Justin Tranter: Queen of the Airwaves
Prolific songwriter is Flying the Flag for Progress
In Issue Three, we spoke to the songwriter and LGBTQ activist for our "Flying the Flag" series.
To understand the profound significance of Justin Tranter’s success as pop’s most reliable hitmaker, it’s essential to revisit the long, formative path he was forced to navigate as a queer, hyper-femme punk in order to have his lyrics played on global airwaves today.
Now, at 37 years old, Tranter has become the most in-demand songwriter in contemporary music. But for decades prior, he was the one demanding that listeners take notice, mounting a grueling resistance against the homophobic industry to eventually claim space and prove that LGBTQ ideas are mainstream.
Semi Precious Weapons (SPW), which Tranter calls “one of the queerest bands of all fucking time,” was born into an era when indie rock was dominated by unwelcoming heteronormativity. Straight male journalists were the gatekeepers, keeping out anyone remotely feminine, let alone a raucous frontman in six-inch Stuart Weitzman heels, ripped fishnets, bleached hair and a face full of makeup. Tranter was a renegade of mid-2000s punk, taking incessant blows from the music community, especially for his three straight band members.
“My bandmates all suffered the same homophobia I did, even though they’re not gay, because everyone assumed that if one of us was, we all must be,” Tranter says. “The amount of disrespect we’d get toward our musicianship in the press was really interesting, because, whether you liked us or not, we played better than most. The guys in my band were fucking slayers.”
Words like “ponce,”“shallow” and “fey” were often used by critics to describe SPW, which Tranter says was their way of “trying to subtly say this is too faggy for us.” Today, “the press would be destroyed for things they said about us.” Perhaps it’s because the New York outfit never shied from soaking in glitter-bombed baths of outlandish queer lyrics, all notably written in a loft Tranter could barely afford after talking the landlords down in “lots of makeup and fake fur coats.”
The band’s self-titled cult classic, “Semi Precious Weapons,” saw Tranter declaring, “I can’t pay my rent, but I’m fucking gorgeous”—a true-to-life statement about him owning his femininity as a “badge of honor” despite being a “freak according to most of the world.” Another track, “Rock N Roll Never Looked So Beautiful,” saw Tranter fantasizing about his own posthumous legacy. Through fluttering vocals and a grizzly guitar, he listed off funeral plans: “Put me in a see-through coffin,” he starts. “Stuff me up with mink stole stuffin’.” Having a song that art-directs your own funeral is “the queerest thing ever,” Tranter says, laughing.
While these songs might have resonated in today’s inclusive, social media-driven world, SPW was largely a fringed project Tranter kept afloat through outside income. His jewelry line, Fetty, was launched “out of survival,” sold in Barneys New York, and ultimately made Tranter more money than SPW ever did. Tranter admits he was always “beautifully optimistic” that his band would eventually break through, but “had to pull endless stunts to try and move the music forward.” He created gun-shaped necklaces with USBs holding their albums, gave music away for free online “before Radiohead,” and printed SPW’s website on all Fetty jewelry display cards.
Tranter’s inherent business brain carried him through the next chapter of his music career, after releasing three full-length SPW albums, and finally disbanding for members to pursue their own personal projects. As he worked to break into Los Angeles pop songwriting through his publisher, Warner Chappell, Tranter quickly learned that entering a studio session in head-to-toe glamour was intimidating for people, especially in an industry where so few queer folks are working behind-the-scenes. “You see the world’s biggest pop stars show up to sessions in sweatpants, and there I was in six-inch heels and platinum hair. I was like, ‘These people must think I look insane.’ I started to realize how threatening my band must’ve been.”
But Tranter took his new role as songwriter, not rock star, very seriously and began to strip away at his over-the-top presentation in order to get inside more studio sessions. With natural-day makeup, heelless shoes and butch silhouettes, Tranter refers to his updated uniform as a “lesbian art teacher look,” something much more approachable while still allowing him to “feel femme and powerful.” Almost immediately, Tranter’s toned-down appearance worked, and his new career exploded.
“People take me more seriously now, which is disgusting,” he says. “In some ways I feel like a sellout, and I’m willing to admit that. I wanted my songs to be played all over the world, so I changed how I looked. To see that I stopped dressing feminine and my career worked pretty instantly is sad. It proves the industry’s homophobia and misogyny that the minute I stopped challenging societal norms every single second through how I looked, my music was finally heard.”
Today, Tranter boasts an impressive A-list client book and lineup of hit songs he’s co-written, most notably Justin Bieber’s chart-scorching “Sorry” and Selena Gomez’s sultry, career-defining “Good For You.” Pop icons like Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani, Kesha and Fergie have all closely collaborated with Tranter on their most recent albums, as well as alternative groups like Imagine Dragons, Fall Out Boy and Linkin Park. He’s transcending genres, monopolizing radio and, most importantly, infusing Top 40 with the same outsider energy he championed through SPW—even if it’s subtle.
What he loves most about songwriting is helping other artists tell their stories and realize their truth. “Joe is a really sexy, goofy dude. So for him, ‘Cake by the Ocean’ was him finding his truth, which may sound absurd, because it’s such a fun party song, but I think there’s something so beautiful about that.”
To help artists distill their life experiences into raw, personal music, Tranter says he starts sessions with casual conversations that typically lead into songwriting ideas. While the industry didn’t allow Tranter to be his authentic self visually, this is where he’s able to really advocate for honesty. “It’s funny when artists say to me, ‘Well, can we say that?’ I’m like, ‘If it’s true, of course we can say it.’ They’re like, ‘But doesn’t that sound fucked up?’” For Tranter, pop music simply means “it’s clear enough that the masses can understand. If the lyric is fucked up, as long as it’s clear, we can still use it, because that’s what you’re feeling.”
Much like Fetty, Tranter suggests that his ability to talk openly with artists developed out of his need to survive socially as a marginalized queer. “We’re underdogs, and I think people feel safety in LGBTQ people, because they can assume we’ve been through some fucked-up shit, too,” he says. “I’m supposed to hate myself, but luckily I don’t, because I come from a supportive family. People find safety in that and trust me with their insecurities, because, for the most part, I have dealt with mine, so they feel safe giving me theirs.”
With the explosion of Tranter’s songwriting career, he has also decidedly used his platform to be a vocal activist for LGBTQ rights, joining GLAAD’s National Board of Directors and demanding at the 2017 BMI Pop Awards that more queer songwriters get placed in studio sessions. The concern is no longer Tranter creating industry space for himself, as much as it’s opening doors for other marginalized talent to blossom.
“I always say that, once you have privilege, your job is help other people tell their stories that can’t,” Tranter says, highlighting a black transgender singer-songwriter named Shea Diamond he’s been closely working with to help launch her career. He first discovered Diamond through a friend, who sent him a video of her performing her song, “I Am Her,” at a rally in NYC. Tranter’s “heart broke” over the track’s brutal honesty and Diamond’s powerhouse vocals. “Her lyrics weren’t only about strength, but also about the negative things she’s done in her life,” he says. “To me, owning that is a sign of a real writer. You’re not just trying to write a fantasy, but you’re willing to open up.”
While Tranter has spent the past few years investing his own artistic output into making other musicians reach radio, he has no interest in returning to the tireless hustle of SPW. “My career moves forward, because I help other people be better, and that’s beautiful,” he says. “I do have moments where my queer personality can spill out all over the airwaves, but for the most part I try to make other people’s personalities stronger and more universal. To me, both sides are just as valuable.”