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The limitations of the 'sapphic anthem'

Clairo, Katie Gavin of MUNA, and King Princess
Clairo, Katie Gavin of MUNA, and King Princess

In a 2012 essay titled "On A Lesbian Relationship With Music," music historian Suzanne Cusick asked whether there exists a certain kind of lesbian aesthetic, and "a preference for certain kinds of music that somehow reflected the patterns of lesbian desire or lesbian pleasure." Search the words "sapphic anthems" or "wlw anthems" on social media, and the answer to Cusick's question seems to be a resounding yes.

In queer communities, terms like "sapphic" or "wlw" (woman-loving woman) have grown in popularity in an attempt to name a shared identity that's broader than "lesbian," encompassing lesbians, bisexual women, and other women and femme people who experience attraction to other women. On TikTok the keywords "sapphic anthem" and "wlw anthem" yield hundreds of variations of the same sound and concept: a skinny white woman softly strumming an acoustic guitar, singing with a kind of hymnal devotion towards an imagined woman, her voice hushed, sweet and lilting.

Among lesbian and bisexual musicians, the descriptors of "sapphic" and "wlw" are most commonly associated with the music of rising Gen Z stars like Clairo, girl in red, and King Princess. Save for King Princess, whose music is often far more lascivious than her peers, these artists make first-kiss music, focused on "soft skin and soft lips," their tension derived not from the contact of skin but from the aching space between the singer's lips and the lips of her imagined lover. There's even a playful "sapphic song challenge" on the app, in which participants can rate their sexuality depending on how many songs they recognize in the mix, including those by Aurora, Dodie, Beach Bunny, and The Japanese House.

In September the pop group MUNA, in collaboration with so-called sapphic icon Phoebe Bridgers, released what was arguably the first song specifically engineered to be received as a sapphic anthem: "Silk Chiffon," alongside a music video which parodied the '90s lesbian camp film But I'm a Cheerleader. On the airy and guitar-led song, MUNA, whose three members are all in their mid-late twenties, present a thoroughly adolescent version of sapphic love: "Got my mini skirt and my rollerblades on," they sing, describing their lover's skin as feeling like "silk chiffon." Following in their wake, self-identified wlw musicians are beginning to have a more self-reflexive relationship with the tag sapphic music. Up-and-comer artist Gemma Laurence, for instance, has marketed her music as "sapphic folk." "There's one playlist called 'songs for horny teenagers in love' and another called 'sapphic yearning,'" the rising Irish artist Smoothboi Ezra told NME, describing the playlists they often see their songs added to on streaming services.

"Sapphic anthems" or "wlw anthems" are terms that have emerged to describe a lot of contemporary lesbian music, but they fail to showcase the diverse sound and identity of lesbian and bi artists working today. The songs they frequently describe seem to organize around a distinctive emotional register and musical palette, while highlighting a limiting image of a lesbian — white, skinny, cisgender, and often sexually timid.

The current definition of a sapphic song turns lesbian music and identity into a homogenous market category, one defined by softness imbued with the promise of tactility and unbearable desire. In popular "sapphic anthems," the image of the lesbian becomes intelligible to the mainstream through whiteness, a limited form of representation that is rendered even more powerfully through music, an art form that, as Cusick writes, "like good sex, re-teaches [us] how to relate to the world, how to have the nerve to open [ourselves] up to it."

The descriptor also claims territory over certain aesthetic feelings, to the point where being sapphic is no longer a requirement for making a sapphic anthem. Sapphic anthems are almost always associated with the words yearning and softness, meaning that Sufjan Stevens' diminutive and tenderhearted music, which has long been read as queer, has attracted a sapphic label, as has the devout music of straight Irish singer Hozier, who has become widely acknowledged as a kind of male sapphic icon. "I'm becoming more and more informed of my lesbian cult following and you guys are amazing," Hozier said in a 2019 Tumblr Q&A, after a fan asked if he was aware of his strong lesbian fanbase. Last year, Taylor Swift released Folklore and Evermore, two folksy and soft albums that actively repurposed the historical sound of queer, American music, Artforum's Sasha Geffen argued.

