I love how pop songs seem profoundEach generation loves its songs because, speaking of sadness, those songs imprinted themselves at a critical moment. For folks now in their late 40s and 50s, one or several of the songs of the March Sadness bracket was playing somewhere near at hand at the moment of discovery of mortality, suffering, death.
when we're in love,
though they wound us too sweetly,
never seriously enough.
But I’m in my 60s, and my people—I mean gay men—we didn’t listen much to pop music. I vividly recall expressions of incredulity among my friends when I revealed that I had played Bruce Springsteen when having sex—later that day someone slipped a Pet Shop Boys recording under my office door. We had our own music—disco—and we were proud that it was the object of disdain among the liberal college set. Disco belonged to Queens and queens, and the more derision heaped on it by the sophisticates and the straights, the more that proved it was ours. Sometime around 5 a.m. we shifted from the gold and silver lamé fans and flags to Maria Callas and Krista Ludwig, and it was a simple fact and expectation that every disco DJ signaled dawn and closing time with a bow to our roots via a seamless segue from Donna Summer’s Last Dance (OK, OK, I know) to Callas singing Vissi d’Arte or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing Winterreise. Callas is not everyone’s cup of tea—that’s a different essay—but Patti Smith played Vissi d’Arte on hearing the news of Robert Mapplethorpe’s death, and that tells you something.
I liked all the March Sadness songs in greater or lesser degree, though none affects me as deeply or sounds so sad as Springsteen’s Downbound Train, not because Leonard Cohen’s / Jeff Buckley’s "Hallelujah" isn’t as great (or greater) but because I first heard Downbound Train when AIDS was emptying the discos and I was not much past 30 and Sylvester was dead, one of the first to go, and though Jimmy Somerville’s ethereal countertenor (hello—Smalltown Boy [The Committee regrets this oversight. —Ed] ought to be on the March Sadness list) was a good stand-in, Sylvester and his Two Tons of Fun were landmarks, creating funk culture from a mix of gospel and soul and rock ‘n’ roll, and anyone who doesn’t understand Sylvester as a phenomenally talented artist and gender-bender who chose to come out with his people rather than play straight hasn’t listened to his music.
So I say, bring back the disco, and play all four March Sadness finalists—no, maybe three; I’d cut The Cure for the reasons Pam Houston sets forth—but then, but then after Joy Division and Tracy Chapman and Jeff Buckley, segue to Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma with its incomparable, defying-death final note. Indeed no one shall sleep, and the great thing about YouTube is that we get to see that for Pavarotti, sex and God and singing are all of a piece. I liked all these March Sadness songs, but none sent chills up my spine like Pavarotti, even after I’ve listened to his recording of it dozens, hundreds of time. And his eyebrows are real.
The recipient of many literary awards, Fenton Johnson is the author of a new novel, The Man Who Loved Birds, as well as a Harper’s Magazine cover essay ("Going It Alone: The Dignity and Challenge of Solitude"). He was recently featured on Terry Gross’s Fresh Air.