The power of pop group MUNA’s queer joy


On a number of their songs, MUNA’s members — lead singer and songwriter Katie Gavin and guitarists Naomi McPherson and Josette Maskin — convert into text the sorts of notions and emotions that in bygone decades had to be subtext.

Take “Silk Chiffon,” the lead single from the new album, the group’s most playful work to date: “Siiilk chiffon / That’s how it feels, oh, when she’s on me,” Gavin declares on the instantly earwormy hook.
MUNA describe “Silk Chiffon” as “a song for kids to have their first gay kiss to.” The track snaps into focus what I’d argue is the band’s deeper allure: Though many of MUNA’s songs are marked by agony, the group balances this misery with sunny tunes that slice through the anguish and elevate feelings such as the joys of lesbian desire (a theme that seldom gets serious attention in pop music). Illustrating this point further is the “Silk Chiffon” music video, which reimagines “But I’m a Cheerleader,” Jamie Babbit’s 1999 lesbian rom-com. In other words, the band argues for a fuller, richer queer existence; to focus purely on the pain is to miss MUNA’s appeal.

I recently spoke with MUNA. During our conversation, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity, we discussed the candor and vulnerability they inject into their work, the audience they have in mind when they create music, the value of recovering queer history and the refreshing way they portray the kind of love US society has long viewed as taboo.

You refer to some of your songs, such as “Stayaway,” as “trauma bangers.” How do you define “trauma banger”? And why do you think that this genre of song resonates with your listeners, particularly your queer listeners?

Gavin: I’m not on the surface level of life. I don’t live there. It’s not where I’m most comfortable. I’m always a couple layers underneath.

I’m interested in using MUNA as a place to say things I may carry shame around. It’s easier to say certain things in songs. It’s always been that way for me. I’ve been a songwriter since I was a kid. To an extent, this is where I go to begin processing trauma. It’s unfortunately true that lots of queer people have some sort of experience with trauma. That’s just the complex PTSD of chronically feeling on the outside but not understanding why.

I think that we’re in a time where people are interested in not living on the surface level of life or society, because the surface is undeniably cracking. So, as a band, we want to talk about: What the hell are we doing here? What’s going on?

McPherson: With a banging beat underneath. (Laughs) That’s the banger part. It distracts. It’s a release built in.

I’d like to hear about how you think about your audience. Toni Morrison famously said that she wrote for Black people. Torrey Peters has said something similar about her 2021 novel, “Detransition, Baby,” and writing for transgender people. Do you write for a particular audience?

McPherson: You just dropped two of my favorite authors’ names. We’ve had conversations before that had a similar ethos. Our work is for people who need it and get it. Often, those people are queer or are otherwise marginalized. Sometimes, the person who needs it might be a straight, 47-year-old dad who has a sensitive heart. But we’re committed to making music for people who need it and can use it, people who are queer like us, people who are marginalized. They’re our first priority. When other people like our music, that’s an additional nice thing.

Maskin: As kids, maybe we weren’t sure about who anything was for other than for ourselves. But our songs have always had the guiding principle of, “Someone (who has been through this particular experience) needs to hear this.” And it does happen to be people who are like us or have felt othered.

Gavin: Toni Morrison is one of my favorite authors. I’m noticing the irony of me, as a white woman, being let into the worlds that she built. I can engage with that work and love it with my whole heart and be changed by it. But I acknowledge that there are things Black women reading her work probably understand — because of their shared experiences — that I’ll never naturally pick up on. I think that it’s the same with queer people listening to our music. With a song like “Kind of Girl,” there are layers of meaning that can be intuited if you have that shared, lived experience, if you inhabit a queer body.

How do you see yourselves fitting into a lineage of queer musicians?

Gavin: Part of being queer is understanding that the archive is repeatedly being smashed and scattered into a million hiding places, so you have to retrieve a lot of it yourself. We all grew up engaging with different types of queer media, whether we knew it or not — I didn’t explicitly know that Tegan and Sara were gay, if you can believe it. I just loved them.

With this album cycle, there was more freedom to delve into the Lilith Fair, kind of Sapphic world that’s maybe more acoustic, like Indigo Girls and even lots of people who are queer-coded or lesbian-claimed, because that’s also a huge part of the queer experience.

McPherson: Often, the magnitude of the cultural contributions by marginalized people isn’t appreciated or understood. I think that we’re only now getting to a point where there’s a sort of right-sized reception toward art made by marginalized people. But it’s always in the back of my mind that Tegan and Sara’s ’80s pop album pre-dates so much of the throwback ’80s pop that was made shortly afterward. Musicians will give them credit, but the general public probably doesn’t understand how influential that album was.

Gavin: I’ll probably spend my whole life trying to write a banger that moves me as much as Frankie Knuckles’ “Your Love,” a Chicago house song. It’s worth noting that what Naomi said is exponentially true when an artist is queer and Black, in terms of the impact that a song like that has on culture versus the general cultural awareness of that artist and the money they were able to make. I’m from the suburbs of Chicago, and I didn’t even know about Chicago house music until I was in college. So, again, there’s the retrieval of it all.

Queer visibility in the pop music world has ballooned in the past decade or so. But a song such as “Silk Chiffon,” about queer joy, still feels radical. Why do you think that is?

Maskin: Almost every lesbian movie seems to be a kind of lesbian period drama about unrequited love or someone dying. We reference “But I’m a Cheerleader” because it was one of the few queer movies during that time that depicted queer love in a light and lighthearted way, in a way we still find radical because it’s just not what we’re ever really told or what the media portray.

Gavin: With “Silk Chiffon,” people can meet that song on whatever level they want. It can just be a fun song. But if you want to go there with us, there’s a level of the song being a depiction of a different community — a community that’s outside society’s standards and that’s full of people who are just so happy to be there. I think that there’s something radical about saying, “I’m glad that I don’t fit in this world, because I actually don’t really believe in this world. I’m more interested in creating something else.”

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