Photo by Rich Polk/Getty Images for The Recording Academy
5 Amazing Moments From "Motown 60: A GRAMMY Celebration"
Produced by Ken Ehrlich Productions in conjunction with The Recording Academy, the three-hour tribute concert featured an array of performers from Smokey Robinson, Pentatonix, NE-YO, Diana Ross, John Legend, Fantasia, Chloe X Halle, and more
Filmed in Feb. and broadcast on April 21 on CBS, "Motown 60: A GRAMMY Celebration" impressed, captivated, and inspired audiences with a full slate of performers and presenters who were there to commemorate the anniversary of the storied Detroit-based and internationally acclaimed black-owned record label. Produced by Ken Ehrlich Productions in conjunction with The Recording Academy, the three-hour tribute concert featured an array of performers from Smokey Robinson, Pentatonix, NE-YO, Diana Ross, John Legend, Fantasia, Chloe X Halle, Meghan Trainor, Tori Kelly, Thelma Houston, Stevie Wonder and others. "Motown brought people together who didn't realize they had so much in common," famed Motown Records exec Berry Gordy said before noting that he initially had a vision in the beginning to make "music for all people." The stacked lineup of enthusiastic artists and a high energetic crowd signaled that his vision had indeed come to fruition.
Just in case you missed the celebration (or if you want some highlights from the "Motown 60" experience), here are five amazing moments from the show:
1. Diana Ross Serenaded Berry Gordy
The legendary diva may have celebrated her 75th birthday this year, but she didn't miss a beat engaging with the crowd with stirring and pitch-perfect vocals.
One highlight of the show included Ross having a special moment with Gordy at the end of her set, singing a rendition of "My Man" personally for him while saying, "Thank you for all you have done for my life. You are a gift to all of us."
2. Commemorating Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On"
Another great part of the show included a segment celebrating the music of Marvin Gaye and how its material moved into the political sphere with his What's Going On album. Smokey Robinson himself commented how at the time Gaye told him he was "collaborating with God," while Gordy admitted his hesitation in Gaye making potentially polarizing music under the Motown brand. Nevertheless, Gordy relented, noting: "The value of what [Gaye] was writing was so artistic."
3. Ciara Brought Out Her Inner "Superfreak"
GRAMMY-winning artist Ciara paid tribute to '80s pop icon Rick James with a riveting performance of "Superfreak." Decked out in his signature beaded braids hairstyle and a tight jumpsuit, the singer delivered a flawless set with dancers in the background. Known for her entertaining performances, Ciara also performed James' classic "Give it to Me Baby."
4. Cedric the Entertainer, The Host With The Most
Cedric the Entertainer kept the crowd entertained with various skits projected on the screen throughout intermissions of the show. One hilarious part of his hosting duties was a segment titled "The First Four Bars," where audience members were challenged to name popular songs from Motown from the first four bars of the piece. Notable records like "My Girl" and "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" made for an amusing part in the show where dynamic and fun guests played the game.
5. Stevie Wonder's Grand Finale
Stevie Wonder brought the house down with a mini-concert of some of his hits, as well as anecdotes of his time spent at Motown and how Gordy changed his life by believing in him as a child.
Highlights in the performance included renditions of "Master Blaster (Jammin)," "My Cherie Amour" and "Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I'm Yours."
In all, Wonder's set can be wrapped up in one sentence, spoken by an audience member attending the show's Feb. taping: "Stevie Wonder playing 'Isn't She Lovely' on a harmonica was something I never knew I needed."
Photo: Image Group LA via Getty Images
10 Halloween Songs That Have Won GRAMMYs: "Thriller," "Ghostbusters" & More
With Halloween celebrations in full swing this Oct. 31, revisit 10 eerie or ghoulishly titled songs that have all been awarded music's top honor, from the 'Exorcist' theme to Eminem and Rihanna's "The Monster."
