Photo: Mike WIndle/WireImage
Boyz II Men
"Motown 60: A GRAMMY Celebration" To Air April 21 On CBS
Incredible all-star tribute lineup includes Motown legends Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder joined by Boyz II Men, Tori Kelly, John Legend, Ciara and many more
The wait is over, as the linuep for "Motown 60: A GRAMMY Celebration" has been revealed! Hosted by Cedric the Entertainer and GRAMMY winner Smokey Robinson, the tribute to the iconic sound that changed America will feature Boyz II Men, Chloe X Halle, Ciara, Lamont Dozier, Fantasia, Brian & Eddie Holland, Thelma Houston, Tori Kelly, John Legend, Little Big Town, NE-YO, Pentatonix, Martha Reeves, Diana Ross, Valerie Simpson, Mickey Stevenson, Meghan Trainor, and Stevie Wonder.
The live concert taping was held Tuesday, Feb. 12 at 7:30 p.m. PT at Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles, just two days after Music's Biggest Night, the 61st GRAMMY Awards on Feb. 10, 2019.
"If you're sitting in a house and a Motown song comes on, you have no other choice but to ... dance, you know what I mean? It just makes you feel good," Fantasia said backstage during the taping. "It's just feel good music. Berry Gordy, he just had it. He had the ear, he knew what was good for people and they did their thing."
Photo: Sasha Samsonova
How Tori Kelly Used Hair Dye, Y2K & Collaborators To Create Her Most Authentic Project To Date
Tori Kelly unpacks her new self-titled EP — the "big sister" of her expansive discography — and illustrates how her 11 years as a recording artist unlocked her most bona fide songwriting yet.
Blondes might have more fun, but Tori Kelly can tell you brunettes keep it real.
Almost one year ago, Kelly posted an Instagram video debuting a new brown 'do. For most pop stars, hair is a playground to define the different chapters of their lives. But if you know Kelly, her curly golden mane was a hallmark of her image for over a decade, and with reports of a record label switch, a seemingly dramatic change was on the horizon.
The next few months saw Kelly head-to-toe in shiny cybercore ensembles and Buff sunglasses until she released a cryptic teaser for her new music. She sat down next to a vintage television, watching the highlights of her career pass by — from her viral 2012 cover of Michael Jackson's "P.Y.T" to her acceptance speech for Best Gospel Song at the 2019 GRAMMY Awards. The screen went static, officially commencing a new era.
On March 17, Kelly dropped "missin' u," a 2000s R&B-inspired single with a fast-paced 808 drum beat and a sample of Craig David's "Fill Me In." The song's accompanying music video solidified Y2K as the aesthetic of the hour, as a starry-eyed Kelly daydreams about dancing in crimson leather and silver bodysuits, like a modern-day Britney Spears.
At the beginning of her journey, Kelly created her music from the ground up, writing every lyric, producing every note, and singing every vocal stem. "I had to prove to myself and everyone else that I could do it," she reminisces. But with tori, Kelly lowered the shield to be candid with her process. Ultimately, it became an exploration of what it meant to be "authentically Tori" in her thirties, and a rekindling with the childhood version of herself that started it all.
Between tour rehearsals and preparation for the release of her deluxe EP, Tori Kelly sat down with GRAMMY.com to discuss her potpourri of sounds since her debut, what it means to return to the stage in a post-pandemic society, and how dyeing her hair back to its natural color tied tori together.
Sonically, you have been flexible throughout your career. You started with acoustic pop, then gospel. Now, with tori, you fully step into the realm of pure R&B. What was the genesis of this shift?
Sometimes, I feel like I'm all over the place genre-wise. A lot of my career has been like, "Oh, I hope people come along with me for this right now." But at the same time, when I listen back, I see a through line: my voice. That has always been what connects my music and these different styles I love and are authentic to me. The way I sing and what I bring to a song is the grounds for everything.
It's interesting to look back at the previous chapters of myself and see where I am now. All of those past versions have culminated into who I am today.
Self-titled projects are often considered a declaration of who you are and what you stand for. What does tori say about you that might not have been evident from your other releases?
Naming this project, I went back and forth with titles. It's an EP — there's definitely more to come, so it was like, "What should I call it?" I tried different lyrics, but nothing was hitting. I kept coming back to the idea of making it self-titled because the music really does feel like me.
The biggest thing at this moment, as I'm getting older, is stepping deeper into myself. I want to show versions of myself that have always been there but I haven't been able to express yet.
