Whether standing firm against adversity, fighting for rights and medical research, or providing a platform for those whose voices were hitherto unheard, these pioneering LGBTQ+ musicians have added their own splash of colour to the walls of popular music’s everlasting corridors.
40: Kylie Minogue (1968-)
The former Neighbours actress became a pop sensation when she recorded the anthemic I Should Be So Lucky with Stock Aitken Waterman in 1987, earning the distinction of being the first artist to simultaneously top the UK and Australian singles charts. In time, Kylie Minogue would break away from the PWL Hit Factory, but not before recording the Pride classic Better The Devil You Know, on her third album, 1991’s Rhythm Of Love. During the decade that followed, she experimented with dance and indie music, before returning to all-out pop with 2000’s triumphant Light Years album, kick-starting a creative reinvention that would also spawn the 2010 anthem for unity, All The Lovers. Kylie’s unique connection with her LGBTQ+ fans has been a powerful constant in a career that has outclassed and outlasted early expectation. Cementing her place as one of the most iconic LGBTQ+ musicians in the world, in 2023 she headlined the opening of WorldPride in Sydney, the first time the celebration had been staged in the Southern Hemisphere.
Must hear: All The Lovers
39: Stephen Gately (1976-2009)
It’s now almost anticipated that every boy band must include at least one gay man in their line-up but, at the close of the 20th century, such near-certainties reached little further than the rumour mill. When Boyzone’s Stephen Gately was outed by the tabloids in 1999, he helped break the secrecy of silence and, in time, was joined by New Kids On The Block’s Jonathan Knight, NSYNC’s Lance Bass, Blue’s Duncan James and Westlife’s Mark Feehily. Boyzone had been one of Europe’s biggest pop acts during the 90s; Gately issued one solo album, New Beginnings, in 2000, then rejoined the band for a run of successful reunion tours and new records before his untimely, shocking death, of heart disease, in 2009.
Must hear: No Matter What
38: Luther Vandross (1951-2005)
One of the best soul singers of the 80s, Luther Vandross had one of the finest voices in the industry and, after years of backing vocal duties for acts such as Diana Ross, David Bowie (on the Young Americans album) and Donna Summer, he finally landed a solo deal at the start of the 80s. 1981’s Never Too Much secured him two Grammy nominations, for Best New Artist and Best Male R&B Vocal Performance, and it still ranks among the best love songs in pop history. The hits continued across the decades, including Stop To Love and I Really Didn’t Mean It, but 2003 saw Vandross reach a critical peak with the release of Dance With My Father, winning the star the Song Of The Year and Best Male R&B Vocal Performance Grammys the following year. Vandross had struggled with ill health in his later life, and he passed away little more than 16 months later.
Must hear: Dance With My Father
37: Demi Lovato (1992-)
Publicly declaring her non-binary status in 2021, Demi Lovato – who now uses they/them and she/her pronouns – broke out of the Disney Channel’s Camp Rock and Sonny With A Chance shows, and released their debut album, Don’t Forget, in 2008. Their third album, 2011’s Unbroken, showcased a more mature sound, including the now-standard anthem Skyscraper. 2015’s Confident was an accomplished electro-pop smash and, across their subsequent releases, Lovato has pushed musical boundaries. 2022’s Holy Fvck had plenty to say about personal empowerment, indicating that Lovato’s songwriting is going would get a lot more surprising in the years ahead.
Must hear: Confident
36: Adam Lambert (1982-)
One of the standout LGBTQ+ musicians to emerge from the world of reality TV, Adam Lambert’s career has eclipsed those of most of the outright winners of American Idol, even though he was only a runner-up in the show’s 2009 series. Working with hitmakers Max Martin and Ryan Tedder, his first solo records included sharp electro-pop cuts such as Whataya Want From Me? (originally recorded by P!nk) and the powerful Ghost Town, but it was the call from Queen’s Brian May and Roger Taylor that came as the biggest surprise. Stepping into the late Freddie Mercury’s shoes is an almost impossible challenge, but Lambert’s commanding stage presence soon had everyone convinced, and the partnership has yielded multiple international hit tours. In 2023, he released High Drama, an album of cover versions, including a haunting take on Duran Duran’s Ordinary World.
