Back in June, Taylor Swift released her single, “You Need to Calm Down,” which served as her take on making an LGBTQ anthem for 2019. It also just won the Video of the Year Award at this year’s MTV Video Music Awards last week. 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. Below we have our top 12 list of LGBTQ anthems from the 1980s and 1990s:
12. TIE: George Michael “Freedom! ‘90” (1990) and Culture Club “Karma Chameleon”
The ’80s may not have been the best time to be living as an out LGBTQ person, except apparently for English pop stars. We kick off our list with two iconic ones, George Michael and Boy George of Culture Club. Rumors had been swirling for years around Michael’s sexuality but nothing was ever confirmed by him prior to this song’s release (shortly thereafter he came out as bisexual, before coming out as gay further down the line). Released as the first single from his aptly titled second solo album Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, “Freedom! ‘90” finds Michael singing, “There’s something deep inside of me/There’s someone else I’ve got to be,” not so implicitly referencing his closeted sexuality. The music video for the song, which Michael doesn’t appear in at all, made it even more of an iconic LGBTQ anthem. Inspired by the January 1990 cover of British Vogue, which featured supermodels Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Tatjana Patitz and Christy Turlington, Michael asked the women to appear in the music video lip-syncing to his song. Beautiful, larger-than-life women lip-syncing to a pop song? Sounds awfully like a drag show to me!
It’s pretty hard to explain how an androgynous, openly LGBTQ man had as much success in the Reagan-era ’80s as Boy George did with his band Culture Club. As early as 1983 he spoke about being bisexual in interviews (he now identifies as gay). That same year, Culture Club released one of the biggest singles of their career, “Karma Chameleon,” which reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart. The song may not be explicitly about being LGBTQ, but its themes still apply. Boy George once described the song as being about “the terrible fear of alienation that people have, the fear of standing up for one thing.” He said that if you don’t act true to yourself then you’ll get karma, which is nature’s way of paying back. Basically, embrace who you are, including your sexuality, and be yourself! What else could you want in an LGBTQ anthem?
11. TIE: K.D. Lang “Constant Craving” (1992) and Melissa Etheridge “Come to My Window” (1993)
The early ’90s was a great time for lesbian singer/songwriters, as two out lesbian artists both cracked the Billboard Top 40. The first song is “Constant Craving” by k.d. Lang, which hit number 38 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart. Only months after the song was released, Lang came out as a lesbian to The Advocate in June 1992. Since then, she’s championed many LGBTQ causes, including HIV/AIDS care and research. The black-and-white video, which won the Best Female Video award at the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards, was a recreation of the premiere of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot. While there’s nothing explicitly homosexual in the play, many believe that the main characters Vladimir and Estragon are an ageing homosexual couple, who are worn out and not engaging sexually any longer. Some of the song’s lyrics, separate from the video concept, have also been used by many LGBTQ fans to apply to their sexuality, such as: “Even through the darkest phase/Be it thick or thin/Always someone marches brave/Here beneath my skin.”
Similar to “Constant Craving,” “Come to My Window” was Melissa Etheridge’s first release after she also came out as lesbian in 1993. With lyrics like, “I don’t care what they think/I don’t care what they say/What do they know about this love, anyway?” the song inspired the LGBTQ community and their allies to make numerous call-in requests to radio stations, resulting in the song reaching number 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart. The music video was also in black and white, and it starred actress Juliette Lewis as a mental patient, perhaps a metaphor for how society viewed those who were not heterosexual at the time. These days we may have a few bisexual superstars in the pop world, but even 26 years later, it’s still rare for multiple lesbians to simultaneously rule the Hot 100 chart like Lang and Etheridge did back in the early ’90s.
10. Cyndi Lauper “True Colors” (1986)
The only song on Lauper’s second album that she didn’t help write, “True Colors” was originally about the songwriter Billy Steinberg’s mother (Steinberg also penned Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” two years earlier). Hitting number one on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart in the middle of the AIDS epidemic, the song became an adopted anthem for the community with lyrics like, “I see your true colors/And that’s why I love you/So don’t be afraid to let them show…True colors are beautiful/Like a rainbow.” Lauper explained since the song’s release that it really resonated with her because of the death of her friend Gregory Natal from HIV/AIDS. 22 years later in 2008, Lauper founded the True Colors Fund (now called True Colors United), a nonprofit focused on LGBTQ homeless youth, ensuring that the song remains an LGBTQ anthem for the rest of time.
