Cole Porter in the Age of AIDS: The 25th Anniversary of ‘Red Hot + Blue’

Today’s pop culture is as intolerant as ever of aging and illness but Cole Porter’s great wit remains ideal for expressions of love, solace, and desire in the age of AIDS.

In 1990, a very peculiar album was released: Red Hot + Blue is that rare creature, a compilation which manages to achieve a single, distinctive mood. During the previous year, the Red Hot Organization for AIDS relief enlisted over 20 artists including k.d. lang, Tom Waits, and The Jungle Brothers to record versions of Cole Porter songs. The result was a remarkably cohesive work: at least half of these tracks re-interpret Porter′s themes of love, glamour, and desolation in the context of AIDS.

Twenty-five years later, Red Hot + Blue seems almost foreign: it’s steeped in that late ′80s climate of paranoia surrounding sex and secrecy. Yet its emotional tone remains as piercing as ever: a mix of fierce despair and numbness, where desire is inevitably linked with decay. It’s a combination we are unlikely to see again, and not only because of the advances in AIDS treatment. Today, a look back is especially relevant, given the shift in areas of public tolerance. In the current music scene, anything goes – except aging and sickness, those last two taboos of pop.

The subject of this album is bleak love: not the kind you can wallow in, but a lacerating pain which might be associated with illness and desertion. It’s a strange, specific, uncommercial vibe: downbeat, openly fatalistic, but with the redeeming touch of Porter′s great wit. Red Hot + Blue runs the gamut of love and sex, from one-time tricks to epic passion, but what unites these songs is a sense of gallantly going through the motions. Porter could give a cheerful, whistling intonation to dark thoughts, from the blatant pick-up of “Love for Sale” to the “all cats are grey” resignation of “It′s All Right With Me”. He would come up with sweet, smart euphemisms for longing and deliver them with flippant charm, as if nothing personal was at stake.

Far from superficial, that courtly appearance was what made life livable, easing the searing images of loneliness in “Down in the Depths” and “Night and Day”. Porter′s rhymes may seem small, neat, and polite, but they express the largest of themes: sexual confusion, desperation, the senselessness with which desire turns on and off. However, there is a belief in elegance as a saving grace–even the grubby love of “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” gets the sophisticated treatment.

On this album, Porter′s famous high-low juxtapositions, from the swank penthouse to the city′s depths, receive new meanings in the age of AIDS. Most tracks can be divided into two categories: eerie voices which allude to an impending fall (Roland Gift, Kirsty MacColl, Jimmy Somerville), or a big, messy presence which blunders carelessly through sex–the why-the-fuck-not hedonism represented by Shane MacGowan, Iggy Pop, and Tom Waits. Waits and MacGowan, in particular, provide revelatory readings of Porter: on “Just One of Those Things”, MacGowan splutters and wheezes all over the tune′s “gossamer wings”, nailing the feeling of obliteration at the heart of the song.

However, the most inspired pairing of all may be k.d. lang′s “So in Love”, surely one of the most haunting renditions of Porter. Not once does lang coast on her famous vibrato: instead, she goes for absolute mellowness, low and sweet. This edgeless sound has the quality of an internal voice: private, vulnerable, sensitive to texture. Lang makes such warm liquid tones out of words like “close” and “strange” that we have a tactile sense of her nearness. She gets rich, wine-dark inflections out of her lower range, and then, during the chromatic ascent, her voice becomes seductively pliant, almost masochistic.

All the Red Hot + Blue videos feature some reference to AIDS, but the one for “So in Love” is explicit about the disease, with lang playing a character who mourns her female lover. In a sterile, green-lit room, lang appears expressionless, cleaning up while images of I.V.s and medical equipment flash past. The mundane environment shows up the lusciousness and yearning of the vocal, by a woman who remains transfixed by her lover after death. Like many Porter songs, “So in Love” suggests recalling a dazzling romance from a dismal place, and lang′s voice, with its suppressed calm and moments of extraordinary tenderness, fully reflects this dynamic.

One of Porter′s recurring characters was the figure in the upper-story apartment who looks onto a glittering skyline, marking the contrast between their own black space and the city′s glamour. Like Langston Hughes and Edward Hopper, Porter was able to carve a space out of isolation, investing that “chill still of the night” with mood and nuance. This imagery powers U2′s “Night and Day”, an austere, unrelenting version of the standard. With its pounding synthesizer, this is no longer a hymn to eternal love; instead, it refers to interminable days and nights spent with the “roaring traffic’s boom, in the silence of my lonely room.” Bono′s tone captures the barrenness of this stakeout; his voice gains an icy coating on its falsetto and nasal notes. On many U2 songs, Bono′s harshness can feel forced; however, on this track, he finally achieves the narrowing intensity he is capable of.

For a 1990 release, this album is surprisingly dominated by synth-pop, as if there were a need to offset red heat with clinical coldness given the theme. Jimmy Somerville′s “From This Moment On” is sung through a layer of anesthetic; with his wintry voice, there is only the faintest hope of gaiety in this man. Phrases such as “every care is gone” are voiced as weak platitudes, while the lyric “From this moment on … only two for tea, dear” takes on chilling connotations. The song is at its most forlorn when it tries to get danceable: a rollicking beat only draws attention to the thinness of Somerville′s voice and his half-hearted attempts at bopping. The only time he thaws is during his sensual, full-mouthed pronunciation of “got the skin I love to touch.”

