Pop Culture & AIDs

The subject of AIDS was reflected in much of the art and music of the 1980s, as the arts community was hit particularly hard by the epidemic.

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 10.22.46 AM.pngKeith Haring was an iconic artist in the 80’s, famous for his graffiti inspired drawings. He was also an avid advocate for AIDs awareness. He became diagnosed with aids in 1988, during the prime of his career. The next year he created the Keith Haring Foundation in support of children’s programs and organizations that were dedicated to raising aids awareness. He was extremely passionate for this cause, and was able to express that in his artwork towards his later years. He used his talent to depict his illness and promote aids awareness. This one piece “Silence=Death” perfectly describes how he promoted AIDS awareness through his talent.

He was quoted in an article about his AIDS saying, “You could work for several lifetimes…Part of the reason that I’m not having trouble facing the reality of death is that it’s not a limitation, in a way. It could happen any time, and it is going to happen sometime. If you live you’re life according to that, death is irrelevant. Everything I’m doing right now is exactly what I want to do.”

Keith Haring had many influential friends who were also advocates of AIDS awareness during the 80s. He met Madonna while they were both working at Danceria in the early 80’s. She spoke extremely well of him saying, “we were two odd birds in the same environment. I watch Keith come up from that street base, which is where I also come up from….the fact is, the3.jpgre’s a lot of irony in Keith’s work, just as there is a lot of irony in my work. You have these bold colors and those childlike figures and a lot of babies, but if you really look at those works closely, they’re really very powerful and really scary.” Madonna was a very good friend of Keith’s, so much that she invited him to her wedding to Sean Penn. Keith brought Andy Warhol, a major pop icon and artist in the 80’s. Keith and Andy ended up working on a piece for Madonna’s weddings. Keith and Andy shared many characteristics in common, they were both queer artists, and had many influential friends which is why they were able to reach so many people when promoting AIDS awareness.

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 10.23.21 AMPop legend Madonna’s 1989 album, Like a Prayer, included a pale blue “The Facts About AIDS” insert in every LP, CD and cassette sold. She showed empathy and advocacy during an era when AIDS was a vilified virus and a taboo subject, printing in the pamphlet facts about AIDS and how it can be contracted, and the statement “People with AIDS – regardless of their sexual orientation – deserve compassion and support, no violence and bigotry.” One song from the album, “Spanish Eyes,” is widely believed to be a song written in memory of one of Madonna’s close friends who succumbed to HIV/AIDS related complications. As an artist known for her controversial style and shock value, she had no qualms about tackling the taboo subject. Earlier in the decade. Madonna appeared in a Saturday Night Live Sketch critiquing HIV/AIDS hysteria, fear and ignorance, based off of the rumor that AIDS could be contracted by kissing. The sketch compared the “Blacklisting” of the McCarthy era to a new “Pinklisting” of those suspected of being HIV-positive. The same year as her album release, she appeared with her publically HIV-positive dance teacher at 1989 Dance-a-Thon to support AIDS Project LA.

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 10.23.48 AM.pngLou Reed, another cult figure of the 1980s, gave a less prominent, but equally powerful perspective on the tragic impact of the AIDS virus. Reed began his career as the frontman of the Velvet Underground, but also achieved widespread fame as a solo artist by “introducing avante-garde rock to the mainstream.” Reed struggled with his public identity and sexuality his whole life. As a teenager he was subjected to electroconvulsive therapy to curb his homosexual tendencies. The New York Times described him as a complex character in a 1988 article: “Back [in the 1970s] he was publicly gay, pretended to shoot heroin onstage, and cultivated a ‘Dachau panda’ look, with cropped peroxide hair and black circles painted under his eyes… But in 1980, Reed renounced druggy theatrics, even swore off intoxicants themselves, and became openly heterosexual, openly married.” He was on-again-off-again friends with other prominent figures of the decade, such Andy Warhol and David Bowie, and experienced firsthand the effect of the AIDS epidemic.
“Halloween Parade,” a single off of his 1989 album New York, serves as gritty elegy to AIDS victims, and mourns the missing people from the the annual gay celebration held in Greenwich Village every Halloween.

Although Madonna and Lou Reed had little in common in regards to music, style or audience, “Spanish Eyes,” “Halloween Parade” and other songs that alluded to AIDS in the 1980s shared the same theme – grief for the victims. Their willingness, along with many other musicians, to publicly associate with HIV/AIDS patients and speak openly about the virus and its effects helped remove the stigma and normalize the topic.


Works Cited

“Madonna, Equanimity, and the Power of Non-Violent Resistance.” Psychology Today. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2016. <https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201512/madonna-equanimity-and-the-power-non-violent-resistance&gt;.

Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2016. <http://www.latimes.com/local/obituaries/la-me-lou-reed-20131028-story.html&gt;.

“10 Celebrity Icons of HIV Activism | Advocate.com.” 10 Celebrity Icons of HIV Activism | Advocate.com. N.p., 17 Nov. 2015. Web. 20 Apr. 2016. <http://www.advocate.com/health/hiv-aids/2015/04/05/10-celebrity-icons-hiv-activism&gt;.

“Madonna’s Poignant “AIDS Hysteria” Saturday Night Live Sketch Illuminates ’80s-Era Stigma.”TheBody.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2016. <http://www.thebody.com/content/73938/madonnas-poignant-aids-hysteria-saturday-night-liv.html&gt;.

“Intersecting Icons: Keith Haring, Madonna, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol – Madonna Art Vision.” Madonna Art Vision. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2016. <http://www.madonna-art-vision.com/article-intersecting-icons-keith-haring-madonna-jean-michel-basquiat-and-andy-warhol-121730255.html&gt;.

“Bio | Keith Haring.” Bio | Keith Haring. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2016. <http://www.haring.com/!/about-haring/bio#.VxT7MSMrLaY&gt;.

“Keith Haring.” Bio.com. A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2016. <http://www.biography.com/people/keith-haring-246006#related-video-gallery&gt;.