9. TIE: Whitney Houston “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” (1987) and “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay” (Thunderpuss Mix) (1999)
The late great Whitney Houston is so legendary that we had to use two of her songs in our list, as both are LGBTQ anthems. If you’ve ever witnessed either of these played in a gay club, you’d definitely agree when you hear the entire place go crazy and sing along with every word. Not only are both songs catchy as hell, but just try and resist getting on the dance floor when these come on the speaker. “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” really struck a cord with the LGBTQ community during the peak of the AIDS epidemic, when many felt isolated and alone. Also, the gender neutrality of the song made that “somebody” relatable to everybody, no matter who you wanted to dance with. And “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay” is a powerful break-up anthem in the vein of “I Will Survive” or “Believe,” which always resonates strongly with our community. Although the original slow album version is great, it was the Thunderpuss remix that really made the song an LGBTQ anthem. The part where the song crescendos and Ms. Houston belts, “It turns out, you were making a fool of me, ohhhh” gives us all the drama we want from our diva. Whitney Houston is a true LGBTQ icon, and most probably even a member of the community herself. If only she lived in a different time.
8. Cher “Believe” (1998)
There must be only a handful people on the planet who don’t know this classic Cher song, which pretty much became her signature hit despite being released 33 years after she first broke onto the scene. The song became Cher’s first number one hit on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart in 24 years and it has since appeared in countless films and television shows. The song in essence revitalized Cher’s career, securing her place as a true icon in pop culture. Cher had always been an icon for the LGBTQ community, from bringing drag queens on stage to perform with her in the late ’70s to playing a lesbian character in Silkwood. “Believe” found Cher venturing deep into the world of dance-pop for the first time, so her huge LGBTQ fanbase couldn’t have been more excited and definitely helped contribute to the song’s success. And coming at the end of the ’90s when AIDS treatment was finally progressing at a substantial rate, the lyrics of the song really hit close to home for us too. “Do you believe in life after love?” For those who survived the plague, they sure tried to.
7. Janet Jackson “Together Again” (1997)
If you’d like to know why the second single from Janet’s career-defining Velvet Rope album appears on this list, look no further than the album’s liner notes. Janet writes, “I dedicate the song ‘Together Again’ to the friends I’ve lost to AIDS. Dominic, George, Derek, Bobby, Dominic, Victor, Jose. I miss you and we will be together again. This was written for you.” The AIDS epidemic reached so far and wide in the ’80s and ’90s that almost every young person experienced some sort of loss, including the legendary Miss Jackson. The song was originally written as a ballad but, according to Jackson’s longtime collaborator Jimmy Jam, they wanted to turn into a “joyous song” and thus turned it into the house/dance song we all know and love. The song, which reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, helped solidify Jackson as a LGBTQ icon for not only her generation but for generations to come.
6. Diana Ross “I’m Coming Out” (1980)
It should be fairly obvious why this song appears on our list. Although Ross is by no means LGBTQ and was not coming out herself with the song, it was actually inspired by drag queens. Nile Rodgers (from the band Chic), who was working with Ross on material for her album Diana, got the inspiration for the song after seeing multiple drag queens dressed as Ross at a gay-friendly New York City club. The disco-inspired track, upbeat and danceable, was truly a celebration with lyrics like, “I’m coming out/I want the world to know/Got to let it show.” Although the song was released before the start of the AIDS epidemic, which caused a decline in LGBTQ acceptance, to have a former Motown star of color celebrating coming out of the closet the way Ross does on this song was truly revolutionary. Coming out is an unfortunate coming of age step for the LGBTQ community, and is something our hetero allies don’t ever have to experience. It doesn’t always end well — just ask all the homeless LGBTQ youth kicked out of their houses by their parents after they come out. But Diana Ross made coming out a party — especially when the song reached number 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart. We can only hope that all of our coming outs are as joyous as the one in this song.
5. TIE: Queen “I Want to Break Free” (1984) and Bronski Beat “Smalltown Boy” (1984)
1984 may have been a dystopia to author George Orwell, but for queer pop stars from the U.K., it was a banner year. First, British rock band Queen released “I Want to Break Free” in April as the second single from their album The Works. Freddie Mercury was definitely a card-carrying member of the LGBTQ community, although there is some debate about whether he identified as gay or bisexual. In either case, he was not out in 1984, nor did he write this song — it was bass guitarist John Deacon who penned it. Yet, it was lyrics like “I’ve fallen in love for the first time/And this time I know it’s for real” that related to many LGBTQ people. Many interpreted it as a song about breaking free of the heteronormative boxes society tried to place us in and falling in love for the first time after accepting who we really are. The song most likely is actually about breaking free from a toxic relationship, but isn’t the whole point of music for the listener to make it their own? The video further solidified the song’s status as a gay anthem, as it features all the members of the band cross-dressing. They were paying tribute to the tradition of cross-dressing in British comedies, specifically the British soap Coronation Street, but it still wasn’t a common site to see a mainstream rock band cross-dressing as women, especially in America. In fact, when the song originally came out, it wasn’t as big of a hit in the U.S. as it was overseas because MTV played the music video minimally. When Mercury revealed he had AIDS just before his death in 1991, suddenly the song and music video took on a whole new meaning. Since then, it’s become a lot more recognizable in the U.S., being used in countless films, television shows and even commercials. Yet, it will always hold a special place in the minds and hearts of the LGBTQ community.