If the holiday of trick or treating, pumpkin carving, and decorating your front porch with skeletons is your favorite of the year, then you'll no doubt already have a playlist stacked with creepy and kooky, mysterious and spooky bangers ready to fire up on Oct. 31. But if you want to add a bit of prestige to your supernatural soundtrack, there's another list of Halloween-friendly songs to check out — one that highlights another celebrated annual occasion.
While the GRAMMYs might not yet have awarded Rob Zombie, Jukebox the Ghost, or And You Will Know Us by the Trail of the Dead, it has embraced the odd musical spooktacular in several forms. In 1988, for example, it gave Halloween obsessive Frank Zappa Best Rock Instrumental Performance for Jazz from Hell. A year later, it handed Robert Cray Band Best Contemporary Blues Recording for Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. And it's also dished out goodies (of the statuette, rather than the sweet, variety) to the likes of Mavis Staples' "See That My Grave Is Clean," Chick Corea's "Three Ghouls," and Mastodon's "A Sultan's Curse."
With Halloween 2023 fast approaching, here's a closer look at ten other tracks which left the music industry's biggest awards show completely bewitched.
Stevie Wonder — "Superstition" (1974)
It seems unlikely that Stevie Wonder walked under a ladder, crossed a black cat, or 'broke the lookin' glass' while recording "Superstition" — the squelchy Moog-funk classic kickstarted his remarkable run of 25 GRAMMY Awards when it won both Best Rhythm and Blues Song and Best R&B Vocal Performance Male in 1974. Taken from what many consider to be his magnum opus, Talking Book, "Superstition" also gave Wonder his first No. 1 hit on the Hot 100 in over a decade. And the soul legend further leaned into its supernatural theme in 2013 when he appeared as a witch doctor in a Bud Light Super Bowl commercial soundtracked by the Tamla favorite.
Mike Oldfield — "Tubular Bells" (1975)
Incredibly, considering how perfectly it complements all-time classic horror The Exorcist, Mike Oldfield's prog-rock epic Tubular Bells was recorded long before director William Friedkin came calling. Mike Oldfield, then aged only 19, used a variety of obscure instruments across its two mammoth pieces. Yet, it's the brilliantly creepy Steinway piano riffs which open Side One that are still most likely to bring anyone who experienced the movie's hysteria in a cold sweat. Oldfield was rewarded for helping to scar a generation of cinemagoers for life when a condensed version of his eerie masterpiece picked up the Best Instrumental Composition GRAMMY.
The Charlie Daniels Band — "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" (1980)
The Charlie Daniels Band certainly proved their storytelling credentials in 1979 when they put their own Southern country-fied spin on the old "deal with the devil" fable. Backed by some fast and furious fiddles, "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" tells the tale of a young musician named Johnny who bumps into Beelzebub himself during a jam session in the Peach State. Experiencing a downturn in soul-stealing, the latter then bets he can win a fiddle-off, offering an instrument in gold form against Johnny's spiritual essence. Luckily, the less demonic party proves he's the "best that's ever been" in a compelling tale GRAMMY voters declared worthy of a prize, Best Country Vocal Performance By A Duo Or Group.
Michael Jackson — "Thriller" (1984)
The 1984 GRAMMYs undeniably belonged to Michael Jackson. The King of Pop picked up a whopping 11 nominations for his first blockbuster album, Thriller, and then converted seven of them into wins (he also took home Best Recording for Children for his narration on audiobook E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial). Remarkably, the title track's iconic John Landis-directed video didn't feature at all: its making of, however, did win Best Music Film the following year. But the song itself did pip fellow superstars Prince, Billy Joel, and Lionel Richie to the Best Male Pop Vocal Performance crown. Jackson would also win a GRAMMY 12 years later for another Halloween-esque anthem, his Janet Jackson duet "Scream."
