in her sexuality that you’re just not gonna see in current artists.
Ani DiFranco was also extremely open about her bisexual identity. Her single “In or Out” speaks to the backlash many bisexual people face after coming out, when they’re told that they just need to ‘pick a side’ – gay or straight, in or out – and settle down with one of the two societally ascribed genders. Of course, this framework ignores and invalidates not only bi- and pansexuality, but also gender non-conforming people of all varieties, and is just plain not cool. Taking to the musical streets, DiFranco explains that, to her, “what’s more important is the person that I bring, not just getting to the same restaurant and eating the same thing.” The song speaks to feelings of not fitting in anywhere, and not really belonging in the queerniverse or the straightosphere. Bisexual people have “got more than one membership to more than one club,” which DiFranco suggests openly can be a really difficult road to navigate.
But what makes it even more difficult is that today’s bisexual artists have somehow lost their chutzpah. In fact, Google and I spent quite a lot of quality time determining who exactly are today’s bisexual artists. While legions of famous women are perfectly comfortable saying they find other women beautiful, and the human body should be admired, and there have certainly been other women they’ve loved, they “wouldn’t consider themselves bisexual.” Men, whether famous or not, have seemingly always been reluctant to identify as bisexual, or at least to permanently identify as bisexual. Somewhere along the line, sexual orientation began to play into social constructions of gender roles, and it was deemed so unmanly to be attracted to other men that queer males got labeled as less than, and people considered it an all-or-nothing attraction that a guy could never come back from. With all that reputation-tarnishing bullshit to wade through, what celebrity in his right mind would ever come out?
Artists like Lady Gaga and Fergie (who, while married to the smokin hot Josh Duhamel, has still come out as bi) and Jessie J are out, yes, but their music doesn’t give us any hint in that direction. Maybe the queer community sniffed out their bi-dar emissions, or read enough of the Advocate and Unicorn Booty to know what’s up, but anyone who’s what you might call “new gay”, or just coming into their non-straight sexuality and unsure of how the queer community functions, needs a mentor, a role model, to look up to without radically outing themselves, which used to be what our music could do for us.
In the early days of DADT, queer women in the armed forces could use music as code. “Oh, you like the Indigo Girls? Me too…” Celebrities who we all ‘knew’ about but weren’t public with their sexualities worked in largely the same way. Thank you, Ricky Martin and George Michael, for your services to queer society. In their heyday, Meshell Ndegeocello and Ani DiFranco were to the bi community what those other monosexually queer artists were to their respective communities. But we don’t have that now. We lost it. And we need it back.
Do bisexual artists owe it to their young fans fresh out of the closet to dedicate singles to people who use male and female pronouns? Should they be obligated to sing to Alejandro one day and Alejandra the next?
Certainly bisexuality isn’t always fifty-fifty. It’s the potential for attraction regardless of gender, but if a bisexual person only ever dates men, that still counts. It’s still legit. So maybe these bisexual female artists continually singing to what the audience assumes to be male subjects are out, and they’re writing about who they’re attracted to in that moment. Now that she’s married to a man, Fergie singing about a woman might stir up rumors of infidelity, and the last thing a bisexual person wants is to face that age-old (false) stereotype that one person will never satiate her crazy promiscuity.
It could be argued that Lady Gaga is doing her part for her fellow bisexuals; look at her new video for “Yoü and I”. She makes out with her male alter-ego, Jo Calderone, who is technically herself in drag… doesn’t kissing a woman in drag make her as bi as they come? No. Actually. No, it doesn’t. Because it’s not bisexual at all; it’s autoerotic. And that, my friends, is an entirely different blog post.
The trend that makes all of this super cloudy (and not the clouds you draw at the end of a rainbow; the thunderstorm clouds you can’t see through) is the gender pronouns that people are using in contemporary music. In large part, I can’t say that Gaga and Jessie J and other bisexual artists are doing anything wrong, because they’re not actually singing about any gender. When they sing about a love interest, they’re singing to individuals, and we have no idea what gender those individuals identify with. The most common pronoun denoting someone besides the singer tends to be “you”: “I want your love and I want your revenge”; “I’m your biggest fan; I’ll follow you until you love me”; etc.
But when mainstream artists who do identify with a bisexual label are saying “the boys all wanna sex me”, while artists off the Billboard Top 100 who don’t ascribe to any labels, like Peaches, can sing “I don’t have to make the choice; I like girls and I like boys,” which one of them can be said to be helping support the community? Being bisexual doesn’t affect anyone’s songwriting talents, dance abilities, vocal quality… but if you think personal lives don’t affect celebrity status and popularity, ask Britney Spears what she thinks about that. How much more popular did Adam Lambert get when he cashed in the ever-popular “stepping stone stigma” and said he wasn’t bi after all, but gay? This common rejection of bisexuality as a phase makes people who truly do identify as bisexual seem naïve, and no mainstream artist wants to look anything less than savvy. You have to know your way around to survive in the spotlight. Are these artists sacrificing explicit honesty with their sexuality in order to achieve more success?
This is one of those moments in writing where you pose a question you can’t answer. I don’t know if bisexual artists owe their fans anything. I don’t know what the risk would be for Gaga to sing to a female lover next time, and not do it as Jo Calderone. I don’t know what we’re allowed to ask of our celebrity idols. But I do know that their choices make a difference, and if I’m noticing this, I can’t be the only one. Step up your game before someone sings you an NSYNC cover at your farewell concert: Bi, Bi, Bi.