Throughout this summer, a spat of queer-run television shows are dropping the same comic conceit over and over again: look how easy it is for major brands to show their support for the LGBTQIA+ community during Pride but drop their technicolor celebrations the moment that the month of June ends. This corporate cynicism is tackled in Saturday Night Live, Hulu’s sweet coming-out comedy Love, Victor, and Netflix’s animated Q-Force, up to the point where it became a trope. This corporate behavior even spawned its own term: “rainbow washing“.
Even as the queer community continues to celebrate the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision, which made same-sex marriage legal in the United States, several other countries continue to pass laws that criminalize and demonize anyone not fitting cis-gendered and straight ideologies. Some countries have made progress, but employment discrimination remains rampant, and transphobia has reached an all-time high in the public discourse. American brands can change their social media logos to the colors of the rainbow every June, but they do it from a place of comfort: in their view, Pride works because queer rights have already been won, so why not join in the celebration for 30 or so days with little consequence?
In truth, Pride continues to be a celebration in defiance of hateful legislation and the senseless murders of trans people from every walk of life. There are still young people who are deathly afraid of coming out to their parents because they know people who are kicked out of their homes when they reveal their queerness to family. Pride celebrations create a safe space for queer people to feel a sense of community instead of a sense of otherness. Following the 2020 Covid quarantine, Pride 2021 feels especially vital and invigorating, albeit filled with caution, as many US cities postponed their parades until vaccination levels hit more acceptable targets.
No one would ever accuse Red Hot of rainbow washing because Red Hot has been a fierce ally of the LGBTQIA+ community for three decades and counting. Their endless parade of unique and exclusive charity compilations remain legendary, sometimes capturing the pop music zeitgeist and creating a buzzworthy moment referenced for years to come. Whether it be the George Michael-supported Red Hot + Dance from 1992, the grunge-era time capsule that was 1993’s No Alternative, or the indie rock mega-smash that was 2009’s Dark Was the Night, Red Hot always delivers.
Some sets fare better than others both critically and commercially, but the Red Hot compilations are always passion projects, curated with love and presented in gorgeous renderings. That profits go to charitable causes (especially AIDS/HIV organizations) proves that Red Hot isn’t here for just Pride: they’re in it for the long haul.
Red Hot + Free is designed as a queer-club fantasia where the tempos are at a constant pulse, and the revelry is non-stop. Spread across two discs, this new 2021 compilation boasts some exclusive tracks along with a bevy of remixes, and while many of these versions were previously released, some are not very well known. When bundled together and sequenced as carefully as they are, they help give Free a sense of freshness. A few obvious gay nightlife standards are present (like Eric Kupper’s Dub Mix of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”), but by and large, Free is open to original and lively compositions.
Opening with a stellar collaboration between Sofi Tukker and Malian blues duo Amadou & Miriam that mixes dry electric guitar with pumping club beats, Red Hot + Free hits its highs pretty early. Followed by the lively ’90s house throwback “U Try Livin’ (Pressure)” by Black Guy White Guy and 808 Beach, the good times continue until Free settles into a run of remixes. While Allie X’s “Super Duper Party People [Alan Braxe Extended Mix]” could’ve easily fit on a Kitsuné compilation and Body Language’s “Start it Up [Red Hot Extended]” is somehow amazingly not produced by Alice Ivy, the remixes that populate Free sometimes elevate the mood and sometimes get into a bit of a smoke machine rut.
While 808 Beach’s “Dangerous Power Mix” of CRICKETS’s Elastic is well-intentioned in trying to give us full late-’80s Sunset Records realness, the changes suddenly make the vocal take sound off-key. Additionally, as much as we celebrate Sam Sparro’s 2020 full-length Boombox Eternal as one of the best pop albums released in the past five years, the RedTop remix of “Pressure” will never better the New Jack Swing vibes that made the original so compelling.
These quibbles are minor in the grand diva scale of things because Red Hot + Free is designed to be ingested as a full experience instead of taken in one track at a time. Kiwi Dreams’ 2020 remix of “It’s Ovah” gives us ballroom vogue category intensity and is paired well with Titus Burgess’ mid-tempo nightcap lament “Dance M.F.”, which itself features a vocal assist by the underrated Imani Coppola.
Casey Spooner’s “I Love My Problems [Boys’ Shorts Dancefloor Remix]” uses its full seven-minute runtime to take listeners into a near trance-like state of hedonistic euphoria. At the same time, trans icon Amanda Lepore gives the Dubesque cut “Queen” a bitchy regality that is next to inimitable.
Leave it to producer Bill Coleman to give us one genuine stunner in the form of “Caught in the Middle”, an amped-up cover of Juliet Roberts’ 1994 club standard performed by modern gay icon Billy Porter. Serving as the collaboration that got Red Hot + Free jump-started in the first place, Porter sends his vocals soaring through this romantic banger that feels like the euphoric climax of any good night of dancing you could ever imagine. The pianos pounds with electric energy, the drum machine’s bass toms hit you right in the ribcage, and the backing vocals are nothing short of euphoric. As lovely as all the remixes are, the original songs created for Red Hot + Free border on essential listens.
Red Hot + Free gives a much-needed release: the primal, grandiose prize earned after being on our best self-isolating behavior and staying away from the clubs and gay bars that so very much needed funds during the pandemic. Red Hot + Free is the kind of thing that sounds great in earbuds but may be best experienced next to sweaty, vaccinated bodies dancing at odd hours. It may not be flawless, but listening to it critically and dancing to it viscerally make for two very different experiences.
Right now: which of the two would you rather be doing? Yeah, we thought so.