Duran Duran — "Hungry Like the Wolf" (1984)
Produced by Colin Thurston, the man behind another early '80s Halloween-friendly classic, (Bow Wow Wow's "I Want Candy"), "Hungry Like the Wolf" cemented Duran Duran's status as MTV icons. Alongside their much raunchier earlier clip for "Girls on Film," its jungle-themed promo was also responsible for giving the Second British Invasion pin-ups the inaugural GRAMMY Award for Best Music Video, Short Form; it featured on the Duran Duran compilation that was crowned Best Video Album, too. Frontman Simon Le Bon had been inspired to write their U.S. breakthrough hit by Little Red Riding Hood, giving the new wave classic its sinister, and appropriately predatory, edge.
Ray Parker Jr. — "Ghostbusters" (1985)
Ray Parker Jr. not only topped the Hot 100 for four weeks with his ode to New York's finest parapsychologists, he also picked up a GRAMMY. Just don't expect to hear "who you gonna call?" in the winning version: For it was in the Best Pop Instrumental Performance where "Ghostbusters" reigned supreme. The fact that Parker Jr. wrote, performed, and produced the entire thing meant he still took home the trophy. However, Huey Lewis no doubt felt he should have been the one making the acceptance speech. The blue-eyed soulman settled out of court after claiming the spooky movie theme had borrowed its bassline from "I Want a New Drug," a track Ghostbusters' director Ivan Reitman admitted had been played in film footage intended to inspire Parker Jr.
Ralph Stanley — "O Death" (2002)
Traditional Appalachian folk song "O Death" had previously been recorded by the likes of gospel vocalist Bessie Jones, folklorist Mike Seeger, and Californian rockers Camper Van Beethoven, just to name a few. Yet it was Ralph Stanley's 2002 version where GRAMMY voters first acknowledged its eerie a cappella charms. Invited to record the morbid number for the Coen brothers' period satire O Brother, Where Art Thou, the bluegrass veteran won Best Male Country Vocal Performance at the 2002 ceremony, also picking up a second GRAMMY alongside the likes of Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch, and Emmylou Harris when the soundtrack was crowned Album Of The Year.
Skrillex — "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites" (2012)
David Bowie fans may well feel aggrieved that his post-punk classic "Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)" was entirely ignored by GRAMMY voters, while the bro-step banger it inspired was showered with awards. The title track from EP Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites added Best Dance Recording to Skrillex's 2012 haul: the asymmetrically haired producer also walked away with Best Dance/Electronica Album and Best Remixed Recording: Non-Classical for his work on Benny Benassi's "Cinema." Packed with speaker-blasting beats, distorted basslines, and aggressive synths, Skrillex's wall of noise is enough to scare anyone off their pumpkin pie.
Eminem and Rihanna — "The Monster" (2015)
Who says lightning can't strike twice? Just four years after picking up five GRAMMY nominations for their transatlantic chart-topper "Love the Way You Lie," unlikely dream team Eminem and Rihanna once again joined forces for another hip-pop masterclass. Unlike their previous collab, however, "The Monster" didn't go home empty-handed, winning Best Rap/Sung Collaboration at the 2015 ceremony. The boogeyman hiding under the bed here, of course, isn't a Frankenstein-esque creation, but the mix of paranoia, self-doubt, and OCD that leads the Real Slim Shady into thinking he needs a straitjacket.
Jason Isbell — "If We Were Vampires" (2018)
While the Twilight franchise may have failed to add a GRAMMY to its trophy cabinet, it did pick up several nominations. But four years after the Team Edward vs Team Jacob saga wrapped up, folk hero Jason Isbell proved mythical bloodsuckers weren't a barrier to awards success. Emerging victorious in only the fifth ever Best Americana Roots Song category, "If We Were Vampires" is a little less emo than the various Twilight soundtracks. Still, as a love song dedicated to wife Amanda Shires, and the quiet acceptance that the Grim Reaper will inevitably end their story, it's certainly no less emotional.
Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016
Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.
Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.
A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.
This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system.
"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."
He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.
"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.
To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood."
Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at GRAMMY.com every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes.
'Innervisions' At 50: Revisiting Stevie Wonder's Trailblazing, GRAMMY-Winning Album
Released on Aug. 3, 1973, the genious of 'Innervisons' was immediately apparent, and remains a lightning rod decades later. Lionel Richie and the album's producer, Robert Margouleff, share their thoughts on Stevie Wonder's GRAMMY-winning masterpiece.
