Julien Baker is a brilliant queer songwriter, singer, and multi-instrumentalist who has been making music that absolutely pummels the heart for most of her 25 years. Her solo work includes the records Sprained Ankle and Turn Out the Lights, and she also plays in the supergroup Boygenius with Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus. Baker’s most recent album, Little Oblivions, dropped in February, and it covers a lot of rich and painful territory: addiction, self-destructive impulses, hurting the people you love.
In this month’s episode of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ podcast, the crew caught up with Baker to talk about her career, her explorations of identity, the many meanings of Pride, and the importance of queer joy. A portion of the discussion is transcribed below. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Christina Cauterucci: June is Pride month, and it’s the second one in a row where Pride will look a little different, or maybe a lot different, than usual. I’m curious just to start us off, what has been your relationship to Pride as in the annual celebration, the set of festivities, and has that changed over time?
Julien Baker: It’s changed a lot. Wow. I don’t want to get heady and dark with it immediately, but that’s kind of my M.O., so here we go. When I was a kid and I first came out, I didn’t like Pride because something viscerally within me was, I think, intimidated by such an expression of queerness. I think it’s because the milieu I grew up in was sending me a lot of mixed information about just how to be a person in the world. A lot of my friends, I mean, I don’t have to say it, but the church, obviously, and then also just growing up in the South and being in a largely Republican family, there are certain kind of folk ways that you learn, especially being a woman, about modesty and self-expression and the general social conditioning to not take up space. And obviously, making any reference to sexuality or sex taboo completely off the table for discussion.
So, that is the way that I was raised, to have this immense shame around anything attached to the body or sexuality self-expression, and I couldn’t cope with it. I was like, “I am queer, and I want to advocate for my rights as a human being, and I am committed to this struggle,” but I don’t think I had the language yet around it, because also, the queer friends that I had, it was one of two ways: Either you were still very closeted, even though everyone knew that you were queer, or you came out and you instantly rejected every institution ever. I am a nonconfrontational Libra, so I did not do that. I did not feel empowered to do that.
So, I didn’t go to Pride for a long time, and then in college, I was all up on my high horse about, “Tito’s Vodka is just using the queer market to make money now that we’re a profitable demographic,” and where I’m at with it now is I’m bummed that it took me so long to be able to sit in queer joy. I’ve been thinking about the idea of queer joy so much, because any kind of advocacy with anything that’s going on, any marginalized community, usually the advocacy is rooted in righteous anger or grieving. It’s actually so radical to express joy in the face of a world that writ large does not want you to have it. So, now I love Pride.
Rumaan Alam: That seems very commonplace, actually. The conditions that you’re describing of your own upbringing seem very commonplace, and it seems precisely what Pride is calculated to counteract, right? It’s so underlined and so loud that you can’t actually retreat from it. Actually, hearing you talk about it reminds me, there can be such a spectacle to Pride celebration, and it’s a reminder that the spectacle is actually for queer people. It’s for them to see and not for straight people to see, which is kind of a reminder.
Baker: Oh my God, yeah. The other thing about it, too, is I live in Nashville and I live a couple of blocks from Lipstick Lounge. I mean, that is a token lesbian bar that is frequented by heteronormative straight people who are observing the novelty of a queer space. I like that you just brought that up about Pride too, because I feel like, I don’t know, it is performing, performing not in a bad way, but just performing as enacting queerness for other queer people. That is the fundamental purpose of it. Then there is the secondary purpose of enacting it for a world in which it’s not normalized.
Cauterucci: I think about Pride now as being a bouquet of things that can serve different purposes for different people. When I think about Pride, I no longer think about going to the D.C. parade because I don’t do that anymore. But I think when I was first coming out, going to that parade, even seeing straight people there, was an important step to be like, “OK, this is a place where it feels normalized enough where it feels like a little baby step.” Now I don’t need that kind of spectacle anymore, but it’s still an excuse for everyone in the community to get together, all of my friends to do our own thing or to go to the parties that suit us. And we don’t have to go to the ones [sponsored by] Tito’s Vodka.
Bryan Lowder: Pride can also look different in different places. One of my favorite books of queer studies is called Out in the Country by Mary L. Gray. One of the main things that’s explored in it is essentially that Pride as it looks in New York City or in D.C. or somewhere like that works in certain ways that queers in those spaces need, and maybe the same model of Pride is not appropriate for smaller towns in the South, say, because of what the people there on the ground are trying to do in their own communities. Do they want to be visible in that particular [parade] style, or are there other ways of building community and recognition? It sounds like that’s sort of what we’re talking about here.
Baker: Totally. … That’s something I think about quite a lot is how do people perform queerness and for whom? Like, am I even always conscious of how I’m performing queerness? For me, it gets even more complicated in my obsessive brain, because it’s like I exist on a platform where I’m observed, to whatever degree. I’m not like Ellen or Elton John. But a decent amount of people listen to my music, and then I wonder, what’s the implication of how I choose to perform queerness or not perform it?