Justin Tranter didn’t necessarily set out to queer up the holiday season this year. The songwriting superstar was given a task — executive produce an official soundtrack for Happiest Season, a new holiday film about a young lesbian couple dealing with coming out, love and family during the holidays.
There was an easy blueprint to follow; get some big names to sing some fun Christmas tunes and call it a day. But Tranter decided to take their own, much more inclusive path — enlist a lineup of beloved queer talent, and make a holiday album sung entirely by members of the LGBTQ community.
“[The goal was] to really create a classic holiday album — not all of them are Christmas songs — that does the same thing with movie, which is to put queer people front and center,” Tranter says. “I wanted it to feel timeless, I wanted it to feel classic. The only thing that’s modern about it is that queer people are living their truth in these songs.”
The result was a complete holiday soundtrack for Happiest Season, featuring a range of well-known LGBTQ artists singing classic holiday songs and originals. Tegan and Sara, Sia, Shea Diamond, Anne-Marie, Carlie Hanson and many more all provided their take on the holidays, making for songs that exist, as Tranter says, “somewhere in the LGBTQ family.”
Tranter is not alone: In 2020, holiday music performed by queer artists is seemingly everywhere. For fans of mainstream pop, indie, country, dance and more, LGBTQ artists are making their voices heard this season to help spread some holiday cheer on their own.
Take, for example, Lil Nas X — just a year after the chart-topping rapper came out publicly as gay, he dropped his single “Holiday” to help celebrate the season. The song is anything but your traditional Christmas fare; a bossed-up hype flow, “Holiday” sees Lil Nas flexing and even paying lyrical homage to his queerness with lines like “I might bottom on the low, but I top s–t.” The song found its way onto the Billboard Hot 100’s top 40 last week.
“[On] ‘Holiday,’ I’m talking about the past year or whatever, couple of s–ts that’s been happening and just establishing where I’m going, where I’m moving, how I’m good no matter what,” the rapper told Apple Music’s Zane Lowe earlier this year about his new single.
Fans of independent artists have received their fair share of queer holiday music as well: Girl in Red shared “Two Queens in A King Sized Bed” last month, a charming holiday track focused around queer love at the holidays. Indie darling Mary Lambert unveiled an entire EP of queer holiday music, appropriately titled Happy Holigays.
Like Tranter, Lambert also didn’t set out to put together an EP of queer holiday music, but rather approached her project as a means for coping with the continued quarantine (“I’m so incredibly depressed,” she giggles over the phone). In the process, though, she ended up duetting with her partner Wyatt on a cover of George Strait’s “Christmas Cookies,” which she fondly remembers recording.
“I just thought it would be so cute if we turned it into a duet and then just made it really gay, as queers are wont to do,” Lambert says. “It was just really sweet wholesomeness. We love it.”
Queer holiday music is coming from practically every genre — country star Ty Herndon put together an entire album of classic Christmas songs titled Regifted for his fans, including a duet with Kristen Chenoweth. In the comedy space, Drag Race star Miz Cracker unveiled a hilarious Hanukkah single with fellow All Stars 5 star Jujubee titled “Eight Days of You.” Drag star Nina West even updated her John Waters-inspired Christmas song “Cha Cha Heels” with a hilarious music video.
“I think it is important to make sure our voices are heard in the songs of the season. As queer people, we celebrate the season in unique ways with our chosen and found families and as a result, our songs of joy do sound different,” West tells Billboard. “But even with that difference, there is a commonality — that of love, acceptance, joy, generosity, and family. Our stories may be different but our our celebrations are the same.”
Tranter says that with what they’ve witnessed take place, the reason queer artists are suddenly being seen more and more in the holiday music genre is simply because those that would have stopped them before no longer can. “The gatekeeper has lost at least half of their power,” Tranter says, pointing to the proliferation of social media as a common route for independent artists to publish their music. “They’re still there, but all we needed was just like a little bit of their power deleted, so we could all plow through. It’s fantastic.”
Lambert agrees, adding that because many queer artists have been shut out of industry spaces for so long, they’ve developed a talent for self-sufficiency. “Queer artists tend to be scrappy and figure out, ‘Okay, how do I do this?’” she says. “I think this is a year of carving out space for ourselves and saying, I belong here. And I think that’s how we survive is taking up space and finding each other.”
Especially in 2020, not only were more queer artists performing holiday classics, but writing their own narratives into their own holiday music. Take “Mrs. Claus,” by Shea Diamond off of the Happiest Season soundtrack; throughout the song, Diamond uses Mrs. Claus as an easy comparison point to women like her around the world, asking for the credit that they deserve. “Not trying to rewrite your history/ But write me in,” she sings.
“I want heteronormative folks to love that song, too, and I want them to relate to it,” Tranter explains. “But I think it’s important to do that because it’s the truth, and the best music is always the truth. The truth is the one thing that you can’t f–k with.”
For Lambert, creating queer narratives in every genre, not just Christmas music, is the only way that change happens. “Our time is really finite on this earth, and no heteronormative genie is going to come and create space for us. That’s always how it’s been,” she explains. “So we have to carve that out within our own community and within the greater picture and say, ‘I belong here too. Here’s what the holidays feel like for me.’”