This is the 75th post in a weekly series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song is posted each Monday. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
According to Josie Cotton, the origins of “Johnny, Are You Queer?” are “murky at best,” but as she understood it, the punk band Fear had a song with a few different lines about being “queer.” The songwriting/production duo of brothers Bobby Paine and Larson Paine took the song and altered the lyrics, such that it became a woman’s tongue-in-cheek lamentation that her crush might be gay:
Johnny what’s the deal boy
Is your love for real boy
When the lights are low
You never hold me close
And I saw you today boy
Walking with them gay boys
Now that hurt me so
Now I gotta know
Johnny are you queer?
‘Cause when I see you
Dancing with your friends
I can’t help wondering
Where I stand
I’m so afraid I’ll lose you
If I can’t seduce you
Is there something wrong?
Johnny come on strong
The Paine brothers shared the song with The Go-Go’s, for whom “Johnny, Are You Queer?” became a staple at the band’s early live shows. The members of Fear got wind that variation of their song had become popular, and thus realized they could contest who owned the publishing rights to the song. That matter was decided by a coin toss. The Paine brothers won.
After parting ways with The Go-Go’s, the Paine brothers began work on a demo of “Johnny, Are You Queer?” for Warner Brothers. At the time, Larson Paine was dating Josie Cotton, who had moved from Texas to Los Angeles to pursue a music career. Cotton begged for the chance to record a demo of “Johnny, Are You Queer?” When she finally got the chance, Bomp! helped make Cotton’s “Johnny, Are You Queer?” into a popular song. Appearing on the soundtrack for “Valley Girl” didn’t hurt the song, either.
But not everyone appreciated the song. Some found the song homophobic, leading The Village Voice to ask “Josie, Are You a Bitch?” Across the ideological spectrum, Cotton was criticized by pastors who thought she was trying to lure people into being gay. There were even some people who convinced that that Cotton was actually a man in drag, and they played they played “Johnny, Are You Queer?” at half speed as a way of proving it.
The controversy eventually calmed down, as did Cotton’s career. Her 1984 album, “From the Hip,” included a cover of Looking Glass’ “Jimmy Loves Maryann,” which reached Number 82 on the Billboard Hot 100. She didn’t have another album until the mid-’90s, when she released “Frightened By Nightingales.”
The Go-Go’s finally released “Johnny, Are You Queer” in 1994, when a live recording of the song appeared on the compilation, “Return to the Valley of the Go-Go’s.” This version, like many songs from early Go-Go’s shows, was aggressive and gritty.
This recording presents a conundrum for covers enthusiasts, as it was recorded before Cotton’s version was recorded and released. To Los Angeles audiences who would have seen the band, “Johnny, Are You Queer?” would have been a Go-Go’s song that Josie Cotton later performed. Should this version be considered an original? And if so, would Cotton’s version default to being a cover? Or should Fear’s song be the original? But Fear never recored the song, and the “Johnny, Are You Queer?” that did get recorded was different from whatever song Fear had performed in concert. The Go-Go’s didn’t cover Cotton’s version, because Cotton’s version had not yet been recorded.
The bigger question is whether Cotton’s version should be considered a cover of The Go-Go’s even if that band’s “Johnny, Are You Queer?” didn’t come out until after Cotton’s. To settle this, I’ll invoke Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” Robert Hazard wrote that song and recorded a demo, but didn’t release it. Lauper recorded her own version, which became the first version that anyone could hear, as Hazard’s version wasn’t a single nor was it on the radio. I’ll settle this by saying that if we think Lauper’s version is a cover of Hazard’s version, then we should probably consider Cotton’s “Johnny, Are You Queer?” a cover of The Go-Go’s.
The same year that The Go-Go’s released “Johnny, Are You Queer?” on “Return to the Valley of the Go-Go’s,” Screeching Weasel covered the song for its album, “How To Make Enemies And Irritate People.” On this version, singer Ben Weasel turned the conceit of the song on its head: Instead of being about a woman worried that the new guy she was dating was gay, Screeching Weasel’s “Johnny, Are You Queer?” was about a guy worried that the new guy he was dating was not gay.
Electroclash duo Glass Candy recorded as mashup of “Johnny, Are You Queer?” and The Shangri-Las’ “Give Him a Great Big Kiss.” Singer Ida No’s hiccup-y delivery was unintelligible for half the song, matching the noisy no-wave guitars in the background.
