Pride at 49: The Songs that Saved Us

Pride at 49: The Songs that Saved Us

Great songs can communicate feelings conversation can’t. The best give us license to express our most difficult or hidden emotions — ones that become not just palatable but poignant when matched with the seductive language of music. So fleet a form of expression has elevated meaning and utility for LGBTQ people. And, as we approach the 50th anniversary of Gay Pride, that role deserves special acknowledgement.

Half a century after the Stonewall riots that sparked the modern Pride movement, scores of young LGBTQ artists feel free to express their innermost thoughts and feelings through song: from Sam Smith and Frank Ocean to Troye Sivan and Kim Petras. But in the decades when direct expressions of gay love, or gender defiance, weren’t acceptable, musicians still found ways to get their messages out. Whether through code, innuendo or implication, songwriters back in the day found a way to reach those listeners who needed to hear them most.

I, for one, needed these songs like a choking man needs air. During the time when I grew up — the ‘70s — “the love that dare not speak its name” dare not sing it, either. Only in the most rare cases was the subject raised in commercial music.

In 1970, the Kinks had a hugely improbable hit with “Lola,” about a drag queen. In 1976, Rod Stewart released “The Killing of Georgie,” which recounted the deadly gay bashing of a man whom Stewart presented as a close, and loving, friend. Songs like these were extreme outliers, sure, but they were written and performed by straight artists.

Some openly gay artists did exist at the time — often in the world of “women’s music.” There were singers like Holly Near and Cris Williamson, or, in more rare cases, men like the glam-rock artist Jobriath — or Steven Grossman, the first openly gay artist signed to a major label in 1974. But they drew cult audiences at best, with no shot at a mainstream airing. As a result, most LGBTQ listeners had to rely on surrogates — i.e. straight stars — to speak for them. In some cases, they performed songs crafted by gay writers and producers, thus heterosexual stars become Trojan Horses for queer folks’ souls.

As frustrating as this could be, there’s a secondary gain. The repression of gay expression inspired earlier artists and performers to fresh heights of creativity. Because the best art indicates rather than states, the necessary encoding of LGBTQ lyrics in the past encouraged songwriters to concoct the smartest metaphors and develop the cleverest double-entendres. Just as often, gay people used the power of projection to find useful meanings in songs their creators never intended.

With that in mind, I’ve assembled a list of “25 of the Greatest Songs that Got Gay People Through.” It’s anything but a comprehensive list. To create one would be impossible, since anyone whose emotions have been suppressed will seek surrogates anywhere they can find them. I’m sure you have your own candidates. Feel free to add them!

One other caveat: because the songs on the list date from a time before the commercial world opened to a greater range of creators, you’ll find only one transgender artist, fewer lesbians than gay men and more white stars than those of other races.

Moreover, nearly all the artists featured either identify as straight or were in the closet at the time these songs were cut. Of course, those limitations only make the historic resonance of their songs that much more powerful.

Bessie Smith “The Boy in the Boat,” 1930s

Some of the most important early blues singers were reportedly bisexual or gay, including Mae Rainey, Gladys Bentley and Bessie Smith. It helped that the segregated clubs where they often performed drew audiences well acquainted with subjects that fell far outside the mainstream. Even so, the artists relied on coded winks and nods to communicate their interests.

In “The Boy in the Boat,” Smith slyly crooned, “When you see two women walking hand-in-hand/just look ‘em over and try to understand…They’ll go to only those parties where women go.”

Judy Garland “Over the Rainbow,” 1939

The best-loved song from The Wizard of Oz evoked a far-off land of freedom and release, an image that resonated with uncommon depth for gay people. The almost unbearable level of need communicated by Garland’s vocal insured that “Over the Rainbow” would become one of the most enduring LGBTQ anthems of all time.

The Beatles “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” 1965

Although none of the Fab Four were gay, their manager Brian Epstein was — back at a time when homosexuality was illegal in the U.K. and viewed as an abomination nearly everywhere. John Lennon wrote this song, which, intentionally or not, expressed Epstein’s need to hide his love from anyone outside his circle of trust.

The Beatles “Boys,” 1963

For his first lead vocal performance with the Beatles, Ringo Starr chose to cover a song that had been a hit for the Shirelles three years earlier. He picked it for its rousing melody and strong beat, ignoring the fact that it expressed lust for men. Regardless, it’s significant that, in such a benighted time, the world’s biggest band didn’t mind performing a song that rang with homoerotic joy.

Barbra Streisand “He Touched Me,” 1965

Streisand was already a figure of fascination for gay people when she cut “He Touched Me” three years into her recording career. Her outsider status (based on her unconventional looks, Jewish humor and forthright persona), matched to the unbridled passion in her voice, helps explain the emotional connection.

Likewise, when Streisand performed a gender-switch on “She Touched Me” (a song from the musical Drat! That Cat!), she signaled a comfort with bending sexual identity to her will that struck a deep chord with gay people. It didn’t hurt that her tactile performance epitomized the forbidden thrill of erotic sensation.

The Tornados “Do You Come Here Often?” 1966

The Tornados were a largely instrumental group that scored big hits in their time, including the futuristic “Telstar” in 1962. Four years later, they released a single, “Do You Come Here Often?” that started out as an instrumental. Before it was complete, however, the group’s gay producer, Joe Meek, shoehorned in some dialogue for two members that used the coded language of a gay bar. Only those in the know got the joke.

Van Morrison “Madame George,” 1968

On his revelatory album Astral Weeks, Morrison featured a 10-minute track that stars a transvestite. The highly poetic piece presented its central character as a figure of magic and mystery. (“Down on Cypress Avenue/with a childlike vision leaping into view/clicking, clacking of the high heeled shoe/Madame George”).

