How I had the hot girl summer I needed — with a lil' help
From Pose to Lil' Nas X, the queer town road to self-love paved the way for me to turn crisis into opportunity
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens. It won the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada.
The summer of 2019 will go down in history for many things — most of them horrifying. The acceleration of climate change was omnipresent, governments around the world ramped up their unabashed corruption, and stupidity and violent acts of hatred were so common they often lasted less than a day's news cycle.
But as the world literally burned, a sizeable group of its inhabitants (at least, those of us living in places where freedom is still available!) — desperate for something to feel optimistic about — decided to truly invest in something a lot of us had long struggled to figure out: self-love.
The trend has more or less been formally dubbed "hot girl summer," a phase that can be attributed to the title of Houston rapper Megan Thee Stallion's single of the same name. A month before the song was even released, Megan defined the season as being about "women — and men — being unapologetically them, just having a good-ass time, hyping up your friends, doing you and not giving a damn" in an interview with The Root and reaffirming it a series of viral tweets. A meme was born, and soon enough a hashtage. By the last week of August, some 500,000 people were reaffirming their own #hotgirlsummer on Instagram.
Being a Hot Girl is about being unapologetically YOU, having fun, being confident,living YOUR truth , being the life of the party etc—@theestallion
While Megan Thee Stallion may have started the hashtag, some major seeds of "hot girl summer" were planted in April when Lizzo released Cuz I Love You, an album packed with tracks devoted to self-love and body positivity. Lizzo herself broke down the personal quest that led to the album in this wonderful essay.
"I don't think that loving yourself is a choice," she writes. "I think that it's a decision that has to be made for survival; it was in my case. Loving myself was the result of answering two things: Do you want to live? 'Cause this is who you're gonna be for the rest of your life. Or are you gonna just have a life of emptiness, self-hatred and self-loathing? And I chose to live, so I had to accept myself. That's the first step: Acceptance. And acceptance is hard. I'm still accepting myself every day; I'm still working on it.… Self-care is really rooted in self-preservation, just like self-love is rooted in honesty."
Cuz I Love You — and everything it represented — seemed to immediately be embraced by queer men in particular, myself included. For a doctoral thesis' worth of reasons, queer men do seem to have an especially rough time figuring out how to love themselves. I'd personally never quite been able to. But this past spring, due to a combination of a (very) messy divorce and the now-or-never vibes this whole apocalypse thing is serving, I found myself determined to turn crisis into opportunity and finally get there. And Lizzo — alongside a new therapist and the work of Buddhist writer Pema Chödrön (read When Things Fall Apart, everyone!) — helped me get pretty close.
By the time June rolled around, I'd say I was probably 85 per cent that bitch and was definitely having a "hot girl summer," despite not yet being aware Megan Thee Stallion existed. And that was only the beginning.
For me, these past few months weren't just about having a good-ass time, hyping up my friends, doing me and not giving a damn what anybody had to say about it (although that was an enjoyably large part of it). Having a "hot girl summer" felt akin to finding a sort of enlightenment, as over-the-top as that sounds.
All that space I'd reserved for self-loathing and self-hatred was now freed up, giving me room to consider how I could take myself even further in the opposite direction — and how that might change the way I treat other people as a result. By this point, I was not only being escorted down this new town road by Lizzo and Chödrön, but by an explosion of queer representation across all sorts of (primarily very mainstream) media, much of it tied to the same themes of self-preservation, self-love and honesty that Lizzo urged us to explore within ourselves.
I mean, could it be any more appropriate that the undeniably official song of "hot girl summer" was not Lizzo or Megan Thee Stallion but Lil Nas X's genre-bending "Old Town Road"? After ascending to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 on April 13 — just weeks after that very magazine disqualified his song from its separate Hot Country Songs chart for reasons that reeked of racism — Lil Nas decided to do something that's sadly still taboo in mainstream music (particularly country and hip hop, the genres "Old Town Road" straddles): he came out.
Instead of that preventing him from continuing to dominate the charts (as I'm sure many a handler or record exec told him it would), Lil Nas X stayed at number one for a record-breaking 19 weeks. And every week he inched closer to that record, I'd check the Billboard website and smile, watching as the person who probably had the hottest girl summer of us all continued to defy racist and homophobic assumptions in the grandest way possible.
Now, as joyful as it was to watch Lil Nas X prevent Taylor Swift (among many others) from getting that number one hit, which she surely expected from her better-late-than-never corporate pride anthem "You Need To Calm Down," my most profound queer comrades in my little summer quest were found on various screens. Television and, to a lesser degree, film gave us so many LGBTQ characters this summer, each seeking their truth in their own way so they could be set free.
There was Booksmart's Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), finding her way to her first sexual experience with a girl on a wild night out with her BFF. There was Tales of the City's Jake (Garcia) and Margot (May Hong), navigating their way through the complications their relationship faces after Jake transitions. There was Vida's Eddy (Ser Anzoategui), recovering from both the death of her lover and a brutal queerbashing. There was Rocketman's Elton John (Taron Egerton), pushing through his demons to become the out-and-proud gay icon we know today.
But the true crowning achievement in both depictions of self-love and LGBTQ representation this summer, or maybe any summer, was the second season of FX's Pose. Every Tuesday, I'd ready myself for an hour of education, perspective, heart, soul and (a lot of) sobbing, as the series gave us a powerful and urgent window into Black queer and trans experiences in early 1990s New York City. Creators Steven Canals, Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy — with a lot of help from writers and directors like Janet Mock and Our Lady J, and a cast of staggeringly talented actors, most of them Black trans women — put together something so elevated on so many levels it's astounding. And to witness the resilience, strength and love Pose's characters manage to find for themselves and each other in the face of HIV/AIDS, poverty, racism, ageism, homophobia and transphobia is a viewing experience that makes it very challenging to not want to walk back into your own relatively problem-free world loving yourself and others as hard as you possibly can.
The season finale of Pose ends (don't worry, this is barely a spoiler) with a lip sync extravaganza tribute to Whitney Houston, a woman who we know struggled tragically to find self-love and self-acceptance over the course of her short life. She's also a woman whose voice I've heard every single day this summer. Norwegian producer Kygo released a reworking of Houston's cover of Steve Winwood's "Higher Love" back in June, and for me it has — sorry Lizzo, Lil Nas X and Megan Thee Stallion — been by far my personal song of the summer. Its lyrics, written originally by Winwood and Will Jennings in 1986, feel eerily appropriate in the summer of 2019, especially if when you think of Houston singing them down on you:
Things look so bad everywhere
In this whole world, what is fair?
We walk the line and try to see
Falling behind in what could be, oh
Bring me a higher love
Bring me a higher love, oh
Bring me a higher love
Where's that higher love I keep thinking of?