“I Wanna Go,” or “Finding Love in a Hopeless Place”

Lucas Hilderbrand

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In early 2012, on a gay bar research road trip through the Great Plains and Texas, I had a recurring experience: no matter the city, no matter the venue’s theme, every time I entered a gay bar, Britney Spears was playing. I first noticed this when I was barhopping one night in Kansas City. I was struck by the dance throb of “Till the World Ends” and its seeming disparity with the low-key, post-New Year’s scene at Buddies. But then I heard the song (or was it “I Wanna Go”?) upon entering the western-themed bar Sidekick’s Saloon up the street. Then I heard it again at the club Missie B’s (see Figure 1). I bemusedly noticed this same musical choice during successive nights out in Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio.[1] The experience of hearing Britney as soon as I crossed the gay bar threshold almost became a joke, like a gay bar version of the film Groundhog Day (dir. Harold Ramis, US, 1993).[2]

figure 1

Figure 1: Missy B's.

One night a year later, during Los Angeles’s monthly queer dance party Cafeteria, the DJ mix presented a genealogy of gay dance music: from 1970s disco classics such as Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” and Macho’s “I’m a Man” to the 1990s house standards such as Robin S’s “Show Me Love” and C.C. Peniston’s “Finally” to Rihanna’s “We Found Love.” This DJ set, though played non-chronologically, felt like an all-too-rare moment of gay heritage consciousness-raising, the kind of gesture that makes LA’s dance night a kind of performance art. Alongside Britney, Rihanna is the artist I have heard the most frequently in my recent research travels, including hearing her more than ten times on a single night at the Miami Beach nightclub Twist. But, I must say, Rihanna has never sounded better to me than as part of this dance party history lesson.

I start this essay by contrasting these two experiences in order to point to two phenomena that have intrigued me for some time: First, the homogenization of gay culture, as demonstrated through the heavy rotation of particular songs across cities and scenes. As demonstrated by the second anecdote, this is nothing new; there is a recognizable historical canon of gay dance standards that provide our common texts. This observation may be obvious to anyone who frequents gay venues, but I don’t recall ever seeing this fact acknowledged or explored in critical writing. In part, I think that this gay appropriation and repetition of selected songs suggests a need for an imagined community structured through consumption, one that becomes experienced as a tangible public in gay bars and clubs. The second phenomenon is perhaps more difficult to account for: arguably more than ever, the songs that have come to be the most prominent gay hits are the very same songs that pervade the mainstream Top 40 pop radio.[3] Though, to be sure, the experience of hearing a pop song in a gay venue can change—or, to use a clichéd verb, queer—its connotations. In my own experiences, hearing a song on a dance floor will often be what hooks me on that song, even if I’ve previously heard it on the radio.

More so than blogs or the gay press, the gay bar and dance club are the sites where one can get a sense of what constitutes gay male musical sensibilities, their collective potentials, and their ritual functions. For a few years now, I’ve been traveling for research toward a project on the cultural history of gay bars. I’ve gone to archives by day and explored cities by night. Bar hopping in a single night, even in the same general neighborhood, reveals that the alchemy of a social scene is difficult to predict. It’s difficult to be systematic about such research, and, indeed, a strong part of my desire is to try to capture and reflect upon the feeling of the gay bar without turning rigor into rigor mortis. In some ways, my process has been like a night in a dance club, generating sometimes intense but free-form responses to what moves me, rather than following a strictly choreographed methodology. I’m not sure what I’ll find in the special collections, and it’s difficult to determine which bars matter for a visit. Although I do not conceive of my larger cultural history as necessarily a media project, I have, of necessity, repeatedly found myself reflecting upon and researching the past and present of gay popular music and its relation to gay public life.

From dance clubs to piano bars, drag cabarets to video bars, karaoke nights to go-go boy parties, music provides one of the primary social, spatial, and affective structures for gay nightlife venues. In addition to the space of gay bars, time is often measured in music: from a temporally-expanding remix or staying for “one more song” in the space of a night, to the ways in which particular tracks function as a mnemonics for a whole period. Gay venues are, in part, distinguished through musical selection, and among the documentation of the gay past are DJ playlists, dance hit charts, and advertisements promoting special appearances by (usually emerging) musical acts. The Stonewall Inn was an important venue, even before the legendary raids and riots, because it was the only bar in New York that allowed same-sex dancing. As Alice Echols has pointed out, another bar owner in the city devised a plan to set the volume on his jukebox louder than normal so that patrons would have to get closer to hear each other talk, thereby facilitating physical contact.[4] By the 1970s, the dominant conception of “gay music” transitioned from torch songs or opera to dance music, surely through the establishment of the large-scale, public, gay-liberation-era venues that coincided with the rise of disco music. Though it may seem like an old-school gesture, I have found the most productive explanations by returning to the literature on disco, which to my mind set the template for both dance music and the culture of nightlife spaces.[5]

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Figure 2.

