One of the first questions I ask when I’m getting to know people is what kind of music they like. Music and identity are, for whatever reason, inextricably linked. The bands we like, our favorite albums, the artists we hate—it all tells the people around us who we are. Nowhere is this more obvious than TikTok, where questions of sexuality have been boiled down to a matter of music taste. Does she listen to girl in red? Or Sweater Weather? The internet makes it easy to base your personality on a specific interest, whether that be a certain aesthetic, TV show, or artist. It’s gotten to the point where doing so can feel like a necessary part of making friends, expressing yourself, and existing in general. People have always identified with art this way, but on social media, which follows a strict cycle of homogenization, interest in a musician can easily lead to someone hiding or distorting aspects of themself in order to fit the monolith of the fanbase. This phenomenon is especially common within the LGBT community, considering queer people have always had to hide parts of themselves. The question is whether tying up our identities in our Spotify accounts is actually the quick and inconsequential way of getting to know someone that we think it is.
It’s necessary, I think, to talk about how important music has been to LGBT people, especially young ones. Every queer person I know had an iPod in middle school full of music by or about gay people—genderbent covers of love songs, “She” by dodie, “She Keeps Me Warm” by Mary Lambert. Usually music is a huge part of a baby gay’s discovery process. It’s an important feeling for you, as a twelve-year-old whose only exposure to gay celebrities or characters has been Mitch and Cam on Modern Family, to find an artist who bases their entire brand on their sexuality. Artists like Troye Sivan and Hayley Kiyoko and, yes, girl in red have amassed a cult following for that very reason. The feeling, as a queer person, of hearing the lyrics to Cavetown’s “Home” or Ezra Furman’s “I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend” for the first time, or of watching Panic! at the Disco’s Brendon Urie dance around onstage to “Girls/Girls/Boys” with seven different pride flags draped over his shoulders is a specific kind of euphoria.
Similarly, young gay people tend to gravitate toward music that’s overlooked or disregarded by the general public; the bands and artists who create that kind of music are often seen as a source of inspiration because they exist in the musical margins the same way LGBT people exist in the societal ones. It’s the reason gay men have claimed artists like Ke$ha and Carly Rae Jepsen as their own, and why all gay people latch so aggressively onto emo music. (In recent years, Ke$ha has come out as bi, Brendon Urie as pansexual, and Gerard Way as gender-nonconforming; queer people gravitate toward queer people even before they know they’re queer.) The point is, the LGBT community doesn’t just use music as a way of communicating their identity to others; we use it as a way of discovering identity in ourselves. It’s an incredibly important part of the gay experience, and I don’t want to devalue it in any way by talking about music and identity in the context of social media.
The main purpose of social media is to refine yourself—to distill all the aspects of your personality into something that will make other people want to be you. Regardless of whether this was the intention when platforms like Instagram and TikTok were created, that’s what they’ve become. Because of this, and because of the fact that every platform has a time limit (for both videos and the audience’s attention), we’ve developed a kind of shorthand to help us distill our personalities even more efficiently. If you wear primary colors, you’re artsy. If you read Donna Tartt, you wish you could also read Latin. If you cuff your jeans, you’re gay. If you listen to girl in red, you’re a lesbian.
Music takes up the vast majority of this identity shorthand. The second you make a TikTok dancing to a specific audio, or post a song on your Instagram story, people can infer things about you. Proclaiming that you like something on social media means buying into a web of implications we’ve come to associate with that thing. Which brings us to girl in red.
I have a confession to make: I am woefully out of the TikTok loop. My experiences with the app have been facilitated by my partner and the myriad of ex-Viner commentary channels on YouTube; I haven’t done much exploring on my own. But from an outside perspective, TikTok looks like late-stage capitalism distilled into an app and algorithm-ed into a For You page. It goes beyond refining your personality so that people will want to be you—it’s refining your personality so that people will buy things to be more like you. It’s everybody buying those color-changing LED lights. It’s YouTube vlogs of people buying a whole new wardrobe because a specific TikTok aesthetic is just that appealing. It’s teens carefully curating their haircuts, room decor, and personality so that they might be able to make money by showing those things off, sixty seconds at a time. It’s musicians making money because the internet has created an association between their music and a sexuality. It all seems like something that’s going to hurt us in the long run.
I think creating an association between parts of yourself and songs that you like is wonderful. I think that when influencers create that association for you, it’s dangerous. There’s too much potential for those influencers—and the brands that look at them and their audience as easy money—to capitalize on our identities. We’re not too far out from Urban Outfitters selling overpriced girl in red and Sweater Weather t-shirts. (girl in red is especially bad, because mainstream brands have a history of taking explicitly queer art, removing its context, and selling it to straight people at marked-up prices. Urban Outfitters currently has a Keith Haring hoodie listed on its site for $59). Through TikTok, music becomes less of a way for young gay kids to express and clarify sexuality once they’ve becun to discover it, and more of a prepackaged starting point for that discovery.
This is the perspective of an individual, though, and one who is exceptionally disillusioned with influencer culture at that. Music is still serving as a valuable resource for the LGBT community, and the fact that it’s now filtered through the lens of identity monetization doesn’t change the fact that it’s helping people discover and express who they are. I’m sure that people are still getting that same sense of euphoria making girl in red TikToks that I got in seventh grade dancing around my room to My Chemical Romance. Today, though, when almost all the money we spend trickles up to a soon-to-be trillionaire, everything we do must be weighed against the moral scale of capitalism. It’s tiring, but necessary. Are you listening to Sweater Weather because you like it, or because of the wink-wink-nudge-nudge that’s associated with it? Do you want to share your music because you like it, or because you want people to read between the lines of online implications and discover something about you? Does the song you’re about to post speak to you, or the person people assume you are, or the person you want people to assume you are? Music is a great way to learn about another person, but I think it might be better for everyone if we asked questions about each other’s favorite songs and artists that go beyond wondering if someone… you know…
By Jack Loney
Illustration by Damien Jeon