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Turning ‘Em Around: 5 Cover Songs That Celebrate Queer Love Beautifully

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Cover songs, which are recordings of popular music by a new artist, are an easy medium for musicians to expand their fan base, display their creativity in reworking old material, and of course, earn money. Most of the cover songs, particularly songs of love, sex, and breaking up involve a sort of gender-switch, where more often than not the point of view of women or men is reversed, apparently to suit the palate of the artist and the audience. Although it can be difficult to gauge whether the covering artists end up recording the version they do because they want to make a statement or if they merely want to do justice to the original by staying true to the lyrics, a few famous covers of popular obviously-heterosexual songs do end up changing the script of the traditional woman-man/man-woman format in pop music. Listed here are some covers which are a part of a limited retinue of songs which don’t hetero-normalize the queer perspective.

The dominant understanding of pop music is that it is entertainment; it is but an industry, with its logic of demand and supply and media and marketing, all of which ultimately caters to the masses. But it can be a veritable smorgasbord of deviating identities, whether this happens consciously or inadvertently.

How much currency do we give to pop music? When singers and singer-songwriters perform, to what extent do we charge them with the responsibility of owing up to the words they are singing? Is it simply make-believe, a cog in the wheel of the larger mass culture industry, or is it representative of politics too, personal or otherwise?

Maybe a bit of both, when we realize that popular music has the power to confirm, subvert, or completely bypass expectations. Since such music virtually always incorporates a lyrical element, pop singers have by the virtue of performance the opportunity to create and simultaneously address the gap seemingly created when the musical output does not cater to certain standards, and indeed normative standards of assumed gender and sexuality. The same is visible in the following famous covers.

Ed Sheeran – Drunk In Love, by Beyonce

A coy Ed Sheeran sings about his body looking fluorescent under the lights after a night of binge drinking with his gangster husband, proceeding which he is grainin’ on that wood. This cover is fascinating because the only meaningful point where Ed does switch up the words is when he changes the “I’m rubbing on it, rub-rubbing If you scared, call that reverend” of the original to “I’m rubbing on it, you rubbingIf you scared, call that reverend.”

Mark Ronson ft. Amy Winehouse – Valerie, by The Zutons

Initially an ode to an ex-girlfriend written from the point of a view of man, this evocative song came to its own in its second incarnation when it was sung by Amy Winehouse. One finds Amy yearning for Valerie, whose love has left her body a mess, and she repeatedly begs her to come over. Indeed the conviction with which she sings about, among other things, Valerie’s ginger coloured hair and her sense of dress, truly make this song a classic which just happens to be an exchange between two women.

All Time Low – Alejandro, by Lady Gaga

The popular single released by Lady Gaga from the Fame Monster EP was covered by the pop band, and refreshingly, they stayed true to the original. Composed of two intertwining narratives which can be interpreted in multiple ways, the chorus of this version nevertheless finds the band singing, “You know that I love you boyHot like Mexico, rejoice” and breaking up with not just Alejandro, but Fernando and Roberto to boot.

Lana Del Rey – Chelsea Hotel No. 2, by Leonard Cohen

This classic Cohen was written after a brief sexual encounter he had with Janis Joplin in the eponymous hotel in New York. Covered by Lana Del Rey in 2013, the track is sung like the original without changing any pronouns, which makes the sexually loaded lines (“giving me head, on the unmade bed”) replete with new meaning, invoking images of queer love.

“You told me again, you preferred handsome menbut for me you would make an exception” also gives a new direction to the moment of fleeting lesbian intimacy between the two characters in this song, rendering it wryly sweet and nostalgic without going overboard.

The White Stripes – Jolene, by Dolly Parton

This country staple about insecurity and cheating in a relationship received a decidedly new treatment under Jack White of The White Stripes. The song, originally about the singer begging the ‘other woman’ to not take her man from her just because she can, is now reinterpreted as a man supplicating the very same Jolene to leave his man be. Musically darker as well, this version does fall into using the tired trope of the unfaithful bisexual partner, who apparently has no control over who he chooses to have sex with.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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