Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour Is Masterful — That Doesn’t Make Her a Queer Icon

Kacey Musgraves' Golden Hour awoke my inner-country queen, but let's get real.
Kacey Musgraves' Golden Hour awoke my inner-country queen, but let's get real. Kelly Christine Sutton
On March 30, country music maverick Kacey Musgraves released her album Golden Hour to instant, universal acclaim.

Musgraves has been a country staple for nearly two decades, independently releasing her debut album in 2000, at the tender age of 12. In 2013, she released her first album through the studio system, working with Mercury Nashville on Same Trailer, Different Park.

Bopping to country music has never been my thing, but her western disco-inspired single “High Horse” caught my ear. On Thursday, March 29, I found myself waiting for the clock to strike midnight on the east coast so I could stream Golden Hour. Musgraves has attracted a following of fans — much like me — who’ve had to ask themselves questions like: Have I been sleeping on country music? Could it be this good?

Musgraves has made me reconsider my Americana ignorance.

I’m not the first queer person to discover a penchant for twang and acoustic guitar through Musgraves. Ever since 2013, she's had a large following of gay fans. And on March 23, the straight, cisgender Musgraves tweeted that she wanted “a gay, collective ‘you’re doing amazing sweetie.’”

The next week, she got just that when queer writers at Buzzfeed and Vulture penned articles that proclaimed, “Kacey Musgraves Is The Queer Fan’s Country Music Queen” and “Kacey Musgraves Is a Gay Icon and the World Needs to Know,” respectively.

On their own, the profiles are innocent enough, albeit slightly out of touch with what makes something queer. Together, however, they add to a damaging trend of media's reception to LGBTQ+-friendly audiences. This is no damnation of Musgraves, who has done a good job of being an ally and lifting up her vocal queer fans. But there are ways to praise a talented artist without pushing your own people aside.

Of course, gay men elevating straight women over actual queer artists isn't anything new.

Since the days of Dorothy Parker, Judy Garland, and Bette Davis, gay men have turned straight actresses into queer iconography. I'm not immune; Julianne Moore’s films have always provided a cozy break from life’s stressors.
Essayist and critic Daniel Harris dissected the homosexual fascination with actresses in the first chapter of his book The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture. For him, that support was about self-preservation, not diva antics, sequins, or melodrama. It distracted him from the realities of growing up gay during a time where that wasn’t embraced.

“In my unconscious imitation of the voices of the great film stars, I was seeking to demonstrate my separateness, to show others how out of place I felt, and, moreover, to fight back against the hostility I sensed from homophobic rednecks by belittling their crudeness through unremitting displays of my own polish and sophistication,” a passage from Harris’ book reads.

Buzzfeed has fallen victim to this sort of straight star-fucking before. In October 2017, Buzzfeed published an article titled “The Trifecta Of Lesbian Icons Sat Front Row At The Givenchy Show.

The lesbian trifecta? They were three straight women: Moore, Rooney Mara, and Cate Blanchett. To the left of Moore sat Pedro Almodóvar, an openly gay Spanish director who’s been a premier voice in queer cinema for more than 40 years.

I’m not damning the queer canonization of supportive, straight allies. I spin Carly Rae Jepsen’s EMOTION frequently and squeal with excitement for the badass collection of women headlining this summer’s Ocean’s 8. But drafting congratulatory think-pieces about artists who treat queer people with decency is regressive. Instead of celebrating the minimum, LGBTQ+ people should ask for more from orthodox artists.

Nor am I trying to discredit Kacey as a vocal ally. Last Gay Pride Month, she penned a sweet, sincere "love letter" to the LGBTQ. She writes about her traditional upbringing in rural Texas and her evolution as an artist and person when it comes to her education on queer identities. It's a beautiful piece that speaks to her journey as a human more than it lifts up queer people.

Before that, she wrote the song "Follow Your Arrow" for her album Same Trailer, Different Park. The song is about staying true to yourself an invigorates queer listeners in the chorus as Kacey sings, "Kiss lots of boys / Or kiss lots of girls / If that's something you're into." In Golden Hour she has a song called "Rainbow," which doesn't directly have queer themes but it carries the message that things get better. Surely, that's something a lot of LGBTQ+ youth need to hear.

The aforementioned Vulture piece serves as a beginners' guide to Musgraves' music. In the introduction, the writer says that Musgraves has "a penchant for sequins, psychedelic drugs, and art-directing her live shows to look like the Grand Ole Opry meets Priscilla, Queen of the Desert..." There is something off-putting about the article crowning Musgraves a queer icon, but only managing to define queerness through aesthetic choice like sequins, drugs, and musicals.

The piece goes on to say that Musgraves has spent her career "swallowing hot coals for the LGBTQ+ community at the risk of being shunned by the monolith that is country radio." That monolith — or perhaps, its customers — may be resistant to Kacey's inclusive message, but I fail to see how acceptance is worth anything more than a pat on the back. Writing like this is diminutive of the queer struggle of today and yesterday. Neither Musgraves nor her queer-friendly country music foremothers Shania Twain and Dolly Parton threw the first brick at Stonewall.

But Musgraves has risked a bit more fame and a bit more money speaking her truth (our truths?).

Her country radio performance has never reflected her talent and popularity. In 2014, she won a pair of Grammys, Best Country Album and Best Country Song, and that inspired pieces like TheBoot's "Kacey Musgraves: Can Nashville's Grammy Darling Conquer Country Radio?"

There's an interesting point here, especially when looking at how "Follow Your Arrow" fared on the different Billboard charts. Despite peaking at No. 2 on the Country Digital Song Sales chart, the track peaked at No. 43 on the Country Airplay list. So people were turning out to purchase the song on iTunes and elsewhere, but country radio was playing 42 songs more frequently than it. That raises eyebrows.

Still, "Follow Your Arrow" has been Musgraves' highest entry in Billboard's Hot 100. Which means if country radio and country fans were resistant to the track's queer encouragement, the general public wasn't. Ultimately, Musgrave's least radio-friendly single became her most commercially successful. Whether accidental or not, the queer experience became a commodity for her and now she's being heralded as a country queen who makes music that's more for the country music-resistant or ignorant, rather than the die-hard.

Rather than heap praise on Musgraves for fighting a broken system, queer people should shift focus to country musicians who could actually use the attention.

Perhaps the queerest and most famous of those is RuPaul's Drag Race: All Stars winner Trixie Mattel, whom Musgraves is a fan of and vice-versa. But even then, Mattel has her fame and her fanbase. What about the queer country music pioneers who are actually subverting some idea of the capitalistic, commercial-driven status quo? What about Brandy Clark, who helped pen "Follow Your Arrow?" Or Chely Wright, who hasn't had a hit single since she came out nearly a decade ago? Or a number of other queer country musicians who actually get relegated to the sidelines.

Again, this has little to do with Musgraves and isn't meant to disparage anything she's done as an ally. She's made a ton of right steps and makes great music. Golden Hour has made me reconsider a genre that I have largely been resistant to. For that, alone she deserves every gay "you're doing amazing sweetie" that's come her way so far. But congratulating Musgraves as if she's country music's Ellen Degeneres is dismissive of her accomplished discography. Like, love, or adore her music because it's good, not because she thinks gay people are people.
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