How to Make Music in an Epidemic: Hearing AIDS, 1981-1996

Jones, Matthew, Music - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Maus, Fred, Department of Music, University of Virginia

In 2011, AIDS turned thirty. In three decades, millions of men, women, and children around the world have lost their lives to the ravages of the disease. But the story of AIDS is more than a body count. The epidemic has ushered in new vocabularies in law, politics, science, and medicine and created new areas of expertise. It has engendered new identities: the person living with AIDS, the person who is HIV-positive, and the person who is HIV-negative. The health crisis invigorated forms of social and political activism and led to novel rituals for living, being sick, being healthy, and dying. AIDS also generated new expressive modalities in media, visual, and performing arts.

How to Make Music in an Epidemic: Hearing AIDS, 1981-1996 participates in the construction of the history of AIDS in the arts by looking at a virtually untold story: musical engagements with and responses to HIV/AIDS. I limit the scope of this project to the music I know and love best: English-language popular song and music video. The study is further limited to works written, produced, or released during the first fifteen years of the US AIDS epidemic, that is, from 1981-1996. As other scholars have noted, the introduction of effective treatments in the late-1990s signaled a shift not only in the medical realities but also the discursive construction of the epidemic.

Working in virtually very genre and style, songwriters, composers, performers, and music video directors used their art to craft narratives and ideologies about AIDS, to inspire forms of activism, to memorialize the dead, and to educate listeners. To make sense of this varied musical terrain in Part One, I outline five categories of songs about AIDS: songs by people with AIDS, songs about personal relationships, songs about social changes, pedagogical or didactic songs, and extant songs given a new meaning in the context of the epidemic.

Song lyrics are important repositories of meaning, particular for songs about AIDS. Accordingly, I provide close readings of many examples in addition to analysis of their musical content and associated music videos. The focus on lyrics invites comparison of works from radically different genres and reveals common representational strategies, most notably a tendency for such songs to avoid mentioning HIV/AIDS directly. This project also listens to what audiences, fans, and artists themselves had to say about works that address AIDS. Using an interdisciplinary framework that draws from music studies, feminist theory, queer theory, trauma studies, and media studies, I further contextualize these songs within broader traditions of music and arts activism in the age of AIDS.

In Part Two, I offer the first musical biography of singer, songwriter, author, and AIDS activist Michael Callen (1955-1993). Callen lived through an extraordinary moment in gay history. He moved from the Midwest to the East Coast at the moment that Gay Liberation dovetailed with the start of the AIDS epidemic. Callen’s keen mind, sharp wit, and commitment to social justice for gay men, lesbians, people of color, and people with AIDS took him to the forefront of national AIDS politics. At the same time, his work as a musician occurred within a predominately gay niche, which allowed him a degree of expressive freedom unavailable to many of the mainstream artists in Part One. Callen’s songs, albums, and performances document the experiences of his generation. Using previously unavailable archival materials, new interviews with friends and family, and analysis of his commercially available recordings as a solo artist and with The Flirtations, I provide a portrait of the ways this activist, songwriter, and performer made music in an epidemic.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
HIV/AIDS, popular music, music video, gender, sexuality, media, Michael Callen, Red Hot Organization, activism, The Flirtations
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