What Makes a Song a Gay Anthem?

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Since San Francisco’s pride parade is taking place this upcoming weekend, I decided it would be a good time to discuss a topic that’s been on my mind for a couple of weeks now. A major elephant in the room we call the music industry: What makes a song a gay anthem? Gay anthems have been around since the early 20th century, starting with classics such as “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz by gay icon Judy Garland. They’ve come in many shapes and forms from disco jams to rock songs, to pop bops and they’re not always written or performed by LGBT music artists/acts. So what determines a song to be a prideful LGBT anthem?

Well according to Taylor Swift’s new song and corresponding video “You Need To Calm Down,” all you need to make a classic gay anthem is some rainbows, some influential LGBT members in your music video and a reference to a major LGBT organization in your lyrics. And maybe that’s why this song has been hit with mixed reviews, with many critics calling it pandery and self-centered. While I don’t doubt that Taylor Swift is supportive of the LGBT community and cares for her LGBT friends such as collaborator on this music video Todrick Hall, I found the song hard to listen to and the video hard to watch because Swift spends the entire song comparing the decades - no actually - milleniums of strife and intense discrimination the LGBT community has gone through, with her getting hated on by the public and internet trolls for publicity stunts she and her managers plan in advance to stir up drama for profit. You’re welcome, I guess?

She then rubs salt in the wound by shoehorning every single LGBT celebrity she could call up into her music video. From Ellen Degeneres, to RuPaul, to Laverne Cox, to Ryan Reynolds - …wait…what the hell is he doing there? No matter though. When you’re doing things for clicks, any famous figure will do. While I do appreciate the platform-providing cameos made by lesser known LGBT entertainers such as various drag queens and YouTubers, there’s definitely something insincere about the entire thing. And maybe it’s the fact that at the climax of the video’s storyline, Swift is shown dressed up as a giant carton of French fries and reuniting with Katy Perry dressed up as a hamburger (an homage to her recent Met Gala look,) after years of famously having beef with each other. No pun intended. They hug it out and the music video ends focused on their exchange. Once again reminding the watcher that as much as this song is supposed to be about Pride, at the end of the day, it’s about her and her darn haters who just can’t stop obsessing about her.

To say that everyone in the LGBT community hates this song would be complete exaggeration. And if this song makes individuals or groups of friends pumped for Pride, I don’t think it’s necessary to judge them. This analysis is moreso a judgement of Taylor Swift, her management and how big businesses are trying to profit off of how popular it is to be an ally to the community.

Long story short, her attempt to make this a gay anthem didn’t work. Considering it’s garnered a lot of media attention, chart placements in dozens of countries, 61 million views on YouTube and over 53 million listens on Spotify, why is it not a gay anthem? And that’s because the criteria one needs to meet and the impact one needs to make to have a gay anthem on their hands has nothing to do with number of listens on Spotify or where it lies in the top 50. So with there not being a way for the LGBT community to cast a vote like it’s the Academy and the Oscars, how does a song become deemed a gay anthem?

Let’s delve into how a hand-full of past gay anthems earned their titles lovingly, to discover what the criteria seems to have been in the past.

“I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor (1978)

In 1978, the theatrical disco hit “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor was released. Some saw it as a beacon of womanly triumph over heartbreak, and others just thought of it as a great beat to do the hustle to. However it resonated among the gay community at a time of major prejudice and bigotry. The song took on an even deeper meaning during the AIDS crisis of the 1980’s. The powerful lyrics evoke the messages of will, endurance and defiance that make it very timeless despite it’s ultra-70s sound.

Not only is it played at countless Pride events, but it also lives strong in the night club scene and is a standard for drag performers. In S08E02 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, the queens and judges stress that this song should be a give-in to a drag queen’s repertoire, and when contestants Laila McQueen and Dax Exclamationpoint did a less than stellar job lip-syncing to the hit, they were both eliminated. Past contestant Latrice Royale was quoted later on saying “How’re you not gonna know the words to ‘I Will Survive?’ That’s the ultimate drag anthem…If you don’t know [it,] why are you doing this?”

With the combination of its never-ending bravado and the willingness of the gay community to pass it down through the generations, it’s no surprise this is one of the longest lasting gay anthems out there.

“I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross {1980)

Sometime in the early 20th century, the terms “coming out” and “coming out of the closet” started being used to describe someone letting the people in their life or the public know that they were gay. This term however was not widely known to the mainstream until much later on.

In 1979, dreamgirl Diana Ross commissioned Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic to write a song for her that would announce she was coming out with music separate from Motown Records and the ever exploitative Berry Gordy, as well as highlight this new chapter in her career. After an evening of roaming the New York club scene and coming across several drag performers dressed to look like Ross, Rodgers and Edwards wrote the song as a tongue-in-cheek way of conveying the message requested to them by Ross, as well as paying homage to the gay community that adored her. Ross was angered by this when learning much later on what the term “coming out” meant, and asked them rhetorically if they were trying to ruin her career.

