Taylor Swift recently released her newest single, “You Need to Calm Down,” her take on making an LGBTQ anthem for 2019. While some have looked on it with a critical eye, we’ve decided to celebrate it, along with all the gay anthems that came before it. Many are by LGBTQ artists; others have been adopted by the LGBTQ community from straight, cisgender artists whose song was either inspired by our community or spoke to us at a time when we really needed it. We’ve broken it down into 3 lists: Pre-1980, the ’80s and ’90s, and the 2000s. First up we have our top 12 list of Pre-1980 LGBTQ anthems:
12. Dusty Springfield “You Don’t Own Me” (1964)
Six years before Dusty Springfield came out as bisexual (one of the first pop stars to do so), she released a cover of Lesley Gore’s 1963 hit “You Don’t Own Me” on her debut album. A defiant feminist anthem, the song also resonated with the LGBTQ community for its no-holds-barred middle finger to a society that tried to homogenize us and stuff us into a heteronormative box. A few years before the modern gay rights movement really started, the song served as an inspiration for queer people to be themselves, albeit still behind closed doors. The song is so powerful that even 50 years later, it’s still used in many soundtracks such as in the pilot of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale (the Gore version) as well as in the famous scene from The First Wives Club.
11. David Bowie “Starman” (1972)
The first single from Bowie’s famous Ziggy Stardust album, the song is about a message of hope to Earth from an alien “Starman.” Can anything be more queer than a message of hope to those who feel alienated by their society (to the point that only an alien being understands them)? What makes it even more queer is that the chorus is loosely based on enduring gay anthem “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz. The androgynous, gender-bending style Bowie perfected only served to solidify the song’s resonance to the LGBTQ community when Bowie performed it on Top of the Pops with his arm draped around guitarist Mick Ronson, one of his Spiders from Mars.
10. Tom Robinson Band “Glad to Be Gay” (1978)
Out lead singer Tom Robinson penned this punk/new wave anthem for the London gay pride parade and it has since been considered Britain’s national gay anthem, even though it was at one point banned by the BBC Radio 1 on their Top 40 Chart Show. The original version of the song discusses Britain’s treatment of the LGBTQ community, including denouncing police raids on gay bars, but there have since been 10 versions of the song released, with Robinson updating the lyrics to reflect what was going on in the LGBTQ community at the time (i.e. lyrics addressing the AIDS epidemic). The modern gay rights movement only started nine years earlier, so it’s pretty amazing to have a song this unabashedly queer released into the world.
9. Valentino “I Was Born This Way” (1975)
A disco song for Motown, “I Was Born This Way” is perhaps the lesser known parent to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” hit that came 36 years later. The song is about a man who proclaims that he’s homosexual and that he was “born this way.” Not only was that a controversial issue at the time — only six years after the Stonewall Riots, most straight people thought being gay was a “choice” — but it also was one of the first songs written for the LGBTQ community. The song found success in both the U.S. and the U.K. at the time of its release.
8. TIE: Sylvester “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” (1978) and Alicia Bridges “I Love the Nightlife” by (1978)
A tie between two 1978 LGBTQ anthems by openly gay disco artists. Genderbending singer (and L.A. native) Sylvester released the song as we know it today, with a pulsating beat, falsetto vocals and bouncing synthesizer, but it’s hard to imagine that it was originally a mid-tempo piano driven gospel song. Sylvester never had another hit after this song, but he still remained popular among dance music fans, especially in the LGBTQ community, and used his popularity to advocate for AIDS and safe sex in the ’80s before dying from the disease himself in 1988. And the song has since only been cemented as a gay anthem, appearing in a lot of popular LGBTQ entertainment including RuPaul’s Drag Race, Milk and The Normal Heart.
Alicia Bridges was an out lesbian and her hit song “I Love the Nightlife” was a queer ode to how important nightlife was (and still is) to the LGBTQ community. She may be singing “Please don’t talk about…all the trouble we’ve been through” to her lover, but the community as a whole could relate to just losing themselves in their safe, queer spaces and letting go of all the discrimination they faced in the outside world.
7. Donna Summer “I Feel Love” (1977)
The first adopted song on the list, Summer’s disco hit served as an LGBTQ liberation song for many at the time. Produced by famous disco pioneers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, the song resonated with a queer audience because of its unabashed declaration about loving your body and its sexual desires at a time when being gay was still considered a sexual deviancy. Plus, we sure love dancing and this song got people on the floor every time. The disco craze and songs like “I Feel Love” set the standard and paved the way for the dance-pop LGBTQ anthems of the future, from Madonna to Lady Gaga. In fact, Madonna even paid tribute to the song on her 2006 disco-inspired Confessions Tour, mashing it with her own song inspired by the track, “Future Lovers.”
6. Elton John “The Bitch Is Back” (1974)
Although Elton John didn’t confirm his sexuality for another two years, when he came out to Rolling Stone as bisexual in 1976 (he did not identify as gay until the late ’80s), his flamboyancy and unconventional looks did not go unnoticed by the LGBTQ community at the time. And although the song was inspired by lyricist Bernie Taupin’s wife Maxine, who would say “the bitch is back” when he was in a bad mood, John still embraced the lyrics as if they were his own, saying, “it is kind of my theme song.” It’s now part of the LGBTQ vernacular to call each other “bitch” (especially for gay men), but back then it wasn’t as common for a man to use that word on himself, as it mostly was used as a derogatory word for females. In fact, several radio stations at the time refused to play the song because of the word. Elton John and Bernie Taupin were two of the first people in pop culture to take back the word, helping to destigmatize it not only for women but also for the LGBTQ community, who would later embrace it themselves.