Just a month later, another U.K. group, Bronski Beat, released a gay anthem called “Smalltown Boy” as the first single off their debut album The Age of Consent. Unlike Queen, all three members of Bronski Beat were openly gay and their songs reflected this as well. A bold choice for the band’s first single ever, “Smalltown Boy” is about a young man forced to run away from his home town for fear of disapproval over his sexuality. It was the semi-autobiographical story of lead singer Jimmy Somerville about the oppression of homosexuals in the early ’80s provincial Scotland. The music video was just as powerful as the song itself, and took the presentation of the song very literally. It showed Somerville being attacked by a homophobic gang before being brought home by police to the family whom he is trying to run away from. Despite rampant homophobia tied to both the AIDS epidemic and the conservative leadership of Ronald Reagan in the U.S. and Margaret Thatcher in the U.K., the song miraculously was a commercial success in the U.K., reaching number three on the charts. It also hit the top 10 in Australia, Canada, France, Ireland, Italy and Switzerland, but unfortunately was never as big in the U.S., only reaching number 48 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart. The song did reach number one on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play Chart, but no surprise there considering how much the LGBTQ community in the U.S. loves our dance music. Despite having less commercial success in America, “Smalltown Boy” was an important song for the LGBTQ community that definitely helped open some hearts and minds at a time when not many were open to acceptance.
4. Salt-N-Pepa “I Am The Body Beautiful” (1995)
And where is the body? Perhaps the most obscure song on our list, you’ll know “I Am The Body Beautiful” if you’ve ever seen the amazing 1995 film To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar starring Wesley Snipes, John Leguizamo and the late Patrick Swayze as drag queens. The fun and fierce Salt-N-Pepa song opens the film as we see the three main characters getting into drag. The song was specifically made for the film, meaning one of the biggest hip-hop groups at the time released a song about drag queens 14 years before the premiere of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Sure, RuPaul had already broken before this song and movie (see our number one song) and the mid-’90s were surprisingly gay-friendly — To Wong Foo was sandwiched between the release of two other celebrated and successful mainstream LGBTQ films, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in 1994 and The Birdcage in 1996. Still, Salt-N-Pepa deserves praise for their inclusion in a project that most other successful artists in the hip-hop community would have steered clear of at the time. And with fabulous lyrics like, “It’s not my fault, I was just born this way…Carry yourself like a Queen/And you will attract a King/Beauty comes from within,” it definitely resonated with the LGBTQ community. And the song is still performed today by drag queens in gay bars across the country.
3. The Weather Girls “It’s Raining Men” (1982)
Who said that disco died? It’s no surprise that this disco-sounding song was actually written in the hay days of disco, by Paul Jabara, Cameron Hunt and Paul Shaffer (yes, the same Paul Shaffer from David Letterman’s show), originally for Donna Summer in 1979. Although it only reached number 46 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, it was a number one hit on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play, in large part because so many gay men loved the song — after all, it was fun, sexy, danceable and campy. Since its release in 1982, the song’s legacy has solidified its status as a gay anthem. First, in 1998, RuPaul re-recorded a version of the song with half of the Weather Girls, Martha Wash, called “It’s Raining Men…The Sequel.” In 2014, the song re-entered the U.K. charts after a Facebook campaign was launched to get the song back on the charts in response to a politician who blamed flooding and adverse weather on gay marriage. Martha Wash and Izora Armstead may not be LGBTQ, but the duo, especially Wash, are considered to be gay icons today, thanks in large part to “It’s Raining Men.”