Must hear: Ordinary World
35: Troye Sivan (1995-)
Australian actor and singer-songwriter Troye Sivan enjoyed parallel careers when he was picked for a part in one of Marvel’s X-Men movies, while also building a profile as a singer. Signed in his homeland in 2013, Sivan secured his first hit with Happy Little Pill. International attention with guest slots on Taylor Swift’s Reputation Stadium Tour followed, and 2018’s My My My! was his first multi-market hit, buzzing with a confident sexuality. Sivan’s effortless confidence about his sexuality and the industry’s easy accommodation of it demonstrates just how much has changed for young LGBTQ+ musicians in the past decade.
Must hear: Dance To This (featuring Ariana Grande)
34: Sam Smith (1992-)
In 2015, Sam Smith’s Writing On The Wall became the first James Bond theme to reach No.1 in the UK, marking another peak in the meteoric career of the singer, who came out in 2014 and revealed that he was genderqueer in 2017. Their discography includes 2023’s Gloria, which features the chart-topping duet Unholy, with Kim Petras. Smith’s image has displayed a growing confidence since his extraordinary breakthrough album, In The Lonely Hour, which briefly saw him billed as the “male Adele”. In fact, his work has been far more experimental than that.
Must hear: Stay With Me
33: Janelle Monáe (1985-)
Across her entire body of work, Janelle Monáe has built sizeable critical acclaim. A featured artist of choice for Fun (the big hit We Are Young) and Duran Duran (Pressure Off, with Chic’s Nile Rodgers), it’s with the solo albums The ArchAndroid, The Electric Lady and Dirty Computer that Monáe really showcased her talent, with the latter securing a Grammy nomination for Album Of The Year. The best Janelle Monáe songs fuse pop, funk, hip-hop and neo soul in a thrillingly dynamic mix that attracted the interest of Prince, who worked with her on Dirty Computer before his untimely death.
Must hear: Make Me Feel
32: Ricky Martin (1971-)
Another boy-band alumni (he served in Menudo between 1984 and 1989), Ricky Martin broke globally in 1999 and became the first Latin act to debut at the top of the Billboard album charts. The hit single Livin’ La Vida Loca captured much of his appeal – frothy dancefloor energy and enough pop hooks to charm the Top 40 radio programmers – but Martin’s reluctance to abandon his Spanish-language roots saw him gradually lose commercial momentum outside the Latin market. In 2010, he announced that he was gay and has a family with his husband, the painter Jwan Yosef. The Puerto Rican star hasn’t released a new studio album since 2015, but he still issues new singles and tours extensively.
Must hear: She Bangs
31: Madonna (1958-)
The “Queen Of Pop”’s commitment to LGBTQ+ issues started early in her career, with an uncompromising advocacy of the rights of those suffering from HIV and AIDS. She lost many close friends and creative partners to the disease, and used her platform to include safe-sex messages (such as the information insert that appeared in her Like A Prayer album). By 1992’s Erotica, the bold statements had soared in ambition, and her work began to focus on a startling-but-powerful personal agenda which has more than earned her a place among the most important LGBTQ+ musicians of all time. Madonna’s one-woman sexual revolution further endeared her to the legions of gay men who adore her; the 1990 hit Vogue, included on the I’m Breathless soundtrack album, brought mainstream attention to New York City’s queer ballroom scene, and, well into the 21st century, her uncannily powerful observation of the cultural landscape, past and present, could still create huge hits, including the triumphant disco homage Confessions On A Dance Floor.
Must hear: Vogue
30: Ezra Furman (1986-)
Beginning her career with The Harpoons, Ezra Furman went on to release five studio albums, including 2018’s impressive Transangelic Exodus, establishing herself as one of the most notable LGBTQ+ musicians of her generation. Drawing likenesses to the noisiness of Ramones and New York Dolls, Furman’s trademark is a consistent fusion of abrasive sections with delicately arranged, authentic alt-pop. Not only is the Chicagoan more than comfortable constructing original and interesting material through concept albums, but she published a book on Lou Reed’s Transformer album as part of the 33⅓ series, as well as supplied the soundtrack for progressive UK comedy-drama Sex Education.
