"Use Your Mentality, Wake Up To Reality": How 'Red Hot + Blue' Reimagined Classic Pop Songs To Enact Social Change
There are more than a million nonprofit organizations in the United States alone, each founded with a dream to make the world a better place. In the late ‘80s, New Yorker John Carlin felt the weight of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and knew he had to do something. "A lot of my friends got sick and died even before it was clear what this was," he told PopMatters in 2011. And as a professor and a member of the East Village art scene, Carlin decided the best way forward would be to fuse pop culture, art and philanthropy in one beguiling package. His way to change the world, to make a difference for the many suffering in the AIDS epidemic, would be to convince the most exciting musicians of the moment to cover classic pop songs by Cole Porter.
One of the all-time American songwriters, Porter knew how to write about hope—the dream that just one moment could be the start of something life-changing. His wit and wonder have fueled countless love stories, from the dizzying "voodoo" spell of "You Do Something To Me" or the endless yearning of "Night and Day." Much of his songbook thrived on Broadway stages, and then went on to become the mystic thread in more personal moments. They can be grand and explosive, or as minute as the lark singing in "Every Time We Say Goodbye." And considered in the context of a time when homosexuality was a beyond-taboo subject and rumors persisted of Porter’s preferences, those acts of hope feel that much more powerful and bittersweet.
In 1989, Carlin officially co-founded Red Hot Organization with Leigh Blake, and just one year later Red Hot + Blue (released in September of 1990) realized his dream of bringing Porter’s spirit to the present. Featuring heavy hitters ranging from David Byrne to Debbie Harry and Tom Waits to the Thompson Twins, the compilation led eager fans to new favorites and opened eyes and hearts to the disease destroying countless lives. And now, a few months after the 30th anniversary of the record’s release, Red Hot plans to reissue their groundbreaking foray into the intersection of music and activism. The compilation is set to be released digitally on World AIDS Day (Dec. 1), with a vinyl LP reissue to follow on Dec. 4.
In the intervening years, Red Hot has released documentaries, TV specials and handfuls of compilations focused on a variety of genres and traditions. Compilation albums and tribute albums seemed to hit a peak in the ‘90s, but the scene for Red Hot’s passionately focused take was set with Neneh Cherry’s fiery hip-hop re-envisioning of "I’ve Got You Under My Skin."
Though perhaps not the most high-profile name on the disc, the Swedish singer-songwriter provides a perfect introduction to the record’s ability to transport bronzed classics into the tragic, visceral present, with the associated blend of nostalgia and anger. "Spreadin' faster than an eye can blink, so I had to sit down and take time to think/ Of how to spread the word to people all across the lan, to make sure they putting out a helping hand," she raps, putting the double meaning of the song’s title on full display.
While the element under the skin of the protagonist in Porter’s idyllic pop past may have been love, it was never representative of a reality for those that went without a voice for so long. In Neneh Cherry’s hands, there’s something shadowy boiling in the vein, a killer disease that was still going largely unspoken of despite the generations passing. Recasting these songs in the shadow of the AIDS epidemic, however, gives the opportunity to bring those perspectives to the fore. K.d. lang’s torchy "So In Love" leans extra hard on the aching repetition of "Deceive me, desert me/ I'm yours 'til I die." Later on the compilation, Bronski Beat vocalist Jimmy Somerville’s plaintive take on "From This Moment On" betrays a hint of tragedy lingering beyond the hope that this love should be endless.
All but two songs on the compilation came complete with music videos, including cuts directed by film legends such as Wim Wenders and Jonathan Demme. The video for "From This Moment On" isn’t exactly subtle in its messaging, the club beat fading out as a dollar bill dissolves, replaced by a message that reads "FIND A CURE." Tom Waits and Jim Jarmusch team up again four years after Down By Law, meanwhile, for the woozy clip for "It’s Alright With Me," the croaky crooner dancing on his back porch as shaky footage of California neighborhoods burns over the top of his lanky-limbed wobbling. Even the production credits are star-studded, as the legendary new wave and post-punk producer Steve Lillywhite supervised the album as a whole and produced several individual tracks, while Nigel Godrich is credited as assistant engineer a few years before he connected with Radiohead.
Not every track deals as overtly with the topic for which the compilation was created to fundraise. The disc is a fascinating look at a moment in time—and that moment’s own interest in toying with other eras. Carlin wasn’t the only person interested in juxtaposing the "purity" of past pop culture with the conservative sociopolitical swing of the '80s. The swing revival began kicking off around the same time as the founding of Red Hot, the West Coast breeding its own surreal retro trend to match the Broadway remodeling of Red Hot + Blue. Ever one to blur the line of sincerity and mischief, David Byrne’s take on "Don’t Fence Me In" comes complete with zydeco accordionist Jimmy MacDonell, among many others, thus finding a new home for the Wild West twang. Iggy Pop and Blondie’s Debbie Harry, meanwhile, team up for "Well, Did You Evah," a song once sung by an equally legendary comedic duo, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. There was some escapism to throwing back to the past, but also the opportunity to pick apart exactly how the conservatism of the past led to the pain of the present.
"Red Hot pioneered using pop culture for social change—good propaganda—to fight for LGBTQ rights and to promote safer sex,” Carlin told Rolling Stone in announcing the record’s reissue. "We raised millions of dollars through album sales and gave it away in ways that no one else was doing at the time." And while much has changed in the fight against AIDS, the reissue deserves to raise millions more, as the record holds yet more mystic strength worth learning from in this new context of a world facing further conservatism and epidemic.