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Janis Ian & Sophie : 25 of music’s most underrated trailblazers across the queer spectrum

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Janis Ian

Fourteen-year-old folk prodigy Janis Ian knew she’d send America into a tailspin when she wrote and recorded her first hit single, “Society’s Child (Baby I’ve Been Thinking),” in 1965. Written in the tradition of folk hero Joan Baez, Ian bravely addressed the complexity of interracial dating in a very divided country – and marked the beginning of her lifelong foray into matters of forbidden love. In 1967, the song peaked at Number 14 on the Billboard Hot 100, and Ian began receiving death threats – in her autobiography, she writes that a radio station in Atlanta was set on fire after playing her song. Composer Leonard Bernstein took notice, hosting her performance on his show Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution. The now-disgraced comedian Bill Cosby followed suit and chatted her up at a Smothers Brothers show – and tried to blacklist her on suspicions that she had a lesbian relationship with her older family friend. (Ian wrote that she had fallen asleep on her chaperone’s lap backstage after playing a set.) After Atlantic Records went cold on an offer to record and release her single, Ian turned to Verve Records to release a full-length debut. Then in 1975 she served her haters a royal comeuppance with a Number One hit, the anti-cool-kid ballad “At Seventeen” – and rocked daringly cropped curls to boot. At the 1976 Grammys she beat Linda Ronstadt, Helen Reddy and Olivia Newton-John for Best Pop Vocal Performance, and was later inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 1993 she came out as a lesbian with her album Breaking Silence, and married her longtime partner, Patricia Snyder, in 2003. (Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin was one of the best men at the wedding.) Ian is now a science-fiction writer and contributed articles to The Advocate magazine in the Nineties. S.E.

Sophie

For years, Scottish DJ Sophie was quite literally shrouded in shadows. The enigmatic producer behind songs by Charli XCX, Madonna and Vince Staples was once notorious for performing gigs via gorgeous lip-syncing stand-ins – while mashing on a laptop off to the side. It’s unclear why so many had assumed she was yet another exploitative cis male DJ for so long – perhaps because her music almost inexplicably attracted frat boys? Nevertheless, the discrepancy between Sophie’s presentation and her high-pitched, computerized vocals prompted unfounded accusations of “feminine appropriation,” launching bitter debates on whether her music was a celebration of girly millennial poptimism – or a satire. With an idiosyncratic sonic palette of twinkly synthesizer blips, balloon screeches, gasps, and belches, Sophie’s deeply heartfelt trap-influenced jams find their emotional power by subverting pop cliches.

“I’d rather collaborate with my friends who are whatever gender they please, or have very fluid ideas about gender. I don’t think that falling into those pre-defined roles helps anything,” she told Rolling Stone in 2015. “What do people want exactly, making these accusations? What do they think is a constructive way to play this situation? I view the people that I work with, girls and boys and people who identify as whatever gender they please, as strong individuals.” Now with her solo debut, Sophie’s come out of the darkness and into the light as a woman. Her recent singles have toyed with the multitudes of her gender expression through song: The clashing factory sounds and BDSM-laden lyrics of “Pony Boy” are contrasted sharply with the lushly saccharine sentiments and sparkly synths of “It’s OK to Cry.” SOPHIE is a cyberpop icon all her own. E.S.

rollingstone.com

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