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The power of music is its universal ability to express feelings and emotions in a way that touches us all on any possible subject imaginable. As we mark World AIDS Day 2013 and take time to remember those lost to the epidemic and to support those still living with it today, here are a few particularly powerful songs that deal with various aspects of the disease and its unspeakable toll with a combination of heartbreak, empathy, hope and — most especially — love.
Few, if any, artists have confronted the issue of HIV/AIDS in their music as often and as powerfully as the Pet Shop Boys. They were one of the earliest major artists to write about it on their 1987 album “Actually” on the track “It Couldn’t Happen Here,” a response to the epidemic that expressed shock and disbelief. There is also the bittersweet “Being Boring,” “The Survivors,” and others. Perhaps the most powerful is “Dreaming of the Queen,” released on the “Very” album in 1993 — a haunting and surreal nightmare that remains stunningly powerful 20 years later.
From his 1995 masterpiece “Cheapness and Beauty,” Boy George delivered one of the most poignant pieces about a young man dying of AIDS ever recorded. “Il Adore” is both a eulogy and a celebration of a life. It’s heartbreakingly sad, but also brimming with love.
From his 1992 album “The One,” Elton John and his lyricist partner Bernie Taupin recorded “The Last Song,” a stunningly touching portrait of a deathbed reconciliation between a father and his dying son.
From her 1993 album “Fumbling Towards Ecstacy,” Sarah McLachlan’s “Hold On” was inspired by a television piece she saw about a woman whose fiance was dying of AIDS. It’s a message for those left behind when their loved ones pass on. “Hold On to yourself… for this is gonna hurt like hell.”
Sad, gorgeous and overflowing with love, “Hush Hush Hush” is a heartbreaking portrait of a young man slipping away. A lullabye, and a hope for dreams of peace. From her 1996 album “This Fire.”
A longtime advocate for gay rights, Cyndi Lauper was one of the very first mainstream artists to sing about the AIDS crisis in her 1986 single “Boy Blue” from her “True Colours” album.
From the 1992 album “Erotica,” “In This Life” is Madonna’s homage to the memory of friends lost to the AIDS epidemic. She’s been an outspoken advocate for gay rights for many years and one of the strongest allies in pop culture, and this song shows her own personal feelings of loss.
Mostly known for their dance and party music, like their signature hit “Relax,” “Is There Anybody Out There?” shows another side for Holly Johnson and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. A heartfelt ballad that closes their 1986 album “Liverpool,” “Is There Anybody Out There?” is a beautiful lesser-known gem of a song. “We’ll keep each other warm… together, we’ll weather the storm.”
The 1996 album “Older” was largely George Michael’s tribute to his lover Anselmo Feleppa, who died in 1993 from an AIDS-related brain hemmorhage. It’s one of several devotional and beautiful tracks that Michael recorded for his late lover, and gives perhaps the most important message someone can hear: you have been loved.
Very few artists have worked as tirelessly as Annie Lennox to raise money and awareness about the world-wide AIDS epidemic. Her stunning rendition of Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” is from the 1990 AIDS benefit compilation “Red Hot + Blue.”
Also worthy of note is her heart-rending performance of her hit “Why” for the Live 8 benefit concert from July 2005. She performed it with a film in the background of people in Africa struggling with the disease. Annie Lennox continues to work to do what she can to help bring relief to those countless individuals suffering with HIV/AIDS, and to lobby for aid.
There are others that could be listed, of course. Many others. There’s Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia” and Neil Young’s “Philadelphia,” both from Jonathan Demme’s groundbreaking 1993 film. There are songs of sadness, pain and loss. But there is one track that stands out as a celebration of life and a hope that someday, maybe we will all be together again. Written in dedication friends lost to the AIDS epidemic, Janet Jackson’s “Together Again,” from her 1997 album “The Velvet Rope” was a #1 hit and is a fitting conclusion to a compilation of songs about an illness that has impacted and taken countless lives around the world for 3 decades. Here’s to hoping that one day soon it will be eradicated from the planet entirely. Until then, we support each other, and we remember.