This "sapphic folk" sound isn't a recent phenomenon, but instead seems to be a continuum of the 1970s genre of "women's music" (or "womyn's" music, a term most often acknowledged as a euphemism for music made by and for lesbians.) It was at this time in the period following the Stonewall riots that lesbianism became codified as more than just a sexuality, and began to develop its own sensibility and cultural markers. Within the vessel of the gay and women's liberation movements of the '70s came the emergence of women-identified and lesbian-feminist record labels and production companies — most famously Olivia Records and Redwood Records, which were both founded in the early 1970s.

Formative players in the women's music movement, including Cris Williamson and Meg Christian, championed the aesthetic stylings of folk as a vehicle for sapphic desire. With its ties to small-scale production and protest music, folk was already imbued with liberative ideals, while also being less beholden to rigid displays of gender conformity that mainstream genres like rock and pop seemed to demand. As the concept of the sapphic anthem tends to do today, women's music often homogenized lesbian music and identity, centering a soft and white vision of sapphism, while favoring sensuality over sexuality.

Some strands of the movement were criticized for their whiteness and trans-exclusionary politics, yet despite this criticism a certain monocultural stereotype of lesbian music — not dissimilar to the one that women's music inspired — still persists through the rhetoric and aesthetic of what constitutes a sapphic anthem today. While the women's music movement was a concertedly anti-mainstream effort, based on community organization and alternative modes of production, today's sapphic music sphere is individualized, a subculture reduced to an aesthetic. It uses the tools and technologies of the cultural center to make legible only a singular image of the lesbian. A 2019 study published by Syracuse University found that the majority of queer women couples depicted in Youtube music videos made by artists between the years 2006 to 2019 were white (62.79%), thin (98.73%) and feminine (79%).

Racism is baked into the very architecture of the internet, and algorithms often privilege thin, white, cis bodies and voices. Last year, artificial intelligence researcher Marc Faddoul found that TikTok's recommendation system can create a feedback loop that promotes racial homogeneity. On TikTok, the definitions of lesbian community and identity aren't immune to being shaped by digital practices and the biases inherent therein. "Sapphic" or "wlw" music, terms popularized and brought further into the mainstream through comments and hashtags, are expressions of a datafied digital community. It's no surprise that a descriptor like sapphic to describe music, popularized on a platform like TikTok, might reflect the biases of that platform. It's why, as Michelle Kim reported for them last year, the question "do you listen to girl in red?" became trendy code on the app for "do you belong to the sapphic community?" despite the white musician's incapacity to represent everyone in that community.

The diversity of desires and experiences within said community is enormous, but it's in no way accounted for in the limited rubric of what's determined as soft, desexualized, sapphic music. Indeed, tags like "sapphic anthems" and "wlw anthems" don't seem intent on establishing lesbian community as they do a kind of mood or vibe. That's to the detriment of artists like Kehlani, Syd and Janelle Monáe, who bring significant talent, virtuosity and sex appeal to their performances of wlw experience, yet aren't included in the definition of sapphic music as its frequently described. Rappers like Young M.A., Angel Haze, Siya and Chika seldom receive the same visibility and credit as their white softcore peers, and DJs like Octo Octa and Eris Drew, who present a non-cis version of sapphism and have a strong sense of community within the dance music world, are also sidelined.

The more terms like sapphic and wlw as descriptors for music are pushed into the mainstream, the more it becomes clear that they are vehicles for whiteness and cisnormativity more than they are for sexuality. They are terms that only seem to describe and benefit cis, white artists, leading to the subordination of everyone else. "Most poc wlw can't relate to sapphic artists/music because it's centered around white femininity," one Twitter user wrote earlier this year.

Despite the insistence that these are anthems for a community, in truth these sapphic songs only showcase the look and soft, yearning desires of a select subsection. Not only does this tend to reproduce a limited imagination for those who may be discovering their sexuality, it can also cause detachment in anyone who doesn't see themselves represented in these sapphic memes and songs, encouraging them to distance themselves from the title of "sapphic" entirely and leave a community divided. As long as these labels continue to center a specific and limited version of lesbianism, anyone outside of that image, within the vast spectrum of wlw music, will be relegated to outsider status.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: November 30, 2021 at 11:00 PM CST
This piece has been updated to clarify that some strands of the women's music movement in the 1970s were criticized for trans-exclusionary politics, not the entire movement.