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Troye, Olly, Haley light up ’18 pop music landscape

Queer artists increasingly mainstream with many high-profile releases

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Some of this year’s top albums were by LGBT artists. (Photos courtesy the respective labels)

This has been a year filled with comebacks and breaks from extended hiatuses in the pop music world. But instead of returning to more of the same, this year artists have made surprising choices. 

Kylie Minogue’s “Golden” had a country sound, Scissor Sisters frontman Jake Shears came out with his first full-length solo record and Cher released an entire album of ABBA covers.

Legendary singer Barbra Streisand released her politically charged, though somewhat disappointing, “Walls,” and Christina Aguilera was back with her first new album in six years. And Robyn ended an eight year gap with the release of her album “Honey.”

Additionally, a new generation of pop performers continues to thrive. Janelle MonáeAriana GrandeHayley KiyokoCharlie PuthTroye SivanYears & Years and Shawn Mendes have all come out with solid new albums. Monáe, Years & Years’ Olly Alexander, Kiyoko and Sivan have been forward with their queerness.

The following albums are some of the best albums released by queer artists this year and they leave us with (relatively) high expectations for the year to come. We could make it a solid 10 if we opened it up to straight acts but, ehhh, they get enough mainstream attention so we’ll just go with six here. 

6. Panic! At The Disco ‘Pray For The Wicked’

Panic! At The Disco frontman Brendon Urie’s official coming out coincided with the release of the new album. Though the album is nothing revolutionary, it is an excellent pop punk record, a genre that Urie, along with groups like Fall Out Boy and Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, has helped to perfect. The album hearkens back to some of the best Panic! At The Disco records, though Urie has taken a decisively pop turn. 

“Pray For The Wicked” hit the Billboard No. 1 spot, right on the heels of the 2016 No. 1 “Death Of A Bachelor.” The songs “Hey Look Ma, I Made It” and “Dancing’s Not A Crime” stand out in particular. Despite the decline of good pop punk music in recent years, Urie has made it clear he plans to stick around and that the genre still has room to expand.

5. Years & Years ‘Palo Santo’

“Palo Santo” is Years & Years’ sophomore album and a sign that the group is continuing to develop in provocative ways. Queer frontman Olly Alexander has considerable musical and thematic range.

Much like Janelle Monáe’s “Dirty Computer,” “Palo Santo” is set in a quasi-dystopian future that does not shy away from politics. The accompanying visual album illustrates this nicely, if not strangely. The production value is superb and the album has a good overall flow. This is definitely a group to keep on the radar and the album as a whole is excellent, beyond just the catchy lead single “If You’re Over Me,” which had success on the Billboard Official U.K. Singles Chart.

4. Hayley Kiyoko ‘Expectations’

Hayley Kiyoko’s “Expectations” was one of the most exciting album releases of the year. Kiyoko, a lesbian, made a big splash with her debut album “Expectations,” which landed at the Billboard No. 12 spot. It is very smart dance pop record and less redundant than others in the genre. 

This is perhaps because of the variety on the album. Lead single “Sleepover” has strong R&B feel that Kiyoko pulls off quite well. And “Feelings” is solid dance pop track. But “What I Need,” featuring Kehlani, is perhaps the most memorable of the new record. We have good reason to look forward to the next iteration of Kiyoko’s sound.

3. Jake Shears ‘Jake Shears’

Scissor Sisters frontman Jake Shears came out with his first full solo album, titled eponymously.

Following the hiatus of Scissor Sisters after the release of their 2012 “Magic Hour,” Shears has ventured out, moving to New Orleans and making his Broadway debut in “Kinky Boots.” The album features much of the fun, quirky, eccentric qualities one expects from a Scissor Sisters record, but with a more diverse array of music influences. 

Shears regularly mixes blues, country and pop in his refreshing instrumentations. The pervasive influence of artists like Elton John and Queen are felt throughout, but Shears remains convincingly original. “Creep City” and “Sad Song Backwards” are among the most enjoyable tracks on the album.

