LGBTQ+-inclusive covers shine in ‘Universal Love’

Here’s what to play at your gay wedding

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If you’ve ever turned on the radio, you know the extent to which love songs saturate the music industry. But overwhelmingly, only a very specific kind of love is sung about — that is, heterosexual love.

This tendency to view LGBTQ+ identities as exclusionary, while considering straight identities universal, is not new. LGBTQ+ artists often feel pressured to not use same-gender pronouns in their songs. Hayley Kiyoko, one such artist, said in an interview with Refinery 29, “I’ve had several music industry execs say ‘You’re doing another music video about girls?’ I … was like, um, yeah … Taylor Swift sings about men in every single song and video, and no one complains that she’s unoriginal.”

Enter the recently released EP Universal Love – Wedding Songs Reimagined, a compilation of six tracks seeking to address this imbalance. Universal Love takes classic love songs and puts a gay twist on them — in both senses of the word — featuring performances from Bob Dylan, St. Vincent, Kele Okereke, Valerie June, Benjamin Gibbard and Kesha.

The EP itself carries a history of the suppression of LGBTQ+ identities. When June sings “Mad About the Girl,” it’s with the full knowledge that the original song “Mad About the Boy” was written for female performers by Noël Coward, who was gay. To echo June’s comments to the New York Times, the cover feels as if the song has been brought full circle, explicitly singing about the queer love that Coward was prevented from singing about himself.

In one of the EP’s standout tracks, St. Vincent covers “And Then He Kissed Me” — yes, that song from the famous one-take sequence in “Goodfellas” — with female pronouns and an updated, synth-pop vibe. For another, Gibbard’s “And I Love Him” is imbued with that characteristic sense of longing and melancholy so characteristic of his career as lead vocalist and guitarist of Death Cab for Cutie.

Kesha continues her momentum from her 2017 album “Rainbow” with her cover of Janis Joplin’s “I Need A Man To Love.” After her legal battle against sexual harassment and assault became a forerunner of the ongoing #MeToo movement, she broke back into the industry stronger than ever. That spirit imbues her track with a soulful energy that, when coupled with classic rock guitar riffs, leaves the listener feeling like Janis Joplin time-traveled to 2018.

For the track, Kesha also released a touching music video, shot on the anniversary of the first issuance of a same-sex marriage license in the United States. Kesha’s performance of “I Need A Woman” is intercut with her officiation of a same-sex wedding between two fans.

Just as Kesha’s cover ties itself into a real life marriage, Okereke’s track leaves one feeling like they’re hearing an intimate serenade for someone special. Okereke’s cover of The Temptations’ “My Girl” (changed to “My Guy”) is utterly beautiful.

Taking on one of the most iconic songs from one of the most iconic doo-wop groups is no easy task, but Okereke rises to the challenge. Despite the lack of four voices supporting him as in the original, his lone voice successfully carries all of the song’s original soul. As Okereke sings “I’ve got so much honey the bees envy me” or delivers the central key change, one is transported to the golden era of soul and R&B.

Singing a mainstay of the Great American Songbook with the classic jazz of “She’s Funny That Way,” Bob Dylan’s “He’s Funny That Way” effuses a certain timelessness. The song is a nostalgic return to classic Hollywood love ballads, a message that LGBTQ+ love itself has existed throughout time.

While this is not the first time artists have covered songs in such a way that shifts the context to that of LGBTQ+ relationships — Amy Winehouse’s cover of “Valerie” was more successful than the original, after all. Universal Love is significant in that it is consciously seeking to address the media’s all too prevalent erasure of LGBTQ+ identities.

There is no intentional vagueness in Universal Love. While the EP is marketed as “wedding songs,” these tracks provide much-needed easy listening for any context. Projects like this are a reminder that the kind of love sung about should be as vast and diverse as love itself — a message the radio would do well to remember.

Danielle Hilborn covers LGBTQ+ media. Contact her at [email protected].