Depiction of HIV/AIDS in Music Clips

     |    Sunday, der 29. May 2011


Photo: On the set of the music video ‘Gotta Give’ (courtesy of Steps for the Future)

Reading an obituary about Gil Scott-Heron’s untimely death at age 62 on Friday, May 27, greatly saddened me. Scott-Heron’s witty and incisive social commentary had been a great source of inspiration, call to action and solace for almost three decades.He continued to grow artistically, embracing dubstep sounds on his acclaimed comeback album I’m New Here (2010). I had really hoped that this album marked a third spring for him and his career (Scott-Heron was dropped by his record label in 1985 after over 15 years and enjoyed a renaissance in the mid-1990’s, when the audiences of conscious and tough political hiphop sought out the man and music who were often namechecked by rappers). Unfortunately, I’m New Here was his swansong.

I figured years of cocaine and crack addiction took their toll. But then, the German leftist daily die tageszeitung mentioned, almost en passant, that Scott-Heron had disclosed he was HIV positive in 2008. So he was yet another casualty to the immune system deficiency that was discovered in summer 1981 and first named as a singular disease (or complex of symptoms and ailments) 30 years ago this coming December 1 (a day commemorated internationally as World AIDS Day by benefit events and awareness campaigns).

This bleak detail of news that was distressing enough as it is prompted to me finally compile this small selection of music clips that deal with the HIV/AIDS crisis – from its first media exposure as the “gay plague” to the worldwide pandemic it still remains, especially (but not only) in sub-Saharan Africa – currently over 75% of all reported cases – and to a lesser degree in Eastern Asia and Eastern Europe.

Currently, over 33 million people worldwide are living with HIV/AIDS; about 2.6 million people infect themselves each year and almost as many – 1.8 million die annually. The total casualty toll lies at over 25 million. Infection rates have dramatically sunk in the regions where HIV/AIDS was first reported, North America and Western Europe, thanks to retroviral medication, safe sex awareness campaigns and societal shifts away from stigmatisation of those groups with the highest numbers of HIV/AIDS patients. This positive trend needs to be reinforced and resources allocated to Africa and Asia if there is any hope to even dent the pandemic’s deadly progress.

Coil – Tainted Love (1985)

By 1985, the impact of HIV/AIDS was fully felt especially on the gay community (the first societal group reported to be hit) with most governments still very slow to react. Celebrities such as glam singer Jobriath, German operatic New Wave singer Klaus Nomi (both within weeks of each other in August 1983) and most shockingly for mainstream America, screen legend Rock Hudson all died, among many, many others. The British industrial band Coil  was very likely the first music act to explicitly address the HIV/AIDS crisis with the double A-sided single Panic/Tainted Love. The accompanying video to Tainted Love (directed by the band’s Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson, an alumnus of Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV) was a funereal cover of the Gloria Jones song which was an early 80’s megahit in the version by Soft Cell. (Marc Almond, that band’s singer, makes a cameo appearance in the Coil video.) Christopherson’s imagery of ‘unclean’ bodily fluids and gradual decay gives “Tainted” a highly literal meaning. The profits of the song were donated to a charity supporting information and counseling about HIV/AIDS.

k.d. lang – So In Love (1990)

This highly controversial clip (by German-American director Percy Adlon) was a contribution to the Red Hot and Blue album and TV special. Red Hot and Blue (featuring covers of semi-closeted gay icon, 1940s musical composer and songwriter Cole Porter) was a charity and awareness project featuring the cream of the rock and pop scene around 1990. To this day, the Red Hot organisation is active, having released countless genre compilations coupled with educational projects featuring Brazilian music, country, grunge, jazz, hiphop, the work of Fela Kuti (who died of AIDS in 1997) and much more.

The So In Love video, with its portrayal of plague-like infection – lang mournfully sings to her presumably hospitalised or maybe even dead lover while wearing rubber gloves and boiling her infected clothes in an apartment that glows in a toxic green – was criticised for reinforcing rather than reducing the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS.

Spearhead – Positive (1994)

Here’s a song and video (from the Red Hot jazz project) that take the imagery of HIV/AIDS out of the “gay ghetto” into the heterosexual mainstream. By the early 1990’s, people were slowly becoming aware that the disease was also hitting drug addicts (through shared needles), but also disproportionate numbers of lower income people, especially people of color. 1994 was also the year of Jonathan Demme’s hit film Philadelphia (with an Oscar winning performance by all-American Tom Hanks as a gay HIV positive lawyer) and a concerned but not tragic reference to an AIDS test by a main female straight character in Ben Stiller’s Generation X romantic comedy Reality Bites – the chain of Silence=Death was finally being broken.

The Positive video (credited to Alan Smithee, the common director’s pseudonym; frontman Michael Franti might have directed himself) is almost a remake of Agnès Varda’s nouvelle vague classic Cléo de 5 à 7, except that Franti is not waiting for the result of a cancer examination, but his AIDS test. During the agonizing moments before the verdict arrives, he reviews his sexual encounters and practice of safe sex, concluding that any responsibility is his own. The video ends on a cliffhanger.

Moodphase 5ive feat. Godessa – Gotta Give (2001)

This clip was produced under the auspices of Steps for the Future, a project based in South Africa that trains young filmmakers in Southern Africa to produce work on social issues. One film package was devoted to HIV/AIDS, especially important considering the stigma, misinformation and policy ignorance that often impeded necessary action.

Gotta Give (directed by Eddie Edwards) is kind of a companion piece to Positive, from a female point of view. Cool, sweet Tiger is hoping to score with his lady friend Stargirl. Unfortunately, he loses his condoms, and responsible Stargirl is just not down for unsafe sex…

One unfortunate omission: The end credits of Roger Spottiswoode’s Emmy Award winning HBO docudrama of Randy Shilts’s book And the Band Played On (1993), which charted the diligent medical detective work which lead to to HIV’s discovery as well as the vanity and petty rivalry which nearly thwarted any medical breakthrough, features a self-contained, music clip-like end credit sequence set to Elton John’s The Last Song (From A Father to a Son). The clip pays tributes to prominent AIDS casualties like Rock Hudson, Freddie Mercury, Liberace, Keith Haring, Michel Foucault and many others while showing footage of the Names Quilt, which has the names and life dates of AIDS victims commemorated in quilt patches.

The video (only available on YouTube) is blocked in Germany, but maybe readers in other countries can watch it:

Related film on In RECOVERY, one of the protagonists volunteers to help HIV positive children In Brazil.