Soundtrack to a Pandemic: Music and HIV Awareness in the UK

By Alex Day and Ross Horsley

Today marks 34 years since the first World AIDS Day, a time to continue raising awareness of HIV and commemorate over 35 million lives lost to one of the most serious pandemics in history.

While access to healthcare remains unequal across communities and countries, one of the biggest barriers to treatment is the ongoing stigma faced by those living with HIV. The fact that people on effective HIV treatment cannot pass it on continues to be lost amongst a mixture of messages in the media.

This article explores how music in the UK pop charts has addressed the subject of AIDS historically – by voicing beliefs, shaping perceptions, and campaigning for change. You can listen to most of the tracks mentioned – and many more – in three specially-created playlists on Spotify (details at the end).

The 1980s

  • An AIDS awareness poster produced by the Health Education Authority in the late 1980s, donated to the Thackray Museum by local sexual health charity, Yorkshire MESMAC.

In the decade when AIDS first touched the public consciousness, it was mentioned in the lyrics of around thirty songs, directly or indirectly. Most of these focused on a fear of infection, or of its end result. The virus itself, which was discovered in 1983 and named HIV in 1985, was rarely sung about.

In April 1985, the first AIDS charity single appeared. The British band Coil donated the proceeds of ‘Tainted Love’ to the Terrence Higgins Trust, then in its third year. Six months later, Dionne Warwick joined with ‘friends’ Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder to release ‘That’s What Friends Are For’. The song aimed to raise awareness of the condition but didn’t actually mention it in its lyrics, something that was typical of higher-profile releases at the time. 1987’s ‘All You Need Is Love’ by the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu goes so far as to sample audio from the famous public information film, AIDS: Don’t Die of Ignorance, but still doesn’t speak the name of the illness.

By 1989, anger had increased, and Jimmy Somerville demanded “money … not complacency” in ‘Read My Lips (Enough Is Enough)’. But references to AIDS itself remained subtle… Did many of those dancing to the track at discos really know what it was asking for? Hip hop artists were less cautious with the term, which appeared in two tracks by LL Cool J alone in the late eighties (‘The Bristol Hotel’ and ‘Smokin’ Dopin’’). A year later, this was about to change.

The 1990s

  • A poster from the mid-1990s, created by GMFA (Gay Men Fighting AIDS) and donated to the Thackray Museum by Yorkshire MESMAC.

1990 was the year when the fear of AIDS seemed to reach fever-pitch – the year with the most releases addressing the subject, nearly all by name. The first mainstream hit has to have been Neneh Cherry’s ‘I Got You Under My Skin’ in 1990, with its reference to “a group of people left in the cold / Caught by a plague slowly they fade / From immune deficiency you see called AIDS.”

In 1991, LaTour protested that ‘People Are Still Having Sex’ despite widespread advice on staying safe. His single reached number 15 in the UK charts in March, but the lyric “This AIDS thing’s not working” became “This safe thing’s not working” when played on the radio.

In autumn 1991, the music of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast subtly addressed a ‘curse’ that could only be cured by love. Its Oscar-winning lyricist, Howard Ashman, sadly died from AIDS-related complications shortly after the film’s release, but many friends reported how he’d seen the story as a metaphor for the epidemic. Just a couple of months later, music fans were shocked by the similar passing of Queen superstar Freddie Mercury.

1993 saw the beginning of a trend to ‘normalise’ AIDS, with a corresponding push in the music industry to recognise (rather than demonise) those affected not only by illness, but also by discrimination. Black artists and communities were the most proactive in promoting understanding via music, and songs like ‘Too Hot’ by Coolio and ‘Waterfalls’ by TLC were hits in 1995.

By the end of the nineties, mentions of HIV/AIDS had quadrupled to more than a hundred songs across the decade. Evolving terminology saw increased use of the term HIV, reflecting a more nuanced understanding of the difference between living with HIV and having AIDS. Some artists, however, still said ‘AIDS’ for shock value – sometimes necessarily, as in Eminem’s ‘I’m Shady’ (1999) in which he admitted his own fear of getting tested.

The 2000s

  • A leaflet from the Thackray collection explaining Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), a treatment approved in the UK in 2017-18, which can prevent HIV transmission.

The turn of the millennium prefigured a huge drop in musical mentions of HIV/AIDS, but a sense of anger continued in songs like ‘B.O.B.’ (2000) by Outkast, which lists “questions with no answers / Cure for cancer, cure for AIDS”.

As the years progressed, popular music seemingly began to display a lack of interest in HIV – on one hand in response to a lower death rate but, on the other, taking a step towards apathy, and with it a return to ignorance.

Recent years have seen renewed outrage at the past failures that continue to perpetuate stigma and misinformation, spurred by films like Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) and last year’s TV drama It’s a Sin (named after a 1987 song by the Pet Shop Boys). In these, not only do we commemorate the people whose lives were cut short, but we also celebrate – with perspective and revived passion – the fiercely original music of a frightening time.

Explore over 200 songs in the following playlists, curated by Ivormon on Spotify. Please note that many of these contain strong language, as well as dated attitudes and information, and are not intended to represent the views of anyone connected with the Thackray Museum: