Hi. This is a monthly column where I'll be writing about something I've been unhealthily obsessed with. It is basically a written accompaniment to this meme. But with more music. Thanks.
Warning: contains spoilers!
If you’ve been paying close attention to streaming numbers – which you won’t have done, because literally why would you – you may have noticed that, when Call Me By Your Name arrived in American cinemas last November, a lot of people started listening to “Love My Way” by The Psychedelic Furs. The track, originally released in 1982, experienced a 121 percent rise in popularity in New York, and 29 percent in Los Angeles, the two cities that first showed the film, marking its highest streaming numbers to date. This isn’t wild information – songs often get a boost after a big movie. But what is interesting, I think, is that when this song was released, it was considered a new wave anthem. Now, more than three decades later, it’s considered a queer one.
The song appears twice in Call Me By Your Name – and the first time is the most memorable. Elio, the main character, is watching his love interest, Oliver, totally lose himself on the dancefloor at an outdoor club in Lombardy, northern Italy. Oliver can’t really dance, but he still looks good, because he literally doesn’t give a shit. He’s punching his arms around, his eyes are closed and the blue and pink strobe lights are soaking into his very 80s outfit of canvas hi-tops and short shorts. Inspired by his carefree moves, Elio gets up to dance near him, and then the two of them throw their limbs around to the euphoric synth and electric piano keys. This isn’t just a cool song to go with a cool scene, though. It feels like the sound of romance and fantasy in the face of the isolation or shame that can sometimes move hand-in-hand with queerness. “Love my way, it's a new road / I follow where my mind goes,” goes the chorus, a perfect expression of what this scene means in this moment.
The song shows up later, too. When Elio and Oliver go on holiday to Bergamo, towards the end of the film, someone starts playing “Love My Way” out some speakers in a parked car on the otherwise-abandoned streets. Oliver immediately starts dancing, while Elio drunkenly stumbles towards a church and promptly projectile vomits. This might not be as visually romantic a scene as that first one, but the essence is the same – and the song acts as a signifier. “There's emptiness behind their eyes / There's dust in all their hearts / They just want to steal us all and take us all apart;” Richard Butler’s voice floats out of the speakers, as we are reminded that this particular love story is probably destined to come to an end, because queer summer romances in the 1980s weren’t exactly built to survive. Just like the dancefloor, this holiday is a brief and joyous respite from the inevitable. But all that’s to come. For now, they’re still dancing to “Love My Way” without a care in the world.
This isn’t the first time queerness on screen has given new life to old songs. I swear to god, this time last year, Belinda Carlisle’s 1987 classic “Heaven is a Place on Earth” was just as common on queer girl Tinder as a tiny fringe and full astrological chart breakdown. I might have even had it as my own Tinder anthem. It was a universal lesbian in-joke. I even started hearing it banged out as the last song of the night in gay clubs. And that’s because months before, it had repeatedly appeared on the ‘San Junipero’ episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, a very rare moment in pop culture in which a love story between women actually culminated in a positive ending – and even that is debatable, because both of them basically died, but whatever. And so, the song very quickly became emblematic of that sucker punch of a happy ending.
What’s interesting about these two aforementioned examples in particular, is that they’re both carefree, rapturous 80s songs with a hint of the bittersweet. This makes sense: ‘San Junipero,’ like Call Me By Your Name, shows a kind of queer paradise that’s tinged with sadness, or loneliness. And I think that’s exactly why these two tracks found new life as queer anthems. Whether you’re in a sweaty strobe-lit club in Soho, or smoking a joint in bed with the person you’re dating, the queer experience can feel dualistic – both very joyful and sometimes very isolating – because there’s often an element of escapism from heteronormative society swirling among that joy. When Emma Garland wrote about ‘San Junipero’ for Noisey, she pointed to these ideas too: “Despite being packaged like the musical equivalent to IKEA furniture, loads of 80s bangers either concern themselves with existential plight, loneliness or sexy escapism.” These concepts obviously aren’t confined to queerness, but they’re certainly worth zeroing in on when we speak about their vast swathes of queer appeal.
Of course, not all examples of what I’m talking about are quite so overt. The film Moonlight, for instance, uses the 1963 track “Hello Stranger” by Barbara Lewis to add meaning to one of its most intimate moments. Kevin puts it on the jukebox when Chiron comes to visit the diner he works at, and in doing so, transforms it into much more than an old song. It becomes a way to say things that these two characters can’t bring themselves to say – or don’t feel the need to. It’s a sweet song, too, and imbues the scene with a sweetness that doesn’t exist in the ‘outside’ world. In an interview with Entertainment, the director, Barry Jenkins, explains the escapism inherent to this scene: “The whole sequence is meant to function as time outside time because this character is being shaped by society so much. Once we’re in this diner, society doesn’t exist. It’s just me and another human being. It’s not the result of outside pressure”. So, once again, we’re presented with a queer utopia, and “Hello Stranger” becomes the sound of it.
Queer culture has always been shaped by taking what the world already gives us, and bending it to fit a more vivid or subversive new mould – and the same goes for the way music is used on screen. It’s completely alchemic, and that’s something to be celebrated. Some straight bloke in middle America might be listening to “Heaven Is a Place On Earth” while driving to work in his car thinking it’s just a regular power ballad, but if he winds down his windows and a queer person overhears, they’ll know that it is, in fact, one of this gen’s most meaningful lesbian anthems.