The producer Robert Margouleff can't quite believe that one of his finest accomplishments is about to mark a milestone. "What anniversary is it, 50?"he marvels. "Wow, I must be really old."
Released exactly a half century ago on Aug. 3, 1973, Stevie Wonder's trailblazing Innervisons has more than stood the test of time. The nine-track Tamla Records release pushed boundaries — lyrically, musically and technologically — subsequently becoming an influential lightning rod for both Wonder's career as well as R&B and pop at large.
Innervisons' genius was apparent from its release, staying high on the charts throughout the year. The album took home multiple golden gramophones at the 16th GRAMMY Awards annual ceremony, among them Album Of The Year and Best Engineered Non-Classical Recording. Wonder also won the GRAMMY Award for Best R&B Song for "Living for the City," a call to action that still resonates to this day.
At the 1974 GRAMMYs, Wonder became the first Black artist to take home the award for Album Of The Year. On the GRAMMY stage with his younger sister, Renee, and older brother, Milton, Wonder called his siblings "the future for tomorrow, for all people." He continued, "I hope that through my music, I have given the message of my people and of the world."
Innervisions was inducted into the GRAMMY Hall of Fame in 1999. At the 2023 GRAMMYs, Wonder offered a rousing performance of "Higher Ground" with Chris Stapelton.
"It's one of the greatest albums of our time," Motown contemporary Lionel Richie, Wonder's friend and one of the album's many admirers, tells GRAMMY.com. "Every song on the album is incredible, and it will hold the test of time with people saying the same thing 100 years from now about it."
Margouleff, who produced the album alongside the late jazz musician Malcolm Cecil, is still basking with pride about what they and Stevie accomplished. "It makes me feel like I fulfilled my destiny and have done something that's positive for our culture."
As a result, he can vividly recount the first day he and Cecil encountered Wonder. "Malcolm and I had just released our first record, and Stevie heard it and decided he wanted to meet us,"says Margouleff. "So on Memorial Day weekend in 1971, we heard him banging on our studio door."
At that time, a 21-year-old Wonder was attempting to navigate life as an adult artist after a successful Motown career during which the world fell in love with him as Little Stevie Wonder. When he began ideating Innervisions, Wonder was freshly released from his contract with Motown. The year prior, Wonder released his first self-produced song, "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," and was looking to expand his sonic understanding.
Meanwhile, Margouleff and Cecil were experimenting with synthesizers and released experimental electronic music under the moniker Tonto's Expanding Head Band. According to Margouleff, "We are making all kinds of strange sounds with Tonto, and [Wonder] wanted to know about it."
It turned out to be a powerful combination: a genius artist who was looking to further define himself and two fearless electronic wizards exploring an exciting new technology. "It was just the three of us in a room, and the sounds we were creating gave him a whole new palate and put him in control of what he was doing," says Margouleff. "He'd start talking to us and we'd start cooking the soup. He'd show us a song he wrote with chords and a vocal demo; once we'd heard it, we'd say, 'What about this sound? Or that sound?'"
While Wonder played every instrument himself, Margouleff notes writing and recording with a synthesizer allowed limitless possibilities."Electronic music happens in space, so there is no architecture. Tonto had no real instruments, and Stevie was fascinated by that," he explains. "We could go to any place musically and never know where reality ended and the fantasy began. To him, that was a wonderful mystery."
In a rare interview, Wonder spoke about the importance of sonic experimentation. "The new things that are available now give me a greater ability to hear and voice sounds," he said in 1985. "And they make it a whole lot easier for a blind person to express his ideas."
The result is a collection of songs that proved monumentally influential to fellow artists. "All of the songs on Innervisions are classic Stevie," Richie says of the album. "The music and lyrics are works of art that nobody can do or come close to doing. 'Higher Ground,' 'Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing' and 'Living for the City' are my favorites from this album."