You dyed your hair brown. There's something symbolic about returning to your natural color on a self-titled project. It feels like a rebirth. How did that play out during the development of tori?
I was blonde for 10 years. I actually stayed blonde throughout the making of this EP, but I slowly kept putting more lowlights and highlights into my hair. Subconsciously, I always knew I wasn't loving it for whatever reason.
I didn't know exactly what it was at the time, but the music felt different. Aesthetically, I wanted it to be different, too — that's when I started exploring new looks. Right before my 30th birthday, I was like, "You know what? This is it. I just need to do it." It was the cherry on top of the other things I was expressing and the confidence I was feeling.
What initially prompted the blonde at the start of your career?
I started playing with the idea when I was 16 by putting streaks into my hair. When I graduated high school, I wanted to do something crazy, so I went full blonde. It was a big deal because that was around the same time I had my first viral video, which was a cover of Frank Ocean's "Thinkin' 'Bout You."
The first time I bleached it, it fried my hair, so I went back to brunette, but I was becoming recognizable as a blonde. As I'm trying to get my music out there, I'm thinking about what kind of things will connect. I went blonde again, but I still felt like myself because I had the big curls. That time, I did it the right way. It was healthy. [Laughs.]
When I returned to brown hair again, I didn't expect it to be a huge thing. It went completely over my head that people only knew me as a blonde.
The brunette hair puts me more in touch with my childhood self. I look at photos of me as a kid, and I look even more like her now. I have always tried to stay true to myself, but I feel more like myself than ever. A part of that is going back to my roots, physically and musically.
You said that the lead single, "missin' u," was a Y2K-inspired track. What were some of the projects of that decade that left an impact on you and inspired the creation of this EP?
When it came to making the music from tori, there were so many songs that I was reminded of, even if I didn't grow up listening to it religiously — like Craig David, for example. Jon Bellion and I were really inspired by him, especially on "missin' u" and "cut," which have that fast, drum-and-bass UK garage sound.
Do you remember the moment when you decided "missin' u" would be the lead single from tori?
It was definitely a process. It actually wasn't the first choice. Everyone had a different favorite, which was cool for me to experience. In the past, there was usually an obvious single. This time, no one knew what the single should be, and that tells me we did a great job at creating music that feels really good.
It was the head of my label who was like, "Wait? Why aren't we going with 'missin' u'? It feels so big." I began envisioning the music video concepts and the styles and references I could incorporate into it, and it started to make sense. It was the perfect song to push the Y2K theme, so we ran with it.
I can hear those Y2K references on "missin' u." Maybe it's the guitar.
Oh, yeah. It's a combination. We were very intentional. It's very "Say My Name" and Darkchild in the verses and bridge. When the chorus hits, that's when you hear the influence of Craig David's UK sound, but that was also 2000s R&B. It's a hybrid of all those genres that makes it sound fresh and new.
You collaborated with Ayra Starr, who is 21, and Jon Bellion, who is closer to your age. Was there a dichotomy between working with someone from an entirely different generation and someone who is similar to you in age?
Working with Jon has been amazing because we're similar. We grew up with the same music and can pull from those inspirations.
It made sense to throw one of those younger, up-and-coming artists into the mix, like Ayra Starr. Whether through fashion or music, Y2K is coming back. Ayra walked into the studio, decked out in Y2K, and I had the realization that we were in the same world, meeting in the middle.
"Unbelievable," the song with Ayra Starr, marks the first Afrobeats track in your discography. How does your approach to a new genre differ from something that might be more typical of the Tori Kelly sound, like "alive if i die?"
I'm stretching myself into these genres I love. I've been obsessed with Afrobeats for the last few years. Fireboy and also Ayra. Jon had the idea for "unbelievable," and I thought it would be awesome to have an actual Afrobeats singer featured on the track. Ayra took it to the next level.
For me, it's all about having fun and experimenting — making it sound true to my artistry.
The Take Control Tour will be your first tour in four years and the first one post-pandemic. How has that preparation shifted with our new reality?
I'm looking forward to this tour like crazy. I said that so monotone, but it's because I can't even find the right words to express how excited I am. I feel like a shaken soda can, about to explode, because I've been waiting so long.
I was four shows into what was going to be my first world tour in March 2020. It felt like it got yanked away for me, for lack of a better term. Health and safety were obviously the most important, but it was a bummer to cancel those shows.
The tour before that was all acoustic. It's such a contrast to Take Control because I'm going with a band. It's a way more energetic show.