Must hear: Driving Down To LA
29: Jermaine Stewart (1957-1997)
We Don’t Have To Take Our Clothes Off remains Jermaine Stewart’s crowning achievement. Despite a general (and perhaps undeserving) lack of commercial success, Stewart’s magnum opus is larger than life and celebrates everything flamboyant about the mid-80s. “Larger than life” would also be an apt way to describe the Ohio singer, who learned his trade as a soul-music dancer in Chicago and later worked closely with Culture Club. Remember him this way, as opposed to another harrowing statistic due to AIDS, which cut his life unfairly short at just 39.
Must hear: We Don’t Have To Take Our Clothes Of
28: Laura Jane Grace (1980-)
Born in Fort Benning, Georgia, Laura Jane Grace had a tumultuous time growing up (significant events include dropping out of school and being arrested for challenging a police officer over a petty crime), before finding inspiration in the music of legendary British anarcho-punk band Crass. By her mid-teens, the seeds had been sewn: she was punk through and through, and she formed her own band, Against Me!, in 1997, living with the group on the fringes of society until their critically acclaimed debut album, Against Me! Is Reinventing Axl Rose, was released in 2002. Grace had been making allusions to being transgender through her music as early as 2005, and came out in 2012, with full support from friends, family and the band. One of the most pioneering LGBTQ+ musicians of her generation, she continues to make music today, and remains politically active, having notably hosted the 2019 Heavy Music Awards in Kentish Town, London, and endorsing the music charity Nordoff Robbins.
Must hear: True Trans Soul Rebel
27: Pete Burns (1959-2016)
Dead Or Alive frontman Pete Burns made waves with his heavily androgynous appearance in the video for the band’s breakthrough single, You Spin Me Round (Like A Record). Known for his glamorous appearance and distinctive voice, Burns enjoyed a career spanning three decades, and appeared in numerous TV shows, most notably the fourth series of Celebrity Big Brother. Despite being one of the UK’s most prominent LGBTQ+ musicians for most of his life, the singer felt the need to clear up certain misconceptions in his biography, Freak Unique, rather innocently stating, “Am I gay, bi, trans or what? I say forget all that… I’m just Pete.”
Must hear: You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)
26: Holly Johnson (1960-)
In December 2021, Frankie Goes To Hollywood frontman Holly Johnson delivered an empowering performance of The Power Of Love on the newly rebooted comedy panel show Never Mind The Buzzcocks. Making his appearance all the more impactful was the fact that Johnson was diagnosed with HIV in 1991 and did not expect to live through the rest of the 90s, let alone make it into the 2020s. His 1994 memoir, A Bone In My Flute, details his exceptional career, as well as his struggles with life, sexuality and everything in between. He has also gifted the world some of the best 80s songs: Two Tribes, Relax and highlights from his solo work (including Americanos, a study of a failed American dream) all remain triumphant classics from this inspiring LGBTQ+ musician.
Must hear: Relax
25: Courtney Barnett (1987-)
Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett released her third album, Things Take Time, Take Time, in November 2021, continuing her signature style of delivering blunt and droll lyrics over psychedelic, folky guitars. Having also collaborated with Kurt Vile (their efforts spawning Lotta Sea Lice, one of 2017’s finest albums), Barnett’s material has won her well-deserved ARIA awards such as Best Female Artist, Best Rock Album and even Best Cover Art. The singer was in a relationship with fellow-Australian Jen Cloher for six years, with both influencing the progression of each other’s individualistic and poetic style of music.
Must hear: Avant Gardener
24: Frank Ocean (1987-)
“By the time I realised I was in love, it was malignant. It was hopeless.” Forever the romantic, Frank Ocean took to Tumblr in 2012 ago to speak about his experiences with intimacy. Not that it was ever completely under wraps – his tongue-in-cheek line on Odd Future’s Oldie says it all: “I’m high and I’m bi – wait, I mean I’m straight.” Paving the way for male LGBTQ+ musicians in R&B, Ocean has very coolly crafted his own amorous and introspective world with huge releases, including channel ORANGE and Blonde, the latter of which contains Nights, a track often said to feature one of the greatest beat switches of all time. His music provides a soundtrack to those who feel their love lives (or lack thereof) play out like a film, and Ocean himself certainly has a director’s touch. His visual album, Endless, is pristine in its black-and-white glory, teeming with influences from classic R&B to The Beach Boys.
