In the 2016 film 20th Century Women, Abbie, a punk artist charismatically played by Greta Gerwig, makes a mixtape for a fifteen-year-old boy named Jamie, played with sensitivity by Lucas Jade Zumann. "These are a bunch of songs that I think my life would have been better if they would have been around when I was a teenager," she tells him, "and I’m hoping that if you listen to them now, you’ll be a happier and more realized person." I think a lot about this quote, specifically how it suggests that life does indeed imitate art – that we're drawn to music because it's able to convey a passion transcendent of our lived-in realities. For me specifically, music scratches an itch of loneliness, something that's only been heightened by the quarantine. I yearn for romance and intimacy, I yearn to touch and be touched. Yet as we're living in a time where touching can literally be deadly, I find myself turning to music to face that lost connection, even if that connection wasn't tangible in the first place. I use music to cope with loneliness because it provides a means of comprehending romantic emotions I've never truly experienced, yet feel I deeply understand.
These past few years I think I've finally been able to grasp the notion that when you accept and understand yourself as a sexual being – life is just so much easier. I got into queer cinema, sought out alternative comedy and overall just tried to cover all my critical studies courses for this degree in Being Gay. Sexuality, queerness, eroticism, the taboo – normalizing it all into my life has helped me embrace this omnipresent part of my humanity. I feel like I'm yearning for intimacy literally at all times, and I sincerely try my best to sit with that loneliness. Nonetheless, I've had very few gay male friends in my life and I've never been in actual romantic love. I've never had a relationship and I've never seen someone longer than a few dates, yet this loneliness feels so innate. I don't mean for this to be a pity party because I've had genuine prospects, but it still leads me to ask: how does one understand romantic love if they've never experienced it?
I believe art teaches us about our humanity; the media we consume teaches us how to kiss, how to laugh, how to form bonds. When it comes to using music to learn about love, there's no better example than the "Elephant Medley" in the 2001 musical Moulin Rouge!.
Christian (Ewan McGregor) serenades Satine (Nicole Kidman) with a song that's really a series of quotations, sampling Elton John, David Bowie, Whitney Houston and many more. The medley remixes popular songs that all share the same theme – a search for love – and the two declare themselves to be in love by the end of the scene. What makes this movie unique is that it understands that we use art to form our knowledge of love. Christian is not telling Satine "I love you," he's telling her, "In the words of David Bowie, I love you." In 20th Century Women, Abbie gives Jamie a mixtape not because he can relate to it per se, but because it can provide the means to voice feelings for which he hasn't even found the words.
Love songs are tales as old as time, but gay love songs aren't as easy to come by. I didn't consciously think about this until I listened to Car Seat Headrest's "Martin." Released in the first month of quarantine, "Martin" finds deep-voiced frontman Will Toledo singing about an intolerable yearning for the man that's throwing his life off course. I started exploring the indie rock band's discography and found that gay yearning is a constant theme. Another favorite of mine, "My Boy (Twin Fantasy)," is a simple song that repeats the same few lyrics with different enunciations, but to so casually yearn for another boy without any stigma, I don't think that's something I'd heard before in an angsty rock song. Queer people spend most of their lives projecting their desires onto "straight" art, but it really does hit differently when you can identify with an artist on this level. And from that, I decided to channel my loneliness into a playlist on gay yearning:
In my attempt to make this playlist, I sought to ground the feelings I have even if I don't have the life experience from which to draw. I don't know what it means to wholeheartedly tell someone "I love you," but I understand it when said by Sufjan Stevens. I don't have an ex to painstakingly agonize over, but Kevin Abstract paints a damn visceral scene of it. Every emotion can be captured through voice and rhythm unlike any other medium. Through the tunes of gay yearning, I can find existential depression ("People, I've been sad"), insufferable longing ("Martin"), adolescent fantasy ("Pyjama Pants"), complete infatuation ("Perfect Day"), sexual euphoria ("Body"), intimate dominance ("LMK"), self-deprecating obsession ("If He Likes It Let Him Do It"), emotional exhaustion ("Cut Your Bangs"), unrelenting desperation ("3am at a Party"), and unexpressed desire ("American Boyfriend"). Making this playlist is for me an exercise in grasping the cycles of yearning I feel at all times of day.
It's far easier to say "sit with your loneliness" than it is to practice it – that's why I'm in therapy – but I also think it's crucial to understand romantic loneliness as a form of grief. It's learning to live in the presence of one's absence, even if that person hasn't yet entered the picture. It's grief that affects us emotionally and sexually – a tragic combination for the mind. For me, Phoebe Bridgers's "I Know the End" most eloquently captures this feeling because it exhibits what I think is my ultimate goal – to romanticize the quiet life and not be afraid to find nothing around me. It's possible to strive for a sex-positive environment and still recognize an intimate loneliness. To paraphrase singer-songwriter Soccer Mommy, it's "shitting on ourselves for fun" because we can acknowledge every heart-wrenching melancholic emotion and simultaneously acknowledge we're pulling from a fantasy. And the absurd part of the human consciousness is that this knowledge doesn't make the emotional influence any less powerful. I indulge in gay yearning because I can experience life lessons I haven't yet encountered in my reality. If life imitates art, I may as well immerse myself as much as I can in the art.
Most of the artists on this playlist "carry the alphabet," to paraphrase my therapist. I have however included a handful of non-LGBTQ+ identifying artists if I found their music formative during quarantine. I'd like to consider them allies. To further explore a survey on LGBTQ+ artists, check out this playlist I worked on throughout this year's pride month.
John Salazar is a motion graphic designer and visual artist living in Los Angeles, CA. He graduated from the University of Notre Dame and spends his free time making silly playlists and watching sillier movies. He currently designs for movie trailers and you can find his work on his semi-up-to-date website at www.johnandrewsalazar.com. He can also be found on Instagram and Twitter @jsalazar11.