this past october marked the 35th anniversary of the release of dionne warrick’s charity single “that’s what friends are for.” the one-off collaboration with the equally iconic gladys knight, eltonjohn and stevie wonder, “that’s what friends are for” was released as a charity single in 1985 to support aids research and prevention. originally released as a very schmaltzy love song in 1982, dionne’s cover of “friends” was released just a few weeks after the aids-related death of hollywood legend rock hudson. the song now resonated as a radical message of unconditional love during a time when people living with aids faced intense homophobia and stigma.
“that what friends are for” topped the billboard hot 100 in janaury 1986 and went on to win best pop performance by a duo or group and song of the year at the 1987 grammy awards. it was this commercial and critical success that the song was touted as the anthem for the fight against aids. and while it’s cultural impact could not be overstated, it was not the first “anthem” of acceptance, love and resistance in the era of aids. there were many songs that soundtracked the aids epidemic before and after “that’s what friends are for.”
patti labelle’s 1977 single “you are my friend” and sylvester’s brilliant cover in 1979, had long served as musical forms of solace for black and brown queer and trans folks during the onset of the epidemic – years before it was even given a name. other songs released years before the epidemic also served as anthems of survival. bette midler’s “friends,” a song that garnered her rousing applause when she performed it in bathhouses in the early 1970’s and gloria gaynor’s 1979 #1 hit “i will survive” took on a deeper meaning for gay men during height of the aids epidemic.
i must also mention phyllis hyman’s “old friend,” released in the summer of 1986, while not explicitly about aids, does capture the feeling and hope of reconnecting with long family and friends. a reality experienced by those who face rejection from loved ones after an hiv positive diagnosis.
“that’s what friends are for” isn’t even the first AIDS charity single. that distinction goes to the openly gay british band coil who released a cover of “tainted love” in early 1985 as a fundraising effort for the terrence higgins trust. coil’s version of “tainted love” was much somber than the more danceable version by soft cell, who took the song #8 on the hot 100 in the summer of 1982, was accompanied by an even more heartbreaking video that was explicitly about aids.
by 1990 several artists recorded and released songs that were explicitly (or somewhat explicitly) about aids or about the immense loss one feels when a loved one dies. these songs included cyndi lauper’s “boy blue,” prince’s “sign o’ the times”, willie colon’s “el gran varon,” boogie down productions’ “jimmy,” and “is anybody out there” by british pop group frankie goes to hollywood. one of the first songs to explicitly mention the word aids was the queen of paradise garage gwen guthrie’s “can’t love you tonight.” released in 1987, a remix of the song was even titled “the surgeon general’s funky 4/4 beat”
then there were songs that were without a doubt in response to the aids hysteria. these songs include janet jackson’s “let’s wait a while” and jermaine stewart’s “we don’t have to take our clothes off.” both songs communicated a message of delaying sex and are low-key about abstinence.
not all songs that soundtracked the aids epidemic were about loss (“jesus to a child” by george michael and “one sweet day” by mariah carey) or cautionary tales (like salt n pepa’s “let’s talk about sex” and tlc’s “waterfalls”). there were songs that served as a kind of restoration on the dance floor. and many of these songs were present during the early years of the epidemic. songs like sylvester’s 1982 club hit “do you wanna funk” and 1983’s “so many men, so little time” by miguel brown were songs that celebrate sexuality during a time when queer communities were beginning to be ravaged by aids. these songs and hundreds of other dance songs provided a safer space to meet, probably one last time, with people who just wanted to dance and enjoy the beat of life.
i believe that all songs released during the height of the aids epidemic of the 1980’s and 1990’s are the soundtrack of that time. with the advent of mtv in the early 1980’s, the rise of the music videos and the booming record sales, it would be a disservice not to acknowledge that even whitney’s “i wanna dance with somebody” and the significance that both house and freestyle music played in our story of great loss and survival.
moments after i was diagnosed hiv positive on the early morning of december 6, 2005, i heard “unbreakable” by alicia keys blasting from my best friend’s car as he tried to comfort me. i remember thinking, “damn. now this song is forever attached to me.” but i suppose that this is the power of music.
here is a playlist of the many songs that soundtracked the aids epidemic by saving our lives in the moment and saving our lives forever.