Red Hot + Blue for World AIDS Day
Back in September of 1990 (which was 20 years ago, if you can believe it), a compilation to benefit people living with HIV and AIDS was released entitled Red Hot + Blue. The compilation featured an array of popular artists covering and reinterpreting the classic songs of Cole Porter. (The title itself was a reference to Porter’s musical Red, Hot and Blue, with the “and” replaced by a plus sign, most likely to represent people who are HIV positive.) I loved the compilation, having already been made a fan of Cole Porter’s songs via the wonderful Ella Fitzgerald, and some of the covers were truly inspired – from the humorous and campy to the chilling and serious, I listened to the album again and again as my young self tried to fight off the fears of being gay in a world in the grip of AIDS-panic. 20 years later and the landscape of this pandemic has changed in a many ways. A lot more people are aware that HIV and AIDS are not “gay diseases”, although some still like to tow that hateful line. Drugs have been developed that make living with HIV much more possible and much less horrible than in the past and a lot of HIV positive people are living much longer, fuller live. But HIV and AIDS continue to ravage Sub-Sharan Africa, while in the west we see the growing use of crystal meth contributing to the still alarmingly high transmission rate. Today being World AIDS Day, I thought I would post some of the videos for songs from the Red Hot + Blue compilation as a tribute to the millions lost to this pandemic and to those still struggling, surviving and living.
Sinead O’Connor – “You Do Something To Me”: This was easily my most favorite track from the compilation, with O’Connor surprising us all with her subtle, nuanced take on this classic song. The video is loaded with images of people of all genders and races dancing and mingling with one another, while Sinead herself performs a kind of campy drag in a platinum blonde wig, vampy makeup and a glittering gown, only to end the video with her trademark bald head and subdued clothing, leading a somber candlelight vigil. Even in this moment of soft and lilting song, O’Connor was always ready to provoke and incite.
The Jungle Brothers – “I Get A Kick Out of You”: A couple of hip-hop tracks on the compilation brought out some of the loosest and freshest interpretations of Porter’s songs. The Jungle Brothers take nothing more than the song’s title for a hook and instead spin a tale of lust and safer sex peppered with images of gloved hands, water guns spurting and ice cream drenched in chocolate sauce. While some of these images are almost goofy or over-the-top in their blatant, cheesy sexuality, marrying them with the topic of the song and the images of safer sex paraphernalia elevates them beyond mere music video porn-lite and very concisely reflect the difficulty of trying to balance desire with precaution. Furthermore, the video came at a time when people were ignorant of and willfully ignoring the impact of HIV and AIDS on the black community in America, making the visuals all the more powerful in their marrying of blackness, safer sex and HIV and AIDS.
Debbie Harry and Iggy Pop – “Well Did You Evah!”: This song never fails to fill me with joy – it’s so full of camp and piss and vinegar and that indelible New York toughness that is the trademark of both Harry and Pop. The video finds them sending up rich couples, society life and even robbing a bank before, apparently, being vaporized from colliding with Mars as the lyrics imply will happen to us next July. But for all the camp and hilarity, there’s a subtler reading that can be taken away from the video as they lampoon the excessively wealthy and saunter through the streets of New York City where thousands were dying in poverty as a result of HIV and AIDS, mere inches away from the glittering wealth of many Manhattanites. Class standing always has and always will play a role in the quality of life for people living in this pandemic.
Neneh Cherry – “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”: This track was another favorite of mine and another fantastic, bold reinterpretation of the original. Cherry uses the chorus of the song in a dual manner, to chillingly underline the nature of the disease and as a tribute to loved ones lost but never forgotten. The icy blue treatment of the videos color scheme, the stark closeups of Cherry and the other people in the video singing with her and the loan male dancer in the full body vinyl suit all convey images of isolation, desire, frustration, fear and sadness, mirroring back how complex our responses can be around a disease that can be transmitted via sex.
Erasure – “Too Darn Hot”: Erasure are going to deliver the camp, there’s just no doubt about it. But what I love about this video is how they use camp to really drive the message home. With images of 50s-era suburban families in red blindfolds watching TV while Andy Bell as a news caster sings the song while projecting statistics and information about HIV and AIDS is a pretty fantastic way of saying that people need to wake up and realize this disease isn’t just impacting gay folks in big urban cities. I also love the moments where various folks sing the chorus as if they’re man-on-the-street interviewees, further driving home the idea of how this impacts everyone and that everyone should be talking about it.
Annie Lennox – “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye”: If there was anyone to interpret this already heart wrenching song for a new generation, it was Annie Lennox. Her haunting, restrained interpretation takes the song beyond a paean to a lost lover and transforms it into a lament for those lost to HIV and AIDS. The footage of what seems to be a family video of a brother and sister or two friends playing and frolicking throughout their youth could very easily represent Annie and a lost brother or friend, but exist as powerful imagery for anyone who has experienced that kind of loss and look back at the person or persons they once knew.