Touring is my favorite part about doing what I do. I love being in the studio, but performing live is the heart of what I do. That's what little Tori wanted to do: go on stage and sing her head off, and I haven't been able to tap into that for a really long time. I'm going to be very emotional.
You posted a clip of you practicing "Nobody Love" on Instagram. How has your relationship changed with those older hits?
During rehearsals, we were playing those throwbacks. I've done so much in my career with so many styles like we've been talking about — but it's cool to play those older songs and go right into the new music. If anything, I feel like the songs from tori have been a big sister to those older songs, like "Nobody Love" and "Should've Been Us."
We're going to put a new spin on it so they feel fresh again, but I'll always love performing those older songs.
Photo: Ollie Millington/Redferns
9 Songs You Didn't Know Jon Bellion Wrote & Produced: Hits By Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez & More
Pop superproducer Jon Bellion is the man behind Tori Kelly's new ep, 'tori,' but he's also been involved with countless hits for more than a decade. Check out nine of Bellion's biggest songs, from Eminem to Jonas Brothers.
If the name Jon Bellion sounds familiar, it's probably because of his 2016 single "All Time Low." With its relentless "low-low-low-low-low" chorus, the electronic-fused pop confection scored Bellion his first major hit — as a solo artist, that is.
Prior to Bellion's breakthrough with his debut solo single, he'd already made a name for himself behind the scenes by writing and producing songs for the likes of Eminem, Jason Derulo, Zedd and CeeLo Green. And in the seven years since "All Time Low" became a top 20 hit, he's celebrated plenty of other smashes with some of pop's A-listers from Christina Aguilera to Justin Bieber.
This year alone, he worked with the Jonas Brothers to executive produce their statement-making record The Album, helped shape Maroon 5's "Middle Ground" — which is expected to be the lead single off the veteran pop-rockers' forthcoming eighth studio album — and teamed up with Switchfoot for an orchestral 2023 update of the band's 2003 breakout single "Meant to Live."
Bellion's most recent work can be heard on Tori Kelly's new self-titled EP tori, which dropped July 28. Along with producing the project, Bellion joined Kelly for a magnetic, electro-tinged track titled "young gun." Upon the EP's release, Kelly herself noted Bellion's impact, calling their collaboration "the start of something really special."
In honor of Bellion's latest project, take a look at nine songs you may not have known contained Bellion's signature touch — a roadmap to his becoming one of the most in-demand producers of the moment.
Eminem feat. Rihanna — "The Monster"
One of Bellion's earliest smashes came courtesy of Eminem — well, and Bebe Rexha. The pop singer penned the track's dark hook while working on her debut album, but it later made its way to Eminem and eventually shapeshifted into his fourth collaboration with Rihanna. The song became the duo's second No. 1 collaboration following 2010's "Love The Way You Lie" and remains one of most monstrous hits in Bellion's career.
Jason Derulo — "Trumpets"
Jason Derulo worked solely with Bellion on this top 20 hit from his 2013 Tattoos, which was later re-packaged as 2014's Talk Dirty. Built around an irresistible horn line of, yes, literal trumpets, Bellion and Derulo concocted a bouncy, flirtatious symphony to smoothly objectify the R&B singer's lady love, and manages to name drop Coldplay, Katy Perry and Kanye West over the course of just three minutes and thirty-seven seconds.
Christina Aguilera feat. Demi Lovato — "Fall in Line"
Bellion handled production on Christina Aguilera's fierce 2018 team-up with Demi Lovato, "Fall in Line," off the former's 2018 LP Liberation. Behind the boards, Bellion effectively captured all of the feminist rage and empowerment that the two vocal powerhouses lit into their lyrics, pairing their sneering vocals with a vamping strings section, rattling chains and a robotic male overlord futilely demanding, "March, two, three, right, two, three/ Shut your mouth, stick your ass out for me."
"Fall in Line" scored a nomination for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance at the 2019 GRAMMYs, marking Aguilera's twentieth career nod and Lovato's second.
Maroon 5 — "Memories"
To kick off their seventh album, JORDI, Maroon 5 enlisted Bellion to co-write lead single "Memories." The gentle ballad found frontman Adam Levine mourning the loss of a friend, pouring one out over a lilting reggae-pop line that cleverly samples Johann Pachelbel's "Canon in D Major." While the heartfelt song is dedicated to the band's longtime manager (and namesake of the LP) Jordan Feldstein, who tragically passed away in 2017 due to a blood clot, the relatable sentiment of "Memories" helped it peak at No. 2 on the Hot 100.