Beautiful as Morrison’s version may be, the finest rendition was delivered in 1994 by Marianne Faithfull, whose wise voice, and subversive persona, nailed the elusive George.

Mott the Hoople “All the Young Dudes,” 1972

It’s been called the ultimate gay anthem, despite the fact that the guy who wrote it (David Bowie) and the guys that performed it (Mott) identified as straight. For all of his provocations to the contrary, Bowie always identified as straight. Such were the contradictions that ruled the trend that produced “Dudes”: glam-rock, a melding of hetero and homo affectations that presaged “sexual fluidity” by decades.

Lou Reed “Walk on the Wild Side,” 1972

Another glam-rock touchstone, produced by Bowie, “Wild Side” proved catchy enough to drag the world of underground “superstars” from the demi-monde of Andy Warhol into the Top 40. Despite the fact that its heroes were male hustlers, gays and transgender people.

David Bowie “Rebel Rebel,” 1974

“Your mother’s in a whirl/she’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl,” sang Bowie in this quintessential ode to gender rebellion. The music straddled the line as well, matching flamboyant vocals to rock hard guitar riffs.

ABBA “Dancing Queen,” 1976

The title alone could have made this a camp footnote. The over-the-top arrangement turned it into a camp classic.

Labelle “Going Down Makes Me Shiver,” 1976

Labelle member and chief writer Nona Hendryx was open about her sexuality among the cognoscenti, if not the public, when she composed this song. But “Going Down” made her lusts as public as one could in the ‘70s.

Sylvester “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” 1978

The gay singer Sylvester scored a hit with this ecstatic disco classic. For most listeners, it simply functioned as a peak dance record. For gay listeners, it sent a deeper message, equating sexuality with authenticity, through lines like “I feel real when you touch me/I feel real when you want me.”

Jayne County “Toilet Love,” 1978

Smutty and proud, this punk touchstone by the first transgender rock star embraced sex at its most outrageously raw.

Sister Sledge “We are Family,” 1979

Ever since this Nile Rodgers song became a hit, it has had a secondary purpose: most every major gay event uses it both to declare the community’s unity and to argue for an alternate definition of family.

David Bowie “Boys Keep Swinging,” 1979

“When you’re a boy/other boys check you out,” sang Bowie in his catchy rocker from his Lodger album. For straight men, the couplet addressed competitiveness. For gay men, it nailed the thrill of cruising. The video, which featured Bowie in the guise of three distinct drag queens, amplified its message of gender questioning.

Diana Ross “I’m Coming Out,” 1980

Nile Rodgers wrote the lyrics to “Coming Out” after seeing Diana Ross perform live in California. In an interview with Rolling Stone last year, he recalled thinking at the time “she’s like a queen to me. So, I thought, what if this is a song where a queen really can be a hero?” The flamboyant result became a Top 5 hit, proving its appeal to everyone, but the “coming out” title phrase insures it a place at LGBTQ pride parades for the rest of time.

Pete Townshend “Rough Boys,” 1980

At the height of U.K. punk, the leader of the Who wrote an ode to their brashness and cheek that rippled with homoerotic lust. “Rough boys/I want to bite and kiss you,” Townshend sang — hardly lines you’d expect an ostensibly straight rock star to express. Naturally, that just made the song even more impactful for gay rock fans.

Soft Cell Tainted Love,” 1981

About sixteen years before it became an international smash for Soft Cell, soul singer Gloria Jones had a U.K. hit with “Tainted Love.” As sung by the openly gay front man of Soft Cell, Marc Almond, the song gained fresh layers of meaning.

His take captured the shame many gay people are still made to feel. Later, when the AIDS crisis came to dominate gay life, “Tainted Love” seemed to mean even more, potentially indicating the fear and paranoia of the day. 

Joan Jett “Crimson and Clover,” 1981

Jett doesn’t talk about her sexuality publicly, but she did make a point of refusing to switch the genders in her version of the Tommy James’ hit from the ‘60s that expresses unfiltered love for a woman.

Queen “I Want to Break Free,” 1984

Although Queen front man Freddie Mercury was never out during his life, his affect could not have provided a stronger, or more purposeful, indicator. Mercury went a step further by appearing in drag for Queen’s “Break Free” video while relishing a lyric about wanting to break down the boundaries of acceptability.

Tom Robinson “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number,” 1984

Although best known for creating the didactic LGBTQ anthem “Glad to be Gay,” Robinson offered a subtler ode to his identity by covering the 1974 Steely Dan hit. He turned it into the prelude to a man-on-man hook-up.

The Smiths “There is A Light That Never Goes Out,” 1986

The operatically exaggerated love Morrissey expressed in this Smiths classic epitomized a historic gay dynamic — that is, the self-loathing narrator who lusts for the most unattainable love-object imaginable.

k.d. Lang “What’s New Pussycat?” 1990s

Around the time that she came out, lang started performing this high camp hit from the ‘60s. While Tom Jones’ original version exuded a macho bravado, lang made it a Sapphic salute.

Elton John “I Want Love,” 2001

Elton John has been out for a while now, but this 2001 song penned, as always, by his straight songwriting partner Bernie Taupin, perfectly captured the shame of earlier gay life. “I want love/but it’s impossible/a man like me/so irresponsible,” goes the opening verse. In the most punishing couplet, the narrator admits to being “dead in places/other men feel liberated.” As antique as this implicitly gay view of life may be, its verse holds within it the pain of history. Like all the songs on this list, it’s an artifact, a sonic reminder of the struggles of the past, as well as a spur to continue those that remain.

Diana Ross performs on stage at the Theatre des Champs Elysees in Paris to promote the release of her 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues. (Photo by Alain Dejean/Sygma via Getty Images)

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