Punk band Hotbox included a cover of “Johnny, Are You Queer?” on its 2001 album, “Lickety Split.” On a gradient between Cotton’s version and the version by The Go-Go’s, this cover fell in the middle, as it was as polished as Cotton’s but had the aggression of the live version by The Go-Go’s.
When Pink Stëël released its debut album in 2003, the band embraced all the schlock of ’80s hair metal, but did so with an overtly gay aesthetic. The band declared it was “harder than Liza, gayer than Kiss,” and on Pink Stëël’s 2007 album, “Out At The Devil,” the band proved it. Just as Screeching Weasel had done, Pink Stëël recast “Johnny, Are You Queer?” to be about a guy unsure whether his new boyfriend was gay. But whereas Screeching Weasel’s cover was just a sped-up pop punk remake, Pink Stëël made it a theatrical track, featuring spoken word interludes between the verses, performed by men with over-exaggerated German accents. As one does.
In previous posts, I’ve pointed out how changing the gender of the singer can change the tone of a song. “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” can sound empowering when sung by a woman, and dismissive when sung by a man. “We Don’t Have To Take Our Clothes Off” and “I Didn’t Mean To Turn You On” can sound silly when sung by a man, but when sung by a woman, the songs can sound like earnest defenses against rape culture. And “When You Were Mine” can change depending on who the singer is and which pronouns are assigned to each of the characters.
Similarly, “Johnny, Are You Queer?” takes on a whole new dynamic if sung by a man, as the versions by Screeching Weasel and Pink Stëël demonstrate. In those versions, the queer narrator can come off as somewhat sympathetic, whereas when Cotton sang it and The Go-Go’s sang it, the narrator came off as comedically egotistical. In a review for AllMusic, Stewart Mason said:
In retrospect, the song sounds rather tame, and throughout, the joke is on the petulant girl, not Johnny: “he’s not interested in her that way, so clearly he must not like girls” is (deliberately) a laughably arrogant premise.
Though the Paine brothers wrote the song, it was Cotton who bore most of the brunt of the criticism. On one hand, it’s easy to dismiss the controversy behind “Johnny, Are You Queer?” as a non-issue. The idea that Cotton was a man trying to trick men into being gay is as funny as it is ridiculous. Cotton was amused by that, but she seemed more troubled by the idea that gay men found the song offensive. In an essay, she explained how she had trouble understanding why gay men didn’t immediately get the joke:
I had a large gay following [on the west coast], my first gig at a gay latino biker bar where I was presented with this enormous gold plated dildo. I loved them and they loved me. It was all good. Strangely, New York City was to be another matter all together. The reaction by the gay community there was unanticipated to say the least. The Advocate was furious with me. “Josie, Are You a Bitch?” graced the cover of the Village Voice around this time. I vaguely remember them saying something about my voice sounding like a goat. I should have responded to that article but I didn’t. I should have said something biting and clever and in their faces like “Somebody’s got their kotex on backwards” or more to the point,” What don’t you don’t understand about ‘I’m on your side’?” They had read me so utterly wrong that I was literally speechless. It wasn’t until years later, after reading the biography of Robert Mapplethorpe, on a visit to New York ironically, that I realized how much the gay community had been struggling to find themselves during that time. The spectre of AIDS had just begun to raise its ugly head in the general population and there was little room for humor or irony in those desperate times. They had rejected their own and if they were going to kick Robert Mapplethorpe to the curb, then I hadn’t had a chance in hell. It seemed unreal. I don’t think they ever knew they had positioned themselves shoulder to shoulder with my new Christian Broadcast buddies. What a Hallmark moment. How was it these 2 warring factions had come together, in one shining moment of absurd irony, and the world never knew? But against me? Little me? You might as well have rammed an armadillo up my ass.
The use of the word “queer” could account for some of the controversy, though, given the hostile history behind it. Many young LGBTQ folks have reclaimed that word as a self-identifier, but there are still many older people who find that word offensive and wish younger people would not use it. To them, asking if Johnny was “queer” was not much different than asking if Johnny was a “fag.” But then again, the word choice might not have mattered; there still might have been a controversy had she sung, “Johnny, are you gay?” It certainly wouldn’t have had the same ring to it.
In 2010, Cotton re-released the song as “Johnny R U Queer?” The song, appearing on her album “Pussycat Babylon,” transformed the song into club-friendly dance track.
That same year, she performed the song at a Pride event in Los Angeles.
That, hopefully, satisfied anyone who might still have had doubts as to whether Cotton was homophobic. Otherwise, instead of asking “Johnny, are you queer?,” we should ask, “Johnny, are you dense?”