2. Troye Sivan ‘Bloom’

Troye Sivan, gay news, Washington Blade

Troye Sivan (Photo courtesy of Universal)

Troye Sivan was finally out with his new album “Bloom” following after his widely successful 2015 debut, “Blue Neighbourhood.” And in comparison to “Blue Neighbourhood,” “Bloom” is slightly underwhelming. For the most part, Sivan is relying on the same formula. “Bloom” is more of a part two to “Blue Neighbourhood” than a new chapter. The only song to go against the trend is “Animal,” which takes a quasi-psychedelic, Frank Ocean-esque turn — and with great success.  

Singles “My! My! My!,” “Bloom” and “Dance to This” are extremely catchy dance tunes and Sivan seems very much in his element, awkward dancing and all. Though it explores little new territory, Sivan remains reliably good and the most prominent young gay artist in the pop music world and that is a very good thing.

1. Janelle Monáe ‘Dirty Computer’

Janelle Monáe’s “Dirty Computer” is one of the best conceived and best executed albums of the year. Her fully fleshed out dystopian world is smart, fresh and thematically substantial in a way rarely seen in pop music (with notable exceptions like Lady Gaga). And she uses this dystopian universe as a means of talking about politics, race and sexuality — and often in very bold ways, as in her “PYNK” music video, a celebration of the female body. 

But it’s not just the concepts that count. Songs such as “Make Me Feel,” where one feels the inspiration of Michael Jackson and Prince, and “Crazy, Classic, Life” are both catchy and musically innovative.

Building on the success of her previous albums “The ArchAndroid” (2010) and “The Electric Lady” (2013), “Dirty Computer” and its accompanying visual album (or “emotion picture,” as she calls it) make for a seamless third chapter. It’s clear Monáe understands the importance not only of an overarching concept but also of each individual track. 

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Music & Concerts

5 little questions for bounce queen Big Freedia

New tour comes to D.C. on Sept. 29

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Big Freedia plays D.C. next week. (Photo by kathclick via Bigstock)

There wasn’t much good news coming out of Katrina-ravaged New Orleans in 2005, but bounce music queen Big Freedia changed that narrative when she returned to the Big Easy to uplift community spirits with her high-energy stage performances. 

She was already well known in the area, having made a name for herself on the Crescent City club scene, and she was just starting to break out nationally. Fast forward a decade to 2016 and she was a full-fledged star featured on Beyoncé’s “Formation,” and Drake’s “Nice For What” in 2018. In 2021, after a lengthy hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Freedia is bigger than ever, with a current tour and a new album, “Big Diva Energy.” The D.C. stop on the tour is Sept. 29 at Lincoln Theatre; tickets available at ticketnetwork.com.

WASHINGTON BLADE: You have a penchant for purses. What’s a favorite in your own collection, and what’s one you can’t wait to get your hands on?

BIG FREEDIA: Michael Kors is one of my all time favorites, but I can’t wait to get my hands on the new Tory Burch tote that I ordered. It’s burgundy and I cannot wait for it to arrive!

 BLADE: You always have the wildest looks. Where does your style inspiration come from? What’s one place you love to source your pieces?

BIG FREEDIA: My looks are inspired by anything and everything I see. I can be at the grocery store, watching a movie, or touring in a new city and get ideas and style inspiration. My secret sourcing spot is on Melrose Avenue in L.A. I won’t tell you the name though; it’s my secret.

BLADE: You’re also a gun-violence activist. Your brother was killed a few years ago by gunfire, and you’ve been shot yourself. A documentary on the subject called “Freedia Got a Gun” – starring you – is available to stream on Peacock. Was this a cathartic project for you?

BIG FREEDIA: I haven’t the slightest idea how to solve the awful gun violence problem we have in America. I do believe in prevention though, and I know that mental health is a very important part of it for our Black and LGBTQ+ youth – all youth. If kids have hope and opportunities, a life of violence will be much less likely. I am very much an advocate of mental health services and support in our communities. 

BLADE: What do you have planned for your fans that have waited so long to see you on tour? 

BIG FREEDIA: A Big Freedia show is a big party, so they can expect an even bigger party since we’ve been in our homes. Extra energy, extra Bounce! All I can say is please BE VACCINATED if you come to a show and let us all celebrate safely. 

BLADE: Tell me all about your next album. Are there any fire collabs in the works?

BIG FREEDIA: I’m very excited about my new project. It’s called “Big Diva Energy.” I wanted this to be my album and reflect my voice, so I didn’t get collabs. My homegirl, Boyfriend, is on one track. We’ve worked a ton together this year, but she’s the only one.

