When an artiste or a public figure in the music industry capitalizes on the suspicion that they might possibly be romantically involved with another same-sex person for the sake of publicity, promotion or capitalistic gain, it is categorized as queerbaiting. Often, you can find artistes and their management using this marketing tactic to have all eyes on them, the artiste. Using the public to their advantage, in their visuals artistes tease the possibility of romantic or sexual pairings between the same sex. Done in the name of publicity, promotion, or capitalistic gain, it is an attention-grabbing, sexual preference querying, and eye-brow raising tactic. Defined as the implication of non-heterosexual relationships or same-sex attraction to encourage an LGBT+ audience, it stops behind the camera, as on-screen would be nothing of the sort.
When it comes to music, however, there are artistes who’ve been called out by an enraged audience because to onlookers, what they’re doing was the equivalent of appropriation of the LGBT+ community and culture. In June of 2021, Ocean Eyes singer Billie Eilish received backlash for the promotion for her video for her then newly released single Lost Cause. On Instagram, Eilish uploaded a photoset of herself with a bunch of ladies at a sleepover with the caption “I love girls”, which immediately sparked the question of whether she was coming out . When the video dropped, there was nothing to suggest that she was pursuing an attraction to a fellow lady. According to Rolling Stone, “This photo set caused her to be one of the many celebrities in recent years that have been the subject of queerbaiting accusations. Amid the online discourse, however, one Twitter user uploaded a tweet that perfectly summed up the current place where this discussion stands in our cultural landscape. “The conversation around queerbaiting has reached a confusing place — on the one hand, we say don’t worry about labels,” they wrote. “and on the other hand, if an artist presents even remotely ‘queer’ we interrogate them about their sexuality?”
Still with Rolling Stone, “Eilish is not the first — and indeed not the last — person to be accused of queerbaiting. Throughout the years, many artists have been subjected to accusations. Most recently, Normani was criticized on Instagram by a user and accused of something similar, which was later shared across Twitter. In her recent video for her song “Wild Side,” featuring Cardi B, the two are pictured naked and gyrating against one another. While some accusations might not hold much water, there are others that do. In 2016, Nick Jonas was promoting his soon-to-be-released album “Last Year Was Complicated.” During the publicity tour for his album, he frequently visited gay bars, [and] toyed with the question as to whether or not he’d experimented sexually with men by saying, “I can’t say I have or I haven’t,” among many other things.
Other instances of Queerbaiting in music as told by Rolling Stone include occurrences in 2018, 2019 and 2021. As reported by Rolling Stone, Ariana Grande, Rita Ora and Lil Nas X were regarded as perpetrators of Queerbaiting. The media house said, “similar accusations were drawn towards Ora after she released her song “Girls” with Cardi B, Bebe Rexha, and Charli XCX as Perry finally admitted her song “I Kissed a Girl” is problematic. Ora sang lyrics about how she was “open-minded” before going into a chorus which talks about drinking red wine and kissing girls. It not only upset fans but other musicians as well like Hayley Kiyoko and Kehlani — who called the lyrics harmful. Ora later apologized and revealed she had relationships with men and women. Grande’s song, Monopoly, which featured her close friend/co-writer Victoria Monet — was a topic of conversation in 2019 after singing the line: “I like women and men.” Social media users claimed this was queerbaiting, but she later responded on Twitter saying she “doesn’t feel the need to” label herself. Many cultural moments that were seen as boundary-pushing at the time are now being re-examined as actual queer representation is being presented on screen. Rapper Lil Nas X took the BET Awards stage in June 2021 and kissed one of his backup dancers. The stunt immediately drew comparisons to Madonna’s 2003 VMA kiss with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.
Madonna later posted a collage of Lil Nas X’s kiss and her infamous kiss on her Instagram story with text that said, “#DidItFirst.” She was immediately called out by fashion watchdog account Diet Prada, who said that her kiss was “hardly as revolutionary as Black queer men doing so.” They continued, “White [cisgender] [heterosexual] people have always been given the space to do whatever they please… including, but not limited to queerbaiting.”
Even Ariana Grande’s break up with your girlfriend, got its fair share of pointed fingers as fans were quick to feel Queerbaited as Ariana doesn’t identify as queer. Then there are the 2019 Grammys where St. Vincent who is openly queer performed with Dua Lipa for their respective singles “Masseducation” and “One Kiss”. Their performance was on the touchy, flirty side despite Dua Lipa not being queer. Then in 2014, Rihanna and Shakira released the music video for “Can’t Remember to Forget You,”. In The Guardian, Bella Qvist about it wrote, “What gets to me most, however, is the bit where Rihanna and Shakira sing ‘I’d do anything for that boy’ while touching each other’s naked skin,” she wrote. “While onscreen their use of lesbianism appears to be a way of increasing viewer interest (this is of course one of the oldest tricks in the book, think taTu), backstage they both speak openly about how they’re sucking their stomachs in trying to out-sex each other.”
These are by no means all the instances of Queerbaiting in the media. Recognized by the Oxford English Dictionary in 2021, Queerbaiting has been used in the cultural lexicon for decades. According to Julia Himberg, director and associate professor of Film and Media Studies at Arizona State University, the origins can be traced back to the early days of the internet when there was less explicit LGBT+ representation in media on fan blogs and internet forums. In music, it’s flirting with a queer person or someone pretending to be queer just for the camera with the logic that sex sells, yes, but same-sex visuals sell more. You know what they say, any press is good press, and this, queerbaiting, if done right, has the power to insanely line one’s pocket because of the thing that is like the drug of choice of the famous in the entertainment industry: Attention. In the words of Qvist regarding musicians using same-sex instances in videos: Is this being done to give queer people a platform and to advance their stories and art, or simply to get video views or spark curiosity?