In addition to "Memories," Bellion also worked with the band on two other songs from JORDI, co-writing fourth single "Lost" as well as Anuel AA and Tainy collab "Button." Three years later, he would reunite with the band to co-write and co-produce their latest, equally delicate single "Middle Ground" alongside the likes of Andrew Watt and Rodney Jerkins.
Miley Cyrus — "Midnight Sky"
Miley Cyrus came raring into her glam rock-inspired album Plastic Hearts on the back of "Midnight Sky," an unapologetic statement of independence following her split from longtime love Liam Hemsworth. Dripping in sultry synths, the power ballad took a page from '80s rock icons like Joan Jett, Debbie Harry and Stevie Nicks.
The sound was an entirely new one for Cyrus — which is one of Bellion's tools when working with a new superstar for the first time. In a 2023 Billboard interview, he likened his approach to inventing a new kind of ride for the given A-lister. "They have already built an amazing theme park: millions of people go to it and experience their roller coasters," he said. "They put me in charge of revamping or creating a new section of the theme park, and they let me be the foreman of it all." The new style worked in Cyrus' favor, and earned Bellion yet another top 20 hit on the Hot 100.
Justin Bieber — "Holy"
Bellion's fingerprints are all over Justin Bieber's 2021 album Justice, starting notably with its Chance the Rapper-assisted lead single "Holy," which he both co-wrote and co-produced. The superproducer contributed to six other songs on the pop-driven LP — including the pop radio No. 1 "Ghost," which was inspired by Bellion's late grandmother — as well as three deluxe tracks. And though Bellion didn't have any credited features, his voice can still be heard: he offered background vocals on seven of the songs.
Justice earned Bellion his very first GRAMMY nomination, as the project was nominated for Album Of The Year at the 2022 GRAMMYs (Bieber also received seven other nods).
Selena Gomez — "My Mind & Me"
Bellion first collaborated with Selena Gomez on Rare album cut "Vulnerable" alongside Amy Allen, Michael Pollack and The Monsters & Strangerz. Two years later, the entire team reunited for the title track to the pop singer's Apple TV+ documentary My Mind & Me.
Bellion and co. helped Gomez tap even further into the most vulnerable side of her psyche to date. "Vulnerable" saw Gomez letting her guard down with a new flame, but "My Mind & Me" allowed her to completely lay bare her mental health journey. "Sometimes I feel like an accident, people look when they're passin' it/ Never check on the passenger, they just want the free show," she sings. "Yeah, I'm constantly tryna fight somethin' that my eyes can't see," over spare guitar and piano.
Jonas Brothers — "Waffle House"
After the success of their 2019 comeback album Happiness Begins with producer Ryan Tedder, the Jonas Brothers recruited Bellion to helm the boards on their 2023 follow-up The Album. The producer helped the hitmaking siblings tap into a new facet of their pop-rock sound, finding inspiration in the '70s music their dad raised them on. (As Joe Jonas told GRAMMY.com upon the album's release, Bellion "was saying exactly what we were hoping for" when they first met to mull over ideas.)
While Bellion had a hand in every song on The Album, second single "Waffle House" is the latest to earn both him and Jonas Brothers a top 15 hit on pop radio. Bellion also serves as the one and only featured artist on The Album, coming out from behind the boards and into the vocal booth for bombastic closer "Walls."
Tori Kelly — "missin u"
Tori Kelly first linked up with Bellion thanks to Justin Bieber, as the pair worked together with the Biebs on tender bonus cut "Name" from the Justice sessions. So, when it came time to launch a new era with her self-titled EP tori, the songstress turned to Bellion to help bring her vision to life.
On lead single "missin u," the two-time GRAMMY winner throws the guitar-driven singer/songwriter vibes of her past work out the window in favor of a sleek R&B sound reminiscent of the early 2000s. The sonic gear shift is a natural fit for her lithe voice as she replays a romance that "was rainin' purple skies in my room." Somehow, Kelly even manages to outdo the vocal acrobatics of "missin u" with a deliriously brilliant "R&B edit" that adds even more layers, soul and vocal flourishes to the single.
"When I first started working with Jon Bellion, we were just beginning to scratch the surface on a new sound that truly felt like my own," Kelly explains in a video celebrating the release of her self-titled EP tori. "I know that I'm gonna look back on this collaboration as the start of something really special." As for Bellion's thoughts on his latest project? "Tori Kelly's the greatest vocalist of all time!"
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."