Mikey Rox is an award-winning journalist and LGBTQ lifestyle expert whose work has been published in more than 100 outlets across the world. Connect with Mikey on Instagram @mikeyroxtravels.

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Music & Concerts

Live music returns to D.C.

9:30 club, The Anthem, Fillmore, and more fill up calendars for fall

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HER performs at the Anthem on Oct. 25.

Fall is almost here. And, with cooler weather fast approaching and more people getting vaccinated, many venues have decided to go full force with their programming. Here are a few events you should make sure to mark in your calendar. 

The Anthem

Juanes will grace The Anthem’s stage on Tuesday, Sept. 21 for his Origen Tour. The show begins at 8 p.m. and tickets can be purchased for $55 on Ticketmaster. 

Other fall highlights include: Violent Femmes with Flogging Molly on Sept. 26 at 6:30 p.m.; Dead Can Dance on Oct. 11 at 8 p.m.; HER – Gabi Wilson on Oct. 25; and former TV anchor Katie Couric brings her book tour to the venue on Oct. 30 at 7:30 p.m.

9:30 Club/Merriweather

Bob Mould returns to 9:30 to perform along with Kestrels on Sept. 18; Tinashe brings her “333 Tour” on Oct. 3; Alec Benjamin sold out his first show on Oct. 4 so a second has been added for Oct. 5; and for all the ‘90s fans, White Ford Bronco performs Oct. 15. 

“92Q End of Summer Jam Featuring Future” will be at the Merriweather Post Pavilion on Sunday, Sept. 19. This event will feature prominent artists including rappers Future, City Girls, Moneybagg Yo, and 42 Dugg. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and the concert begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are selling for as low as $99, and you can purchase them on Ticketmaster.

U Street Music Hall will present Luttrell on Saturday, Sept. 25. At 10:00p.m. D.C. DJ Sabeel Cohan will also play a set at the show. Tickets are available on Ticketmaster and cost $20. 

Fillmore

Jack Harlow, who recently featured on gay singer Lil Nas X’s song “Industry Baby,” will be performing at Fillmore on Saturday, Sept. 18 for his Crème de la Crème Tour. Babyface Ray and Mavi will be performing as well. This standing room only event begins at 7:30 p.m. and tickets are $29.50. For more information, visit Fillmore’s website.

Tanzanian superstar and BET Best International Act award nominee Diamond Platnumz will perform on Sunday, Oct. 10 at 7 p.m. Tickets are as low as $39.99 for general admission. This event is a standing room only event. More information is available on Fillmore’s website.

Fillmore will also present Nigerian singer Omah Lay on Monday, Sept. 27. Tickets are $27 and doors open at 8 p.m. This is a standing room only event.

Dance Gavin Dance will play at Fillmore as part of their Afterburner Tour on Wednesday, Sept. 29. Doors open at 6 p.m. and tickets can be purchased for $29.50 on Fillmore’s website. 

Howard Theatre

Jay Electronica and Smoke DZA will perform at the Howard Theatre on Saturday, Sept. 18 at 9 p.m. A-King will host the event. Doors open at 7 p.m. and the concert begins at 9 p.m. Advance tickets cost $25 and can be purchased on the Howard Theatre’s website.

Grammy Award-winning singer iLe will bring some bolero tunes to the Howard Theatre on Friday, Oct. 1 at 8 p.m. Doors open at 6 p.m. and tickets cost $39. Visit the Howard Theatre’s website for more information. 

“The Biggest ‘90s Party Ever” will be hosted on Saturday, Oct. 9 at 8:15 p.m. Join the Howard Theatre in your best ‘90s-inspired attire for a night of nostalgic vibes and ‘90s tunes. Advance tickets are $34.99 and tickets purchased the day of the event will be $60. For more information, visit the Howard’s website.

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Music & Concerts

Musical adventurer Rufus Wainwright returns to touring, plays D.C. Sept. 28

From Judy to Shakespeare to opera, gay wunderkind embraces it all

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Rufus Wainwright says critics considered his 2020 album a ‘seminal’ project. (Photo by Tony Hauser)

Rufus Wainwright and Jose Gonzalez
Unfollow the Rules in the Local Valley Tour
The Anthem
901 Wharf St., S.W.
Tuesday, Sept. 28
8 p.m. (doors: 630)
$55-75
ticketsonsale.com
theanthemdc.com
rufuswainright.com

After some artistic detours — in 2018, a second opera; before that, an album of songs based on Shakespearean sonnets in 2016 — Rufus Wainwright returned to his “regular” music in July 2020 with the release of his 10th studio album “Unfollow the Rules,” which was critically embraced and nominated for a Grammy.

