Selected ambient works: Celebrating queer musicians and love songs

A person wears headphones with rainbows coming out of each ear.
(Lucia Marquez-Uppman • The Student Life)

Music truly is the universal language of mankind — at least according to a study conducted by Harvard. Cliché as it may be, many of us have felt the power of music and its ability to help us relate to one another, whether that be in feelings of love, loss, joy or despair. Music can capture unique human experiences and package them up nicely in the beauty of a song.

Thus, there is a significant need for queer representation in the music industry. Beyond just checking off a diversity box, these artists are capable of creating art that will speak to those who hold marginalized identities on a deeper level. Being able to identify with the artists that we listen to fosters a more authentic and heartfelt connection with them and their art. 

Of course, no slew of artists can entirely capture the queer experience. Nevertheless, I believe it is immensely important to make sure that we pay homage to artists who enrich our lives with music that we can identify with. With that, I would like to reflect upon five queer artists who have enriched my life, as well as my favorite love song that they have ever written. 

Starting off, we have Car Seat Headrest, a queer artist who unapologetically explores themes of discovering one’s sexuality and engaging in new romantic and sexual experiences. The band’s founder and principal songwriter, Will Toledo, is openly gay, often interacting with fans in unconventional formats, such as Tumblr, and outlining the real-life experiences behind his lyrics in an effort to foster even more connectivity. 

In the intoxicating, meandering and exciting thirteen-minute track “Beach Life-in-Death,” Toledo explores themes ranging from fears of coming out to love that is so intense it cannot be buried, even if the feelings aren’t reciprocated. Beyond the pure joy induced while traversing this song as a listener, the vulnerability expressed by Toledo is truly comforting, especially for those of us who have experienced many of these feelings ourselves. 

Staying in the alternative genre, one that has been historically friendly to queer artists, Angel Olsen is a singer and songwriter that has become known for walking the line between bare soundscapes and highly grandiose, orchestral arrangements. Angel’s style draws a slight contrast to that of Toledo; her experiences are obscured in complex lyricism and beautiful melodies. 

On “Lark,” Angel Olsen utilizes “different angles [to view] the same kind of love” in a cinematic and cathartic way, reflecting on her differences with the person she loves and, ultimately, their incapability. Sonically, the track consumes listeners, making it that much more satisfying when you come to notice the lyrics as well, which paint an immersive and riveting story. 

Arlo Parks is a breakout artist in the alternative scene, scoring nominations for both “Best New Artist” and “Best Alternative Music Album” from the Recording Academy and opening for another one of my favorite queer artists, Clairo, throughout her “Sling” tour. Pitchfork characterizes her art as constantly inducing feelings of comfort, delivering rich stories and fostering true immersion through elements such as the mention of people by name. 

Arlo Parks describes her relationship with a close friend on “Eugene,” a track that drips of love and jealousy, as she reckons with romantic feelings for a woman with another partner named Eugene. Somber as it may be, Parks paints such a gorgeous image of her connection with this individual that listeners cannot help but be endeared. 

Looking to Orville Peck, we find a queer artist in a space that has historically been hostile to those who hold marginalized identities. Country music is often associated with conservative values and thus, queer representation in this genre is abysmal. Yet, Orville Peck has broken into this space, openly singing about his same-sex relationships, and doing so through songs that return to the genre’s roots, with rich country twangs and restrained production. 

“Nothing Fades Like The Light,” a gorgeous slow-burning outro to his debut album, reveals feelings of finding comfort in one’s partner, especially at night, when they no longer have to fear the reactions of those who surround them. In an ideal world, such feelings would not be necessary, but that doesn’t stop Peck from capturing his authentic anxieties and desires in this track.

Lastly, we have the artist who is perhaps one of the most influential queer artists of our time, and one of my personal favorites: Frank Ocean. Beyond just exploring typical themes of love and loss in his songs, Frank Ocean often taps into feelings of unrequited love, one that is especially common throughout the queer experience, and a major theme of his highly-acclaimed debut album, “Channel Orange.” 

On wistful, endearing tracks like “Forrest Gump,” he explores the first man whom he fell in love with. The song includes obvious references to the 1994 film “Forrest Gump,” a movie that documents both the sweet and sour moments between Forrest and his lover. This dynamic parallels Ocean’s confused feelings toward this individual, though in the end, it can be read no other way than as a proclamation of love. 

These artists have helped me reckon with my own experiences in romance and sex, as I’m able to relate to others in periods of happiness, love, sorrow and healing in a medium that can be as fulfilling and beautiful as music. I hope that others will be able to gain new artists who truly speak to them through these artist profiles, as I know how grateful I am for having discovered them. 

Nicholas Black PO ’24 is from Rochester, New York. Follow him on Spotify @nickb1ack, where he has published a playlist of 25 queer love songs, including those mentioned in the piece.

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