Photo: M. Caulfield/WireImage for VH-1 Channel - New York
15 Songs That Will Make You Dance And Cry At The Same Time, From "Hey Ya!" To "Dancing On My Own"
Whether it's "Tears of a Clown" or "Tears in the Club," take a listen to some of the most sneakily sad songs by Outkast, TLC, Avicii and more.
In 2003, OutKast scored their second No. 1 hit with "Hey Ya!" The timeless track has an upbeat energy that makes you want to shake it like a polaroid picture — until you happen to catch its rather unhappy lyrics.
"Are we so in denial when we know we're not happy here?" André 3000 sings on the second verse. The line that follows may sum up its contrasting nature: "Y'all don't wanna hear me, you just wanna dance."
The ability to make listeners feel (and physically react) to a wide range of emotions is part of the genius of songwriting. Tunes like "Hey Ya!" — a sad narrative disguised by an infectious melody — is one trick that has been mastered by Outkast, R.E.M., Smokey Robinson, Robyn and many more.
If you've ever happily boogied to a beat before realizing that the lyrics on top are actually a big bummer, you're certainly not alone. BBC and Apple Music both call such tracks Sad Bangers, a fitting name for what's become an unofficial genre over the past half-century.
In light of Mental Health Awareness Month this May, GRAMMY.com compiled a list of 15 songs that will both get you in your feelings and get your body moving.
Smokey Robinson & The Miracles — "The Tears of a Clown" (1967)
The upbeat music on this Motown classic was written by Stevie Wonder, a 25-time GRAMMY winner who is deft at crafting tearjerkers that will tease your body into joyful dancing. The bassoon-bottomed song registers at 128 beats per minute, a tempo that's still favored by modern dance music producers. So when Smokey sings, "The tears of a clown/When there's no one around," you'd be forgiven for also welling up just a little bit while you're in the groove.
Gloria Gaynor — "Never Can Say Goodbye" (1975)
Gloria Gaynor reimagined the Jackson 5's 1971 pop hit "Never Can Say Goodbye" for the disco era. The sweeping string arrangements and trotting beat helped to fill dance floors, and to make the poignant song about holding onto a love of her own. Other cover versions by Isaac Hayes and the Communards also capture the contradictory vibe.
Tears For Fears — "Mad World" (1983)
British duo Tears For Fears became internationally known after outfitting their first danceable hit with a depressing and dramatic chorus that's hard to shake even 40 years after its release: "I find it kinda funny, I find it kinda sad, the dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had." Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith would later release more uplifting fare, such as "Everybody Wants to Rule The World" and "Sowing the Seeds of Love."
Kate Bush — "Running Up That Hill" (1985)
Kate Bush has had three twirls through charts around the world with "Running Up That Hill," beginning with its 1985 release and then as an unlikely Summer Olympics closing ceremony song in 2012.
"And if I only could, I'd make a deal with God/And I'd get him to swap our places/Be running up that road/be running up that hill/With no problems," she sings in the chorus of the racing track, longing to be more worry-free.
More recently, a placement in the Netflix drama Stranger Things in 2022 earned the weepy, minor key-led dance number a whole new generation of fans. The English artist was recently named a 2023 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee.
Midnight Oil — "Beds Are Burning" (1988)
Midnight Oil lead singer Peter Garrett channeled the rage he felt from early climate change and the lack of Aboriginal land rights in the Australian Outback into "Beds Are Burning." The powerful dance tune flooded airwaves and dance floors around the world in the late '80s, reaching No. 17 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
"How can we dance when the Earth is turning?" he sings in the rousing chorus. "How do we sleep while the beds are burning?"
Garrett clearly had a personal connection to the song's yearning message: He later dedicated his life to environmental activism as the leader of the Australian Conservation Foundation, and became an elected Member of Australia's House of Representatives.
Crystal Waters — "Gypsy Woman (She's Homeless)" (1991)
A house music hit about a woman without a home, "Gypsy Woman (She's Homeless)" helped New Jersey singer Crystal Waters achieve international success despite a somewhat somber subject. A subsequent parody on the sketch comedy series "In Living Color" drew attention to the contrast of having happy and upbeat instrumentation with dispiriting lyrics.
"She's just like you and me/But she's homeless, she's homeless," rings the chorus. "As she stands there singing for money/La da dee la dee da…"
R.E.M. — "Shiny Happy People" (1991)
This upbeat collaboration is between rock group R.E.M. and B-52's singer Kate Pierson.The jangly guitar pop makes you want to clap your hands and stomp your feet, but the lyrics make you question if everything is indeed quite so shiny and happy.