A live album of the “Unfollow” material dubbed “The Paramour Sessions” was released Sept. 10.

Wainwright, 48, spoke to the Blade by phone on Sept. 1 from Nashville where he had a City Winery show that night as part of his “Unfollow the Rules Tour.” He joins Jose Gonzalez for the “Unfollow the Rules in the Local Valley Tour,” a co-headlining, 10-city mini-tour, next week. They play The Anthem on Sept. 28. Then Wainwright, who’s been publicly out since his eponymous debut album dropped in 1998, will resume his solo tour next month in the U.K. His comments have been slightly edited. 

WASHINGTON BLADE: You’re back on the road. What have the audiences been like?

RUFUS WAINWRIGHT: Well, they’re very excited. … There’s definitely a palpable sense of appreciation and excitement. And it’s good to be back.

BLADE: Do you feel safer singing more of the new album now that it’s been out a year and people have had time to absorb it? Is that easier than trying to sing more of it when it’s just out?

WAINWRIGHT: I definitely enjoy the whole kind of common knowledge thing now that exists with this album. And certainly having this other record, “The Paramour Sessions,” to promote as well, which is just another take on some of the same material. One can also go on a bit of a deeper dive. You know, this album actually did very well critically, it was nominated for a Grammy and a lot of people consider it a seminal work for me. I think it can handle that stretch.

BLADE: Do the new songs dovetail fairly naturally with your older songs in a set?

WAINWRIGHT: Yeah, I mean, this album is very much related to my first album. I’m not going to be doing my first album in the show, but it’s kind of a return to my California roots. You know, where I began my career over 20 years ago. The songs are answers in a way to some of the questions raised on the first album. … I’m not singing them back to back or anything, but a lot of my fans have followed me from the beginning so we all get it.  

BLADE: How did “Unfollow the Rules: The Paramour Sessions” come about?

WAINWRIGHT: When the album was released, we still wanted to do something special online so we made this film doing a lot of the songs with a smaller ensemble at this incredible Hollywood mansion. This was at the height of the pandemic, possibly slightly illegally in the sense that we weren’t necessarily supposed to be working. But people needed to do something, you know, to get their heads out of the chaos. This was last summer during the Black Lives Matter protests and just the heat of those fires that were about to ignite, there was a very intense atmosphere and I do feel strongly that some of that drama is possibly on the recording. At least I think there’s this sort of depth there that can only come out of something like that. 

BLADE: Did it seem relatively easy returning to quote-unquote pop music after writing opera? 

WAINWRIGHT: Yeah. One of the great gifts of me writing opera, which I will continue to do intermittently, is that it gave me a whole new appreciation of where I came from and all the freedoms I have in the pop world. I’m very grateful for my work in the songwriting universe and all the freedom that comes with it. 

BLADE: Are you co-headlining this tour with Jose Gonzalez?

WAINWRIGHT: Yes. It will be nice to be out with a brilliant songwriter and singer. It’s been a while since I’ve done this sort of thing. When I began my career, it was more the norm to be part of a lineup. 

BLADE: Do you know him? Will you sing anything together?

WAINWRIGHT: We haven’t met but I think it will be a very emotional meeting in a way, because it’s been a long time coming. 

BLADE: What was it like revisiting the Judy (Garland) album last summer and on her birthday no less? (Wainwright recreated Garland’s famous live Carnegie Hall album in 2007.)

WAINWRIGHT: It was a thrill. How many people can claim to have sang the same songs in the same room where she recorded a lot of them and on the actual microphone that she used with Renee Zellweger (who won an Oscar for the 2019 biopic “Judy”) as a captive audience. So yeah, I just felt a lot of gratitude and felt very privileged to be able to go on that journey. So yes, in honor of Judy, but the main thread that I’m actually worshipping is the material itself whether it’s Gershwin or Berlin. They inspire me, as a songwriter myself, to keep the bar fairly high. 