In the post-disco 1980s, dance clubs continued to be the most visible form of gay male nightlife, and music in many ways became a way to define particular gay subcultures or scenes. Yet, one of the ways bars distinguished their reputations as alternative venues was by advertising an eclecticism of music or by becoming known for their jukeboxes as opposed to live DJs. The Bushes bar in Chicago, one of the first venues on the emergent Boys’ Town strip on North Halstead Street, published an ad in Gay Life simply listing the names of a range of musical acts that could be heard at its Thursday night parties (see Figure 2).[6] A few years later, Boy Bar in the newly hip East Village in Manhattan became the venue of the queer counterculture and was particularly celebrated for its jukebox “heavy on torch singers these days, along with the obligatory Smiths, Bronski Beat, and Dead or Alive” and that included “the Supremes and Philip Glass” (see Figure 3).[7] Although the return to more varied jukebox soundscapes was celebrated in the 1980s, it has been suggested that the rise of live DJs more than a decade earlier was a strategy to reduce mafia influence of gay bars; organized crime had controlled the jukebox industry, suggesting once again the larger stakes of the music in gay venues beyond a history of taste.[8]

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Figure 3.

Queries about the existence of a “gay aesthetic” seem to have become passé, and queer theory has tended to marginalize thinking through the mainstream of gay culture by charging such modes of consumption as assimilationist or homonormative. Although I’m not advocating for an essentialist mode of textual analysis nor am I advocating for the rejection of critical awareness of the ways that the mainstreaming of culture works to blunt and corporatize queerness, I argue that thinking through the dominant and the popular—including its pleasures and its role in creating shared texts—remains essential. Clearly there are and continue to be gay anthems, songs that give patrons a jolt of joy when played on the dance floor or bring bodies together in sweaty, ecstatic movement. For as long as I’ve gone out dancing in gay venues, there have been certain songs that play on heavy rotation at clubs, so that it’s common to hear the same song every time one goes dancing for months on end—if not years, as was the case with Cher’s “Believe” at the peak of my post-collegiate dancing days.[9] But it should perhaps be clearly stated: this isn’t gay music so much as gay fandom and adoption of mainstream music. Out, gay-identified acts have historically only had minor or cultish popularity in clubs compared to the popularity of female megastars.[10]

Still, how do we account for the current trends in gay pop? In terms of the recent past, the biggest pop stars have been women—Adele, Katy Perry, Rihanna, Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, etc.—which may suggest a predisposition toward overlap between mainstream pop and gay pop, long marked by diva-worshipping tendencies. Simultaneously, the general trend in pop music has been club music, as there has been a wave of songs about nightlife, DJs, and drinking that rivals the previous peak of 1970s disco. This trend may have more to do with Jersey Shore and the heightened attention to straight party culture than with the influence of gay culture on the mainstream market.[11] Certainly straight dance clubs would privilege the latest singles as well, but recent dance music (particularly with female vocals) would not necessarily predominate at straight neighborhood bars, sports bars, or other types of venues. In gay bars, there’s the curious fact that these songs seem to pervade the whole gamut of gay venues, including non-dance-oriented lounges, leather bars, and even, at times, western-themed bars.

Is there something specific to Britney’s appeal in mainstream gay male culture? On the one hand, she was the leading pop star (alongside Beyoncé, but more playfully messy) with whom people now in their prime bar years—their 20s—grew up, much in the way that Madonna functioned for people of my generation. It has been widely asserted that gay male musical taste mirrors that of teenage girls, perhaps stemming from an experience of delayed adolescence in which sexual exploration can only happen for many men after coming out as an adult. Britney’s first single, “Oops, I Did It Again,” was promoted as teen pop with a tinge of coquettishness and semi-naughtiness (despite claims of her wholesomeness), and each subsequent single has been played regularly in gay venues—more so than her boy band contemporaries. In the past decade, Britney’s sound has “grown up” to be produced ever more as dance music, not just as radio pop—though those distinctions have basically disintegrated in the present moment.

Britney’s recent hits “Till the World Ends” and “I Wanna Go” were released in spring and early summer of 2011, and they were still ubiquitous in winter 2012 at gay bars. Produced by Max Martin and Dr. Luke, who have crafted the sound of much contemporary dance music (including songs by Katy Perry, Ke$ha, Pink, Taio Cruz, and Usher), Britney’s recent tracks are the sonic thesis statements of current pop music.[12] These Britney tracks are so generic that, after months of hearing them frequently on the same night, I still couldn’t tell them apart before their chorus. And yet, despite their interchangeability, they did often give me a giddy surge in the way that the best dance tracks do.