But despite it all, this song became one of Ross’ biggest hits and has become an inductee to the LGBT’s list of gay anthems. It’s quite ironic that in order to create a song that later would represent the gay community saying “We won’t hide anymore,” the message had to be hidden within the song in order to gain approval. To anyone who finds strength in this song, you have Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards and three anonymous New York drag queens to thank.

“Born This Way” By Lady Gaga (2011)

Since the moment Gaga and her disco stick arrived onto the music scene, it’s been clear that she is a loyal ally to the gay community. Not only has she appealed to the community with her sound, her love of fashion and her unapologetic message about being oneself, but she was always vocal about her support of the community and her love of their culture. So when Gaga released the song “Born This Way” that had a very broad message of being happy with who you are regardless of your race, sexual orientation or gender expression, the community really took to it and deemed it more than worthy of joining the list of gay anthems.

Unlike many of the songs discussed earlier in this list, the song was written with the intention of becoming an LGBT anthem. It did an incredible job of both being inclusive to anyone who has felt discriminated against - making it great for radio play and mainstream success - but also was very open about the fact that it was meant for the LGBT community with lyrics such as “No matter gay, straight, or bi, lesbian, transgender life, I’m on the right track baby I was born to survive.”

And I remember almost all of my LGBT friends singing that song in the car, in their bedrooms, at school… Doing the dance from the music video, talking about how much it resonated with them and wearing Born This Way shirts everywhere. In a time when the entire world had its eyes on Lady Gaga, she put her own spotlight on the gay community and made a big impact in a time when the country was nowhere near as accepting of the LGBT community as they are today, and gay marriage was still not yet legalized. It was a bold move to make and it was a step in the right direction for music. And that’s why even though Gaga wrote this song to intentionally be for the community, it doesn’t feel fake or like it’s trying to merely pander to the community for profit.

“It’s Raining Men” by The Weather Girls (1983)

Let’s now get into the nitty gritty of how gay anthems are chosen in the age of social media.

At a quick glance, this 1980s hit tune seems like it’s just about two ladies who really love the fellas. But when sung by unapologetic gay men in a night club (or in the car, or in the shower,) it takes on a whole new meaning of once again - defiance from being silenced on their sexual preference. It’s been a gay anthem for quite sometime.

But thing were taken to a whole new level in January 2014 when a UKIP councillor implied that the recent floods were karma for the British government legalizing gay marriage. In response, the public decided that this song would be very fitting to combat that insane claim, and campaigned on Facebook to make the song number one in the UK. While the song never made it to the #1 slot, the campaign was successful in helping the then 31 year old song onto the charts, cementing it in many people’s minds as a song of rebellion.

“Cut to the Feeling” by Carly Rae Jepsen" (2016)

Ever since “Call Me Maybe” left the charts, the whole country has been unfairly sleeping on pop musician Carly Rae Jepsen. While she’s continued to put out bubblegum pop to cult and critical acclaim, the public still consider her somewhat of a one hit wonder (because apparently some people have never listened to “Good Time” or “Run Away With Me.”)

Her 2016 song “Cut to the Feeling” was deemed a gay pride song last year. And while it’s nowhere near the level of gay icon status as other songs in this list, it’s still very important to note how this song joined the list. In 2018, dancer Mark Kanemura posted a few videos of himself lipsycing and dancing to Jepsen’s “Cut to the Feeling” for Pride month, while revealing rainbow garment after rainbow garment, wig after wig and rainbow fan after rainbow fan in a flurry of joy. The videos went viral and the song was established in the mainstream as a modern gay pride anthem. While the gay community has always admired Jepsen’s work, this took things to a whole new level.

So why not “You need to calm down”?

So what did all of these gay anthems of the past have in common that made them gay anthems? The answer is that they were all chosen by the LGBT community. Some without trying like “It’s Raining Men,” and others with the intention of being a gay anthem like “Born This Way,” but at the end of the day, it was the LGBT community who decided as a whole that they loved these songs and that they represented a part of their experience in a meaningful way.

There’s nothing wrong with the fact that Taylor Swift wanted to write a song for the community. It’s a good thing at the end of the day. But she didn’t let it become a gay anthem organically. She tried to force the word “GLAAD” into her lyrics, she tried to shoehorn in every gay or trans celebrity she could find into her music video, and she paraded around acting like the LGBT community and all allies should be kissing her feet and thanking her for shoving a narrative about the community into a song that was really just about her and her haters.

Big musicians, producers and record companies need to remember that while they have a lot of control over where much of the money in the industry goes and what the public ends up hearing, the public makes culture. And the LGBT community makes their own culture. And no amount of clicks, propaganda articles, radio plays, YouTube promotions from greasing Susan Wojcicki’s hands, or hashtags can change the inevitable. Trust me, the next time a gay anthem is born, the gays will let us know.