The song is rumored to be about the massacre in China's Tiananmen Square, because the phrase "Shiny Happy People" appeared on propaganda posters. Pierson isn't so sure about that, though.
"I can't imagine that R.E.M. was thinking at the time, Oh, we want this song to be about Chinese government propaganda," she said in a 2021 interview with Vulture. "It was supposed to be shiny and happy. It was a positive thing all-around."
TLC — "Waterfalls" (1994)
"Waterfalls" was a worldwide hit for TLC in 1994, thanks to its sing-along chorus and funky bassline. The song's insistent bounce softens a firm lyrical warning that pulls people back from the edge: "Don't go chasing waterfalls/Please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you're used to/I know that you're gonna have it your way or nothing at all/But I think you're moving too fast."
"We wanted to make a song with a strong message — about unprotected sex, being promiscuous, and hanging out in the wrong crowd," Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas shared with The Guardian in 2018. "The messages in 'Waterfalls' hit home. I think that's why it's our biggest hit to date."
Outkast — "Hey Ya!" (2003)
André 3000 sings about loveless relationships to a whimsical, time-shifting dance beat on this Billboard Hot 100 chart-topping smash. The seriousness of the song — which André 3000 once explained is about "the state of relationships in the 2000s" — got lost among many listeners.*
Its unhappy lyrics were masked by André's peppy singing, as well as the song's jangly guitar and keyboard-led groove, which infectiously doubles up in speed at the end of every four beats. Even Outkast themselves couldn't help acknowledging the song's juxtaposition in a 2021 tweet.
Robyn — "Dancing On My Own" (2010)
A penultimate example of a sad banger is "Dancing On My Own" by Swedish pop star Robyn. The rueful song — a top 10 hit in multiple countries — commands you to shake your stuff, while also picturing yourself watching your ex move on at the club. Calum Scott's 2016 cover really brings out the sadness that can be obscured by Robyn's uptempo version.
"Said, I'm in the corner, watching you kiss her, oh no/And I'm right over here, why can't you see me?" Robyn sings in the chorus. "And I'm giving it my all/ But I'm not the girl you're taking home."
Fun. — "Some Nights" (2012)
fun. (the trio of Jack Antonoff, Andrew Dost and Nate Ruess) is best known for the zeitgeist-grabbing pop-rock power ballad "We Are Young," which is about the relentlessly positive enthusiasm of youth out on the town. The title track to their 2012 album Some Nights (which contains "We Are Young") is a much dancier, yet sadder song.
"What do I stand for?" Ruess asks as your feet shuffle along to the beat. "Most nights, I don't know anymore."
Avicii — "Wake Me Up" (2013)
Avicii collaborated with soulful pop singer Aloe Blacc for this worldwide chart-topper that is considered one of EDM's peak anthems. The slapping beat masks the track's sad, self-reflective lyrics about being lost.
The Swedish DJ/producer's 2018 death by suicide adds an even heavier air to Blacc's impassioned chorus: "So wake me up when it's all over/When I'm wiser and I'm older/All this time I was finding myself, and I/I didn't know I was lost."
Flume featuring Kai — "Never Be Like You" (2015)
"Never Be Like You" isn't the fastest cut in Australian DJ/producer Flume's bass-heavy discography, but the wispy track still has an irresistible bump to it. Canadian singer Kai begs her lover not to leave her ("How do I make you wanna stay?"), but her lovely tone still manages to keep the song hopeful.
FKA twigs featuring The Weekend — "Tears In The Club" (2022)
Perhaps the most overt selection of this entire list is "Tears In The Club," which finds FKA twigs and The Weeknd taking to the dancefloor to shake off the vestiges of a bad relationship. The singer/dancer has been candid about being in an abusive relationship, and the song is a lowkey bop that's buoyed by despairing chants such as, "I might die on the beat, love."
Everything But The Girl — "Nothing Left to Lose" (2023)
Nearly 30 years after DJ/producer Todd Terry helped introduce Everything But the Girl to the international dance music community with a remix of "Missing," the duo leaned into their electronic side on "Nothing Left to Lose." A single from their first album in 24 years, Fuse, "Nothing Left to Lose" features a squelching electronic bassline that contrasts the song's helpless yearning.
"I need a thicker skin/ This pain keeps getting in/ Tell me what to do/ 'Cause I've always listened to you," the pair's Tracy Thorne sings on the opening verse. Later, she makes a demand that fittingly sums up the conflicts of a quintessential sad banger: "Kiss me while the world decays."