Richie points out three stand-out tracks in an album full of them: "Higher Ground" kicks off with those aforementioned synths, which are complemented by buoyant lyrics that tow a spiritual line. "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing" is a Latin-influenced piano-driven ditty which harkens back to Wonders' earlier pop confections. But it was the bold, GRAMMY-winning "Living for the City" that garnered the most praise; it also marked a turning point in Wonder's career and in the depiction of American culture in pop music.
"It's just a major recording for civil rights," muses Margouleff of the chronicle of a young Black boy who hopefully ventures to New York and is eventually arrested. "At the time, only Marvin Gaye and Stevie were singing about this. Anybody can write about love, but when he writes about the political condition it's immeasurably powerful."
Wonder himself called "Living for the City" one of the three songs in his career he's most proud of. In a 1985 interview with the New York Times, he explained: "I wanted to speak out, and do it in a way where people will feel the rhythm of it, but also get the message across, in a peaceful way that's also strong."
The song also employed the use of sound effects to depict a bustling metropolis, with the team depicting the realism of having actual cops shout racial epithets at the song's protagonist. In an interview for the book Stevie Wonder, Signed, Sealed and Delivered, engineer Cecil recalled: "[Wonder] wanted genuineness, so we had to get real cops, which only happened because [Margouleff's] father was the mayor of Great Neck and he got some cops to meet us in a parking lot. We told them, 'Just say what you'd say if you were arresting a guy for drugs,' and they did the rest."
"We got where Stevie was coming from and what he was trying to say" explains Margouleff. "And we did everything in our power to encourage him."
Innervisions also features the track, "He's Misstra Know-It-All," and its pejorative view of then-President Nixon. The song showcased Wonder as a fearless critic of modern American politics as well as his relationship to the plight the country faced at the time, burdened with an unpopular President a few years before his resignation. "Take my word, please beware,"Wonder croons. "Of a man that just don't give a care, no."
While Innervisions is a lasting triumph, a shocking turn of events nearly ended Wonder's life and career only days after its release. "Stevie was listening to our mastered album in the car and got into a car accident," recalls Margouleff of the Aug. 6, 1973 incident when a log smashed through Wonder's windshield while driving in South Carolina. "He was in a coma for five days, and came out of it with a higher consciousness that comes with a near death experience. He came back a different guy in a lot of ways."
Wonder eventually fully recovered and, in the following years, would cement himself as an artist for all-time. His hot streak continued, with his follow-up album Fulfillingness' First Finale, turning more introspective and earning Wonder a second consecutive GRAMMY for Album Of The Year.
While Cecil passed away in 2021, Margouleff would go on to collaborate with the likes of future electronic stars Devo and Oingo Bongo, and is putting the finishing touches on a book dubbed Technology Drives the Art. But it was with Innervisions he experienced one of his greatest successes.
"The synth was a new paintbrush, just like AI is a new paintbrush for artists now," says Margouleff of its trailblazing technology, which has influenced an untold number of artists and helped extrapolate the modern American sound. "When it came on the scene, Stevie got it."
Most important for Margouleff was being a part of such a fruitful creative process. "It was a beautiful journey."
Photos: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images; Visionhaus#GP/Corbis via Getty Images; Gie Knaeps/Getty Images; Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Live Nation; Robin Platzer/Getty Images; Photo by David Redfern/Redferns; Mason Poole Ebet Roberts/Redferns; Amy Sussman/Getty Images; PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images
The Evolution Of The Queer Anthem: From Judy Garland To Lady Gaga & Lil Nas X
Music is a creative tool of liberation, with queer communities finding meaning — overt or otherwise — in songs by a myriad of artists. GRAMMY.com unpacks the long history of queer anthems, from a 1920s cabaret to the top of the charts.
When a young Judy Garland sang "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" in 1939, dreaming of a more exciting, joyous and colorful life elsewhere, few might have known that her words would go on to inspire generations of queer people who found a glimmer of freedom where "the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true."
