Marcus Maddox


How Shamir's Radically Honest Rock Is Pushing Back Against Straight Society

His album Heterosexuality was borne from patient self-exploration and rooting out the traumas of living in a heterosexist world.

by Annie Howard

When Las Vegas-born, Philadelphia-based artist Shamir first released the cowbell and synth-driven earworm “On the Regular” in late 2014, the world was put on notice. That song, the then 19-year-old’s distinctive voice at once playful and sarcastic, and the subsequent release of his debut album Ratchet, propelled the artist to rapid success, with the album ending up on many 2015 best-of lists. It suggested the opening call of an exciting new talent, an ebullient spirit primed to capture the messy energy of living through one’s early twenties.

But in the seven years since Rachet was released, Shamir has kept a low public profile. That was largely by design: the artist entered a period of self-reflection regarding the future of his career, at one point considering quitting music altogether. Those doubts seem at odds with his prolific and stylistically varied output over this stretch, with six additional albums and a smattering of one-off singles flitting from alt-country to jangle-rock and bedroom pop, a restless energy that he describes to NYLON as “just me developing myself as an artist.” This high-volume, low-key approach offered him time and space to work through his own curiosity, while avoiding a bright spotlight that quickly grew tiresome in the wake of Rachet’s rapid success. The creation of his own record label, Accidental Popstar Records, in 2017, and the 2021 release of But I’m a Painter, a chapbook exploring Shamir’s paintings and their influence on his creative process, further revealed the artist’s boundless spirit.

Now, with the release of his latest album Heterosexuality, the 27-year-old is ready to return to the public spotlight. In yet another stylistic shift, Heterosexuality sees Shamir adopting a crunchy, industrial sound, made in collaboration with fellow Philadelphia-based artist Isaac Eiger, a member of the Portland band Strange Ranger. Eiger proved to be a natural partner in the creation of the album with Strange Ranger sharing Shamir’s penchant for genre exploration. Together, they crafted an often-loud, occasionally shimmering soundscape across the album’s ten tracks, its varying textures offering Shamir’s singular voice ample room to play.

Marcus Maddox

It was that voice that first caught people’s ears at the start of Shamir’s career, a lilting countertenor that drew comparisons to Camille-era Prince and Michael Jackson. On Heterosexuality, his voice is even more self-assured, matched by lyrics that push back against cis-heterosexist expectations of easy classification and comfortable conformity that would seek to erase his unclassifiable brilliance. While Shamir has never been shy about his queer, nonbinary identity, facing constant questions about his personal life in the wake of Rachet contributed to the years of relative seclusion.

His mounting impatience with such bullshit is nowhere more obvious than on lead single “Cisgender,” a dynamic blend of exhaustion from such questioning, and the catharsis of refusing to be hemmed in by meeting other people’s expectations. As Shamir sings, “I’m not cisgender/ I’m not binary trans/ I don’t wanna be a girl/ I don’t wanna be a man,” there’s a sense of mistrustful observation, an awareness that such queer vulnerability is all too easily met with misrecognition and violence. But as he later repeats the lyric, “I’m not gonna pass for you/ You gotta get past,” any previous doubt seems to melt away. Its second chorus soars to new heights, projecting an operatic confidence that’s borne out of years of patient self-exploration and rooting out the traumatic expectations of living in a heterosexist society, despite growing up with supportive friends and family.

Queer artists are often expected to perform their identities to a fault, overexposing themselves in ways that straight, cisgender people often avoid. With Heterosexuality, Shamir turns this scenario on its head: how often are straight people asked to account for living unthinkingly with gender and sexual identities that are treated as obvious, legitimate, and appropriate, the album asks? What happens to queer people, especially queer people of color, who might otherwise live happily and exuberantly were it not for the curtailing gaze of an unimaginative mainstream, unwilling to create space for Shamir’s brand of vulnerable, generous artistry?

The weight of these conditions is reflected on the album cover and its early music videos, with Shamir sporting cloven hooves and antlers, leaving much of his body open to view. While inviting the risk of being called an “Abomination” — the title of the album’s most expressly political track — Shamir nevertheless possesses a presence of being that persists despite whatever others might think, as he sings on the song, “You can keep your eyes shut but you can’t look away.” Sporting a see-through tank top and blue eye shadow in the “Gay Agenda” music video, hanging out with friends and eating greasy fast food in the cool Philadelphia night, Shamir dares unsuspecting straight people to question the faulty assumptions they’ve inherited, as he sings, “You’re just stuck in the box that was made for me/ And you’re mad I got out and I’m living free.”

Over a recent call days before the release of Heterosexuality, NYLON caught up with the singer to discuss the weight of external expectations and its influence on one’s identity, what it’s like being publicly visible for the duration of one’s adulthood, and how getting older has created the comfort that allowed Heterosexuality to emerge.

Between the album title and tracks like “Cisgender” and “Gay Agenda,” it seems clear that your focus was turned to the straight world we live in. Why was that important to you when creating the first album that explicitly acknowledges your queerness, even though you’ve never been exactly shy about that part of your life?

I'm not saying that every queer person feels the same, or that this is even helpful for others, but I think I had to admit to myself that I wanted it to be straight. I wanted to be cis-het, not culturally, but more so just for the ease of being able to navigate the world without issue.

That was a very weird thing to admit to myself, because I have a really positive, supportive family that never made my life harder when I was growing up. I've always been comfortable with my queerness, so when I had that realization, it was weird to me and really jarring. Then I had the realization as well that because of the support I had growing up, I didn't have that feeling of wanting to capitulate until I went out into the world and realized that like, Oh, this is an external thing. I hate that!

It's a very cis, straight world. No matter how comfortable you are internally, it'll continue to try to beat that into you. Calling the record Heterosexuality was mostly a troll situation, but I think it turned out to truly be the best title, because it's about my relationship with straight society, and how I had never thought about my relationship with it until this trauma arose.

“Being loudly, radically honest is the only thing that continues to bring me solace.”

Did Covid create a situation where being alone with these questions helped you in some of the realizations?

Not really. I spent a lot of time alone anyway, like I'm pretty much a hermit who has the ability to be social. It's not like these are things that I have not already been thinking about. More so, it's just getting older and having more wisdom. I've felt able to tackle these conversations and feelings head-on on a project like this. But it took years of me thinking about it and philosophizing about it. I thought I owed that to the community too, to do that, not to just do it to pander, but to ensure it is helpful for others.

Making sense of being queer is a lifelong journey, and one that you’ve experienced throughout your artistic career. Given your vulnerability in the lyrics and presentation on this album, was there something different this time around that you didn’t have before?

I think this record was very beneficial for me personally. But also, I've been navigating being a visibly queer public figure since I was 19. It's kind of hard to describe, because it’s all I know at this point, but I guess I would say that being loudly, radically honest is the only thing that continues to bring me solace.

In the past, the second I felt an ounce of capitulation, it was this very triggering experience. If I didn’t have the therapeutic tools that I learned, I think the old Shamir probably would have thrown away the thought of like, Why do I want to I have like this desire to capitulate to the straight world?, as opposed to digging deeper and like figuring it out and being honest with myself throughout the process.

Those feelings never really stop, do they?

Definitely not. It never stops for anyone, but I think our load obviously is bigger and heavier. I feel like every single year, I’m processing a whole new aspect of my gender and who I am and how I view myself and how I want to be. There’s never been enough for us to just exist until the external starts to bend towards us as well. Obviously, I'm not going to discount some of the progress that we have made, but we still have a long way to go.

Shamir’s Heterosexuality is out now via AntiFragile Music