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Gio Bruère-Dawson
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April 26, 2024
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U.S. Lesbian History Through 5 Iconic Songs

On this glorious Friday that is lesbian visibility day, I wanted to make the lesbians not just visible, but heard and listened to, and what serves this purpose more than to rewind and explore U.S. lesbian’s history through the songs on every dyke’s record shelf, walkman, portable CD player, or Spotify?

So while Good Luck, Babe ! is playing on a loop in your head (as it should be !), let’s celebrate by learning a little about U.S. lesbian history and paying homage to iconic singers and bands who accompanied generations of sapphics. The five (well, more like seven) songs are merely just a highlight and the list is very far from exhaustive, but you can still discover more on the playlist we prepared for the occasion!

Stand By Your Man by Tammy Wynette (1968) and Stand on Your Man by Lavender Country (1973)

“Tammy was singing “Stand By Your Man,” and we were changing all the he’s to she’s inside our heads to make it fit right”

If you’ve ever read the monument of lesbian and trans literature that is Stone Butch Blues, chances are the song stuck with you. The amount of time the song is mentioned in Leslie Feinberg’s autobiographical novel demonstrates the cultural impact of the hit single of country music icon Tammy Wynette. Playing in every jukebox and radio station in the late 1960s, Stand By Your Man explores the complicated intricacies of marital life, evocating the trauma experienced by housewives stuck in abusive relationships while still pleading for unconditional love. With Tammy Wynette being a conservative and the lyrics of the song becoming more and more controversial as the feminist movement grew larger in the following years, Stand By Your Man is a good early example of queer people's alternative reading of songs, which author Steacy Easton explores in their book Why Tammy Wynette Matters. Half a decade later, America’s first lesbian country band, Lavender Country, parodied the song with Stand on Your Man, encouraging women to fight back :

“You know it's hard to be a woman

 If you get stuck with an uppity man 

If he gets sassy you might have to kick his ass”

Fast Car by Tracy Chapman (1988)

If the 1980s were a golden decade for lesbian music, with publicly out artists who fought for LGBTQIA+ rights such as The Indigo Girls, Melissa Etheridge, or k.d. Lang, Fast Car needed to be highlighted for its posterity.  Though Tracy Chapman’s iconic debut song is not about lesbians but about her parents’ story, the lyrics have long resonated among sapphics, especially lesbians of color and/or from working-class backgrounds. Evoking the hopes of two people to escape their small town together, Fast Car’s lyrics are genderless, which probably sums up why so many lesbians have been coming back to its guitar riffs. The entire album has been a source of comfort and inspiration for many, with titles like Talkin’ Bout a Revolution still relevant in the face of the current sociopolitical and economic situation.

Neanderthal dyke by Tribe 8 (1995)

Dyke Punk Band Tribe 8 doesn’t get its flowers despite being such an important part of the queercore scene of the 1990s. If it’s incredibly hard to only pick one song from their iconic album “Fist City”, Neanderthal Dyke stands out for its lyrics directly denouncing the transphobia and classism of the lesbian feminist separatist scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s. In this song, the band rejects the rigid and transphobic understanding of what a woman and a lesbian should be after their experience of playing at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival in 1994, which only allows cis-women to participate (“My political consciousness is fried, I’m not exactly woman identified”). It also criticizes the scene’s lack of accessibility for anyone who doesn’t have a degree and comes from a middle or upper-class background (“Never read McKinnon, I ride a big bike”, “Pseudo intellectual slut, You went to school did you learn how to fuck ?”), making it the ultimate anthem that demands revival.

Tell me does she love the bass by Lesbians on Ecstasy (2004) 

The 2000s are often overlooked as a decade where not much happened in the queer scene, while they were such important years for the queer movement and gave us iconic bands like Lesbians on Ecstasy. Though not American but Canadian, the band follows in the footsteps of Tribe 8 and the queercore scene. Their albums encapsulate lesbian culture, with samples and remixes that borrow from the 1977 compilation Lesbian Concentrate released by Olivia Records, Tracy Chapman, Team Dresch, or The Indigo Girls.  If their approach to music is well documented, their first goal is for lesbians to dance and have fun. Tell me does she love the bass full embodies this spirit, with a sexy bassline that made many fantasize about a bass-playing lesbian lover long before beebadoobee’s major single.

Girl by The Internet and Girls Like Girls by Hayley Kiyoko (2015)

It was way too hard to pick one single song for the decade in which I grew up as a baby lesbian. For many Gen-Zers like me, Girls Like Girls’ music video was a lesbian awakening we would keep on watching, carefully erasing our search history after each viewing. Growing up watching Disney’s star Hayley Kiyoko on our TVs to then witness her coming out and releasing songs portraying lesbian love has made her essential to this short list. Another theme song of those years spent yearning in our bedrooms is most certainly Girl by The Internet, in which we found so much comfort in Syd’s soothing voice. 

So for this lesbian day of visibility, as lesbian artists like Renée Rapp or Chappell Roan finally get the mainstream recognition they deserve, let’s not forget about our cultural history rich with bands who brought comfort to our homes and energy to our dancefloors across those years, composing the soundtrack of our fights. 

Here is a list of songs:

Worried blues - Gladys Bentley
Stand by your man - Tammy Wynette
Stand on your man - Lavender Country
Fast Car - Tracy Chapman
Talkin’ bout a revolution - Tracy Chapman
Constant craving - k.d lang
Neanderthal Dyke - Tribe 8
Butch in the streets - Tribe 8
The Queer Song - Two nice girls
Drive - Melissa Ferrick
So called Str8 Grrrl - Gina Young
Dyke march 2001 - Le Tigre
Tell me does she love the bass - Lesbians on ecstasy
She’s so lovely - The Butchies
Suck my left one - Bikini Kill
Girls like girls - Hayley Kiyoko
Girl - The Internet
Suzanne - Bermuda Triangle
Make me feel - Janelle Monae
Impurities - Arlo Parks
Terf wars - Lambrini Girls
Pretty Girl - Renée Rapp
Good luck babe! - Chappell roan

Bibliography :

Easton, Steacy, Why Tammy Wynette Matters, University of Texas Press, 2023.
Geffen, Sasha, Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary, University of Texas Press, 2020.
Wiedlack, Maria Katharina, “"I don’t give a shit where I spit my phlegm" (Tribe 8). Rejection and Anger in Queer-Feminist Punk Rock”, Transposition, 3 | 2013.
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