Must hear: Nights
23: SOPHIE (1986-2021)
Scottish-born Sophie Xeon was a jack of all trades. Eccentric and experimental, Xeon was praised for her unique touch on contemporary pop, as well as her impressive background in producing records for big acts, namely Charli XCX, Flume and Madonna. But with her own work, listeners found something uncompromising and agile: a kind of victorious beacon of hyperactive soundscapes. After her tragically young death in January 2021, aged just 34, her only album, OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES, will forever provide a beautiful glimpse into the exquisite world Xeon created.
Must hear: It’s Okay To Cry
22: Christine And The Queens (1988-)
By 2016, Chris was already considered by Vanity Fair to be the most powerful and influential French person in the world. Since then, she’s released an eponymous sophomore effort (which The Guardian ranked the best album of 2018), appeared in the BBC’s 100 Women series and performed on the 11th season finale of RuPaul’s Drag Race. One of the most celebrated LGBTQ+ musicians of recent years, it seems that Chris will continue to find success wherever she goes; she’s won numerous awards, and her electronic, “freakpop” mastery – influenced by the transgender community, T. Rex and Björk – draws the attention of almost three million monthly listeners on Spotify.
Must hear: People, I’ve Been Sad
21: Lil Nas X (1999-)
With its Nine Inch Nails sample and distorted, country-esque pop sound, Lil Nas X’s breakthrough single, Old Town Road, took the world by storm upon its release in 2018, and received a buffed-up Billy Ray Cyrus remix the following year. The song has since gone on to sell over 18 million copies and was placed 490th in the 2021 revision of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time list. The rapper came out as gay the same year, tweeting, “Thought I made it obvious,” making him the only musician so far to come out while holding a No.1 single. His debut album, MONTERO, followed in 2021, with guest appearances from Elton John, Megan Thee Stallion and Doja Cat cementing Lil Nas X’s place among the most important LGBTQ+ musicians of the day.
Must hear: Old Town Road
20: kd lang (1961-)
The “Canadian Cowpunk” that is kd lang is something of a heavyweight among LGBTQ+ musicians, having collaborated with legends ranging from Roy Orbison to Madeleine Peyroux. She’s also been inducted into The ArQuives: Canada’s LGBTQ2+ Archives, a non-profit organisation whose goal is to preserve key work among LGBTQ+ individuals. lang publicly came out in 1992 and has strongly supported gay rights causes, as well as animal rights and research into AIDS, before she was made an Officer Of The Order Of Canada in 1996. And yet it’s her music that inspires most. Her most popular song, Constant Craving, embodies everything great about her: vulnerable when she wants to be and yet unafraid of who she is.
Must hear: Constant Craving
19: Kate Pierson (1948-)
As one quarter of The B-52s, the Athens, Georgia, band who saw mainstream success in the late-70s with Rock Lobster and then again in the 80s with Love Shack, Kate Pierson – who declared herself bisexual in 2015 – helped make the group’s LGBTQ+ affiliation obvious to anyone paying attention (the music video for Love Shack features footage of a euphoric RuPaul). The band enjoyed an impressive following throughout the 80s and worked with the likes of Talking Heads’ frontman David Byrne and legendary DJ Shep Pettibone, but went on hiatus after guitarist Ricky Wilson died of AIDS in 1985. The band reformed three years later and continue to tour to this day.
Must hear: Roam
18: Jimmy Somerville (1961-)
Jimmy Somerville is most famous for forging grandiose floorfillers, from The Communards’ magnificent Don’t Leave Me This Way to the ethereal Smalltown Boy, which appeared on Bronski Beat’s seminal debut album, Age Of Consent. Having been set in 1967, the age in question for male same-sex intercourse was then 21, much to the dismay of groups like Lesbians And Gays Support The Miners, an LGBTQ+ organisation who stood with Welsh miners in 1984 in their fight to keep jobs and improve working conditions. Somerville joined the effort, too, playing a benefit concert in December that year in Camden Town; the group’s battle and Somerville’s assistance is documented in the 2014 film Pride.