BLADE: You’ve hinted in other interviews that you want to write a Broadway musical and perhaps a ballet. You’ve written two operas. Where does this drive come from to conquer such ambitious and disparate art forms?

WAINWRIGHT: Well obviously with COVID, touring was suspended for a while, so it was a chance to try to advance the Broadway jalopy, which I’ve been trying to do for a while. There are about three or four projects that I have in the works that unfortunately I can’t talk about too much, but what I can say is that there is a wholehearted effort going on to, you know, secure my place on the Great White Way one way or another. It’s something people have been after me to do over the years because they say my music already has that sensibility. So I’m finally kind of doing my homework now. 

BLADE: And whether it’s Broadway or opera, what are the gatekeepers like in those arenas? Since you’re a known entity, is it easy to at least get a pitch meeting? How does it work?

WAINWRIGHT: Well they’re very different. I’m happy that I went into the opera world first. My first opera has been done seven times all over the world and my second one has other productions coming, so it’s been a success. Not everybody adores my work, but it made an impact and it seems to be continuing on so that’s all you can ask for anyway. I’m happy I did it, but it’s a very, very tough battle. The standards are very, very high, which is actually a good thing. With Broadway, I think there’s a whole financial element to it where people are looking to make a fortune off of these shows, so that’s kind of new for me and something I have to be cognitive of. 

BLADE: You said in another interview that the classical world could be poisonous at times. How so?

WAINWRIGHT: I meant it was the opposite of what I believed it was going to be. I had a very nice view of the classical world, and I’ve adored opera for most of my life. I thought I would be able to unleash my talents and it would be accepted and appreciated and I would be, you know, brought into the fold when in fact, it was the opposite. They were very, very dubious to me and very protective of their sacred cows, so it was a real rude awakening. It’s a very cliquish environment and everybody kind of knows everybody. So if somebody wanted to poison the well, they can and then it spreads to this massive disease about you and they’re able to spread it very easily. So the happy story is that it survived and thrived and I guess what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. 

BLADE: Whether they’re fans or not, most people would concur your songs are fairly intelligent. Are art and culture and society in general getting dumbed down a little more each year?

WAINWRIGHT: I think there are some aspects that need some attending to for sure. I mean in the pop songwriting world, I’d say lyrics are really under threat. When you look at the generation that’s about to exit — people like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and the ones who have left us, like Bowie, and so forth, lyrics were really kind of the most brilliant jewel in the art form and now they’re just so throwaway. I don’t profess to be the world’s greatest lyricist or anything, but I do try very hard and I wouldn’t say the age we’re in is a golden age of the word. But maybe there are other art forms, like fashion or something perhaps, that are at their peak now, who knows? 

BLADE: Was it hard to maintain sobriety during lockdown last year?

WAINWRIGHT: No. My wonderful husband (Jorn Weisbrodt, whom Wainwright married in 2012), he’s not about alcohol at all. He doesn’t drink because he just doesn’t need to. And I do Zoom meetings here and there. So I thank my lucky stars it wasn’t. It would have been hard to contend with alcohol as well as COVID. 

BLADE: How’s your daughter? What’s she excited about these days? (Wainwright’s daughter Viva is 10)

WAINWRIGHT: Oh, she’s into horseback riding. She loves Tina Turner. She loves to draw. She’s actually really happy to be back in school and hanging out with her friends. 

BLADE: How often do you talk to your dad on average? (Wainwright is the son of Loudon Wainwright III, an acclaimed singer/songwriter.)

WAINWRIGHT: We try to talk once a week. We’ve kind of made it into this calendar item and it works really well that way. Just to touch base and see how we’re doing. Other times we’ll get into more sensitive territory. I think especially since losing my mother, I’m just aware that it’s a finite amount of time these people are going to be around, so you might as well spend time with them while you can. 

BLADE: How closely do you follow current pop music? Is there anybody who particularly excites you?

WAINWRIGHT: I do. I like Perfume Genius and Lana Del Rey. And I like The Weeknd. When those songs come on, I’m like, “Wow, that’s a real hit.” I admire that because I’ve never been able to crack that nut, nor do I think I probably ever will. 

Rufus Wainwright says returning to pop songcraft after two operas was artistically satisfying. (Photo by Tony Hauser)
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