In last night’s One Hit Wonder trivia, the one song that no seemed to have head of is actually my favorite on the whole list. “Johnny Are You Queer?” was recorded by Josie Cotton and released in 1982 on her album Convertible Music.
I first heard it in the movie Valley Girl, starring Nicolas Cage and Deborah Foreman. Josie and her band were the featured entertainment in the prom scene at the end of the movie.
I fell in love with all her songs on the Valley Girl soundtracks. All three, “Johnny Are You Queer,” “He Could Be the One,” and “School Is In,” are a combination of classic surf-guitar and wonderfully ’80s girl band synth – two of my favorite musical genres – but it turns out that “Johnny” may be part of the reason Josie never rose above one hit wonder status.
Reading about her career, her biggest roadblock on the road to stardom was the record companies. It is a story that we’ve all heard before, contracts get sold, companies fail, people quit, general corporate music chaos ensues and artists fall through the cracks, but “Johnny” didn’t help matters. It is a fun, slightly campy, slightly offensive song about a girl who wonders if her boyfriend is gay because he isn’t all over her. As you can imagine, reactions varied. Half the GLBT community thought it was hilarious, half found it inexcusably offensive. Religious conservatives believed it was the work of Satan, bent on destroying the country’s youth. In one interview, Josie talks about finding a televangelist warning people about her subversive agenda:
One night I was watching television when I came upon my album cover being held up to the camera by a lady evangelist with pink hair. They were playing “Johnny, Are You Queer?” at half speed, and I remember thinking, “How cool, I sound just like Brian Wilson.” The televangelist said there was no Josie Cotton. I didn’t even exist. What I hadn’t known was that I was actually a gay man trying to convert unsuspecting straight men to my homosexual lifestyle. Wow! This was a personal best.
Even devoted fans of the song had something to argue about. Though they never recorded it, “Johnny Are You Queer” was originally a Go-Go’s song. They performed it as a grand finale during their live shows, but when they split from the producer who owned the song he told them they couldn’t perform it any more and eventually gave it to Josie. So even the teenagers who all agreed that it was a great song ended up divided between those who just liked the song and die-hard Go-Go’s fans who were pissed because Josie Cotton “stole” it.
I’ve always found it interesting that, for all the debate this one little song has inspired, no one has ever complained about the issue that bothers me. I’ve always thought it had a lot to say about teenage girls. The song basically says “We’re going out, but you aren’t trying to sleep with me. What’s wrong, are you gay or something?” I remember getting stuck in a culture where the only way a girl knew that a boy was interested was that he was aggressively trying to have sex with her. It’s a terrible way for a young woman to live. You end up getting jaded because you feel you have no other worth to the opposite sex. I’m probably reading too much into it, just like so many other people have, and letting personal experiences color my interpretation. According to Ms. Cotton, it is, in fact, about a girl who falls for a gay boy and sings about it. Something about the song just makes it easy to find something to complain about, I guess.
In any event, as I said at the beginning, it is one of my favorite one hit wonders of the ’80s. Regardless of personal feelings – and really, don’t they say that all good art makes you think? – it is a wonderfully fun song to sing and dance to.