For decades, if not longer, music has continued to serve as a creative tool of liberation, with queer communities finding meaning — overt or otherwise — in songs either written directly for them or appropriated from the work of (seemingly) straight artists. Often with time, but occasionally immediately, such music becomes a queer anthem. While pride in one’s identity has often been a central theme, these anthems have also tackled the communal trauma — from the HIV/AIDS epidemic to discrimination that continues to this day.
As the messages and musical styles have adapted with the times, what’s most powerful in the evolution of queer anthems is just how much more openly gay they have become. An increasing number of artists are able to unabashedly express their identity, including in genres that have been traditionally reticent or hostile to minorities. Tracing the history of the queer anthem provides an opportunity to see how far the LGBTQ+ community has come, and how creative expression can be used to fight for rights that are still being threatened.
In Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary, music writer Sasha Geffen explores the history of queer anthems past and present.
"I think it's important to honor these ancestors in the queer narrative and point to how things don't always go from worse to better," Geffen tells GRAMMY.com. "Right now in our current historical moment, where we're seeing a lot of closing in and that can be really scary, but there has always kind of been this pulsing and there has always been the survival."
A Global Musical Movement
In fact, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" wasn’t even the first gay anthem. One of the earliest is the 1920 German cabaret number "Das lila Lied" ("The Lavender Song"), a clear product of the relative sexual freedom of the Weimar Republic. Written around the time of sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld hosting the First International Conference for Sexual Reform, the song recognized the struggles queer people faced while also declaring, "and still most of us are proud/ to be cut from different cloth!"
In Europe, musicals provided sly opportunities to explore queer themes, notably the work of English playwright Noël Coward, whose hidden sexuality was expressed in unrequited love songs such as "Mad About the Boy'' and "If Love Were All." In the United States, Black women defined many of these early queer anthems, notably Ma Rainey and Billie Holiday, with "Prove It on Me Blues" and "Easy Living," respectively. As Geffen says, their music was "playful and raunchy and it sold."
Holiday and Rainey, along with her prodigy, Bessie Smith, were all bisexual — an identity that along with their race and gender threatened their professional careers. They faced not only social ostracization, but also legal threats due to their sexuality. Yet these pioneers still expressed their emotions openly, as Ma Rainey sings on "Prove It on Me Blues": "I went out last night with a crowd of my friends'/It must've been women, 'cause I don't like no men/ Wear my clothes just like a fan/ Talk to the gals just like any old man."
The war years and social conservative of the 1950s didn’t see many lasting gay anthems, as white, male musicians appropriated and made famous the rebellious rock and roll sound of Black musicians. This was clear in songs like Little Richard’s "Tutti Frutti" (with clear sexual undertones) and "Hound Dog" by Big Mamma Thornton, who wore men’s clothes and has been appreciated for representing Black queerness.
Through the sexual revolution of the mid-20th century, Black women continued to produce some of the most boundary-pushing music. Nina Simone switched the gender preference in her bubbly version of "My Baby Just Cares for Me" — from Lana Turner to… Liberace — and Diana Ross delivered a sultry take on "Ain’t No Mountain High Enough," showing the depths someone is willing to go for their paramour.
Yet it’s impossible to include just one song by the disco diva in a compendium of queer anthems, overt or implied. The inspiration for 1980’s "I’m Coming Out" actually came out of a New York gay bar: Famed songwriter Nile Rodgers went to the bathroom and noticed a group of Ross impersonators. As Rodgers told Billboard in 2011, "I ran outside and called Bernard [Edwards, his frequent collaborator] and told him about it and said, ‘What if we recognize Diana Ross’ really cool alignment with her fan base in the gay community?’ So we sat down and wrote, ‘I’m Coming Out.’"
During this period of second-wave feminism, songs of female empowerment were also adapted by the queer community, such as Lesley Gore’s "You Don’t Own Me" (Gore herself came out as a lesbian in 2005). Some male acts embraced all that defied social norms, whether around identity or sexuality (although some of their depictions of race and gender can be questioned): "Lola" by the Kinks, "Walk on the Wild Side" by Lou Reed and "Rebel Rebel" by David Bowie, whose glam rock pushed against boundaries in terms of gender presentation.
