Mar 26, 2019

Smalltown Boy: Subtext Songs of the 1980s

After the demise of the drag-queen ABBA and the faux-gay Village People, I started listening to popular music more aggressively, looking for "real" gay-friendly songs. Or at least songs with subtexts.  I found no depictions of same-sex romance, anywhere -- the most you could hope for was a dropped pronoun.  But a few Top 40 Hits -- one or two per year -- were about the search for a Good Place, or celebrations of male beauty (with beefcake-heavy music videos), and or just about being proud of your identity.

1. "Physical" (Olivia Newton-John, 1981).

2. "I'm Coming Out" (Diana Ross, 1981).  Ms. Ross claimed that it was about teenage girls "coming out" into high society, but gay teens knew what it was really about:
I'm coming out -- I want the world to know, got to let it show.

3. "It's Raining Men" (The Weather Girls, 1982).  The catchy beat made it easy to appropriate.  I didn't even mind the heterosexism:
God bless Mother Nature, she's a single woman too
She took off to heaven, and she did what she had to do
She taught every angel to rearrange the sky,
So that each and every woman could find a perfect guy.

4. "Self-Control" (Laura Branigan, 1982).  She goes to a mostly heterosexual orgy, screams when hands reach out to grab her, and ends up sleeping with a mysterious man in a white mask and red gloves, but in a era where gay teens had to live in masks, a celebration of the night resonated:
Oh the night is my world. City lights, painted girls.
I must believe in something, so I guess I'll just believe that this night will never go. 

5. "Holiday" (Madonna, 1983). No gay people mentioned, but coming out often required forgetting about years of pain: it's time for the good times -- forget about the bad times.

6. "So Many Men, So Little Time" (Miquel Brown, 1983).  A woman praises heterosexual one-night stands, but you could also use it to praise the joy of boy-watching.
Each new one I meet makes my heart beat faster, when I see them so strong and tall.
So many men, so little time. How can I lose?  
So many men, so little time.  How can I choose?

7. "Relax" (Frankie Goes to Hollywood, 1983).

8. "I Am What I Am" (Gloria Gaynor, 1983) could be read as a response to the bigots (and there were a lot of bigots) who kept screaming that gays were worthless, subhuman, monsters out to destroy the world.
I am good, I am strong, I am somebody, I do belong.
I am useful, I am true, I am worthy, I am as good as you.

9. "Smalltown Boy" (Bronski Beat, 1984).  I didn't realize at the time that the boy was leaving town to escape homophobic harassment --but it could easily be applied to anyone searching for a "good place." (and I liked the music video with the smalltown boy swimmer in tight speedos).

The answers you seek will never be found at home.
The love that you need will never be found at home.

10. "Let's Hear it for the Boy" (Deniece Williams, 1984).

Not much after.  AIDS, conservative retrenchment, and the re-demonization of gay people eliminated even those few songs that could be appropriated.  In 1985, Madonna was singing "Like a Virgin" (about sex, not pride), Wham started making their previously androgynous songs gender specific (I said you were the perfect girl for me), and the vigorously homophobic Eddie Murphy was inviting heterosexuals to "Party All the Time."

See also: Ocho Rios: Tracking Down a Jamaican Bodybuilder; and Culture Club


  1. And the video for Relax is basically gay porn.

    I was kind of the exception: Country boy whose friends and family didn't freak out when I came out as bi. My girlfriend did worry about competing with a man, though. But even in the 90s, I understood I was lucky. Even big cities, venture away from gay villages and expect violence.

    There was already a lot of coded homophobia in the early 80s. (Satanic ritual abuse, pedophiles waiting in every bush) AIDS just brought it to the fore.

  2. Do you remember The Vapors 'Turning Japanese'? It was supposed to be an euphemism for coming out. Also Josie Cotton's 'Johnny Are You Queer?' LOL, I guess I was into the New Wave scene.

    1. I only remember "Turning Japanese" vaguely. I heard about "Johnny, Are You Queer" much later, and figured it was homophobic.

    2. They used to play it at the Saloon in Minneapolis. I was friends with the DJ back then and he put it on a mix tape for me.

    3. Turning Japanese is more about fapping, for the most racist reason you can imagine: The way a dude's eyes look when he comes.

  3. Also, 'Master and Servant' by Depeche Mode and 'Boy' from Book of Love. They are all on YouTube.

    1. Never heard of those two, but according to the lyrics, "Master and Servant" is about a BDSM relationship, and "Boy" is about a woman who hangs out outside gay bars, but can't attract any of the boys inside because she lacks the equipment. They might have worked if I heard them during the 1980s

  4. And you HAVE to mention 'Where is My Man?' by Eartha Kitt!

    OK, I'll stop, now.

    1. Never heard of it, but it sounds interesting, being co-written by Bruce Vilanch and appearing on an album entitled "I Love Men"

  5. It's on YouTube with a low tech 80s video. There's also a vid of So Many Men, So Little Time --its very 80s!

  6. Great post- did you ever see the video for Billy Joel's "Allentown" not a gay song- but the director must have been gay because their are plenty shots of hunky blue collar dudes showering


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