Music and Story: A Queer Playlist

Since it’s Pride this month, I’ve been thinking a lot about the way music functions in the LGBTQ+/queer community. I’ve always loved how music unites us – we dance together on the dance floor as a form of pride, shedding shame, the rhythm and lyrics we channel and feel deeply (At least this is my specific experience. Music has been an important part of my specific queer experience). Also, not just in dance, but lyrically. When I was a teenager still in the closet and hiding my queer feelings, and even after I eventually came out to friends, I sought out music — the same way I sought out books and movies — I felt expressed my feelings, as solace. Music is also important to me in my writing life. I’m inspired by it (the rhythm and cadence of music; the rhythm and cadence of the sound on the page). I write to it (usually ambient, instrumental). I have my story, “Retroactive” published over at New World Writing, and it’s a story very near and dear to me. I worked hard on it for about two years. And it’s a very queer story set in rural Kentucky. Music is a big part of it for me, so it feels like these two elements are combined (music from my writing life, and the kind of music I appreciate because I’m queer). I’m grateful this story is coming out the same time as Pride, and the story resonates so much for me now, as I’m still grieving the Orlando tragedy, especially with the conversations started about space. Two years ago when I began the story, I was thinking a lot about queerness and space, and that comes out in the main character, Jake’s life. The anxiety of being queer in public space, especially somewhere like rural Kentucky, and the sanctuary and sacredness of queer spaces as safe, but what happens when those change? Or go away? The gay bar in the story, Hideaway Lounge becomes central to Jake’s life and central to the story. The bar is fictional. It’s not based on anywhere real. I’ve heard about small town gay bars, but not in Kentucky (the closest might be Jim’s Bar in Paducah, and there was Equals Bar in Owensboro, but both closed – you have to go to the bigger cities like Louisville or Lexington, or out of state to Nashville or Cincinnati). So, I was fascinated by the idea of an old, small gay bar in rural Kentucky and went from there. I thought it would be fun to create a playlist. I’ve put together 18 tracks (either music I would imagine a bar like Hideaway would play — and some the story references — and/or music expressing Jake’s emotional arch through the course of the story, and his relationship with Jordan).

1. “Ride On Time” by Black Box

This is the only specific song I mention in the story. It’s the song Jake and Jordan dance to for the first time. This song, and Black Box, came out in the late 80’s. The story is set in the present, but Hideaway opened in the mid/late 80’s – which would have been very difficult with widespread homophobic attitudes in rural Kentucky at the time – right around the shock and height of AIDS/HIV, the bar would’ve been the first queer space people in the small town would have been able to experience. In the story, the owner still wants to uphold that same aesthetic and history and mainly plays music from that time, lots of house and dance. And that’s a reason the character Jake connects with Hideaway so much – he came out much later in life in his forties, but if he had come out earlier, he would’ve been part of that, this longing for a past steeped in queer culture he never had but wished he had. The 90’s would’ve been Hideaway’s heyday (which is why there’s a lot of 90’s in this playlist). Black Box is interesting because the front woman is just a model lip-syncing. The DJs ripped — oh, I mean sampled, right, sampled — vocals from Loleatta Holloway for this track, and without permission, and faced lawsuits (if you look up the original Holloway song, “Love Sensation” you’ll recognize the pieces they ripped – and it’s a wonderful song in its own right). Plagiarism aside, I love “Ride on Time” because it’s full of energy, and I like the vocal manipulation. (if you want more Black Box, go with “Everybody, Everybody”).

2. “Rhythm of the Night” by Corona

This is one of my favorites, also very 90’s eurohouse.

3. “I Feel Love” by Donna Summer

Hideaway also would play classic 70’s disco, capturing the spirit of pre-AIDS/HIV, a time when disco was a staple of queer culture. You don’t get more classic than Donna Summer. This may be an obvious pick, but this song was revolutionary. The layering and synths were like nothing before. This one has been remixed so much, but I included the original 8 minute version.

4. “Heart of Glass” by Blondie

Also a classic disco track. I love Debbie Harry’s coolness.

5. “Finally” by CeCe Peniston

My actual favorite.

6. “Mercedes Boy” by Pebbles

Pebbles is fabulous. I heard this at a gay bar in Seattle that had punk go-go boys, and that’s what it always reminds me of.

7. “Don’t Stop Movin'” Livin Joy

Another good dance track from the 90’s with empowering lyrics.

8. “True Colors” by Cyndi Lauper

I slow things down a bit here. I re-listened to this song awhile ago, and I forgot how powerful it is – about loving yourself for who you truly are, and doing the same to others (the video is bonkers though).

9. “Rhythm is a Dancer” by Snap

Another favorite eurodance song.

10. “Heat Wave” by Martha and the Vandellas

Martha Reeves and Mo-town were very important and beloved in pre-Stonewall gay bars. In his book Stonewall: The Riots the Sparked the Gay Revolution, David Carter cites many firsthand accounts who talk about the power of music at the time (there wasn’t music that was specifically queer, so queer people read queerness into the lyrics, projecting their lives into the lyrics), and many mention Martha and the Vandellas. Hideaway would definitely be playing this one, along with The Temptations.

11. “Better Off Alone” by Alice Deejay

I love the synths and rhythm in this one. Try to ignore the ridiculous cultural appropriation in the video, if you can. I personally can’t, but the video aside, a genre-defining track of the 90’s.

12. “Modern Love” by David Bowie

And if you want to talk about reading 😉 – reading queerness into lyrics, there’s David Bowie.

13. “You Make Me Feel…” by Sylvester

Sylvester is the Queen of Disco.

14. “Touch Me (All Night Long)” by Fonda Rae

This one came out in 1984. If you think you recognize this from a certain horror movie, you’re right. It would definitely be playing at Hideaway.

15. “Don’t Let Go” by En Vogue

A nice slower R&B jam. Along with “Better Off Alone,” this one is a younger track (1996).

16. “100% Pure Love” by Crystal Waters

My second favorite (after “Finally”). I saw a drag queen perform this in Louisville on New Years, and it was the first truly fabulous thing I saw in 2016.

17. “Show Me Love” by Robin S.

My third favorite (not to be confused with the other “Show Me Love” by Robyn).

18. “Loving Arms” by Millie Jackson

Ending on this one feels so right. In the story, the closing night of Hideaway is Millie Jackson night. And at the same time, I think this song reflects where Jake is at the end of the story. Millie Jackson is so fierce with an incredible voice.

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