Many artists and members of the music community lost loved ones in the fight against HIV, and as a result a catalogue of the losses experienced at the height of the HIV epidemic have been immortalised into music. Some of the songs below which you may recognise, mourn the loss of so many young lives taken away, while others call on the need to hold onto hope.
NEIL YOUNG – PHILADELPHIA
Written by and performed by Neil Young for 1993 film Philadelphia. One of the first films to publicly acknowledge HIV/AIDS by Hollywood follows Tom Hanks who plays a lawyer dying from AIDS. Neil’s song plays at the end of the film and echoes the loss of so many during the height of the AIDS epidemic.
MADONNA – IN THIS LIFE
Pop Madonna wrote this song about the death of her friend and former roommate Martin Burgoyne. As the lyrics mention in the song, he passed away at 23 from HIV-related complications. He was an artist and bartender at Studio 54 and he managed her first tour.
CYNDI LAUPER – BOY BLUE
Another song written for a friend who passed away from HIV-related complications early in the epidemic, Cyndi Lauper drew from the name of the song from the nursery rhyme Little Boy Blue. Interviewed about the song she responded:
“I tried to write about my friend. I knew he really loved ‘That’s What Friends Are For.’ I know that maybe he would have liked me to do a song like that. Instead I wrote about him personally. I don’t know that my lyrics were good enough, I don’t know that anything was good enough. Maybe it was too personal. I don’t know. But I wrote it for him. It was because of him that I keep trying to do stuff. And other friends. So many talented people, so many of our friends and so many gifted people have passed on. Or struggle everyday. Just to live. And it was because of my friends and others that I do this.”
ELTON JOHN – THE LAST SONG
This song’s story tells of an estranged father coming to terms with the sexuality of his gay son amid the news of him dying from an AIDS-related illness. Written and performed by Elton John, he revealed to the Advocate “I was crying all the time as I wrote the music and it was very hard for me to sing it”.
LOU REED – HALLOWEEN PARADE
Lou Reed was known for recording the grittier aspects of life in New York City, and one of those events was the annual Halloween Parade. He laments the loss of so many characters from NYC’s gay hub in Greenwich Village, and the loss of his friend as he experiences the parade alone.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN – STREETS OF PHILADELPHIA
Another song recorded for 1993 film Philadelphia, capturing the story of a lawyer persecuted by his own firm dying from AIDS. Springsteen’s song won the Academy Award for Best Original Song, and four Grammy Awards.
TLC – WATERFALLS
90’s girl group TLC smash hit Waterfalls deals with both the illicit drug trade in the US and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In the video a woman in a relationship is seen convincing her partner to have sex without a condom, later in the video the boyfriend is seen inspecting himself in the mirror as he gets sicker, lyrics: “His health is fading and he doesn’t know why, three letters took him to his final resting place” tell the rest of the story.
PET SHOP BOYS – BEING BORING
Neil Tennant, musician and co-founder of the Pet Shop Boys revealed in an interview that his song Being Boring was ‘a kind of elegy’ for a close friend who had died from an AIDS-related disease during the late 80’s.
U2 – ONE
Released as a single for an AIDS research benefit, the song topped the rock charts and has since been used many times to promote human rights or social justice causes. The emotive lyrics of the song are easily relatable to the original benefit the song was performed for, and it’s uptake in championing HIV activism has stayed on.
JANET JACKSON – TOGETHER AGAIN
Jackson wrote this song as a tribute to a friend who had recently passed away from AIDS and to all those who had lost loved ones to AIDS worldwide. She also received inspiration for the song from fan-mail, listening to stories of others whose lives had been touched by HIV.
WE CELEBRATE THOSE LOST TO HIV, BUT LOOK FORWARD
These are just some of the many tributes to loved ones that have appeared in popular culture. But while HIV has left so many of us with pain and loss, by practising safe sex, testing and with biomedical advancements such as PrEP and HIV treatment, we are making progress towards a future without HIV.