2. Madonna “Vogue” (1990)
1990 was the year that the underground gay ball scene sort of went mainstream, thanks in large part to this Billboard Hot 100 number one hit from one of the most famous artists in the world at the time. For those unfamiliar, the New York City ball scene was an LGBTQ subculture where different houses — mostly Black and Latin gay, bi, lesbian and trans people — walked (or competed) for trophies in categories such as Face, Body, Butch Queen Realness, Femme Queen Realness, miscellaneous drag and Vogueing. Yes, this is where vogueing originated. Legend has it that Madonna attended event/nightlife producer Susanne Bartsch’s best-known party, 1989’s Love Ball, which was thrown to support those affected by HIV/AIDS and “celebrate life.” It was here that she first saw the House of Xtravaganza vogueing. She plucked two voguers from the House, Jose Gutierez and Luis Camacho, and cast them in both her Blond Ambition World Tour as well as her music video for “Vogue” (they also helped choreograph the video, which was directed by David Fincher). Some nay-sayers have accused Madonna of appropriation, but she’s always cited inspiration and homage over appropriation, as evidenced by her inclusion of Jose and Luis. They not only performed with her in the video and on tour, but also for an MTV Rock the Vote campaign and in an iconic Rococo-themed MTV Video Music Award performance of “Vogue.” Madonna also recorded background vocals on a track Luis and Jose recorded for her record label called “Queen’s English.”
In addition to Jose and Luis, Madonna cast five other male dancers for the tour and “Vogue” video (four of them were gay and one of them straight). All seven dancers were heavily featured in Madonna’s behind-the-scenes feature-length documentary of the tour, Madonna: Truth or Dare. Included in the footage was two of the male dancers kissing, most of them attending the New York City Pride parade and Madonna’s dedication of a show to her friend who had just died of AIDS, artist Keith Haring. It’s also important to mention that 1990 saw the release of the documentary feature Paris Is Burning that spotlighted the underground ball scene as well. Almost 30 years later, FX’s Pose has immortalized this world in an even bigger way, with the recent second season focusing on the release of “Vogue” and how it impacted the community that started the dance. Madonna may have tied vogueing together with cone bras and the classic golden age of Hollywood, thanks to the spoken word portion of the song listing famous stars of the 30s, 40s and 50s (this was because it appeared on an album that was tied to her film Dick Tracy). However, at its core, “Vogue” is an LGBTQ anthem because Madonna was able to elevate an artform that we invented and turn it into something beyond our wildest dreams. As Gutierez said in a 2017 interview, “I don’t look at it as she took from the [LGBTQ] community…in reality, I feel that she took two of [our] own of the community and gave us this opportunity and brought us to the forefront. So I think that was her way of giving back to the community. And aside from that, I think that it would take a star like her to pull it out of the community and take it worldwide. I mean, who else would have been able to do that?” Perhaps “Vogue” is lyrically more implicit of an homage, as opposed to the visuals which were explicit, but as Madonna sings in the bridge as a wink and a nudge to our community, “Beauty’s where you find it/Not just where you bump and grind it/Soul is in the music/That’s where I feel so beautiful/Magical/Life’s a ball/So get up on the dance floor.”
1. RuPaul “Supermodel (You Better Work)” (1992)
You. Better. Work. Imagine this: it’s November 1992. For the first time in 12 years, a Democrat was elected as President of the United States. And a drag queen originally from San Diego but who started her career in Atlanta and New York had the balls (so to speak) to release a record. The song was called “Supermodel (You Better Work)” and was a fun, dancey, catchy song that found RuPaul giving runway advice to young, black supermodels like, “you better work” and “sashay, shantay!” I’m sure Ru herself would never have imagined that the following year, “Supermodel” would become a mainstream hit, peaking at number 45 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and at number 2 on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Songs. The music video, a tribute to RuPaul’s childhood, was a hit on MTV and even Kurt Cobain revealed he was a fan. The song pretty much made RuPaul a household name and the most famous drag queen in the world, leading to her own talk show on VH-1 in 1996, becoming a spokesperson for Mac Cosmetics, appearances in countless films and multiple new albums.
But I’m sure Ru couldn’t have imagined that 27 years later, not only would his song still be played in gay bars, but people all over the world, both LGBTQ and our allies, would still be saying lines from this song, thanks to their inclusion in a reality show called RuPaul’s Drag Race. RuPaul may have her own bicoastal drag convention now, but “Supermodel (You Better Work)” is what got the ball rolling for her, and by extension, the rest of the LGBTQ community. RuPaul’s success and visibility, especially as a drag queen, is our shared success and visibility. None of us would have imagined in 1992 that this song would launch the artform of drag, and thereby LGBTQ visibility, as much into the mainstream to the extent it’s there today. RuPaul may have said to us at the end of the song, “I just have one thing to say: you better work!” but really, the work Ru put into her career that all stemmed from “Supermodel” makes this the number one gay anthem of the 80s and 90s. Without it, we may not be where we are today!