A lot can change in a few short months. When last we spoke to Jesse Saint John — the prolific pop songwriter and sometimes singer who’s worked extensively with the likes of Kim Petras, Britney Spears and Charli XCX — he was lamenting the dearth of queer songs on the charts and wondering why out artists weren’t being given the same platform as straight, mainstream artists.
Fast forward to today, where openly gay rapper Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” recently ruled the Hot 100 for a record-breaking 19 weeks. A mere two weeks later, outspoken ally and femme force of nature Lizzo found her way to a No. 1 hit with her empowerment anthem “Truth Hurts,” co-written by Saint John himself.
In that short timeframe, a new narrative has formed: queer songs are becoming popular songs, signaling a major shift in cultural attitudes towards LGBTQ content that has, in many ways, been pioneered by queer creatives like Saint John.
When listening to “Truth Hurts” in the car, at the club or on your headphonnes, this catchy tune and lyrically blessed song is yet another example of queer excellence, a piece culled from the vast well of talent the LGBTQ+ community represents. Although hope for a future devoid of homophobia should be tentative, we can be grateful to the artists who’ve helped put queer content in the spotlight.
Billboard caught up with Saint John to discuss writing “Truth Hurts” with Lizzo, watching the track bubble under for two years and the emergence of queer success on the charts.
How did you and Lizzo meet?
I actually saw her show at The Echo in L.A. back in 2017. When I saw her I instantly thought, ‘This girl is like Beyonce… but she’s somehow playing a little venue like The Echo.’ It felt like she was already a massive star, even back then. So when her management reached out to set up some sessions with me, I was excited, since I already had some good writing credits under my belt with Brooke Candy and Britney, and I knew we’d do cool things together. She and I just got along really well and got to spend time together, and from that we wrote seven songs together.
Did you think “Truth Hurts” was going to be a No. 1 single when you were writing it?
Well, it initially dropped at the end of 2017, and we were all really stoked on it even though it wasn’t popular at first. I try to not have any expectations for anything that I have a writing credit on because it’s so out of my hands what happens to it after it’s out. But I’m just grateful that artists like her invite me to make songs with them.
So it’s been bubbling over for almost two years now!
Yep! Just under that. It’s been kind of ruminating for a while, but it was one of those songs that I knew people were using for captions and catchphrases, and people were using it in blogs and making posts about it. That was really cool, seeing my peers recognizing my work like that. That was encouraging, but I didn’t know it would get this big. I mean, Hillary Clinton isn’t my peer, but she quoted it, and I think that’s pretty major!
“Truth Hurts” is a great example of a queer perspective influencing culture and reaching No. 1 on the charts. Can you talk about the importance of that?
Well, I just think that with “Old Town Road” and now “Truth Hurts,” representation is no longer just a buzzword. Now it’s reflected in the charts, and people are using the power of their dollars to seek out the artist they feel best represented by. Lizzo is empowering so many women; and not just big women and black women, but intelligent and esoteric women, women who have autonomy over their mind and their spirit… you can feel how people are galvanized to get behind that and her. Honestly, I’m honored to even be mentioned in the same sentence.
The last time we spoke to you, you said a lot of queer songwriters, because they grew up LGBTQ, are told to use their creativity to uplift heteronormative, cisgender women. But Lizzo is far from heteronormative, or even mainstream in the traditional sense of that word. Do you see what she and you have accomplished here as progress?
Oh my god, totally! It’s crazy how fast things can change! I mean, obviously, many people came before me that were incredible barrier breakers, and we owe a lot to their work and their struggle, but the charts right now don’t lie — they’re the most progressive they’ve been in years, or maybe ever, even. And I can’t believe I get to be a part of it… it’s so important to me and has been for so long. I always wanted to be recognized not only for my talent and my contributions to pop music, but also for my work to make sure LGBTQ+ and other disenfranchised people are visible, are seen and appreciated. And I feel like with “Truth Hurts,” I’ve really managed to do that.