Justin Tranter: Queen of the Airwaves

Prolific songwriter is Flying the Flag for Progress  

Photo: Raphael Chatelain

Photo: Raphael Chatelain

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.  

I always say that, once you have privilege, your job is help other people tell their stories that can’t.

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.”

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.

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.”


Words: Justin Moran