It′s unusual to hear a track which combines such passionate lyrics with a flat emotional affect–but that is another signature of this album. Thompson Twins′ “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” sucks all the juice and harmony out of that glad tune, while Erasure′s “Too Darn Hot” turns its sizzling title into a statement on a culture of fear, where bodies are policed and sensual appetites curbed by intolerance.

Singing Porter′s most brazen song is Roland Gift. The lyrics of “Love for Sale” are so overt (“love that′s only slightly soiled”) that they would be ruined by overemphasis; that′s not an issue with Gift, who has one of the most curiously restrained of voices. When selling the attractions of innocence, his vocal is endangered, painfully extruding the melody. That strangely bare bleat of his can rise to vehemence, but more often its details are half-swallowed. Thus the dangling of love becomes a threadbare invitation, more peculiar than alluring.

The Jungle Brothers have always been cool, but here they take impersonality to new levels. “I Get a Kick Out of You” is oddly minimal; as in “Night and Day”, the rhythm is a relentless beat-down. The video′s imagery of rubber gloves only reinforces the “love for sale” ethos, in which practicality overwhelms desire. Rather than excitement over sex, the focus is on protection and promiscuity. The verses describe a series of joyless “kicks”, in which the protagonist has affairs “because that′s what a man is supposed to do”, while the chorus defaults to a blankly mechanical repetition of the title.

That concludes the impassive part of the album: now comes the punk section. It was a brilliant idea to have Tom Waits cover Porter′s tribute to romantic cynicism, “It′s All Right With Me”. In Waits′ hands, the track is a maddening mix of distorted percussion and vocals, wheezy even by Waits standards. With his spitting delivery, this man is indiscriminate, lunging at one “lovely” body after another, not distinguishing between features. But in the ′90s, choosing the ″”wrong face” may have deadly consequences–both Waits′ voice and the production are hunted and breathless.

Waits′ song finds its match in a savage interpretation of “Just One of Those Things”, Porter’s other great ode to sexual apathy. In this bifurcated tale of male and female desire, Kirsty MacColl provides the intro: a rendition of “Miss Otis Regrets”, which describes a woman′s decision to kill the man who dumped her. It’s a performance heavy with tradition and pageantry, complete with bagpipes. But after this stately prelude, we meet her seducer — and it′s Shane MacGowan. Singing “Just One of Those Things”, MacGowan is not merely caddish but brutal: a foul lover, spattering muck and saliva all over Porter′s lyrics. He gleefully plows through images like “fabulous flights”, while making ghoulish fun of his conquest. MacGowan has always had something of the sadistic tramp; he picks up fancy words as if they′re unfamiliar toys, tearing perfect couplets to shreds. The song ends with him screeching and kicking it up against a dizzying blur of sound.

Finally, the best-known track on this album is also the most conventional. Lisa Stansfield′s version of “Down in the Depths” is not remotely weird: it′s a diva turn, with a fair amount of virtuosic belting. But what Stansfield does have is a rich, plush timbre and the vocal power to take Porter′s metaphors of height and depth to the skies. No one could make the penthouse life seem more enticing than Porter, but of all his songs dealing with high/low comparisons (“You′re the Top”, “Let′s Do It”), “Down in the Depths” is the one that makes us feel the plunge. The protagonist sits at the window of her 90th floor apartment, possibly contemplating suicide. The city is on fire but she feels no pleasure, scalded by its “million neon rainbows”. For once, references to the working class (“even the janitor′s wife / has a perfectly good love life”) are not condescending; luxury has come to nothing in the face of abandonment.

How much did it mean to Porter to be glamorous? More than any other songwriter, he could make us feel the comforts–and limits–of style. Some of his lyrics (“Anything Goes”, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”) are catalogues of racy fun and designer items: a description of every high one could want. But in “Down in the Depths”, that talent for word-shaping and list-making has become useless, even despised; it′s with rueful self-awareness that the narrator notes her “pet pailletted gown” and couples who “punish the parquet” at clubs. Elegance is a balm, but it doesn′t conceal the realities of shame and unsated desire.

In this song, we feel two opposing energies at work: the thrill of a cosmopolitan high life, and the disastrous comedown, when loneliness turns frantic and fearful (or, as Truman Capote put it, when the mean reds take over the blues). That′s what makes Red Hot + Blue such an enduring album: in song after song, artists explore the differences between longing and nostalgia, solace and passion, sophistication and joy. The soaring voices of “So in Love”, “Night and Day”, and “Down in the Depths” combine ecstatic hopes with the terror of desertion, while “Just One of Those Things” shows how easily chivalry can be turned on its head. Cole Porter was master of the superficially superficial, using flip humor to disguise hunger and desire. The result was a complex glibness: an irresistible wit which remains, to this day, wounding.

Lesley Chow is associate editor of Bright Lights and an Australian writer on music and film. She has been a member of the critics′ jury at the Venice and Berlin film festivals. She has also been published in the Times Literary Supplement, Salon, Senses of Cinema, Cineaste, The Quietus, Photofile and CNN.