Indigo Girls, Tracy Chapman, Melissa Etheridge, Ani DiFranco, and More
By Hank Adams
It’s Women’s History Month, and now that the subgenre of Queer Country is alive and well in the mainstream cultural consciousness (it is, right?), it’s a good time to look back on where we’ve been. Who represented queer culture, both implicitly and explicitly, before it was safe for queer artists to be out and loud and proud? These badasses. While it’s by no means exhaustive, this list of the queer country godmothers of 80s/90s rock is a great place to start.
Amy Ray and Emily Saliers hit the scene in the late 80’s with their folk rock band the Indigo Girls. Unabashedly feminist, political and totally out of the closet, the band and their music brought hope and comfort to many women who struggled with being gay in an era when homosexuality was still very much anathema.
Tracy Chapman, of “Fast Car” fame (one of the best songs ever, according to Rolling Stone), has been writing and performing since her early twenties. An advocate for gender, LGBTQ+ and racial equality, Chapman has long been a prominent face of the intersectionality of Black and queer identity. And yet Chapman is an intensely private person, and many of her songs are genderless, focused on the commonalities of life experiences rather than deep diving into the particulars of her own personal experience. Yet she slipped this slice of revolutionary art into the Top 40.
Coming out in the early 90’s, not long after she first achieved underground success in the late 80s, Melissa Etheridge’s career includes 15 albums,15 Grammy nominations and an Oscar. She’s been an activist for gay rights since the moment she came out during the 1993 presidential inaugural events. The steamy, sweaty video for her single “I’m the Only One” remains an iconic moment in queer rock history.
Ani DiFranco has been out as bisexual for the bulk of her career, writing about love and sex with both men and women. She’s also written about her experiences with abortion, and is an active advocate for gay and reproductive rights, among other causes. DiFranco’s “In or Out” directly addresses her bisexuality. Released in 1992, it was a landmark moment for queer artists and fans.
Pop and country artist k.d. lang hit the early 90s with music that embraced both her love for country music and her queer identity. For lang, the two were inseparable. They were both part of who she is. With her iconic androgynous style, lang became the face of feminine queerness for both queer and straight music fans.
Like DiFranco, Jill Sobule became one of the faces of bisexuality in the 90s. Her song “I Kissed a Girl” was a massive moment in queer music history. The song was released at a moment that felt like a turning point somewhere deep in the heart of the American psyche. Queerness was becoming something you could talk about, if not at the dinner table, then at least on a coffee date with your friends.
Frontperson for 4 Non Blondes, Linda Perry is a relentless creator and member of the Songewriters Hall of Fame. Coming out in an interview for The Advocate in the mid-90s, Perry said, “All my life I’ve loved women…I’ve never been any other way.” Along with other queer artists, Perry paved an “out and proud” path through the music industry.
A godmother of godmothers, Joan Armatrading has been cutting a path through the wilds of rock and blues, folk and Americana, country and pop since the 70s. Like Chapman, on whom she’s been a major influence, Armatrading away from the spotlight is a far more shy and retiring figure than she is on stage. Yet, like Chapman, merely by existing – as queer, Black and female – she has opened doors that were once long closed to those coming up behind her.
You don’t get more rock and roll than Joan Jett. Another godmother from the 70s, Jett formed pioneering all-girl rock band The Runaways when she was still a teenager, a band that came at rock just as hot and hard as their male counterparts. Jett forged a hard-won solo career after the band broke up, often the only woman on the male-centric rock scene. Yet not every queer musician gains a place in the queer musical lexicon by dint of being out and overtly gay, as other members of this list have shown. Joan Jett, while always coy about her sexuality, has never objected to any association with queerness.
There’s something to be said about courting ambiguity, contradiction and even controversy. Pop culture upset has followed Sinead O’Connor throughout her career, but as a self described protest singer – not a pop star – O’Connor has never failed to be anything except who and how she is. Her nebulous sexuality, so disturbing to the comfortable, is also a comfort to the disturbed. For O’Connor, defining yourself isn’t nearly as important as defining what you stand for, and what you stand against.
Hank Adams is a writer and photographer, country music fan from the way back, and an overalls enthusiast. They are based in Central Pennsylvania.