Songs That Soundtracked the AIDS Epidemic: Gwen Guthrie’s “Can’t Love You Tonight”

dubbed the queen of paradise garage, legendary 1980’s new york night club, gwen guthrie scored her biggest hit when she topped billboard’s r&b chart in september 1986 with the self-penned and produced “ain’t nothin’ goin’ on but the rent.” that same month, the surgeon general’s report on AIDS was released.

the report, a much belated response to the growing epidemic, was candid about modes of transmission and recommended a nationwide education campaign that included early sex ed, condom use, and HIV testing. it was this report that served as a source of lyrical inspiration for gwen’s guthrie’s “can’t love you tonight.”

Your body, 
so appealing
But I’ve lost that 
lovin’ feeling
Surgeon General says
We’ve got to use our heads, tonight”

released in early 1988 as the lead single from her fifth studio “lifeline” and as the number of AIDS diagnoses in the US reached over 47,000, “can’t love you tonight” was one of the first mainstream released r&b songs to explicitly name “AIDS” in its lyrics.

“I can’t love you tonight
Love is not longer free
I’m too young to die
I don’t want no 
AIDS or herpes”

the song’s direct message was in concert with the emerging HIV prevention campaigns of the time. with no cure in sight and the first federally approved treatment AZT inaccessible to many, most prevention messages were rooted in fear and framed sex as dangerous.

while the lyrics sound stigmatizing in 2021, they served as a kind of desperate plea from a community to save itself in the absence of adequate resources in 1988.

the song’s accompanying music video, which garnered some rotation on BET, included visuals of someone wearing a shirt that read “safe sex!” and a person taking a condom from out of a purse – – visuals that were still considered as taboo in 1988. proceeds from the song were donated to the AIDS coalition.

“can’t love you tonight” reached #83on the r&b chart and #38 on the dance in april 1988. a month later, the surgeon general’s report on AIDS was summarized in a brochure that was mailed to over 100 million households. 

paradise garage closed it’s doors forever in october 1987. gwen performed at the club’s farewell party. three months later, garage’s sole proprietor michael brody, died of AIDS-related complications. gwen guthrie, a diva ahead of her time in many ways, died of uterine cancer on february 3, 1999.

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