More so than any genre before it, the arrival of disco in the 1970s provided a soundtrack for the LGBTQ+ community. In fact, it could be said it was the first genre made for and by queer folks was disco, with high-rotation tracks like Donna Summer’s "I Feel Love," Chaka Khan’s "I’m Every Woman" or even ABBA’s "Dancing Queen." But arguably the most powerful queer anthem was Gloria Gaynor’s "I Will Survive," an unabashed tribute to overcoming against all odds that can still be heard blasting from Pride floats today.
In maybe a less nuanced but equally impactful sense during this time, the Village People also played with gay sexual fantasies in both their appearance and music, notably with their songs "Macho Man" and "Y.M.C.A." While the camp was turned up to 11, the Village People’s influence in bringing queer life to the mainstream cannot be underestimated.
Openly queer artists also began asserting themselves more than ever by the 1980s and the rise of synth pop, finding fans among straight and queer communities, often in a "you know if you know way," according to Geffen. The sound coming from British groups like Culture Club ("Do You Really Want to Hurt Me"), Soft Cell ("Tainted Love") or Bronski Beat ("Smalltown Boy") was inextricable from queerness; an uptempo beat and thematic undercurrent ran through many of the era's biggest pop songs. These artists were "talking about an experience that was very specific to the queer community — this idea of figuring out who you are and leaving home and not knowing where you're gonna be ending up and just trusting something out there might be better than what you've got," Geffen notes.
Also during the 1980s, queer anthems also began to proliferate beyond English-language music, proving that a desire to express queerness through music was universal. This was notably seen in Canadian-French artist Mylène Farmer’s "Libertine" and "Sans contrefaçon" about embracing androgyny. And in the Spanish-speaking world, there was Alaska y Dinarama's "¿A quién le importa?" which translates to "who cares?"
Anthems Rocked By Trauma
But this relative opening in terms of gay acceptance in popular culture was quickly shaken by the HIV/AIDS crisis, when queer anthems took on an even stronger political role. Whether it be Queen’s "I Want to Break Free" or "Somebody to Love," Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s "Relax" or Sylvester’s "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)," these anthems were unabashed about expressing romantic feelings and sexual desire, as well as fighting back against violence, silence and stereotyping.
Known for his falsetto voice, Sylvester was one of the leading voices in San Francisco’s growing queer community before passing away from AIDS-related complications in 1988. His song "Stars" is one of Geffen’s favorite queer anthems, particularly for how he conveyed both the joy and hardship of the queer experience.
"He had such a powerful voice and powerful control over the subtleties of using it," Geffen continues. "There was this kind of melancholy that I can hear coming through sometimes of celebrating the world that you're in, this kind of sub-world inside the world where these forms of relationships are possible."
Female artists — many of whom were open allies of the queer community — also addressed the devastation of the epidemic. TLC’s "Waterfalls" (a cautionary tale with a hopeful note to "believe in yourself") and Cyndi Lauper’s "True Colors," a torch song to light the way in the darkest of times. Although, this relationship of seemingly straight artists to the queer community was not without faults. Madonna became a queer icon for her string of hits before kicking off the 1990s with "Vogue," a track that brought queer ballroom culture to a mainstream audience. While Madonna was clearly celebrating this art form, and giving a certain amount of recognition to those who created it, she was also making money off the talent and creativity of underrecognized queer communities of color.
Outside of mainstream music, the 1990s saw queer female artists asserting their identity, accompanied by the riot grrrl movement and Lilith Fair. These ranged from the Indigo Girls’ reflective "Closer to Fine" to k.d. lang’s yearnful "Constant Craving" to Bikini Kill’s "Rebel Girl," "the queen of my world."
