Walk on the Wild Side

Lou Reed’s song “Walk on the Wild Side” was recently put under the microscope after being called “transphobic” by a student group.  The original song was released on Lou Reed’s Transformer in 1972.

Lyrics from Genus.com:

Holly came from Miami F L A
Hitchhiked her way across the U S A
Plucked her eyebrows on the way
Shaved her legs and then he was a she
She says “Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side,”
Said “Hey honey, take a walk on the wild side.”
Candy came from out on the Island
In the backroom she was just everybody’s darling
But she never lost her head
Even when she was giving head
She says, “Hey baby, take a walk on the wild side”
Said, “Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side”
And the colored girls go
Doo doo doo…
Little Joe never once gave it away
Everybody had to pay and pay
A hustle here and a hustle there
New York City is the place where they said
“Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side”
I said “Hey Joe, take a walk on the wild side”
Sugar Plum Fairy came and hit the streets
Looking for soul food and a place to eat
Went to the Apollo
You should have seen him go go go
They said “Hey sugar, take a walk on the wild side”
I said “Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side” alright, huh
Jackie, she is just speeding away
Thought she was James Dean for a day
Then you know that she had to crash on
Valium would have helped that dash
She said “Hey, babe, take a walk on the wild side”
I said, “Hey honey, take a walk on the wild side”
And the colored girls say
Doo doo doo…

Students at University of Guelph, Ontario issued an apology on their website for playing the song at a function, stating “We now know the lyrics to this song are hurtful to our friends in the trans community and we’d like to unreservedly apologize for this error in judgment.”  What is considered objectionable was the “problematic” suggestion that transgender people are “wild” and the phrasing “he was a she.”  Note, no mention was made of the use of the word “colored.”

While today the song would probably be phrased differently, contextualized it was very socially advanced for its time.  The Stonewall riots were in 1969, homosexuality wasn’t removed by the American Psychiatric Association from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual until 1973.  Just mentioning transgender people, oral sex, and drugs in a song was controversial.  Lou Reed himself dated a transgender woman for years and was subject to electroshock treatment as a teenager to “cure” his homosexuality.

Most seem to think that the students were overreacting and projecting modern sensibilities. The song still has a lot of power for many young people.  I had one student do a class project about the song just last semester.  Though they might not be representative, most queer and trans people I know thought the censorship was ridiculous and potentially harmful for trans and queer communities.  Friends in bands have pointed out that when they cover the song they just change the lyrics to “she was a she” and “the girls sing.”

Most importantly, Holly Woodlawn, the subject of the first stanza, was interviewed about the song.  When saying the lyrics out loud she says “… was a she” skipping over the “he” in the original, but otherwise enjoying the lyrics.  She said she loves the song because it has given her immortality.

 

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