Must hear: Smalltown Boy
17: Bob Mould (1960-)
Founder member of both the essential 80s hardcore band Hüsker Dü and the 90s alt-rock band Sugar, Bob Mould is something of an unsung hero among LGBTQ+ musicians. Where Hüsker Dü (along with groups such as Minutemen and The Replacements) reshaped the face of US punk in the 80s, Mould pressed on to craft a unique 90s sound with Sugar, enjoying success and critical acclaim alongside similar bands such as Archers Of Loaf, Sebadoh and Jawbox. Away from music, Mould came out as gay in a Spin magazine interview in 1990, and in 2004 he helped raise tens of thousands of dollars in support of legalising same-sex marriage across the US via the WEDRock concert.
Must hear: Turn On The News
16: Neil Tennant (1954-)
The Guardian have declared Pet Shop Boys’ West End Girls to be the greatest UK No.1 single of all time – a fair decision. The best Pet Shop Boys songs (among them Domino Dancing, What Have I Done To Deserve This and Suburbia) provided musical context to 80s Britain. Behind them is Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant, the latter of whom holds one striking portfolio: synthpop hero, Smash Hits assistant editor, patron of the Elton John AIDS Foundation and leading contributor in obtaining code-cracker Alan Turing a long-overdue posthumous pardon.
Must hear: West End Girls
15: Brian Molko (1979-)
Brian Molko is the androgynous, openly bisexual face of alt-rock band Placebo, whose music helped bring discussion of sexuality into the mainstream in the 90s. During an era dominated by Britpop and “Cool Britannia” optimism, Placebo’s exploration of the darker sides of contemporary life attracted thousands of like-minded fans, leading to sell-out shows across the UK and Europe, gold-certified album sales – and a friendship with early supporter David Bowie.
Must hear: Nancy Boy
14: Cyndi Lauper (1953-)
When She’s So Unusual hit the shelves in 1983, young women the world over suddenly had one hell of a role model – but it almost didn’t happen. A lawsuit following her first band’s commercial bomb forced Lauper into bankruptcy. Thanks to her rebellious roots and her defiant demeanour, Cyndi helped sway what it meant to be a woman in pop and diminished impossible standards created by the likes of MTV; in 2019, her stellar debut album was considered significant enough to be preserved in the National Recording Registry. Her leadership qualities extend outside her music: as one of the 80s’ most pioneering LGBTQ+ musicians, Lauper has been a fierce advocate for LGBTQ+ rights in the US for decades.
Must hear: Time After Time
13: Marc Almond (1957-)
Marc Almond is not your everyday 80s pop icon: he has an OBE, for a start, and has seemingly done it all. Survivor of a near-fatal motorbike crash, he is a patron of the brain-trauma charity Headway, has collaborated with avant-garde legends such as Current 93 and Coil, and is an acknowledged trailblazer among the most pioneering LBGTQ+ musicians of all time. Most famous for his work with Soft Cell, whose debut album, Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, provided a seedier counterpart to the era’s New Romantic scene, Almond made a name for himself with huge singles such as Tainted Love, Torch and Say Hello, Wave Goodbye. These were just the beginning. He has since gone on to release over 20 solo albums spanning a remarkable five-decade career.
Must hear: Tainted Love
12: Rob Halford (1951-)
The “Metal God’” (as he is known) is nothing short of a hard-rock icon. Halford fronts Judas Priest, who, along with Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, are celebrated as pioneers of British heavy metal. Despite his famous stage persona and suggestive outfits throughout the 80s (apparently, bursting onto stage in leather and chrome gear on a motorcycle before bursting into Hell Bent For Leather wasn’t clear enough), Halford struggled with shielding his sexuality for years. Coming out to The Advocate in 1998 was “the greatest thing I could have done for myself”, he said, and his fears of backlash were settled thanks to countless messages of support from fans. Metal tends to be a LGBTQ+ tolerant genre as it stands, but Halford’s hallowed position only cements that further.
