music

Some Pre 1980 Songs Referencing LGBTQ

A not – exhaustive list of some songs before 1980 that reference LGBTQ people and issues. (*Needless to say, these should all be contextualized for their relative milieu.  Some are direct in their topic, others oblique.  These are not necessarily advocacy or activist related songs and can contain tokenizing and stereotypical characterizations.)

Gene Malin – “I’d Rather Be Spanish than Manish,” 1932

Troy Walker – “Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe,” 1962

Van Morrison – “Madame George,” 1968

Lou Reed – “Candy Says,” 1969 

The Kinks – “Lola,” 1970

Madeline Davis – “Stonewall Nation,” 1971

David Bowie – “John, I’m Only Dancing,” 1972

Jobriath – “I’m A Man,” 1973

Chris Robinson – “Looking for a Boy Tonight,” 1973

The Miracles – “Ain’t Nobody Straight in LA,” 1975

Valentino – “I Was Born This Way,” 1975

Rod Stewart – “The Killing of Georgie,” 1976

Sylvester – “You Make Me Feel Mighty Real,” 1978

The Village People – “YMCA,” 1978

Tom Robinson – “Glad To Be Gay,” 1978

Bonus spoken word:

Rae Bourbon – “Let Me Tell You About My Operation,” 1956

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Perfume Genius’s “Die 4 You”

In the androgynous / queer music video for “Die 4 You,” Perfume Genius uses erotic asphyxiation as a symbol of commitment and devotion.

Lyrics from genius.com:

Limit every second left
Until I’m off balance

Oh love
I’m there in spirit

Each and every breath I spend
You are collecting

Oh love
See it through
I would die 4 you

Each and every breath I spend
You are collecting
Limit every second left
‘Til I’m off balance
Each and every breath I spend

Oh my love, oh my love
Take your time
Oh my love, take your time
Oh my love, oh my love

Oh my love, oh my love
Take your time
Oh my love, take your time
See it through

Rise Like a Pheonix

In 2014 the Eurovision Song Contest was won by Conchita Wurst from Austria.  Conchita Wurst is the drag persona of Tom Neuwirth.  “Conchita” is Spanish slang for vulva / vagina and “Wurst” is German slang for penis.

The Eurovision Contest is known for its eccentricity and gay representations are not new, but Wurst’s performance was particularly unique.  Though wearing long, curled hair, full makeup, and a beautiful gown all culturally signifying female, she also had a full beard, a secondary sex characteristic associated with males.

The song “Rise Like a Phoenix” holds additional meaning when sung by Wurst.  The lyrics “Peering from the mirror  No, that isn’t me  Stranger getting nearer  Who can this person be  You wouldn’t know me at all today” and “Once I’m transformed  Once I’m reborn I rise up to the sky  You threw me down but I’m gonna fly  And rise like a phoenix” can all be read as referencing gender ambiguity or transformation.  Neuwirth has stated “Conchita Wurst” is his drag persona and he does not identify as transgender, though, like many drag queens, uses ‘she’ pronouns when in character.  Wurst’s genderqueer performance was attacked by the Russian Orthodox church as an “abomination” and Vladimir Putin as “aggressive” because non traditional gender identity was “put…up for show”.

In her acceptance speech, Wurst stated “This night is dedicated to everyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom.  You know who you are.  We are unity and we are unstoppable.”

Commercial Activism

A Pepsi ad featuring Kendall Jenner recently made it into the news:

The ad was widely met with derision.

This is not a new phenomena.  Imagery and ideas of rebellion have been used to sell products for decades.  Sites such as Jezebel, Sociological Images, and this blog have previously looked at this issue.  Following are some additional examples:

Having ‘Juice’ and Being ‘Hard’

In Code of the Streets, Elijah Anderson discusses how poverty, racism, fallout from drugs, and a lack of faith in the criminal justice system in inner cities have resulted in alienation.  The code of the street is a set of informal rules governing interpersonal behavior that act as a framework for obtaining and maintaining respect or “juice.”  The code creates an alternative status system whereby respect is hard won and easily lost.  The presentation of self, such as facial expressions, body language, manner of dress, and word use can signal intentions.  Ignorance of the rules are no excuse; everyone is expected to know the code and behave in the prescribed manner.  

In Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, Byron Hurt talks to academics and rappers about representations of masculinity and violence in rap music.  Though the documentary is a bit older (2006), the content is still relevant.  In an interview, rapper Fat Joe talks about how even at music industry events and in night clubs, everyone feels the need to present themselves as “hard.”  Later, rapper Mos Def talks about growing up as a black man you “don’t want nobody taking you for short…but when shit got critical, you can’t be no punk…and you will get tested.”  Hurt also includes discussion of the need for poor men who lack financial power to have control over their bodies and be able to present themselves as deserving of respect.

The Risk podcast, episode 510 “Impulsive,” featured a story called “Judgment Day” by J.J. about his experience coming from inner city poverty, going to college, and returning home to visit.  The storyteller gets in an altercation with a man from the neighborhood and comes very close to killing the man as retaliation for hurting his pride.

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.