As much as these Britney songs would seem to reflect a particular moment and every gimmick of slick sound production, they also feature the classic tropes of disco, house, and trance: fast, repetitious beats; ebbs and surges of bass and melody that work on the bodies of the crowd; and lyrics that are innocuous (the refrain “Whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh”) or sexually suggestive. Dance music’s appeal comes from how it makes the body move and from its lyrical commands for audiences to lift repressions and shamelessly celebrate carnal experience—rhetoric that arguably resonates more intensely for gay listeners.[13] Indeed, it is striking that “shame”—the much-interrogated inverse of gay “pride”—would figure so prominently in the refrain for “I Wanna Go”: “Shame on me / to need release / uncontrollably.” Giving in to pleasure is the structural purpose of nightclubs, and “finding love in a hopeless place” (to borrow Rihanna’s phrasing) is the classic aspiration of going to gay bars.

The question remains: what, if anything, is specifically gay about this trend? The best response I can offer is that gay bars and clubs remain the primary public spaces of queer life, despite pervasive claims to these sites’ demise. They continue to constitute a feeling of community—even if they are often unfriendly, anonymous, and judgmental in their vibe—and to offer safe spaces for cathartic embodied release, through drinking, drugs, dancing, conversation, cruising, and physical contact. Dance music is the soundtrack of this scene, of being in the life. These songs’ lyrical emphasis on escaping and seeking inside the dance club reinforces its role as a poignant space in the cultural imaginary, even when such songs are heard on the radio in a car, on an iPod on the treadmill, or, indeed, on a stool in a neighborhood gay watering hole.


[1] The internet jukebox at the Hidden Door leather bar in Dallas catalogued the most-played songs of 2011: tracks by Britney and Rihanna ranked alongside a handful of country artists and, for some reason, a number of Kid Rock songs.

[2] Other artists and songs one might have regularly expected to hear during this period—but that would have gotten less Top 40 radio play—include Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” and David Guetta and Kelly Rowland’s “When Love Takes Over.”

[3] I’m not arguing that there is anything progressive about gay attachments to commercial pop, but rather I am trying to understand this investment, which seems intensely affective. Theodor Adorno’s famous critiques of popular music, published in 1941, certainly apply in the case of this current music, but his critiques also fail to allow for pop music’s productive social or affective uses. Adorno, “On Popular Music,” in On Record: Music, Pop, and the Written Word, eds. Simon Frith and Andrew Goodwin (New York: Routledge, 1990): 301–14. Richard Dyer’s 1977 essay on the pleasures of cinema offers one model of thinking otherwise about the emotional use value of popular entertainment. Dyer, “Entertainment and Utopia,” Only Entertainment (New York: Routledge, 2002), 19–35.

[4] Alice Echols, Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture (New York: Norton, 2010), 52.

[5] The important scholarly literature on disco has informed my thinking about dance music and cultures more generally. See, for instance, Richard Dyer, “In Defense of Disco,” Gay Left 8 (summer 1979): 20–23, (accessed 25 October 2013) and Tim Lawrence, Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-9 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003).

[6]Bushes advertisement, August 21, 1981, Gay Life, 3. My essay on transitions in queer music, circa 1981, "Luring Disco Dollies to a Life of Vice: Queer Pop Music’s Moment," is forthcoming in the Journal of Popular Music Studies.

[7]Dennis Cooper, “My Lower East Side,” New York Native, September 10, 1984, 21 and Laura Cottingham, “Buddies, Can We Share a Bar?” New York Native, September 10, 1984, 30.

[8]Anthony Haden-Guest, The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco & the Culture of the Night (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), xxvii.

[9] One of the primary ways that alternative gay bars distinguish themselves is through music: the mixing of indie rock and classic new wave with the contemporary dance music—or through the presence of a juke box rather than a DJ.

[10] Sylvester may be the most notable exception here. But even he was probably never as popular as Donna Summer.

[11] To name a cursory litany: Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance,” LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem,” Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the USA,” Usher’s “The DJ Got Us Falling in Love,” Pitbull’s “Give Me Everything,” Rihanna’s “Cheers (I’ll Drink to That),” Pink’s “Raise Your Glass,” Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok,” and Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.).”

[12] Indeed, producers such as these and David Guetta and Calvin Harris have shaped the sound of current pop music as much or more than vocalists.

[13]The best article on this phenomenon I’ve encountered is by Walter Hughes, “Feeling Mighty Real: Disco as Discourse and Discipline,” The Village Voice, 20 July 1993 special section 7, 10 –11, 21.