Must hear: Living After Midnight
11: Janis Joplin (1943-1970)
One of the best female singers of the 60s, the electrifying Janis Joplin epitomised the free spirit and “wild child” nature of the decade. Misunderstood from the get-go due to her appearance and love for black music (namely, Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey), Joplin remembered being ostracised for her interests as early as high school. However, she went on to become the voice of a generation, leading up to one of the most defining moments of the era: her Woodstock performance in 1969, backed by a full-band ensemble (her previous group, Big Brother And The Holding Company, had split by this time). Joplin had relationships with both men and women, and remained unfazed by rumours and the press speculating about her sexuality, instead embodying the bohemian notion still synonymous with her name.
Must hear: Piece Of My Heart
10: Michael Stipe (1960-)
“What was the best kiss of your life?” “Allen Ginsberg.” When Michael Stipe wasn’t smooching veteran Beat poets, he was the enigmatic frontman of R.E.M., perhaps America’s greatest rock band. His mysteriousness, genius and particularly elusive writing style resonated with millions of listeners, helping R.E.M. graduate from their college rock, jangle-pop early years into a gigantic stadium act. Perhaps Stipe’s most recognisable asset was his blue “goblin” stripe mask he donned around the early 2000s, most notably during the band’s performance at 2005’s Live 8. Like other LGBTQ+ musicians – Pete Burns and Janis Joplin among them – Stipe rejected a pigeonholing of his sexuality, telling gay magazine Butt in 2004: “I think there’s a line drawn between gay and queer, and for me, queer describes something that’s more inclusive of the grey areas.”
Must hear: Electrolite
9: Wendy Carlos (1939-)
Wendy Carlos’ legacy is unprecedented. Helping to revive classical music in the 60s, courtesy of an album of Moog synthesiser covers of Bach compositions? Check. Composing the scores of Tron, The Shining and A Clockwork Orange? Check. Batting off intense stigma surrounding the transgender community for nearly 60 years? Check. With a keen ear for delicate compositions and exceptional musical scores, Carlos’ intelligence is second to none, but equally impressive are her pioneering movements in becoming herself: undergoing sex reassignment surgery in 1972 and publicly declaring her sexuality in the May 1979 issue of Playboy, Carlos remains a trailblazer among LGBTQ+ musicians.
Must hear: Tron Suite
8: George Michael (1963-2016)
Few singers have had a career quite like George Michael. His humble and high-spirited beginnings in Wham! later developed into mature, time-stopping moments on his first two legendary solo albums, Faith and Listen Without Prejudice Vol.1. The latter became a key aspect of his 1994 court case with Sony, over feelings that the label had “punished” the singer by failing to properly promote his album. Now an icon among LGBTQ+ musicians, Michael was dealing with internal issues at the time and felt that Sony pushing the “sex symbol” persona on him had backed him into a corner. This, paired with losing partner Anselmo Feleppa to AIDS in 1993, made for dark times, but there was little to stop Michael’s charitable and altruistic exploits, volunteering in soup kitchens and campaigning for LGBTQ+ rights and AIDS research until his sudden passing in 2016.
Must hear: Father Figure
7: Elton John (1947-)
Sir Elton is perhaps the most decorated of all LGBTQ+ musicians. Active since 1967, the lifelong fan (and intermittent owner) of Watford FC has sold over 250 million records, earned a knighthood and raised over £350 million for the Elton John AIDS Foundation. The entertainer has tirelessly advocated for LGBTQ+ rights around the world, including Russia, where, in 2013, he asked President Vladimir Putin if he would like to know about various citizens who have been penalised under Russian anti-homosexual legislation. Sir Elton’s philanthropy and humanitarian stance has garnered him many friendships, including Eminem, who he helped get sober in the mid-2000s. Eminem returned the favour; as revealed on The Graham Norton Show, he purchased two diamond-encrusted sexual enhancers for John and his husband, David Furnish. John declared they have “remained unused”.
Must hear: Tiny Dancer
6: Freddie Mercury (1946-1991)
Rob Halford once joked, “If Freddie hadn’t have been gay, Queen would’ve been a totally different band.” Apart from the fact it’s probably more appropriate to consider Freddie bisexual, Halford is right; Mercury was the quintessential performer, full of life and energy, and with one of the greatest voices of all time to boot. Be it performing in drag in the music video for I Want To Break Free, or commanding tens of thousands live at Wembley, he gave everything 100 per cent and appeared (for the most part) wholly unashamed of his true self. Following his death, The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert For AIDS Awareness featured performances from gargantuan acts, including Elton John, Metallica, Guns N’ Roses and Liza Minelli (a gay icon in her own right). Mercury’s status as one of the most pioneering LGBTQ+ musicians continues to send ripples through pop culture. It’s a legacy that’s unlikely to ever be topped.
Must hear: Killer Queen
5: David Bowie (1947-2016)
There was always something about David Bowie that was difficult to put a finger on – appearance-wise, not quite male, but not quite female, either. Perhaps glam rock’s greatest champion, Bowie’s archetypal androgyny and alter egos metamorphosed from decade to decade, securing his place as one of the most unpredictably brilliant artists of the 20th century. His sexuality, while still debated, is besides the point; no one else quite reflected the confusing and exciting times of young people in 70s England, and no song summarises it quite like Rebel Rebel: “You’ve got your mother in a whirl/She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl/Hey, babe, your hair’s alright/Hey, babe, let’s go out tonight.”
Must hear: Rebel Rebel
4: Bessie Smith (1894-1937)
Closely mentored by Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith honed her craft well, and her brooding recording of Down Hearted Blues sold over one million copies. Before assuming the nickname “The Empress Of The Blues”, Smith toured the US via club circuits, performed on Broadway and made in a single film appearance in 1929. Before long, she became the highest-paid black artist of her time, penning songs that tackled themes ranging from social injustice to female sexuality and ambiguity, paving the way for female LGBTQ+ musicians to follow. Her death, a result of two serious car collisions, saw her funeral attended by thousands of people, but she was buried in an unmarked grave until 1970, when a certain Janis Joplin paid to have a tombstone erected in her honour.
Must hear: Down Hearted Blues
3: Little Richard (1932-2020)
One of the most influential Black musicians of all time, Little Richard helped invent rock’n’roll music. From his humble beginnings in Macon, Georgia, where he was born Richard Wayne Penniman, to commanding crowds of thousands in theatres and music venues across the US, Little Richard paved the way for rock- and blues-structured music to become the dominant form of pop for the next half century. Less well known is his prolonged inner conflict between his sexuality and his religious beliefs – a decades-long struggle which for a period saw him quit rock’n’roll for the church. As a live performer, Richard made an undeniable impact, with his flamboyant stage presence influencing everyone from Mick Jagger to Prince.
Must hear: Tutti Frutti
2: Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992)
A Renaissance woman, Marlene Dietrich did it all: boxer, lover, singer, drag-ball punter, film star, radio personality and fashionista. Revered for her endlessly glamorous portrayals in cinema and also her compassionate work during World War II, Dietrich still stands as one of the most recognisable and talented women in Hollywood. Her singing career, which spanned six decades, is filled with hidden gems that tend to hark back to dark cabaret clubs in Berlin, especially Lili Marlene, in which Dietrich somehow sings sombre German with the cool sensuality of French.
Must hear: Lili Marlene
1: Ma Rainey (1886-1939)
If there has to be some genesis of the LGBTQ+ icon, Ma Rainey is likely the best choice. Prove It On Me Blues alone is a startlingly open portrayal of Rainey’s comfort with cross-dressing and her preference for women: “Went out last night with a crowd of my friends/They must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men.” Topping our list of the most pioneering LGBTQ+ musicians of all time, Rainey truly walked the walk and talked the talk, defying social norms and battling stigmas – after all, this was a black, LGBTQ+ woman stating, in 1928, that she’ll “Talk to the gals just like any old man.” Decades ahead of her time and a maestro of deeply affecting blues, Rainey is celebrated as a motherly figure in rock’n’roll and influenced countless cherished artists, from Dinah Washington to Louis Armstrong.
Must hear: Prove It On Me Blues
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