The Sound Of A New Millennium
The turn of the millennium heralded the beginning of a more assertive acceptance, with anthems coming from sometimes unexpected sources: Christina Aguilera’s "Beautiful," P!nk’s "Raise Your Glass,'' Robyn’s "Dancing on My Own" or Macklemore's "Same Love." With the political fight for marriage equality quickly gaining ground in the U.S., pop artists began responding with overtly pro-LGBTQAI+ messages in their music: Lady Gaga kicked off the 2010s with "Born This Way," with the theme that there is nothing abnormal about being queer.
More recently, anthems have shed any need to hide their queerness through hidden messages or innuendos. Proudly queer artists are creating music clearly for their communities, and beyond: think Janelle Monae’s ode to female pleasure "Pynk," Perfume Genius’ searing "Queen" or Hayley Kiyoko’s "Girls Like Girls," whose title says it all (and was followed up with the more cheerful anthem "for the girls").
Perhaps most notably, genres that have been slower to embrace LGBTQAI+ artists have also had their share of anthems. Rap in particular has embraced queer artists from Cupcakke ("LGBT") to Frank Ocean ("Channel") to Leikeli47’s ("Attitude") to anything by Mykki Blanco. This also has been true in country: See Katie Pruitt’s "Loving Her," Kacey Musgraves’ "Follow Your Arrow'' or Orville Peck and his interpretation of "Smalltown Boy." This honoring of queer history and pioneers defines many modern queer anthems, perhaps most strongly in Beyoncé’s Renaissance.
While her whole discography is full of bangers that have entered the queer pantheon, her latest release Renaissance is an ode to the queer and Black tradition of disco and house. Tracks like "COZY," an embrace of being "comfortable in my skin," quickly entered into heavy rotation at clubs around the world. Beyoncé has centered queer artists like Big Freedia, the queen of New Orleans bounce who wrote a powerful anthem in 2020’s "Chasing Rainbows" featuring Kesha (who herself named an album Rainbow and released "We R Who We R" after a series of suicides of gay teens across the U.S.).
Most significantly, songs about the queer experience are now defining the careers of many artists and garnering them unprecedented large audiences. This is the case for MUNA with "Silk Chiffon," King Princess with "1950" Troy Sivan with "Bloom'' or even Sam Smith and Kim Petras with "Unholy." This last sexy jam bought Petras unprecedented acclaim after years in the music industry and made her the first openly trans person to win a GRAMMY Award.
This trend might be most clearly seen in the rise of Little Nas X, who grew up mastering the language and codes of the internet before breaking through and quite quickly coming out. Geffen highlights how he uses shock to garner attention and push back against the homophobic haters, like giving Satan a lap dance in the music video "MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)."
"I think of Little Nas X as a troll who trolled his way to the top," says Geffen," knowing what people will respond to positively and what will piss people off."
Contrasting this increase in openly queer anthems and depictions of queer people in media is a sharp political reality: anti-trans laws proliferate in many states and lawmakers attempt to limit the rights of LGBTQ+ people, threatening many of the forward momentum in queer liberation.
Read more: The Rise Of The Queer Pop Star In The 2010s
This moment in social and political history highlights the importance of an anthem, which serves as a form of celebration and signaling of allegiance, as well as a salve against repression and motivation to continue the fight.
Of course, this list of queer anthems is far from exhaustive. Artists as diverse as the B-52s, Eurythmics, the Pet Shop Boys, Elton John, Cher, George Michael, RuPaul, Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, the Smiths, Kylie Minogue, Brandi Carlile, Carley Rae Jepsen, Sufjan Stevens, SOPHIE, Taylor Swift and many, many others have released music that has deeply impacted the queer community.
And really, any song can be a queer anthem if it speaks to someone on a personal level, providing a sense of connection and belonging. As Geffen notes, the magic occurs when a piece of music creates a moment of collective celebration or momentary bliss.
"There's nothing else quite like that feeling of the physical release of having a song run through you when it's also running through tons of other people who are in the crowd with you," they said, highlighting the power of that anxiety of whether you fit in dissolving away: "It opens a window into what's possible, in a world beyond the one we're in right now."