5. The Village People “Go West” (1979)
Although “Go West” is not as famous as some of the Village People’s bigger hits like “Y.M.C.A.” and “In the Navy,” it is perhaps their most unabashed LGBTQ anthem. The Village People were arguably the most openly gay and flamboyant act of the decade, something astonishing given the time period. “Go West” presents a utopia for LGBTQ people, free from prejudice and homophobia. The band chants “Together!” in choral harmony, a cry for unity. They use the old American dream of moving west to start a new life as a metaphor for being able to live as themselves in peace, “where the skies are blue…to begin life new.” Whether the “we” in the song is referring to an LGBTQ couple or the entire LGBTQ population, “Go West” is an important anthem that imagines a world where we flourished and succeeded in peace. The song’s status as a gay anthem was only solidified by its inclusion in the soundtrack to 1994’s The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, as well as by the Pet Shop Boys’ cover in the ’90s, which they first performed at an AIDS charity event.
4. ABBA “Dancing Queen” (1976)
Another adopted song, “Dancing Queen” was written about a 17 year old girl losing herself in the music, but what LGBTQ person can’t relate to that? Swedish disco-pop band ABBA may have not sought out to become queer icons, but their campiness, flamboyantly sequenced costumes and catchy, dancefloor-friendly songs turned them into one. With lyrics like, “Friday night and the lights are low/Looking out for a place to go/Where they play the right music,” it’s hard for LGBTQ people not to relate, searching out gay clubs as one of the few safe public spaces to be themselves and meet others in the community. And what gay person doesn’t want to be a dancing queen?
3. Charles Aznavour “What Makes a Man” (1972)
In 1972, Aznavour wrote what would become one of his most famous songs, “Comme Ils Disent,” or “What Makes a Man.” As the first French song about homosexuality (he also recorded an English version), Aznavour did not identify as gay himself but said he wanted to write about the problems his gay friends faced from their perspective. “I could see things were different for them, that they were marginalized,” he said. The song is about the life of a gay man, including his close relationship to his mother and his crossdressing in the Paris clubs at night. To this day the song has some of the most honest, direct and compelling lyrics about the struggles of being LGBTQ: “So many times we have to pay/For having fun and being gay/It’s not amusing…Yet they make fun of how I talk/And imitate the way I walk/Tell me if you can/What makes a man a man.” The song’s take on not only homosexuality but also on society’s construct of masculinity makes the song truly special (especially being released back in 1972) and a real LGBTQ anthem.
2. Gloria Gaynor “I Will Survive” (1978)
Gloria Gaynor may not have been LGBTQ herself, but that hasn’t stopped “I Will Survive” from becoming one of the biggest LGBTQ anthems in music history. The disco hit on its surface spotlights a powerful woman who declares that she’ll fight on and keep going after the demise of a relationship. The premise alone resonates with queer people, who not only relate to surviving a crumbled relationship but also use it as a metaphor for how we respond when the world tries to beat us down. When the AIDS epidemic began a few years later, the song was really cemented as an LGBTQ anthem, with many at the time turning to the song for inspiration as they literally struggled to survive, or watched their friends struggle to survive. The song, which celebrates resilience, served as a rallying cry for the LGBTQ community when the straight, cisgender world wouldn’t listen and seemed not to care. The lyrics literally proclaim, “Did you think I’d crumble? Did you think I’d lay down and die?” No, they said, we will survive and, thankfully, we did.
1. Judy Garland “Over the Rainbow” (1939)
Perhaps the biggest adopted song by the LGBTQ community, we related to this song for decades while we still lived in the closet. Written by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg for 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, the song finds Judy Garland’s character of Dorothy longing for a bigger and better life, and so too was the LGBTQ community. She sings, “If happy little bluebirds fly, beyond the rainbow why, oh, why can’t I?” The gay community pre-Stonewall also wanted to fly out of the shadows and beyond the rainbow but instead were relegated to stay in the closets and keep their love and way of life secret. The song also eventually served as a partial inspiration for the gay rainbow-colored flag. The LGBTQ community not only related to the song, but to the character of Dorothy herself, who accepted people like the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion for being different. This is why gay men began calling themselves “Friends of Dorothy.”
And our resonance went beyond the character to Garland herself, who also accepted people who were different, including her father and some of her lovers who were gay or bisexual. She also frequented gay bars with her gay friends at a time when many public figures steered clear. When she began to fall apart towards the end of her life, her tragic struggles with alcohol and drugs only made her more relatable to the LGBTQ community, showing how human she was and how the world can destroy a person who is different and thinks outside the box. In fact, many believe that her death was connected to the Stonewall Riots. She died six days prior to the Riots and her funeral was held just hours before. It’s said that her death led to high emotions and rage, which contributed to the decision made by LGBTQ patrons that night to fight back against the police raid (but none of this has been officially proven right or wrong). Either way, it’s fitting that one of our first, most iconic and most tragic LGBTQ icons died so close to the birth of the modern gay rights movement but tragically never got to see it.
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