Mixtape Series: Matthew J. Jones’ Soundtrack of an Epidemic

by Jarek Ervin on March 31, 2017

Soundtrack of an Epidemic: Songs about HIV/AIDS
Matthew J. Jones (Miami University)

HIV/AIDS is often conceived in scopophilic, or visual terms: as a disease inscribed on the body in the form of symptoms — wasting, weight loss, Kaposi’s sarcoma, rashes, and fevered brows; the stigmata of sinful lifestyles or choices (at least from a certain right-wing perspective); images of retroviruses, the DNA double-helix, and blood cells magnified thousands of times to render them visible to the human eye; the savvy agitprop of direct action advocacy group ACT UP; works of visual art, theater, dance, and performance art; and the various “faces” of AIDS—gay men, injection drug users, African Americans, Latino/as, women, children, people in developing countries.

Often, as Douglas Crimp argues, such images offer “a reiteration of what we have already been told or shown about people with AIDS: that they are ravaged, disfigured, and debilitated by the syndrome, that they are generally alone, desperate, but resigned to their ‘inevitable’ deaths” (“Portraits of People with AIDS,” 1992). HIV/AIDS is overdetermined, larger-than-life, fantastical, and sometimes frightening. But among the enduring legacies of AIDS activism is the renunciation of phobic and harmful images, as well as the introduction of more complex portraits of people of HIV/AIDS.

The global AIDS pandemic also has an aural dimension, a soundtrack or soundscape. Thousands of songs in genres from country and hip hop – as well as art songs, symphonies, and folk music from cultures around the world – have been written and performed to raise awareness of experiences of AIDS. In my current work, I am interested in how such songs, especially those in English-language popular genres, create what Ann Cvetkovich calls “an archive of feelings,” an affective registry of loss, grief, trauma, and anger as well as joy, love, and all the warm fuzzy feelings that surround lost loved ones. Further, songs about AIDS comprise other archives: of identity politics (race, class, gender, sexuality, and nationality); of issues of public health (the dissemination of information about a medical condition, testing, treatment, and well-being); of social justice (the fight for funding of and access to healthcare services, the right of people with AIDS to influence policies that impact their lives, and the reduction of stigma at all levels of society); and, of the ways people think about HIV and AIDS (an archive of epistemologies). Finally, these songs represent modes of embodiment, corporeality, and being in the age of AIDS.

One motivation for this playlist, then, is to understand what Tim Dean calls the “choreography of embodied thought” about HIV/AIDS (Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking, 2009). My playlist begins with observations about the existential crises that AIDS engenders: attenuated life, sickness, the devastation of particular subcultures, and changes in the ways we have thought about – or continue to think about – sex. It then invites you to meditate on individual lives impacted, lost, and remembered, before closing with an acknowledgment of the healing power of love.


  1. Tom Wilson: “How We Get the News” (Get Used To It, 1993)
  2. Mary Gauthier: “Goddamn HIV” (Dixie Kitchen, 1997)
  3. Jonathan Larson: “Will I?” (Rent, 1996)
  4. Gwen Guthrie: “Can’t Love You Tonight” (Lifeline, 1988)
  5. Village People: “Sex Over the Phone” (Sex Over the Phone, 1985)
  6. Alex Chilton: “No Sex” (Feudalist Tarts, 1985)
  7. Domino: “Sport that Raincoat” (America Is Dying Slowly: AIDS, 1996)
  8. Joan Armatrading: “Everyday Boy” (What’s Inside, 1995)
  9. The Communards: “For a Friend” (Red, 1987)
  10. Lee Lessack/Tom Brown: “Jonathan Wesley Oliver, Jr.” (Lee Lessack, 1996)
  11. Michael Callen: “Love Don’t Need a Reason” (Purple Heart, 1988)

Matthew J. Jones is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies in the Department of Global and Intercultural Studies at Miami University. He completed a PhD in Critical & Comparative Studies in Music at the University of Virginia in 2014 with a dissertation entitled “How to Make Music in an Epidemic: Hearing AIDS, 1981-1996.” A pop music scholar with broad-ranging interests, Matt has published articles on queer a cappella singing, the politics of camp, and positive affect in songs about AIDS. His work appears in The Journal of Popular Music Studies, The Journal of the Society for American Music, Women & Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture, and several forthcoming edited collections. His current projects include a critical biography of singer-songwriter and AIDS activist Michael Callen, a second monograph called Hearing AIDS: Soundscapes of an Epidemic, and a study of Joni Mitchell’s instrumental technique. He lives in Oxford, Ohio with his cat, Joan Clawford.

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